Three days past St. Patrick’s Day, 2017, my wife and I are once again hiking in Ohio’s Hocking Hills in the state’s southeastern region. In retrospect, I should’ve paid more attention to signs that someday I’d get a taste of the terror my wife had felt once in this place. But seldom do I learn from somebody else’s experiences; it’s my own that shake me to my core.
My wife was stricken in this valley on Valentine’s Day weekend while hiking in the late afternoon several years ago. We’d walked to Old Man’s Cave, experienced the awe of that wondrous grotto, then reversed our path. In high spirits, we started back with, we figured, plenty of time before dark. During the return trek, I became a little concerned when the expected path back up to the parking lot didn’t show itself for the longest time. The late winter afternoon turned ominous, and it was twilight before we finally made it to the car. And that’s when I discovered that, while I’d been annoyed, she had been scared to death, although she couldn’t explain exactly why. We’ve hiked in much wilder places and have occasionally tempted fate, usually in the form of sudden weather change. Respect, humility and awe go a long way when it comes to finding your place in the wild. But feeling death at your shoulder with civilization a stone’s throw away? I’m grateful I didn’t chide her or try to laugh it off.
This March day of our latest expedition, we have the trail to Old Man’s Cave pretty much to ourselves. Almost as soon as we begin to descend to the base of the falls, I feel the first dark stirrings. All my life I’ve been anxious, but full-blown depression is rare for me—beyond the occasional “situational” funk relatable to specific changes. I thought I knew what the Black Dreads felt like and had mastered my defenses, but this day, in this place, I learn how mistaken I’d been.
Once in the valley, we pause to appreciate twin silver strands of the falls streaming over the rim like a girl’s braids; then, crossing the small bridge, we strike the path toward Old Man’s Cave. Suddenly, inexplicably, I find myself sliding toward hell, and for the next couple of hours, I’ll continue the slide, as lost to myself as my wife had been years ago on this path—and just as unable (or unwilling) to ask for help. Heaviness presses down on my ocular nerve as if my brain has gained weight, and my lower back feels as if I’ve been biking uphill for ten miles. Slight vertigo makes me carefully measure every step on the muddy path, plus I feel a vague quiveriness in my chest and limbs. Ah, Depression: my old nemesis glimpsed rather than seen since my college years—but today twice as insidious, its poison spreading. Surely this is Death come to meet me here in this place of dim winter light.
As we walk on, the fear recedes a little, doubtless aided by raw beauty everywhere I look. We can become as acclimated to hell as to any other place, I’ve found, if we just abide and ride it out. That’s what I decide I’ll do. About halfway through the hike, I realize I don’t much care if I do die—then I’ll be delivered from this total oppression turning my senses and my mind against me. So I keep urging my best friend onward, tiptoeing along water’s edge, avoiding huge roots of some of the most magisterial trees in Ohio and squeezing between iron-orange boulders.
When finally my wife pauses, enchanted by the bend in the creek where we can hear both strands rippling in stereo, I remain in place, too, although my body still craves motion and at least half of me yearns to flee. One boot shakily planted on the bank of Queer Creek, the other slipping toward hell, I’m totally closed to the joy my companion is feeling. But despite my mind being torn asunder, I somehow manage to stay partly present, my brain recording details for later consumption: dripping hemlocks; a lone wren’s plaintive cry; soaring cliffs above multi-hued striped sandstone ligaments; gently moving water. At one point, behind us, splitting the silence, a thick icicle plummets from the summit’s edge to explode 150 feet below, scarily close. Yet by this time I’m numb to dangers outside my own mind, dimly aware that deliverance or death will come from within not without.
Oblivious to my suffering, my spiritual though not conventionally religious wife shares an insight: we all need something like religion, but not religion, to console us, something like what she is experiencing right now. Nodding and grinning, I must look like a half-crazed penitent who, after crawling on his knees for miles to the shrine, is now too far gone to even know he is being blessed. The moment finally, thankfully, ends and we retrace our path back up to the heights, where lies the road home. Won’t we ever make it back to the car, then back to the room where I can calmly expire beyond the sight of normal, happy hikers?
Finally back at our room, I collapse in a chair from which I expect never to rise. When she asks me what’s wrong, I hesitate—there’s something about depression that likes to keep itself to itself. I choose not to listen; I tell her everything. She commiserates with both restraint and compassion. With her help, I return to some semblance of myself. The cloud not only lifts; within ten or fifteen minutes, it’s gone.
Now I ask myself: What the hell happened? Was it mere coincidence that my wife and I both felt dread so powerfully on the exact same path in the same season? It doesn’t seem likely. I tell myself that mystery is one of the main reasons I walk the woods, valleys and mountains of this world, but I haven’t always meant it. But that day, in that place, I definitely had a mysterious experience. Maybe there’s a message still awaiting me that I didn’t get—but need to. For now, though, I’m out of the valley, high on the ridge above.
But of course I do not stay there. It’s three months later and although I’ve felt mild flare-ups of the Dreads, it’s been nothing like what I’m about to experience on
this rainy June day. I felt woozy as soon as I got up and as the dark day wears on, I try to face the fact that I am back in the valley. Malaise seems the right word for it, suggesting a dizzying, nauseating blur. By noon my wife suggests a trip to Joseph Beth, our favorite Cincinnati bookstore, and I agree. I can just as well be miserable there as at home, though I am hoping that visiting one of my favorite sanctuaries will relieve my angst.
Soon after entering the store and beginning to browse new books in bright covers, I’m not sure I can stay. On my best days, my over-stimulated brain and vision blur from reading sideways spines and the lively handwritten shelf-talkers, but on this day my synapses seethe. Still, I’ve driven over an hour to get here, and like that dark March afternoon at Hocking Hills, I do not want to spoil my wife’s pleasure by aborting our mission. I decide to get out of my way and let the right book find me. It’s magical thinking, but I believe I might find inside this store the book that can save me.
I wander my usual paths among the aisles and shelves of this huge and beautiful marketplace of emotions and ideas, though the place seems more mortuary than sanctuary today. Plus, a vision-shredding headache is making it ever harder to see much less read. But there’s something for me here, dammit, and I’ll find it if it kills me.
About an hour later, I bid a reluctant adieu to the serene shelves of Spirituality and enter Psychology, where I figure I might find a self-help book on anxiety/depression that might unmask the mystery of this ambush. My depression hasn’t gotten worse but neither has it improved. I don’t know how much longer I can take feeling like my brain is giving birth to an alien inside my skull.
And then I’m holding in my hand the last book by one of my favorite novelists. But this is a work of nonfiction: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. The memoir is a slim paperback of less than 100 pages, a book I’d eagerly purchased when it was published in 1990, devoured and sent to my first wife, a life-long depression sufferer. Coincidence, magic or divine grace—I don’t question what brought me and Styron together that day; instead, I plop down in one of Jo Beth’s stuffed chairs and commence to read, headache still simmering.
In an hour, I consume a big chunk of the book, finding it familiar and informative, chilling but ultimately consoling, though it’s a harrowing journey to hell and back. While for me the first crisis had come on an afternoon in March among the hills of Ohio, for Styron, it was a late-October evening when, in Paris to receive an award, the Black Dogs visited him, howling with their jaws wide; and though the author would suffer for another several months and come within inches of suicide, he did eventually make it to the other side of his illness.
Hope to overcome the despair beyond despair. I drop out of time and awareness of surroundings. The towering author has his hand on my shoulder. I read on as if my life depends on it. (Maybe it does.)
On a December night in 1985, the showdown of Styron’s life occurred. While his family slept, he’d decided he could not live one more day. Since returning from Paris, he’d changed his will, buried his secret journal at the bottom of the garbage, attempted (then discarded) a suicide note. For some reason, on this night he inserted a tape in the VCR, a movie that included an unseen female contralto singing a soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody (a passage his mother had sung). Instantly he’s flooded with joyous memories of the life lived here with his wife and children; at the same time he realizes he cannot commit this “desecration.” He wakes his wife and makes the telephone call that will save his life.
As it turns out, neither antidepressants nor talk therapy provide Styron relief (he becomes certain that the tranquilizer Halcion exacerbated the problem and that, while psychotherapy might help with early-onset depression, it’s worthless for late stage sufferers like himself). Styron found other ways to deal with his debilitating disease and he reassured readers that, in time, almost everyone gets better—and most do not commit suicide. What brings him back among the living, he’s convinced, is the seven-week hospital stay. It is the gift of seclusion and time inside this “kinder, gentler madhouse” that heals him.
When my eyes spill, I don’t care who sees me cry. If a guy like Styron, who lost his appetites for food and sex, the ability to sleep more than two hours per night and spoke and moved like a ninety-year-old can get to the other side of hell, I thought, surely I can, too. With only one section remaining, I close the book. Though
my head still throbs, the fog has lifted. But Styron’s not through with me. Later that night in bed, I decide to read the final section before sleep. And that’s when I receive my mentor’s biggest gift.
After saying that the cause of depression is ultimately a mystery, extremely complex and no doubt multiple, Styron nevertheless probes his own. My limbs become electric when he states that “the death or disappearance of a parent . . . during or before puberty, appears repeatedly in the literature on depression as a trauma sometimes likely to create nearly irreparable emotional havoc.” Styron’s mother died when he was only thirteen; similarly, I was eleven when, the day after Christmas my father, recently released from jail, did not come home and my mother and I realized he was finally gone for good. While he’d always been an unpredictable, unreliable and often violent presence in my life, now my father became total, irrevocable LOSS. And like Styron, I believe I’ve suffered ever since from “incomplete mourning,” an inability to “achieve the catharsis of grief,” and I carry, at sixty-eight, “insufferable rage and guilt,” hence, depression.
So here I am still walking through the valley of the shadow. But not alone. I have a mate as devoted as Styron’s wife Rose, plus a new therapist who advises me wisely that loss of a parent in puberty and “incomplete mourning” are not conditions to be resolved—but not merely to be “managed” either. We sit with our losses, take them into the woods on walks with us—and share them, in order to live with them if not be cured from them.
As for pain, I learned about its useful place in my life by developing a meditation practice based on Being Zen by Ezra Bayda, who has taught me (among so many other things) that pain is the path. Rather than something to be avoided at all costs, mental suffering is mostly the result of our lifetime’s conditioning, which can be overcome incrementally through practice, patience, and perseverance. Fortunately, I started practicing before the pandemic of 2020 struck. So far, I’ve had no real depression to speak of but plenty of anxiety. Between my episodes, which come on suddenly but release gradually, I need Styron to remind me that if he can go on living, so can I. And Bayda to remind me what I can do to keep an open heart, stay present, and take my next breath. Still more Baptist than Buddhist, I rely on Psalm 22: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
One clean, clear morning is worth a trove of tears.