as i dashed across campus i breathed in the smell of falling leaves and smoke in the air. it was a bright and windy october day during my senior year in college. i had just finished up a long afternoon class and was looking forward to a night out with my girlfriends and a weekend of fun. i had forgotten my phone in my dorm room so just needed to pop in and pick it up before meeting them for dinner.
i was rushing so didn’t look down at it right away but as i walked down the stairwell i paused for a second to check the screen. i had 10 missed calls from my mom. i froze, knowing immediately that something was wrong. she was supposed to be on a flight overseas so i shouldn’t have been hearing from her at all. i gripped the phone in my hand as i sprinted back up to my room. the excitement i had felt about the weekend had vanished as quickly as the warm summer days and i was left with a cold, panicky feeling inside.
i called and she picked up immediately. “mom – what’s wrong?” she paused and then said, carefully, “i don’t want to scare you. but i have cancer.” i felt a loud rushing sound in my ears and stood as still as a statue while she told me. told me that she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. that she didn’t know how advanced it was. that she would have major surgery in one month to determine what stage she was in.
as i listened something broke inside of me. the wall that had been holding back the pain and anguish and fear from my father’s suicide cracked. and out flooded the panic and the sadness that i had tried to hide away for so long. while i knew that it was unlikely that her cancer would be life-threatening, this latest crisis rocked my sense of safety and stability. every single night in the years after my dad’s death i would pray an extremely long and elaborate prayer (i defy the catholic church itself to match its complexity), begging god to keep my family safe. not to let anything else bad happen to us. and for eight years it seemed like that had worked. and then one october day it didn’t.
i began to cry. all the time. by myself. i would cry in my car, i would cry in my closet, i would even cry, silently, in the toilet stall. every night i would lay face down in my bed and cry myself to sleep, so quietly that my roommate never knew. i lost my appetite and stopped eating meals. i just wasn’t hungry. i couldn’t stop thinking about my mom being gone. that something outside of our control could take her away. that there was nothing i could do about it. and just like when my dad killed himself, i didn’t feel like i could relate to my friends. none of them had experienced (or shared that they had experienced) family losses and challenges like mine. i began to feel very alone.
i went home for my mom’s surgery in november. i watched her put on a gown, get on a stretcher and wheel away from me down a sterile white hallway. my only parent. i was the adult who spoke with the surgeon when she told me that, thankfully, the cancer had been caught so early that my mom didn’t need chemo or radiation. not so thankfully, my mom began to have complications from the surgery almost as soon as it was over. recovery was going to take a while.
two days after her surgery was thanksgiving. it was one of the worst holidays i can remember. my mom was still in the hospital. i had been awake for over 48 hours. my little sister and i came home to an empty house, got into bed and just slept. grateful for a break from the sadness we were surrounded with. when my mom came home several days later i cared for her, waking up every few hours to give her a barrage of medications. i helped my sister with her college applications, as the deadlines were looming and essays needed to be written, family crisis or no. i was like a terrified little adult, trying to keep everyone else afloat. at one point i was so overwhelmed and sleep deprived that i passed out cold on the kitchen floor. i gave up a scholarship to go to ireland and study traditional celtic religion as part of my senior thesis during my winter break. they needed me there. and i needed to be there too.
in the months after my mom’s surgery i continued to struggle. i felt vulnerable and scared. exhausted and overwhelmed. isolated and uncertain. i was drinking too much. i was smoking too. i was as skinny as i ever was – smaller than a size zero. i was shrinking into myself. a feeling of persistent sadness began to follow me around, enveloping me in its mists. i began to think that maybe i couldn’t handle whatever life threw at me. that maybe i wasn’t as resilient as i thought. for the first time i felt hopeless. i wanted to go my home and lay down in the yard and be absorbed into the ground. or press myself into the walls of the house so that i could never lose it. i wanted to become a part of my landscape of loss. no more changes. not one more – i just couldn’t take it.
one night, just after my 22nd birthday, i was at home. my mom had fallen asleep early – the medication she was taking made her really drowsy, plus she had a horrible cold. my sister was in bed too. i was alone. i went outside and got into my car. i put on my oasis cd, on repeat, and began to drive. i circled the george washington parkway and then the beltway, over and over, for hours. crying, crying crying. crying for myself, crying for the whole world, crying like it would never stop. i felt like i had stepped outside of my body, like i was watching myself drive and cry, drive and cry.
several hours later i went home and, sensing that i needed help, called my therapist. the one i had seen for the first five years after my dad’s suicide. the next day i found myself sitting on her couch. telling her about last night. and the last six months. she listened, nodding as i numbly tried to describe how i felt. when i finished, she leaned forward and said, “honey, i think you have depression.” several phone calls and a psychiatrist’s appointment later i had an official diagnosis: major depression. and a prescription for medication.
“no, oh no,” i thought. “not me. not me too.” on that dark december day i didn’t know about coping. i didn’t know about recovery. i didn’t know about self care. i didn’t know how to talk about, how to feel about my dad’s suicide. all i knew is that i didn’t want to have a mental illness and i was looking down at a piece of paper that said i did.
on my way home from the appointment i listened to this song by alison krauss. over and over. tears streaming down my face. just driving and crying, driving and crying.
in this world i walk alone
with no place to call my home
but there’s one who holds my hand
on rugged road through barren lands
the way is dark, the road is steep
but he’s become my eyes to see
the strength to climb, my griefs to bear
the savior lives inside me there
in your love i find release
a haven from my unbelief
take my life, and let me be
a living prayer, my god, to thee
take my life, and let me be
a living prayer, my god, to thee