How to Find the Light When Depression Makes Things Seem Their Darkest
They say it always seems darkest before the dawn. They do. They say that a lot. I heard it many times in my life. “Things look bad now, but remember…” And for years I just rolled my eyes. Cliches annoyed me. At some point in college, I took a course that changed my thinking on darkness and light and that old cliche. I’ll try to keep this as non-technical as possible, but it will be a bit of a science lesson (just a little) so bear with me.
Have you ever heard the phrase: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor take warning?” It is a reference to weather and forecasting. You see, due to some intelligent people figuring out things having to due to weather, air density and storm patterns, we now know that if the sunset is a reddish color, then usually the resulting weather pattern will be favorable to those on the seas, and vice-versa.
Quick science lesson: We see different colors in the sky because as the sun nears the horizon, the light is refracted at a different angle and that produces colorful sunsets. We usually see blue, but the hue changes as the light moves through the sky.
At our basic cores, humans are simply animals. Most animals, like humans, prefer the daytime for its safety. As the sun sets, we see things differently, don’t we? There are more shadows now. Less of our landscape is illuminated, leaving places for predators to hide. It is the same in our minds. Those living with mental illness like depression or anxiety or even mania can be clear-headed and see things just fine. As an event approaches in their mind… as an anxiety attack begins to build, they can feel it. Like a sunset, the darkness rises and things become a bit less clear. This can take days, hours or seconds, just like a sunset can seem to take a long time, or be over in a blink of an eye.
As the mental dusk sets in, we feel even more panic, don’t we? We know what’s coming. we don’t know how bad it will be, or how long it will last, but we know that feeling. The shadows grow and we have no place to hide. For me personally, that describes the start of an anxiety attack perfectly. I feel it coming but I have no control over it. Inevitably, the sun sets and it is dark all around. We are scared, anxious and surrounded by things in our own mind, waiting to attack us. Those thoughts that say exactly what we are afraid of: “You’ll never make it out of this one” “See this? This makes you less of a person.” “This is your weakness.” Attacks from all sides and we cannot see them coming. We try to focus on the little glimmers of hope to ground ourselves, much like a person lost in the woods or at sea focuses on the stars. Dots of hope. Reminders there is still light out there. They focus on the moon — a reminder the sun is still shining its light on the moon, and it will return to us.
Sometimes, it’s worse than that. The weather is cloudy. Stars and the moon are not visible. What then? When there is no light in the darkness — when those thoughts are so very overwhelming that all hope seems lost. That the only answer is to end it; end the suffering once and for all. Hang in there. There are always breaks in the clouds. Cracks in the armor of anxiety and depression. A glimmer of light always shines through. Maybe it’s a friend. Maybe it’s someone on the other end of the phone at a helpline. It’s always there.
Here is the part about the cliché I was talking about: as night nears its end, as the peak of the mental attack is at its worst, we find it the hardest to see the light. Why is that? Stars are only visible at night. The moon is only its brightest when it’s dark out. Why is that? Because as the sun begins to approach the horizon again, even before we see it, the light is starting to shine into the upper atmosphere, drowning out the light of the stars.
See, their job is done. They’ve shone through the night, and now that they see the sun, their time to rest is here. The problem is, we don’t see the sun yet. All we see, from our point at rock bottom, is that the stars have gone out. It is now the darkest it has been. We feel the most vulnerable. It’s the same in our minds. As we begin to sink into that pattern of despair, as the attack reaches its pinnacle, we no longer see the light. I know that’s how it was for me. At my worst, when my life felt like a ruined city, my mind was in pieces and I simply wanted to die, I could no longer see hope. No light at the end of the road for me. I wanted to die. I was through living. I was actually convinced my kids would be better off without a depressed, angry, alcoholic father. That part was true. They would be better with a father who was willing to live. Who was willing to try. To fight every day to live. I was over that.
That is when I was taken to a room. A co-worker took me to an empty exam room and sat with me, talked with me. She actually sat with me and said something that was one little spark of light in my darkest time. She told me it was OK that I was hurting. It was OK that I didn’t want to work in family practice anymore because I couldn’t bear to hear the babies cry when I gave them immunizations. It meant I had a heart, that I cared. She talked me down from that place. I saw the light begin to creep in. It was dim, but there. I decided that night that I wanted to fight. I wanted to continue to live. So I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital. I knew I needed help. My dawn was approaching but it was not there yet. It was a very hard week.
I know there are people who are at that point. The dark valley. Even worse, a pit of despair. They cannot see the stars anymore. They cannot see the light, see the hope. That is what I mean. That is what the saying means. It is the darkest right before dawn. When all hope seems lost, and giving up seems like the only option, that is when the answer, the calm, the light is just over the horizon.
Sometimes, we can’t wait though, can we? The battle is too long, the enemy too tough and the night too dark. So suicide is chosen. That is not cowardice. Many will say “suicide is the coward’s way out,” but they are wrong. It is not cowardice. It is despair. It is a battle that has gone on too long and the warrior has lost. It is an enemy that takes the life of someone who has been fighting their whole life.
That is where we come in. Those of us that have seen a glimmer of light return. Those of us that have walked through that valley and seen the light in the distance.
Have you ever seen “The Lord Of The Rings?” Remember when they lit the beacon of Gondor but it couldn’t reach over the mountain? They lit one beacon. One single light. And in response, another was lit, and another. One light inspired another until the light reached its destination and ultimately help came. We who have survived until now are the lights of hope for those still fighting. And as one of us falls under attack, we are the lights to bring them back to the army. The darkness may seem lonely, but you will see there are many around you, once the light shines. We are the stars when the stars go out. We are the beacons of hope when all seems lost. This family of fighters. The beacons of light in the darkness.
So remember: It is always darkest before the dawn, but there is always a dawn. Always. We will always be the stars for each other. Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash