I left church today, bid my wife, Sue, farewell as she headed off to a brunch, while I headed to Whole Foods to buy flowers (we buy flowers for our hallway table every Sunday when we’re in town), and started walking to my car. It was a chilly but sunny day in Cambridge, MA. We’ve been going to Christ Church Cambridge, an Episcopal church, since our first child, Lucy, was born in 1989. The service almost always puts me in a reflective, positive mood. But not today. I could feel it the moment I said goodbye to Sue. A chill of sadness was gathering around me. This was not good news because, aside from the discomfort of feeling the sadness, I had a book to work on and the free hours of a Sunday afternoon were precious to me.
But first, I did the shopping. I picked out four bunches of 20 daffodils, 80 daffodils in all, because they were on sale for $4 a bunch, and because they looked so un-sad, so happy, so full of yellow promise. 80 daffodils may sound like a lot, but because at least half had not yet opened, it didn’t look like that many. I probably should have bought twice as many, because daffodils push a special button in me, reminding me of D.C. in spring when my sister was falling in love there with the man she married. But I settled for 80.
Then I pushed my cart down different aisles, picking out the ingredients with which I’d make my crock-pot dinner Tuesday; I make dinner Tuesdays because Sue works late that night. I picked out four cans of beans—red kidney; black; great northern; and pinto—along with a green pepper, a zucchini, two cans of diced tomatoes, one can of tomato paste, and a head of garlic, as well as a dozen eggs and a bag of coffee beans. The eggs and coffee were not for my recipe; we just needed them. And we had the rest of the ingredients for my vegetarian chili already at home. We’re not vegetarians, but we try to eat healthy, at least most of the time.
When I got home, I found my 27-year old son, Jack, working on repairing our front porch. He’s a carpenter, and I was most grateful to find him doing this, which we’d been hoping he’d do for some time. Jack and I greeted, in the usual minimalist male fashion, while I went inside to put the daffodils in vases and unpack the rest of the groceries.
Trying to Write
Once all that was completed, I tried to sit down and write. I said “tried” because I couldn’t. I’m a pretty disciplined writer, a more-or-less believer in what Samuel Johnson said: “Any person can write if he will set himself to it doggedly enough.” But I wasn’t able to be dogged enough. The words just wouldn’t come. Even though I’d had a few ideas in church and had jotted them down, I just could not bring myself to sit down at my laptop and write.
It was that sadness I’d felt after church rushing in. Or maybe I was entering into the sadness. Either way, we met, and entwined. Not the way lovers entwine, more the way you entwine with a spell or a fever. It comes over you and try as you might, you can’t get rid of it.
I had to lie down. We have a large, comfortable couch in our living room, the upholstery rather torn up by the dogs we’ve had over the years, but to my eyes that only makes it more inviting. So the couch took me in and gave me a place to lie with my sadness.
I don’t know why I was sad.
I can always find reasons—I should lose weight, spend less money, finish my book, complete this project or that, or deeper reasons, like what have I not done that I ought to have done or what have I done that I ought not to have done, or the obvious reasons that come with being human and getting older, the death of friends and loved ones, the feelings of my own aging now that I am 70—but today no one reason stood out. The sadness just took me over without tentacles of reason.
I closed my eyes and hoped to sleep. No such luck. I thought of calling my best friends, but I didn’t want to burden them (the exact opposite of what I urge my patients to do; call your friends, I say; never worry alone). I let my mind wander, and simply let the sadness have its way, as I had no choice.
It was not the excruciating sadness of depression or suicidal despair. But neither was it fun. It was keeping me from doing work I needed to do. It was causing me to look bad in my own eyes. I should be able to shake this, I said to myself, as I lay there, unable to shake it.
Feeling the Sadness Subside
By the time Sue got home, I was back at my laptop, giving writing another try. But once again, I couldn’t do it. Sue said, “Honey, you’re probably just tired. Why don’t you take a rest?” This is one of the many reasons I love Sue. Always armed with sympathy and an apt solution. I tried to nap but I couldn’t sleep. However, lying on my bed, I felt the sadness begin to subside, like a fever breaking. I began to have ideas again as to what to write. I still didn’t feel like I could do the writing, but the confidence started to return that the time would come, before too long, when I would be able to do it.
Such is sadness for me. I enter it, or it overcomes me, fairly often. I am never far from it. Even when I am at my happiest—and I am in general a positive, upbeat man—I am also aware that sadness is usually just around the bend. Most of the time it does not prevent me from doing my work, as it did this afternoon. But when I do get working, the sadness subsides.
It’s not depression. But it’s more than “ordinary sadness,” or at least I think it is, based upon others’ accounts of ordinary sadness as well as my own experience of such sadness.
I write about it here in case any of you experience the same thing. My advice is see this sadness for what it is: a passing state of mind, a temporary fever. And to take Sue’s advice. Don’t fight it. Take a rest. And don’t mistake it for a permanent state.
After all, this is still Sunday, and here I am writing this piece. The sadness subsided enough for me to be able to write now. It is in the nature of moods: like the weather, they change.
If you’re sad, worried or not feeling quite right, remember to “Never Worry Alone” and read my blog post on “What To Do When You’re Not Having A Very Okay Day.”
If you feeling depressed, it’s important to remember that you are not alone! There is a tremendous community to support and help you. Below are a few links to Mental Health Resources, depending upon your needs:
- National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Families for Depression Awareness
- How Can The Hallowell Centers Help?
Dr. Hallowell on Attending A Teacher’s Service