Every February, I dove down into murky depths. All through my 20s, and well into my 30s, I moldered. All month long. It happened, in moments, all through the years. But mostly, it was February. I dreaded the ending of January with a physical clutching. I know where I’m going. I don’t want to go there.
For weeks on end, I stumbled through fog as thick as beef stew that has sat in the pot for three days. Of course I groped for the hand nearest to me. I longed for connection.
But I clung. Every connected conversation felt IMPORTANT. I wrote every revelation and worrying questions in urgent black lines on white paper. One year, my last year of teaching, I filled a thick black sketch book in six weeks. Nothing went undocumented.
It’s not as if there was much to write about, actually. I spent a lot of time, when I wasn’t teaching, on the couch in my rental apartment. That couch as stiff and starched as the styrofoam base for wedding cake displays in windows. I sunk into that couch for entire weekends, watching marathons of the San Francisco season of The Real World. I wanted to be them.
For exercise, I walked the treadmill in my own apartment, going nowhere, listening to the world through the television. I forced myself on it, on the days when the voice in my head chanted You’re fat. You’re fat. You’re fat.
You know when you pour milk into tea, and the white slowly swirls and clouds, until it is no longer tea and milk, but milky tea? I was more milk than tea most of the time. I was that clouded.
There were glimmers of light, shining patches of it.
Becoming a high school teacher taught me who I was, from the inside out. I couldn’t believe that anyone could like me when I started. As I brought up passages of The Great Gatsby in classes, and saw the light of understanding go on in some teenagers’ eyes, I awoke a little more each time. Teaching literature allowed me to carve out a definition of what it means to be human. I began to feel more human.
Still, there was the weekend I spent with the hood of the sweatshirt up, nearly covering my face. As I graded papers in a conference room as the kids took the PSAT, I sucked on the ends of the ties at the throat of my sweatshirt until I had gnawed the plastic ends off and left them a shredded, sodden mess.
I didn’t know how to live. Everything worried me. Nothing felt good.
No matter how often I wrote “Be happy, dammit!” in my journal, I just couldn’t see the surface.
I remember a conversation from those years, the worst years, one February day in my late 20s. I told my friend, who was a counselor, quite calmly: “I know that when I die, I will die by my own hand. It might be soon. It might be when I’m 93 and I pull the plug on the machines to which I’m strapped. But I’ll kill myself.”
She was horrified. So am I now. But that’s all I knew then.
I wrote so many suicide notes, only to crumple them up and throw them across the room in fury. None of them was good enough for me as a writer to be my last words. Strangely, my perfectionism saved me.
That didn’t make those Februarys any easier.
I couldn’t see beyond it. I couldn’t see beyond it.
Certainly, I didn’t know this one was coming into my life. How could I have known her exuberant joy, her vivid imagination, the feeling of her cuddling into me on the couch? If only someone could have told me: “Just wait. A better life is coming.” I didn’t know Danny would appear and make my days such even joy. I would have thrown away the pen I put to paper to write a suicide note if I had known the tiniest glimmer of the love he gives me.
Books are the reason I am alive. I read stacks and stacks of them through my lonely childhood. In college, I read every word Virginia Woolf ever wrote and felt so not alone. And reading her mind in black words on white paper, I somehow sensed that I didn’t want to walk into the river with stones weighing down my pockets. I wrote instead.
Therapy helped. I think everyone should do therapy.
I grew better every year. And somehow, I knew that these pernicious feelings, the grey wool blanket that covered my mind, wasn’t really me. In my better moments and months, I was optimistic, laughing, and alive. Even when I was weighted down, I could always laugh. Except for Februarys.
The February before I started therapy for the first time, I was laying on that stiff, uncomfortable couch, watching television. Sesame Street came on. I was so low that I sat through the entire episode, remembering the joy I felt when I was a kid, watching Bert and Ernie. Big Bird came on and led a group of kids in chorus in Central Park:
Don’t worry that it’s not
for anyone else to hear.
Sing a song.”
I sat up and wept as I watched, singing as loudly as I could in my empty apartment. Yes. I wanted to sing my song.
(You can imagine that the first time I sang this song to Lucy, which I do nearly every day now, I wept again.)
I’m singing my story now because I want you to hear your own.
You see, therapy helped. More and more friends helped. Teaching helped. Books helped. Every little bit of growing older and moving to New York and discovering the self I was meant to be? It all helped.
But I struggled with depression until 2005, when I was diagnosed with celiac. It turns out it had mostly been the gluten.
Take a look at this piece in Psychology Today, “Is Gluten Making You Depressed?” The answer just might be yes.
“Researchers have long observed an overlap between celiac disease and depression. Reports of depression among celiac disease patients have appeared as early as the 1980s. In 1982 Swedish researchers reported that “depressive psychopathology is a feature of adult celiac disease and may be a consequence of malabsorption.” A 1998 study confirmed that about one-third of those with celiac disease also suffer from depression. Adolescents with celiac disease also face higher than normal rates of depression. Adolescents with celiac disease have a 31% risk of depression, while only 7% of healthy adolescents face this risk.”
The body of someone with celiac reads gluten as a toxin. When we eat gluten, the body sends out antibodies to attack. Those antibodies, over time, end up destroying parts of the small intestine. Without the ability to absorb food correctly, we also miss out on essential amino acids and vitamins that regulate mood. Did you know that serotonin, the chemical responsible for regulating our moods, is made in the small intestine? 95% of serotonin produced is made in our guts. That means if something is going wrong in our guts, something is going wrong in our brains.
And that doesn’t just mean depression can be caused by celiac. It also means panic attack disorders, obsessive control disorders, social phobias, and possibly even schizophrenia can be caused, or at least exacerbated, by undiagnosed celiac.
Once I gave up gluten I have not suffered with depression again. In fact, some people like to complain to me on this site and elsewhere: “You’re so damned happy all the time. No one is capable of that much happiness.”
Believe me, once you have been through the darkest days, and you feel light flooding the room instead, you choose happiness. Certainly I’m not happy all the time, and our life is not even halfway to perfect, but underneath any small anxiety or disappointment is the thrumming, loud rumble of knowledge of where I once was.
I once was lost
but now I’m found.
And once you’re found, you want to stay found.
“I will never be able to describe the new joy of being alive, floating out there in deep water, knowing I belong in that great, vast oneness.” Xeni Jardin
So you’ll have to excuse me if I seem so damned happy now. It’s a choice, a daily, constant, conscious choice, to choose to be alive.
I have not written a suicide note in over 15 years.
I never will again.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, deep-seated anxieties, or disordered thinking of any kind, and therapy is not helping, medication is not helping, and nothing seems to work, PLEASE seek out a celiac diagnosis. Go to your doctor, your naturopath, your psychiatrist. Find someone who is willing to work with you on this. Also, remember that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a real disorder and can cause these same symptoms. Seeking help ould change your life more than you can imagine.