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09/23/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How I Found My Way Out Of The Most Hopeless Place

One woman finds a way to escape that cold, dark, hopeless place.

By Elizabeth Gaffney

Once, I lay down on the grooved rubber flooring of a crowded city bus and wept uncontrollably.

There was a period, a few years later, when I hated leaving my house, because I wasn't sure if I'd be able to answer the next time anyone spoke to me. I could pull myself together for most work and social situations, but then I would feel the gloom gathering and rushing down on me.

"Skim?" the barista would ask, and tears would well from my eyes as I sobbed, "Whole."

What's wrong? People asked. But I didn't have an answer. There wasn't one thing. It was everything, especially me.

I was suffering from a common condition; regular people call it depression. But not in my family. In my family, no one talked about troubles. Which is a problem, because depression is inherited.

The suicide by gas oven of my great-grandmother, Bessie, was covered up for decades. She had a heart problem, they said, which was, of course, true in one sense. My mother first learned about it at the funeral of her mother, from the family maid. Was my grandmother ashamed of her mother's weakness? Was she afraid that her own children might follow in those footsteps, if they knew such a path was available? Was depression a factor in the premature death of her brother, my great-uncle, from cirrhosis triggered by alcoholism? My mother remembers that he was so yellow, in his last years, he wore pancake makeup to hide it. What pain was he self-treating with all that booze, I wonder, and what pain did he inflict on his family as a result of it?

I think of these family secrets as rocks hidden offshore, and the knowledge of them as lighthouses, warning of the perils that may lie ahead and offering a clear path around them. But instead of building lighthouses, my mother's family pretended everything and everyone was fine. Unfortunately, even if you cover things up -- with liquor, or manners, or makeup -- even if you never talk about them, they're still there.

Depression was there for me, lurking, when I hit my teens. Without the vocabulary or knowledge of depression at my disposal, I came up with my own term, snowballing, to describe it. For me, snowballing is that feeling when ice-cold despair and hopelessness saturate my every waking thought. Everything that happens (including anyone trying to cheer me up) just makes it worse. In my twenties, some time after I learned about Bessie, I felt the snowball forming again and went into therapy, which helped a bit. I also saw a psychopharmacologist, whose wares made me by turns jumpy and fat, and yet tempered the worst of the feelings I was having. They probably saved me from the brink, but for years I continued to be plagued by bouts of hopelessness that occasionally snowballed into blackness. Then I had another serious run of dark days -- that was the time I lay down on the bus -- and one day I tried another doctor, who I found without any reference beyond the list of providers covered by my insurance plan. (I was too hopeless and ashamed of my hopelessness to ask anyone I knew for a referral.) He sent me to a therapist a lot more suitable for my temperament than my first one had been. It took a while, but he eventually also found me what turned out to be the right medication, and in a matter of days, I went from listless and teary to competent and optimistic. In a matter of months, I finished a project I'd been struggling with for years.

So what should you do when you find yourself in a puddle on the floor of the bus? Let someone help you up. For me, it was first my husband, who was there for me on that bus and beyond, though I'm sure some part of him was horrified. Next, the therapist and the doctor were essential. The final help came when I was at my lowest, thinking of self-harm, and remembered Bessie. She taught me how truly perilous my situation was and somehow served as my lighthouse, my warning not to venture so close to that shore. But it could be anyone, any fellow passenger. The key thing is to believe that there are others out there who have suffered. I wish Bessie had known there would be me, someday, when she went to the stove. Maybe knowing that she could bestow a gift so far down the generations would have enabled her to save herself. Since it didn't, I do my best to serve her memory by choosing to spread the word: The sadness can recede.

Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of When the World Was Young (Random House).

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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