Out of the Abyss
My liberation from the bondage of depression.
I couldn’t mourn, because if I mourned it meant he was gone. So I worked to stay the course. Childcare, office work, household chores…I did everything on automatic pilot. Somewhere deep inside, my psyche refused to let go of the hopes and dreams of building a future together.
I moved back to my hometown to be close to my family, which meant that I had to adjust to a new home, a new job, and a new reality all at once. My children, age five, three, and one, clung to me for stability, and I gave to them endlessly, without sparing a second for myself. Unpacking, organizing, errands, and disrupted routines consumed my days. I was on a treadmill with no way to get off.
One Friday afternoon, the kids headed out to play at a neighbor, and I sank down into a chair and started bawling as if my life had come to an end. It was all just so overwhelming.
The minute they returned home, though, I clamped down again. No more coming undone. I was the mommy, and I had to be in control.
Of course, I had mourned during shivah. I had talked about Nosson endlessly, reliving those last awful months in the oncology ward. But even then, I refused to acknowledge the emotions raging inside me because they were just too enormous to put into words. And besides, how do you mourn when you’re still in a state of shock? I’d spent four years reassuring myself that Nosson would pull through. I’d refused to believe the doctors’ gloomy prognoses. We’d been battling this demon together for years. He’d been in remission. His relapse was so quick, it was like a bad dream. Who was to say that he wouldn’t survive this time around, too?
As I drove carpool and pulled items off of grocery shelves, thoughts, unbidden, would crowd into my head. I can’t manage without you, I’d think over and over, as if I was talking to him, as if he was still there. And the thoughts – those emotions that had no outlet – began to pull me under.
It began slowly at first, without me realizing what was happening. I convinced myself that I was fine, that I was coping. Everyone else said I was. If it took me hours to fall asleep each night, if I collapsed from exhaustion every evening after putting the kids to bed, lying comatose on the couch for an hour or more before mustering the energy to put my house back in order, so what? That’s what happens when you’re a 27-year-old widow. That’s how you deal.
Mommy’s Come Undone
The months went by, and the hours of sleeplessness overtook my days. I stumbled into work each morning with deep shadows under my eyes, hidden behind careful applications of concealer. I threw myself into creating Shabbos meals the kids would remember – isn’t that what a widow’s supposed to do? I told them stories about their Daddy and took them to the park, pretending life was normal. I vacillated between believing I was doing okay and sliding ever further into the abyss. It was an abyss of hopelessness, despair, endless grief, even anger – anger at Nosson for leaving me, and anger at God for letting it happen.
I tried to keep up the pretense of normalcy no matter how impossible it seemed. Until the day it snapped.
It grew harder to concentrate at work. My brain felt like it was stuffed with Silly Putty. I couldn’t think; couldn’t sleep. I was so tired. So very, very tired.
I forced myself out of bed each day to send my children off to school, even when I’d only slept three hours the night before. I made them lunches and bathed them and kissed them, trying to keep up the pretense of normalcy no matter how impossible it seemed.
Until the day that something snapped. Leaving home required so much effort that it felt like traveling out of the galaxy. I hauled myself to work, but every Excel file I looked at blurred before my eyes. All I wanted to do was drive home again and crawl into bed.
Once I was home again, the pain and grief washed over me. Strangely, though, I couldn’t cry anymore. Anguish filled every fiber of my being, but there were no more tears.
Eventually I called my boss and told her I needed a week off. She was very sympathetic. My family stepped in, bringing over meals and freshly laundered clothing. My confused children demanded, “Mommy, why can’t you get up and play with us?”
I didn’t have any answers. All I could do was think. I need you, Nosson. Can’t you see I’m not managing without you? I could hear his voice answering me, accusing me of not helping him enough in his last months. Why hadn’t we tried alternative medicine, laughter therapy, acupuncture? Why hadn’t I done everything I could for him when he was still there?
“Shana, sweetie,” my mother said finally, “did you ever consider going to therapy?”
“I don’t need therapy,” I said. Therapy isn’t for people who’ve lost a husband. It’s for loonies. “I just need to rest.”
“Maybe you should go to the doctor,” my boss suggested when I called to say I needed more time off.
“No, I’m fine. I just need another week,” I said. Doctors don’t fix broken hearts.
My best friend invited us for Shabbos. I spent the entire 25 hours on her couch, clutching a throw pillow as if it was a life preserver. My children played with hers; I trembled whenever I tried to get up. “It’s just because I can’t sleep,” I told her. “I’m exhausted.”
“Maybe sleep medication will help,” she suggested.
I shook my head. “I need to think.”
I knew on some level that I’d lost my grip because I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve. But by then it was too late. There were too many other things in the way, too many unanswered questions and too much desperation. Existential questions gnawed at me, refusing to release their grip. What’s my purpose in life if I don’t have a husband anymore? How am I supposed to raise these children on my own? How am I going to get them into yeshivah, teach them good traits, help them find them the path to their own futures? I can’t do it. I can’t.
I gave myself over to the deluge of questions, hunkering down in the safe confines of my home so I could think, and think, and think some more. I resisted invitations for Shabbos meals; I refused offers to go out for coffee. My sister took over my grocery shopping. My mother began arriving each morning to drive my children to school and playgroup. “Depression,” everyone said. “You need medication.”
The doctor I finally agreed to see prescribed something that my mother picked up from the pharmacy. My family thought I’d started taking it, but I hadn’t. I didn’t want medication. All I wanted was Nosson.
On the rare occasions that I emerged from my house, usually to drive over to whichever family member was watching my children and pick them up, I contemplated running red lights, crashing into oncoming trucks, leaving it all behind so I could be with Nosson. But something held me back. I knew I couldn’t abandon my kids.
My thoughts grew hazier and hazier, and sleep more and more elusive.
With nothing to fill my days but endless agony, no housework to do because my mother had hired me cleaning help, no office work or social interactions to fill my brain, my thoughts grew hazier and hazier, and sleep more and more elusive. I took long walks after my children were tucked into bed to get the adrenaline going, just so I could think, and then came home too wound up to fall asleep. Then even the walks got to be too much, and I crumpled into bed again.
Drive All Night
At around midnight one night, after an hour of restless respite, I woke up from a vivid dream and knew that there had been a mistake. If I could go back to Cleveland, to the medical center where Nosson had died, the doctors and nurses would realize that he was still alive. If they saw me and my kids, they’d realize that we couldn’t possibly continue any longer without him. They’d resuscitate him, and he’d be back.
I carried my two toddlers out to the car and settled them into their car seats. My five-year-old mumbled in his sleep as I propelled him down the stairs, but once in the car he too was out like a light.
I got behind the wheel and started driving. There wasn’t a lot of gas in the car, but there was enough. I had my wallet with me, but no clothes for the kids, no food, no drinks. Not even diapers.
I drove for hours westward. We’d lived in Cleveland for the last ten months of Nosson’s life, while he was undergoing treatment for the cancer that claimed his life. Now I was going back to find him.
My husband is dead. He died eight months ago. He’s buried in Israel. What am I going to Cleveland for?
Dawn broke somewhere in Pennsylvania. We were out of gas. I drove into a gas station to fill up, but I was shaking so badly I could barely lift the pump. Something must have alerted the station attendant, a kind, grandfatherly looking man in a flannel shirt, because he walked out of his little store and looked at me.
“You okay, ma’am?” His eyes swept over the car and its three sleeping passengers. “Sure you can keep driving on your own? Where’re you headed?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m going to Cleveland to meet my husband.”
It sounded normal enough, and he was satisfied. But when I got back into the car, the words reverberated in my head like a boomerang. To meet my husband? My husband is dead. He died eight months ago. He’s buried in Israel. What am I going to Cleveland for?
For a second I imagined what my parents would say when they heard what I’d done. We were already 200 miles from home. My mother would be knocking on the door in just three hours to drive the kids to school.
I shivered in the early morning chill.
I hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in weeks. I’d driven five hours straight. Now the adrenalin drained away and I sagged against the steering wheel.
Somehow I found my cell phone. With quivering fingers, I punched in my father’s number. He was awake in an instant. “Shana? Where are you?”
“Daddy…don’t be mad.”
I told him where I was. He listened for a second and said, “Don’t go anywhere. Sit right where you are. I’ll be there soon to drive you home.”
My parents arrived five hours later with diapers, sandwiches, fruit, and water bottles…and with antidepressant medication for me. There were no recriminations, not then. But there was no argument from me, either.
I slept the whole way home. The medicine knocked me out, giving my body the sleep it so desperately craved. We pulled into their driveway, and my mother said, “You’re staying right here until you’re well again.”
I crawled into bed in my old room. My mother took charge of my children. There was no protesting, no saying, “I’m fine, really.”
When I woke up the next morning and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, my eyes were bloodshot; my pupils unnaturally dilated. I looked like a drug addict. “You don’t have to take that pill anymore,” my father said, “but you need to take this one.”
Every time I stared at those two awful pills, I shuddered, but I swallowed them. All I had to do was remember the night on the highway, and I knew there was no other choice. If I wanted to be normal, to be a healthy mother to my children and to keep us all safe, I needed to take those meds.
My aunt found me a therapist, an observant Jew who specialized in depression. I dragged myself to her office week after week to talk about the feelings I’d bottled up for so long, even during the years of Nosson’s illness. The anger and the fear, the worries and the tension that I’d refused to acknowledge as I filled the roles of Supermom – and Superwife. And slowly the fog in my brain began to lift.
I’m proud that I’ve made it to the other side. And I’m grateful to God for those antidepressant meds
The sleeping medication I ingested each night gave me some semblance of a schedule, but it was weeks before I found the courage and the stamina to return to work and to resume responsibility for my children and my home. Gradually I began to acknowledge how much I’d hurt myself by not reaching out earlier. The recording in my brain changed in tiny increments as I chipped away at the unfathomable questions and instead began to remind myself, God always knows what’s best for us.
The panic began to subside. Occasionally it would return, and I’d yearn to be home again, safe under the covers, where I could think. But I learned to resist that urge, to keep going when I felt scared, and to acknowledge the pain inside me without allowing it to destroy me.
As I celebrate Passover this year, I reflect on the liberation from bondage I’ve experienced, on the freedom from the agony of that awful time. Over the years, I’ve learned to find the balance between reliance and independence. I’ve learned to stand tall – to mourn my lost dreams and to look forward to a brighter future.
Looking back, I’m not embarrassed of what I’ve been through. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, proud that I’ve made it to the other side. And I’m grateful to God for the discovery of those antidepressant meds. Because without them, I don’t think I could have ever pulled myself out of the abyss.