In Naomi Judd’s 1993 book Love Can Build a Bridge, she wrote about “vanishing silently into the darkness.” I thought about that line this morning when I read about her death. Her daughters were careful and respectful in their statement, saying that they lost their mother to the disease of mental illness. And they were achingly honest in saying that they are in unknown territory. 

Grief usually feels like unknown territory, no matter how often you have been through it. By contrast, depression feels frighteningly familiar for the person held hostage by it. I have waded through that darkness, I have felt like I would vanish silently into it, and I know how easily it can feel like home. 

 In 1994, I fled California and an abusive relationship, landing in New York where I knew no one. I had lost almost everything by moving when I did – my house, my sense of security, the proximity of friends. I was making one mistake after another, and I didn’t want to go on. I felt darkness fold itself around me, just as it had years earlier when I was 19 and sat in a bathroom with a razor blade at my wrist. I knew this darkness. I knew that no one could penetrate it no matter how hard they tried. Depression is a fortress and the people who try and scale the walls to help the person inside that fortress usually find themselves slipping down, unable to get over. For me, an unlikely thing catapulted me out – my father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It could have been the final wound that pushed me over the edge but instead it jarred me to my core. It was bigger than my despair, and I wanted to be there and see my father through his final journey. I can’t fully explain why it worked that way, I can only tell you that it did.

And I can tell you that, for those left behind after losing a loved one to what Ashley and Winona Judd called “the disease of mental illness,” the thoughts of guilt that will probably chase you down are thoughts that need to be banished. You are no match for the power of depression, you never were. It’s a country that claims its citizens and holds them prisoner. Its boundaries can be impenetrable – not always, but most of the time. I’m not suggesting that loved ones shouldn’t try to help, I’m just pointing out that unless the person who is folded up in darkness wants to leave and reaches for a way out, you will find yourself staring up at walls you can’t scale. 

 Mental illness doesn’t only affect the person who has it, it has a ripple effect on family members, friends, spouses, partners. Sometimes the best we can do is accept that there are times when darkness wins, and our consolation has to come from the hours and days when, for a short time, light got in and the person we loved grabbed onto it. Those are the memories that endure – the times when there was hope, when healing seemed within reach, and love overtook fear.


  1. My1stGradeTeacher says:

    The more Patti writes, the more she reveals her true genuine self<3

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