Sad Songs Say So Much

It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutia of being mortal. Your dog dies, depression ensues. Your husband forgets to put the dishes in the sink every, blissful, day. Separation may be for the best. Your kids forget to pick up their underwear, shoes, clothes, towels, books, book bags, band instruments, fidget spinners, iPads, iPods, iEverything all over your home. Are there any child labor farms left in Maine? Really, there are so many frustrating little knicker-twisters in this world, it can be hard to separate the real stressors from the onslaught of aggravations that crop up in our day-to-day lives.

I start my days early now, way earlier than I used to when the babies were babies, and I was just a baby myself. It’s hard to drag my sorry carcass out of bed at 5 a.m., but that’s why Baby Jesus invented the magical “snooze” button on my iPhone. I tap it at least once a morning, perk a cup of coffee and ingest eight lady vitamins before I hit the road for my morning wog (walk/jog). As I sit at the counter in the dim laptop light, I scan through the day’s headlines.

Sad, sad and more sad stuff to read: Man kills family, pedophile on parole and teen dies in a car crash. Sort of reminds me of a lyric from one of my father’s favorite songs he sang to my sister and me when we were kids, “The old world is dying in the rain.” If you haven’t heard the musical stylings of Glenn Yarbrough, you simply must give “Rusting in the Rain” a listen. There is nothing more poetically tragic than images of gates rusting, children aging and houses creaking in the rain.

Thinking about all the ways life disappoints us in our own happy homes or in the cruel, cruel world is enough to send most people spiraling into sporadic depression. My mom battled manic depression for four years while I was in high school, so I know a fair bit about what depression looks like before it’s diagnosed or medicated. She knew that something felt wrong, but she didn’t know what. I thought by making her happy with me, I could make her happier in general. When you’re a kid, you don’t often think of your parents as people with problems that have nothing to do with you.

Don’t get me wrong — I always knew my mother loved me. Her love was never a question. She sang the “I love you a bushel and a peck song” to me, and we added our own twist at the end. “Without you, I couldn’t live, and that’s true, boop-boop-be-doop.” The kitchen was cold in the mornings, but she shared the only heat vent, huddling me into the folds of her blue bathrobe as the warmth bubbled up between us. At night, she read “Little House on the Prairie” to Mary and I while we winced at the spikes on her legs when it had been a particularly hairy week.

“You’ve got those spikes again, Mumma!” I’d remind her. She’d laugh and tell me, “It’s just hair, Emmy.”

Despite the mania she silently lived through in her own mind, my mom was a great mom.

Years after she’d stopped reading to us, shortly after I graduated from high school, the doctors finally connected the dots between her sleeplessness and hypomania, her inability to “shut her motor off” as she called it. They diagnosed her with bipolar disorder (a label that for nearly two decades she never discussed with family or friends for fear they would think she was crazy). A couple of years ago, I asked her to tell me about what she endured all those years before she was diagnosed. Her mouth did that half-smile, half-frown it does sometimes when I can tell she’s holding back emotion.

“I’ve never told anyone my story because no one’s ever asked,” she said.       

For two weeks, while I rented a camp at the lake in our hometown (over coffee in the morning and wine at night) Mom told me her story. She went all the way back to her childhood and shared with me the struggles she faced when she was just a girl. Then, as an adult, she recounted two psychotic episodes, two sabbaticals from work, one hospital stay, months of counseling and adjusting her meds and finally, her quiet return to land of the living. I was amazed that one person could weather so much inner turmoil and not curl up into a ball of self-pity and despair.

I was also amazed that I never knew any of this because my mother thought there was something wrong with admitting there was something wrong with her.

Isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? My mom felt like admitting she had a chemical imbalance in her bloodstream was her fault. What’s even sadder is all that time she felt like her hormones were her fault, I felt like it was mine. I had no idea when she told me to “pick up my shoes” and “put away the clothes” she hadn’t slept in three months. I didn’t know when I was going out to Friendly’s on Friday nights, smoking cigarillos with my girlfriends, she was too busy surviving to leave out milk and cookies for me when I got home. If I had only kept my room neater, washed my clothes more often, not left the “trail of Emily” everywhere I went, maybe her life would’ve been easier.

So what’s the deal with all this depression stuff, right? Why am I telling you this? Because she made it. My mother, the most private French-Canadian Catholic woman you’ll ever meet, is allowing me to tell you all of this because she made it, and she wants other people to make it, too. There’s too much sorrow in this world to be ashamed about talking about living through it. After her diagnosis, my mom taught for 10 more years and did a damn good job. She is the pillar of our family, a doting Meme to her five grandkids and a one woman cleaning SWAT team (God love her industrious heart). On days when she feels like venturing out into the big city, my sister and I meet her for a little retail therapy and hit the Bangor Mall like the magnificent mecca it still is.

Yes, there’s sad, sad and more sad stuff to read, but there are also stories like this, where the sad stuff turns happy, where depression doesn’t have to drag you or your loved ones down, where people overcome the stuff they thought they never could and go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives doing happy, fulfilling things. It’s normal to feel like you’re sinking under the weight of a million different worries sometimes, but you should never be afraid to tell people how you’re feeling, especially if you can’t shake those sad feelings off.

Life’s too short not to share our pain with each other, and too beautiful not to rejoice when the pain goes away.

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