Image by Kristin Beeler
When I was thirty-five years old, not long after I had witnessed my first and only child born into the world, I closed myself into the room where I wrote books and imagined sliding my father’s old shotgun into my mouth and pulling the trigger.
This happened in April, the month of my birthday, harsh always in reminding me, through its thousand pregnant buds, of what I have not become. I was sitting at my desk staring straight ahead, and I could feel that hot pressure behind my eyes, there in the worst moments, like I needed terribly to cry but could not. The sun had gone down but the blinds were still closed. I did not want light, not even the day’s ghostly afterglow falling on the silver fountain pen or the mirror over the mantle. Utter darkness I desired, the complete negation of things. I didn’t close my eyes, though; this was a blackness I sought, strangely, to perceive, as though I might get the truth of it all before leaving the earth, undergo an apocalypse of the cold uncaring shadow that blots out the peony and the cardinal and all the poets.
I knew the gun was in the basement, leaning alone behind the furnace. All I had to do was descend the stairs. But I couldn’t lift myself from the chair. I heard my baby cry in a distant room. She was hungry, and I knew I should go help my wife feed her, but I was indifferent, like the dark air. I lacked the volition to cause my own death, and the love required to give my girl life. This was worse than hell. It was limbo’s listlessness. I was apathetic and apathetic about being apathetic. What restoration for me then, what path back to light and love and purpose? What mercy?
There was more than one night like this during that bleak period eight years ago, only weeks after my daughter’s birth. During a time when most people are vital, anxious but hopeful as they ponder new life, I was worse than dead. I was neither dead nor alive. I hovered somewhere in between, a ghost. I had fallen into my profoundest depression yet, despair so deep that I could scarcely move from a chair in my sunless study, much less take up the call to care for my little girl.
I was at an age when many suffer a crisis of faith. They find themselves, like Dante the Pilgrim, lost in a gloomy wood. But most who struggle in this wilderness at least ache for an innocence past or look hopefully toward a providential future, and these desires offer solace, a conviction that there is light close by and love that endures through the loneliness. I had no such yearnings.
My depression was no worse than that of others who struggle with mental illness. I was not special. In fact, I probably had an easier time than many who have suffered terrible traumas—dead children or wives, horrific crimes, near-fatal diseases. But still I was one of millions who forget what it’s like to live, for whom hell would be a relief.
Hell torments its inmates into escapist cravings. Deep depression is different. It is not an infernal pit where one burns and thirsts. It is the empty place where feeling dies.
My form of depression was (and is) bipolar disorder, that condition that pulls the soul asunder between meaningless malaise and a manic busyness. The one side, the despairing one, says: why bother with anything, with writing or taking an April walk? Nothing matters. The other side, febrile and frenetic, howls: wrench every single second into purposeful striving, a heroic quest in the void. These combatants cancel each other. Concocted meanings are blotted out in the ponderous gloom, and reconciliation with nothingness, potentially serene, never comes.
This condition, hounding me most of my life, flared violently in the years following the birth of my daughter Una. The new responsibilities of fatherhood threatened the coping habits I had constructed over the years. Until my daughter came into the world, I had tried to solace myself, perversely, by holding to an obsessive, exhausting work schedule that imbued my life with significance while numbing me against desolation.
I woke every morning at four, wrote for three hours, took a one-hour run, and then rushed to my office at school—I’m a university English professor—where I wrote, conducted research, or taught until six in the evening. When I returned home, I slammed the booze, five drinks a night, or more. The anesthesia of alcohol tranquilized my perturbed nerves and eased my guilt in the face of my wife’s pleas for an intimacy I couldn’t provide.
By the time I reached my mid-thirties, I had published three books with two more under contract. I had published numerous articles in scholarly journals,. I had spoken at conferences. I had been invited to lecture at good universities. I had received awards—from my own university but also from the National Humanities Center. I was granted early tenure and promoted early to full professor and received an endowed professorship.
I was addicted to success. It suggested to the world that I was mentally healthy and thus gave me an excuse not to address those dark moods and sleepless fevers that alienated me from those who might love me and whom I might love. What I didn’t realize, was that this desperate hunger for accolades was a symptom of my disorder, the mania manifesting itself. And my separation from those with affection for me was not a mark of my character, my ability to shut off emotion in the name of my vocational calling. My aloofness was a result of my malady: depression’s indifference to blood.
Thus was my state when my daughter was born. I was a machine but thought I was human. I was afraid and alone but had convinced myself I was brave, self-reliant. Then this little creature came screaming into my life and her very survival required that I work less, that I disrupt my habits. My carapace cracked and fell away, and I was forced to face all the feelings that I had been repressing. I wasn’t a noble quester for truth, above vulnerability and the need for love. I was an extremely sad man, hopeless, but pitifully trying to convince himself, through obsessive bustle, that he wasn’t sorrowful and thus that he didn’t need affection’s solace.
Exposed, I suffered the worthlessness I had tried to avoid. For the first time in my life, I seriously considered suicide. I started making death plans, and told myself that my daughter would be better off without me, that I, in my despair, would traumatize her.
My wife Sandi was painfully attuned to my deadness. She was married to a zombie, and knew it, and had endured this numbness for years, and, regardless of my being the father of her child, wanted, understandably, out. She loved me, she said, and it would break her heart, but she was determined to leave, for her sake and our daughter’s, if I didn’t seek help. She made psychotherapy the condition of her staying.
Life without Sandi and Una, with me alone and alcoholic and a stranger: this blunt reality struck me. I reluctantly agreed to seek counseling.
I had seen psychiatrists before. Each time, I received a quick (and erroneous) diagnosis— situational depression or unipolar depression—and a prescription for an SSRI like Paxil, Zoloft, or Celexa. These meds made my symptoms worse, rendering me more morose or manic, and each time I stopped taking them.
This time, at my wife’s urgent request, I forewent one-on-one therapy and entered a group. Her assumption was that I would most benefit from being pulled out of my narcissistic contemplations and forced to respond to others.
The idea behind group therapy is that we exist in groups and our psychological problems are best addressed in communal settings. Ideally, group members become substitutes for those close to us. When such simulations occur, we can work on problems with our loved ones in a safe environment.
This form of therapy requires stark honesty that often foments heated exchanges. Wishing to avoid conflict—and not really wanting to face my own problems—I remained mostly silent during the first few weeks. When anyone criticized my reticence, I said something blandly agreeable, and that usually appeased.
Then I was exposed and broken.
On this night, I was catatonically depressed. I sat in the session glumly, saying nothing and staring at the floor. Finally, with only about ten minutes to go, one of the female members, during an awkward period of silence, blurted out: “It’s Eric I worry about the most. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to read about him in the papers one morning. He’s the kind who stays quiet, puts on the fake grin, does his work, is successful, but then one night blows his head off. I worry about you, Eric.”
No one is ready for it.
Adam slept when an invisible hand ripped out his rib and turned it into a woman. A young woman on the verge of birthing fades away into the ether’s pinkish hills, when a scalpel gashes her side and out flows her ruddy child.
Causality seems shattered. To predict is impossible. There is something new under the sun.
An outburst from a woman I barely knew did what my wife’s beseeching and my baby’s crying could not. It found the hidden dark box in which I imprisoned my monstrous grief and cracked it open, releasing all the ferocious howling sorrow I been afraid to face—sorrow over my failure to love and my loneliness and my slow cruelties.
I wailed. Salty water burned my cheeks. Snot oozed into my mouth. I might’ve wept for ten seconds or an hour; I might have been in the room or Jerusalem.
When I returned to an awareness of my surroundings, I considered bolting for the door. But the woman who had expressed her concern gently handed me a nearby box of Kleenex. I cleaned my face. I looked around. Everyone was waiting.
I confessed, desperate to be absolved. I said I was selfish and arrogant, a terrible father and husband, and, worst of all, suicidal.
I expected support and affirmation. What I got was an angry look from one of the younger women in the group. With her eyes hard, enraged, staring at me, she told how her father had neglected her. He was an alcoholic and always either too drunk to give a damn about anything other than his own pleasure or too hung over to care about anything but the next drink to ease his pain. He never told her he loved her. He sometimes forgot her name. He died of liver failure and left the family destitute.
Her father’s neglect, she concluded, had deeply damaged her. She had been in therapy for years but remained depressed. She had nothing good in her life.
This woman continued to glower. She leaned forward. She spoke directly to me: “Do you want your daughter to turn out like me? She will, I promise you that, if you don’t change your ways right now. Every second you’re not showing her all the love you have, you’re not doing right by her. Every second is precious but you’re living like you’ve got twenty lives and a million chances. You get one chance, and it’s now, and you’re fucking it up.”
The therapist said that time was up. The women rushed from the room. I followed. I wanted to say something. But she was gone before I could catch her.
I stood alone on the dim sidewalk bearing the weight of the unforgiving night and afraid to take one wrong step. Everything counted; every single instant. And I had been living as though there were numberless opportunities for sharing affection and I would live forever and have infinity to get it right. But now I knew: each fraction of a second I did not love my child with all I had was fatal. I was killing my baby.
That disturbing night was a rarity: a true turning point. As I walked home alone after the session, I could sense my very innards shifting, creating new sight. I saw that I had granted my illness lordship over me. I had done so because I got a pay-off, albeit a perverse one. In viewing my depression as a demonic despot subjecting me to its savage fancies, I was able to escape responsibility—the sickness, after all, was running things—and thus to indulge fully my selfish desire to let my ego flourish unfettered, not obliged to anyone or anything. But this liberation was illusory. In reality, I was confining myself in a narcissistic prison and divorcing myself from the earth’s multitudinous possibilities for nourishing connections.
The scales fell from my eyes. Whatever the depression’s origin—be it genetic or environmental or a series of bad choices—it had, through its debilitating fluctuations between torpor and anxiety, hindered my ability to reach imaginatively beyond myself to sympathize or empathize with others and thus kept me isolated, divided from those with whom I might otherwise enjoy mutually inspiriting relationships. This insight, blatantly obvious now, ridiculously so, had eluded me. Kierkegaard is right: “What characterizes despair is just this — that it is ignorant of being despair.”
Enkindled with my vision, I pledged to myself, with an urgency I’d never known before, to cherish my daughter, no matter how, and to recover, somehow, adoration for my wife, and, perhaps, though this was more far-fetched, achieve at least a regard, unselfish, for others—people, of course, but also other living creatures, in the fields or the sky.
Though I’d made such vows before, I did so tepidly, and I’d failed to keep them. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. This time, however, I began to make good. First, I found a good psychiatrist who gave me my current diagnosis (bipolar II, mixed) and prescribed appropriate medications. He recommended a skilled psychotherapist who convinced me of the importance of taking responsibility for my mental state.
As I adapted to the medications and struggled to implement the lessons of my therapist, I rather fortuitously, one winter morning, came across a passage from William Blake. This was in 2006, when my daughter was three. The lines were as follows: “Mutual Forgiveness of Each vice, / Such are the Gates of Paradise.”
I understood that forgiveness need not be simply the letting go of anger; it can also be a way of seeing that opens us to bliss, that cleanses the “doors of perception,” as Blake puts it elsewhere, and perceives the world as it is: infinite in its exquisite intricacies. I concluded that forgiving requires that we put aside our egocentric concerns—our desires to preserve our comforts and senses of rightness—and attempt to witness and embrace the real, a fertile chiaroscuro, now luminous and now crepuscular, and not as we want it to be.
To trade the narcissistic “ought” for the generous “is”: this is forgiveness, and it can be proffered toward humans and nonhumans alike, toward those who might be our enemies and those maladies that sometimes lay us low.
From that day onward—buoyed by effective drugs and supported by excellent psychotherapy and continually catalyzed by the possible consequences of failed fatherhood—I have labored to forgive my manic depression, to relinquish my negative judgments toward it, to cease viewing it as a tyrannical taskmaster ruining my life, as a depraved warden of my solipsistic prison. This effort has liberated my bipolar to be what it irreducibly and mysteriously is: not a curse but a part of me no different in kind from my hands or auricles or larynx, an element of my constitution, something there, no more and no less. With the depression emancipated, I have been freed myself—no longer a mere puppet pulled by my disease’s whims but a proper creature, a flexible gathering of varied elements and possibilities, with the depression forming a most potent measure.
Stripped of its dark powers, my condition has emerged as more than an affliction. It also has arisen as an indispensable force in the shaping of my identity, of my flaws, yes, but also of my promising sensibilities. Although the depression continues to seduce me into narcissism, indifference, and suicidal fantasies, it persists in revealing to me, through its negative example, what I most need to become human—the vulnerability that comes with the giving and receiving of affection. Doing so, it, the mania and the despair, discloses to me the requirements of fatherhood and the beauties of my daughter.
Una is now eight years old and growing. She has become a good swimmer, and she has recently started singing lessons. When the year turns to fall, she plays soccer. This past winter, she started reading the strange books of Roald Dahl. Her favorite game is to act out characters she has created, usually orphans on journeys. She enjoys all animals and likes to watch our gray cat jump. Her jokes are funny. She is always laughing. When she calls me from my study, I now answer and get up and walk through the door.
Eric G. Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace (Northwestern University Press). His earlier books include Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) and Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film (Continuum).
Read more about Eric’s work here.