The first time I had a full-blown episode of depression I was seven years old. I knew that this was odd, but I was used to oddity. My sister had taught me to read when I was two, so I had become a parlor trick prodigy, marched in and out of rooms at my elementary school and made to read aloud to the “big boys and girls.” I had the vague uncomfortable sense that I was being used to shame these kids, so I tried to underplay my performance. In return I was petted, praised, invited to eat my lunch with the huge sixth graders and generally protected.
None of that early success protected me from what became a deep, adult-sized, heart-clenching, chemical depression that descended over a series of days and weeks into something my father, citing Winston Churchill, called The Black Dog. The funk came from a distinct cause. My best friend at the time was bullying me. I don’t mean she was hitting or shoving me around; the bullying was more subtle and insidious. She decided whom I could or couldn’t be friends with. She told me what to do and how to dress. She showed me pictures of people in the flames of hell and, since she was Catholic and I Jewish, coolly informed me that this was where I was headed. She gave me a bottle of violet perfume and ordered me to wear it every day, and if I skipped a day, she glared at me and gave me dirty looks across the classroom. (To this day, the scent of violets makes me sick.)
It was, in short, the kind of emotional slavery not uncommon among children. I felt enslaved to this girl. She was a perfectly nice child in every other regard—we’re still friends to this day—but she was going through a bullying period, and I was a convenient target. I saw no way out. Her behavior was, I realize in hindsight, a miniature performance of something my mother enacted every day, and so my whole being revolted and started to shut down. I could not be bullied from all sides, and the woman I adored most in the world was already trying to control my every twitch and mood. There just wasn’t enough room in my life for another tyrant.
First I stopped eating. Whatever bothered me as a kid went straight to my stomach. When I was especially upset or nervous, I threw up. For some reason this happened nearly every time we went out to dinner, so I’m surprised there wasn’t a picture of me on the front door of every restaurant, with a warning label under it.
“You’re a nervous girl,” my mother told me when I was four or five. We were crossing the street. She had been yelling at me, that flat-out hysterical screaming that parents sometimes indulge in. Then she looked at me more closely and stopped. She said, “You’re a nervous little girl. I’ll try to stop yelling,” and I was grateful that things were going to get a little quieter.
My mother was the first to notice that I had stopped eating. I did nibble on buttered toast in the morning before school—cut into triangles, and soaking up little pats of oil. I ate it with what I called my coffee, in reality a cup of milk flavored with a dash of my parent’s morning brew. I gave away my bagged lunches to the enormous fifth and sixth graders and became even more popular, because my mother tried to tempt me with every kind of delicacy—rare roast beef sandwiches on rye bread, home-made potato salad, fresh fruit slices, bags of potato sticks. I gave away everything but the potato sticks. I remember my mom begging me to drink a milkshake. I turned her down.
At dinner I sat at the table, a mute sufferer, trying to avoid the food as if it were an arsenal of weapons being fired at me. I didn’t bother to push the food around on my plate or hide it in my napkin. I just said, “I’m not hungry.” My mother imitated my sad face. She pretended to have buck teeth, which I had before braces, being an inveterate thumb-sucker. She made a goggle-eyed buck toothed morose face and asked, “Are you depressed?”
The relief of having a name for my condition was indescribable. “Yes,” I said.
My father raised his eyebrows.
My big sister told my mother for the hundredth time, “Leave her alone.”
I thought about the fact that I was depressed. Depressed sounded like a condition, like diabetes. It sounded curable. It did not seem like a fundamental character flaw, which is what I had assumed to be the root of my problem. I went around for a few days musing on this. Then I found my mother in the garage cleaning something, and cornered her.
“When I’m older,” I asked her, “can I see a psychiatrist?”
She had the doubly surprised expression of someone trying very hard not to look surprised. “All right,” she said.
In the meantime I had to keep on going back and forth to school every day, trudging beside this same best friend, my little slave-driver. I measured my happiness by her smiles, and my misery by her dirty looks. I wore the violet perfume, which smelled to me like decaying black licorice. I kept my head down, did my homework. I was heartsick all the time. I felt like someone at a gallows, doomed and filled with dread. It was my first encounter with a lifelong demon, and it was mighty. I figured between this moment and that magical future time when I could see a psychiatrist, I was on my own. I just had to get through the days from here to there. But now I had a focus, a gap in the eternal black cloud. I was like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, the wizard a long way off.
My teacher that terrible year was a wonderful and, in my eyes, dazzlingly beautiful young woman named Miss Radutsky. My mother called her “The Halvah Princess,” because she was the daughter of a man who owned a famous company that manufactured halvah, among other things. Miss Radutsky had blonde hair and a Dr. Diamond nose, a radiant smile and long French-tipped fingernails. She didn’t hesitate to play favorites. Once, I stood on a long line with all the other second-graders to ask how to spell a word—we didn’t have our own dictionaries for some reason, and in those days there was no such thing as classroom computers. If you couldn’t figure out a word you just stood up and waited on line, like you were waiting for the bus. At the end of the line sat Miss Radutsky doling out the correct spelling. When I finally got to the head of the line, she pulled me onto her lap, and hugged me. Back at my seat my best friend turned her head away. She wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of the day.
Miss Radutsky noticed and separated us. Now my friend had to glare at me from across the room. The distance did not diminish her power over me. If anything, it magnified the effect of the dirty look, the way a high-power telescope will magnify the burning of a star light-years away. Miss Radutsky did even more than that, I later learned. She went to the principal and made sure we were never put in the same class again.
Then, in the early spring, something miraculous occurred. And that is the real point of this story: Miracles do happen. Even to depressives and people in the midst of nervous breakdowns. Maybe especially to them. I’ve seen it happen over and over.
I had a new thought. As usual, I was brooding on my situation, the ongoing misery at school. I was turning off the water in the bathroom after washing my hands in the sink, and the following thought came to me: I don’t have to have friends like this.
The depression went away as if I had turned it off with the flow from the faucet. I felt an incredible lightening of my spirit, a looseness, freedom. I actually laughed out loud. It was such a remarkable, simple, beautiful thought. I didn’t have to be friends with this girl. I didn’t have to care what she thought. In fact, I never had to play with her again. Anyone who has come back to sanity after a long period of mental illness will know what I mean. This return had the flavor of the miraculous, the glory and glow we imagine belongs only to heaven. For the first time in months I was able to draw a full breath.
The next morning I walked to school with two different friends who lived close to my house. My former best friend glared wildly at me, but this time, I thought it was funny. Funny and a little bit sad.
I wish I could write that this first, early depression was my last, but alas it was only the first in a long series of battles. The poet Rilke once wrote of his own depression “I feel a great power drawing near.” One clear thought saved me at the age of seven. At seventeen, I had to change my life completely. Other times I have simply outlasted , or tried to starve or medicate or outwit the beast. I think of that seven-year-old self, and her touching faith in psychiatry, which not even my own psychiatrist shares. Before the age of four, my only memory is of wearing a red coat in a department store, holding my mother’s hand, a red spark among the other coats. It is an image, not a thought. But at four I became ill with a virus and when that was over I remember coming back into my body with a thump, a recognition that I lived inside this body and was stuck with it. The struggle with depression was my second coming. I was stuck with this body and this brain. Who knows what further incarnations lie ahead—but I suspect in the end the faulty tools of body and brain will wear out, and in the moment of leave-taking I think—I like to think—I will have another instant of freedom and clarity and lightness, like that moment of shutting off the water in the faucet. And then I’ll be on my way.