Sheila Hageman, author of the memoir, Stripping Down(Pink Fish Press), writes about the dual forces of memory and depression. Her upcoming novel, Beautiful Something Else, will be published by 48fourteen. Hageman's writing has also appeared on The Huffington Post. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, CUNY, and she teaches at the University of Bridgeport and Housatonic Community College. See more of her work at strippingdown.com or sheilahageman.com.
As I drive along Route 25 on my way to teach yoga, I’m struck by the simple beauty of the trees in their full spring bloom. I whiz past a rocky cliff scattered with tagged names and dates; the name Nick stands out, as always when I pass this spot. This is my husband’s name. Painted rising out of the name is a large cross.
I feel grateful for the anchor that reminds me of all I have. A buoyant buzz zips through me and the anxiety about whether I’m a good-enough teacher, which had been tightening my throat, releases.
How often I rush through life, trapped by the internal voices, without stopping and looking around me. The sheer quantity of beauty I am missing in my daily life is astounding—from simply enjoying the beauty of nature, to appreciating the time I have to spend with my husband and children, to the treasures of deeper reflections about my past that are triggered by the world around me.
Unfortunately, the memories triggered for me are oftentimes negative, depressing. As beneficial as remembering the past memories are for me as a writer, I sometimes question the overall health benefits.
If driving along the highway and noticing the greening of the earth always, or even most of the time, helped me to feel free and grateful, there would be no problem, but I more often steep myself in sadness and loss.
The vibrant trees make me think of my mother in her healthy days, but only briefly. My mind moves to her slow decline into illness. Disease churns within me and I become engulfed by heaviness and despair. Suddenly, the sickness becomes me, becomes my experience.
I am wondering again if there is a way to train myself into being a more positive and happy person.
A noble goal, I think, but is it an accomplishable (or even reasonable) goal for a middle-aged woman who has suffered her entire adult life with major depression?
And what if I somehow manage to reverse my memory-spiraling into only positive arenas, would that cause me to no longer be a writer with anything interesting to say?
There is the positive within the negative, of course: there is the immense thrill I get from understanding something new about myself. And I regain a certain closeness to all the people I have lost, and all the people I have, by writing about them.
I can make records of days that I spent adrift in loss. The process of losing so many close family members forces upon me a kind of vision, a looking inward, which is a gift within the sadness.
But is that value enough to counterbalance the accompanying torrential waves of sadness that I feel?
I want to try to banish sadness with joy, one more time. I have tried all kinds of therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, spirituality, religion—you name it. Yoga and movement definitely help the depression.
My psychiatrist has offered electroconvulsive therapy as a potential long-term solution. The modern version is supposedly no longer anything like what movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest portrayed the therapy to be.
A possible side effect? Memory loss.
As a writer, a memoirist, how can I wrap my mind around the possibility of finding the almighty happiness I yearn for, but with the real possibility of losing some parts of my past?
Even if the memories I lost were the negative ones, the ones that have enslaved me for so long, would I be the same person without those pieces of me?
If I ever found the ephemeral “Happy” I seek, would I truly be happy? Would I be happy if I no longer felt a need to write? No longer felt a need to understand myself and my past?
Not that I believe only people with depression can write, but there must be some real, deep part of me that does believe my depression is me, is who I am, or otherwise, why would I be so concerned about losing my archenemy?
I practiced being in the moment on the drive home today with my daughter in the backseat. I tried to keep my mind only on my driving and the scenery of the Merritt Parkway: rolling green hills dotted with blooming trees with the occasional groundhog rooting the soil. (describe for someone who may not know what that is). Every once in awhile I would glance in my rearview mirror and see my daughter’s sunburned face.
How would a change in my mental state affect my children? Or Nick?
If I could be happy being a mother, a wife, and not have this need to write, this need to figure myself out, this need to understand the depression, who would I be to them and to myself?
Would the echoes from the past cease to exist? Would I just be the same me, only—peppier?
Depression is a wicked thing. Or is it? In fact, I don’t know what depression is. I hate the word. I wish I could banish it from my existence. And then what would be left?
What would these moods be if there were no words for them?
The enormous rock cliffs appear to my right; these particular rocks often trigger in me a memory from my childhood. My best friend’s mother is driving us to Tashua pool in Trumbull. I see the same rocks I have been seeing for as long as I could remember.
One day though, I speak aloud my innocence about them. “Isn’t that beautiful? Those paintings people have done on the rocks?”
“No, that isn’t beautiful. That’s called graffiti and it’s illegal and ugly,” my friend’s mother says.
My ten-year-old mind was stunned into quiet. I did not know what to think (archaic phrasing). Yes, the rocks themselves were beautiful. I could understand her reasoning that humans should not mar them, but what if what was added was beautiful in its own way, too.
Ever since that day, I remember my quandary of not knowing what to believe about graffiti whenever I see tags. I remember having a sense of my self broken in one clean snap—something I believed to be true, could never be true again.
That’s how I feel now, imagining myself no longer depressed, living a new life, a happy self.
I envision a snap into a new existence, a new reality, but perhaps without the benefit of ever being able to return to the original trigger, the originator of it all. The moments of discovery, the moments of innocence lost, the moments of how I became to be who I am today.
I see the familiar rock, the familiar name, “Nick.” The large cross. A memorial of sorts for some other man named Nick.
How long has that name been there? Was it there when I rode this road more than thirty years ago? Did I see my husband’s name imagined on a rock? Was he there, lying dormant, in that snap of my mind?
Would I let all these questions go, all this mental wandering and wondering, just to see the trees around me, and perhaps nothing more?
The cliffs lie behind me as I exit off the highway and head home to my family. For now, I am going home to make dinner, to bathe children, and to put them to bed. I carry my own cross with me in the form of questions, my reminder that I am not yet, and may never be, free.