The Witch of November

November 19, 2000

I should have seen her coming more than two weeks ago. That’s the morning early in November when I looked up from my writing and saw that my neighbors’ sukkah had been dismantled. The festival of Sukkot had concluded two weeks before, so it should not have been a surprise to see that it was gone, and yet the change in the vista left me feeling inexplicably sad.

“She” is Melanie, the character I’ve created to embody my depression, that dark outlook that from time to time descends on me, triggered in large measure by that “certain slant of light,” or rather lack of light, that begins to overspread the northeast about Hallowe’en, and rarely attributable to any event in my life. (It’s called “endogenous depression,” that is, arising from within, and if it occurs when a problematic life event is also present, it’s called “endogenous depression with situational increase.”)

I have had periods of depression, some mild, some quite pronounced, all of my life, usually beginning in November or December and lasting through March. The one that began in the fall of 1972 lasted for more than two years. In the past ten years I’ve learned to recognize and manage it quite effectively. Last year I experienced no depression at all.

So I looked at my life that day and concluded that there was nothing sad going on except the removal of the sukkah, which reminded me that for the second year in a row I hadn’t been over there. The sukkah’s owner and I used to be so close, but it seems that as our kids get older we have less time rather than more. I resolved to call her soon, and went about my business.

I ignore Melanie at my peril. As I went about my business, a series of small difficulties began to build. A tiny shaving cut turned into a severe inflammation that needed heavy duty antibiotics. Then cold symptoms started to build. I had an argument with a friend that escalated, and the attempt to repair the damage only made things worse. I began to have numbness in my shoulders and arms, pronounced symptoms of repetitive stress syndrome so severe I had to ask a librarian to move some heavy reference books onto a table for me.

By the morning of November 16 (Thursday) I was beginning to feel paralyzed. Life did not seem worth living, nothing was interesting or engaging, I was too tired to write or to read or to follow through on some of the things I’d decided to do for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was so silent during my Thursday morning spiritual growth group (an activity that lifts and sustains me and which I usually actively participate in) that a fellow member expressed concern.

After the group meeting I did some errands and then went to the new Barnes and Noble that had recently opened on the West Shore. I had to go the opposite direction from home after my last errand to get there, and the trip took twenty-five minutes. I just didn’t want to go home.

Nothing in the cafe looked interesting. Nothing on the shelves looked interesting. All the gift books and holiday displays left me feeling empty. I bought a tuna sandwich and an orange vanilla frappe. I threw half of it away.

I decided a session with my accupressure massage therapist might help. She’d said the week before that my chi was all congested because of my anger with my friend and my denial that the relationship is no longer healthy for me. I called her office. The service reported that she was out of the office until Monday.

I walked away from the phone feeling desperate. Everything seemed futile, too much of an effort. I began to feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into the morass of distorted thinking that depression is for me.

I walked all the way through the store to the bathroom. When I came out of the bathroom I had no clear idea of what I should do next — go home? For what? Pick up a book and read? The piped in music was irritating me. I began to cry.

What happened next was right out of Touched By Angel. I looked up and realized that I was standing in front of the self-help section. All the titles — the workbooks on self esteem and anger management and yoga for inner peace — stretched out down about twenty feet of new polished wood cases. And a voice — yes, a voice — whispered to me, You already have every resource you need to get out of this. You can do it. Go home, get out all those books and things you put away last year and get busy.

And that’s what I did. I drove home, went straight to the basement, got out Living Without Depression and The Depression Workbook, which I’d used in 1994, 1995, and 1997 (I wrote dated notes from each year in the margins), and set to work. I faced the fact that I had been neglecting myself — not enough exercise, meditation, or fresh vegetables, too much anger, electronic distraction, and diet soda.

And I realized that Melanie is here, uninvited, but moving in anyway, likely to stay for a good twelve to fifteen weeks. “Greet your depression as a friend,” suggested one of the books. “Ask her what she wants.”

I am a consciously grateful person. I try to be aware every day of the dazzling abundance which is mine. The first prayer I pray every morning (when I remember, that is — see above note about too little meditation) is from E. E. Cummings: “I thank you god for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky, and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” I try to hold the Eastern thought that all decisions are the right ones, and when the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.

And what a lovely teacher you are, Melanie, with your long dark hair and your deep penetrating eyes, your infinite intelligence and your tenacity, your singleness of purpose. You’re here for a reason, to teach me something, and I dare not try to rush the lessons.

But forgive me, Melanie, if I am not happy to see you, if I do not yet embrace you.

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