I won my battle with suicide, painfully aware that many do not. Perhaps ironically, it took a visit to my Jewish family’s cemetery to provide me with the peace I yearned for, a visit to a place that only decades earlier would have forbidden me from being buried there. I never knew a time when I didn’t grapple with depression, silently. Depression is deceptive to those on the outside. It inflicts its devastation on the privileged and the poor, young and old, striking those in the limelight and those who are hidden in the shadows. But the debilitating grip is the same. A grip that can be lethal.
Depression is sneaky. It hides in the dark. Those like me who suffer from it can be very skilled at keeping it hidden. A smiling photograph belies deep internal psychic suffering. And the torment saps you of your life force, as agonizing and injurious as any physical ailment. When it strikes, it can keep you bedridden, unable to speak, and barely able to function. The draining feeling that you just cannot bear another day, hour, minute.
I know that pain. I know depression. We are old pals. And it can pounce out of nowhere, even after triumph.
A recent trip to sunny California had been glorious. Buoyant even. Inclusion in a world-class art exhibit, a triumphant artist’s reception and talk at the Museum of Sonoma County had been empowering. In a post Covid world, a whirlwind of social events, meeting friends old and new felt wonderful.
Yet even through those busy days, my familiar friend, depression, sat on my shoulder whispering in my ear, pulling me downward. I had not left him on the tarmac of JFK airport as I thought I could. The returning red-eye flight home brought me not only to New York but into the welcoming full embrace of my old chum.
When I got home, I lay catatonic, teary, gripped in the paralyzing pain, I evaluated the options of making the pain disappear, permanently. As a Jew I knew traditionally suicide is a violation of Jewish law. As a Reform Jew I understood it was not seen as a sin but recognized as a result of mental illness. Agonized, I wrestled through it. But not everyone can.
I have been described as having courage in the face of adversity, but that idea belies the fears I needed to temporarily bury in order to function in my ever-chaotic world. On the cusp, of Covid my beloved home of 20 years went into foreclosure. My husband’s undiagnosed cognitive decline had unknowingly decimated our finances. I was about to lose my home along with a functioning partner.
I showed resilience but not the torment that coexists with it. The multiple life losses and the sorrows that had been nipping at my heels began bubbling up in California, a contrast with the happiness I saw all around me. The protective infrastructures I had set up were cracking, a cozy place for depression to settle into.
I knew my return home would be a melancholy day coinciding as it did with my mother’s yahrzeit and the first night of that most family-oriented holiday, Passover. It was the glaring loss of family connection that seemed to nudge me over the edge.
Family has always been profoundly important to me. As I set the small seder table for two that night in my new home, laying out the same wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadahs I’ve used for decades. It stood in stark contrast to the large, noisy, family-filled tables of Passovers past. The silence amplified the family disconnect that seemed irreparable. With a husband unable to truly communicate, my loneliness was palpable.
Already vulnerable, my sadness was fertile ground for opportunistic depression—now accompanied by his loyal sidekick PTSD—to swoop in and firmly take root. As days passed and I was caught in its firm grip, a small voice inside intuitively understood I needed grounding and knew I might find it in hallowed ground.
If my own living relatives were not available, I knew awaiting me less than an hour away was my whole mishpachah. The following Sunday, a visit to my mother’s family cemetery in Queens, New York—surrounded by history and ancestors— gave me the sense of belonging I was seeking. Because my family connections have slowly dwindled through death, distance, and disinterest, the need to physically be amidst my relatives provided me with a profound feeling of inclusion eluding me in real life.
These were my people. This was my place… this plot of land with all my loved ones that no one could ever take away from me. The trauma of losing my home and my beloved land was painfully fresh. A homeowner for over 40 years, I came to understand just how profoundly lost I felt not being one.
As I stood in the venerable cemetery dating to the 1800s, filled with ancient headstones and centuries’ worth of stories, I felt I had a final eternal home here. A neighborhood filled with my family and ancestors. There was a sense of permanency that I craved in these uncertain times. I found tranquility in the surroundings—the grass under my feet, the just blooming azaleas, the sheer scope of history surrounding me.
Here were the spirits of my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins in one place.
A full table.
I cried. I wept. I opened my heart to my family able to give voice to my pain.
I needed to be heard. I lay down on the soft grass to look at the clear cloudless sky to survey my future home. In that peace, I realized I was not ready to live there yet, but comforted in knowing it was there.
I needed to touch my past to give me strength in order to sustain me in the present.
In the 1940s my maternal grandfather Arthur Joseph had purchased a large plot adjacent to his own father’s plot dating from 1918. This act of great love ensured there would be a place of eternal rest for generations to come. Together.
This grandfather that I never met, made sure to provide perpetual care for all his progeny. In fact, all the gravestones are marked with that instructive. As will mine. Perpetual care awaits me. At some point. I am eternally grateful for that.
I understand too that depression requires perpetual care.
I was grieving losses, and I needed to embrace and express them. It is far from over.
The work of grief is continuous. It takes many forms but I am certain it never fully ends. Sadly that is the same as depression. We battle on if we can. Those of us who are lucky live to face another battle.
Depression is a mighty foe.
Let us take care of one another. We all deserve perpetual care.
Sally Edelstein is an award-winning collage artist and writer who lives in Huntington, NY, and a member of Lilith’s secondNew 40 cohort.