During Your Depression: A Letter To My Grandfather

During Your Depression: A Letter To My Grandfather by James Russell Lingerfelt


Dear Grandfather,

“As a man thinks, so is he.” Those were the words you spoke to Wayne and I as long as I can remember. You told us we are what we think. “Be careful,” you’d say.

“Be careful little ears what you hear, little eyes what you see, little mouth what you speak,” for you said we are a sum of our experiences and reactions.

Did you know that you were the first who taught me how to be a man? One of your earliest teachings occurred while I was riding my bicycle for the first time.

I wrecked on the gravel driveway, bloodying my hands and knees. You and Dad both consoled me as I wondered if I should ever ride again.

You said, “Get up, son. Get up. Because you’re not gonna get anywhere laying down.”

You lived in Tennessee through the aftermath of the Great Depression and you saw people at the lowest point in their life. Their lowest thoughts and the lies they told themselves: “I’m not good enough. I failed. Something’s wrong with me.”

You were a hero to them. You had no money to give or more jobs to provide, but they knew they could come to your home, sit in the rocking chairs you built, be gifted a Mason jar of sweet tea, a slice of pecan pie, and there they found a listening and compassionate ear.

Your ears were quick to hear, your mouth was slow to speak, and your conclusions at the end were to remind them, “I understand. You’re not alone.

You love people and they love you. You have a purpose. God is for you, not against you. And your pain reverberates in the depths of His being.”

You enjoyed your walks through the countryside on the farm, morning coffee while reading over the newspaper, refilling the hummingbird feeders, setting out food scraps for the crows, weeding the flower gardens Grandmother built, feeding the horses, and enjoying visits from neighbors, your brothers and sisters, your children and grandchildren.

When Grandmother passed away, it wasn’t long before skin cancer was removed from your neck. Then, you lived through another surgery on your prostate. You remarked to me in passing, with disgust and disappointment, that your body was falling apart.

And you had trouble sleeping at night. You slept only three to four hours every night for the last three years when you before you averaged six to eight. You tried napping in the afternoons but your body could never allow your heart and mind to slow down.

The farm became too much for you. So, you sold the horses, you turned the newspaper over to your nephew, and you retired. Your grandchildren ran off to college and your children coped with their own life adjustments. And the gardens withered away.

Because of all these life changes, you began to dwell on your losses, and due to sleep depravation and aging, the hormones in your brain became unbalanced. For you, as for others, after a prolonged state, those imbalances locked and became the new normal.

You fell into clinical depression. For some, that imbalance is hereditary. For others, it’s due to dwelling on negative thoughts following trauma. I think a bit of both played its part in your life.

The hormones:
1. Serotonin (regulates mood, sleep, appetite, learning, and memory)
2. Dopamine (effects cognition, guilt, motivation, attention, mood, sleep, voluntary movement, learning, and working memory)
3. Norepinephrine (effects blood pressure and cardiac functions)

This is no different than getting adult onset diabetes or high blood pressure. This is an illness, not a personality or character defect.

The doctor said if you had remained in your state only a few more days, you would now be needing around-the-clock-care. We caught you just in time. But you, the man and leader, had become scared, weak, and vulnerable in every way possible.

So we were left puzzled as what to do until the doctor informed us of Depression. Suddenly, we possessed an understanding and a willingness to be patient, and the understanding to show you immense love.

We gathered to echo the words which you so often spoke to us: “Get up, Grandfather. Get up. Because you’re not gonna get anywhere laying down.”

Part 2
During the beginning of your depression, you were vulnerable and laid bare. All pride and ego was gone. You were like a scared child again.

You rose from the bed on your own, you showered, shaved, and brushed your teeth. But you shut all the doors and blinds, living in darkness.

You said the light hurt your eyes. You spoke all your thoughts. And we learned things about you which you had never revealed to us.

You wanted to hear no bad news or negativity, though your mind dwelt on the negative at all times. You trusted no one outside the immediate family. And in your worst state, you questioned whether or not you could trust your closest loved ones.

When you weren’t looking, Wayne and I both cried. You weren’t losing your mind, we knew. But we grieved over your state, your pain, how the man we once knew as strong and confident was now paranoid, frail, and jumpy.

You turned into an elderly man overnight.

We turned off all electronics in your home. No more television or phones. The noises and screens “made you nervous” you said. The information emitted was just “too much.”

Instead of pictures on the screen, you saw jumbled images. And at times, just a black hole in the screen’s center. Once we understood the role that three hormones played, the doctor said you needed:
1. Sleep
2. To be fed good tasting and nutritious food
3. To dwell on the positive
4. To be loved
5. To laugh

The doctor prescribed you sleeping pills, anti-depressant, and anti-anxiety medicine. She said the medicine would take a few weeks to build. Only then would we begin to see positive results. So your children and grandchildren swooped in. We made sure one of us was always with you. We even took turns at night sleeping in a bed adjacent to your own. That’s how loved you are.

Food abounded. Everyone in our family wrote you a love letter, sharing stories of times from their own depression, so that you would know that you’re not alone. They recalled how they overcame their dark times, why they’re glad they struggled through it and overcame.

Barbara recalled outdoor Sunday lunches during the summertime when your own mother was still alive. How the tables were strewn with bedsheets. Your mother didn’t believe in purchasing tablecloths when bedsheets would do just fine. The crisp, fresh, clean, pink and white rose printed sheets, waved and popped.

The table was laden with green bean and potato casserole, hams, and fried chicken. The tomatoes, squash, zucchini, okra, radishes, peas, and corn, were all grown in the garden in your backyard. The last table was adorned with Barbara’s cakes she made from scratch for parties and weddings.

Then there was watermelon, sweet potato pie, pecan pies, and sweet tea. No one wanted unsweet tea. However, knock-off soda products were available by request.

The scents of sugar brought in hungry bees. A niece swatted at one after it landed on the sweet potato pie. Aunt Jean said, “Don’t, hon’. The bee won’t take much.” Hummingbirds skittered, zipping in and out, curious and thirsty, but with all the people’s commotions, they settled for the sugar water you had already provided in the red hummingbird feeders.

All the men hung one leg over the other, the end of their gray and tan slacks exposing their black socks with brown loafers. Dad wore pennies in his, having grown up in the 50s. Toothpicks dangled from their mouths as they talked about the high school basketball team and the rivalry football games between Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia.

You talked about your sister’s family who we don’t see much because they live in south Tennessee. They had a nephew, Elton Caston, who moved to Alaska and never came back again. A World War II veteran turned mountain man who was hired to lay the path for the Alaskan pipeline. All the locals on the Kenai Peninsula knew him.

His hobby was dog-sled racing. To prepare himself for an upcoming race, since those races could go on for days, he would spend his nights sleeping in the snow by a firepit in his backyard, beside the dogs. To toughen him up. He bred Siberian wolves with huskies. He discovered through trial and error that such a mix built the best dog sled team.

Elton grew his hair out, wore a cowboy hat, and on his belt he sported a set of matching pearl handled revolvers.

When he was hired to lay out the path for the pipeline, he needed a man to go with him. So, he placed an ad in the paper saying he was looking to hire the “meanest, toughest son-of-a-bitch this side of Alaska.”

Only one man agreed to take the mission with him. Before they set out, Elton told him, “If we get up there and you get cold and tired and try to leave, I’ll dot your eye.” Meaning he’d shoot him. According to the story, that hired man tried to do that very thing. But Elton reminded him about the dotted eye, and that man decided to stick it out.

Sometime later, one of his rifle came up missing from Elton’s property in Soldotna. There, the main house and every barn and shed contained a rifle. In case a grizzly decided to corner its human prey. So Elton left a note in the bar, on the wall, that if the rifle wasn’t returned by the end of the week, he would find out who stole it, and “dot his eye.”

And so Elton returned home one day and the rifle was back in it’s place. But not long after, he fired up his gas stove and it exploded on him. He died from the wounds. Foul play suspected. That was the story you heard about Elton, Grandpa, when you went to his funeral in Kenai. You brought home one of Elton’s leather coats.

The coat looked liked something you’d purchase as a souvenir at a tourist trap in the mid-west or in a Davy Crockett film. Tanned leather. Fringes down the arms. But it was authentic. And old. But Elton had truly worn it.

You stared off. Your mind explored and digested thoughts that were too traumatic, heavy, and rushed, experiences that you weren’t able to handle the first time around. We reminded you to dwell on the positive and we shared funny and warm stories from the past.

And you smiled. But as soon as our attention wained, you retreated back into the dark recesses of your mind. You stared off into nothingness again and groaned.

As boys, you told Wayne and I to direct our thoughts inward, and there we would discover a thousand regions left unexplored. But now, you have done the same, but seem the need to revisit dark places, which you left untouched and unexplored for far too long.

We all wrote down three things were thankful for that day. And every day, we repeated, until you had a small book of loved one’s blessings to go back and read over and over. All positive thoughts your loved ones experienced in this life.

All to remind you of the beauties in the world: The love of our family, the love of God, our morals, our good health we still have, our hometown and farm, our family values, that we were able to attend college, pay our bills, the ability to retire, seeing our children grow into adults, our parents who were good examples, that we’ve never starved or didn’t have a place to sleep at night. And the list went on and on.

Family members enjoyed the project. “What a wonderful idea,” one relative said to me. “This has actually helped us all. It makes me realize all the things I’m thankful for. I’m in a better mood now.” Your experience with darkness has shown all those who love and care about you.

For they came to your rescue. To live life with you. To ask what they could do personally to help. Not only has it brought us closer together as a family, but the exercises have made us all realize what is important to us in our lives, and where our priorities lie. Even in your dark times, you still change lives.

Part 3
As weeks passed, you slowly began returning to us in full attention. You became more cognitive and held longer conversations. The doctor said what you needed now is laughter. So we recounted stories from the past, to help you remember the good ol’ days.

You grew up at the end of the dirt road, surrounded by cotton and pepper fields. Lawrence said as boys you played “Cowboys and Indians.”

Your weapons were slingshots. Your horses were get-a-ways, and when hiding in the woods, you covered their mouths with handkerchiefs to keep them from nickering at each other.

In the corn cob wars, Ben, “a little feller at that time,” stood in the hay loft of that two-story old red barn. Johnny threw a corn cob and hit poor ol’ Ben square between the eyes. Dizzy, he fell and landed in stacked hay rather than the wagon-beaten ground.

He sprung his arm and had to keep it in a sling for two weeks.

They said at eight years old, cowboys would bring wild horses and ponies to you because you knew how to break them. Given your small body, the horses couldn’t rub you off against tree shafts or knock you off under the limbs. One horse even reared on its hind legs, purposefully falling back to squash you on the ground.

So you threw yourself off, and after the horse squirmed and rolled and caught footing, you leaped “right onto his back, hung on like a wild Comanche” and proceeded to “wear him out with that switch, because you had to show him who’s boss.”

The Tennessee homes on the countryside were built so the kitchen laid apart from the house, separated by an open hall, to keep the heat out in the summer. That horse shot up onto your neighbor’s porch, thundered through that hallway, and the Mrs. stepped out of the kitchen with a bin full of dirty dishwater, screamed, “Oh Lord!” and fell backwards, dumping the water on herself.

Horses would even dip down into ponds to get you off them. But your friends pelt them with rocks. When the horses burst out of the pond, you still rode them, whipping them to show them Man was their boss and they better mind. “James knew how to break horses,” they said, laughing. Apparently, by the time you were twelve, farmers and ranchers from Georgia to Texas were bringing their horses to you.

Then I heard you chuckle for the first time since you fell into your depression.

As a boy, you aspired to be an architect. But those dreams never were realized because you decided to get married, have children, and choose a minimum wage job at the paper. Little did anyone know, you would become senior editor and later buy that paper. All without a college education. You even gave lectures in Journalism classes at Vanderbilt and Lipscomb universities.

The doctor said that you needed to find an artistic expression from your past. Photography? Painting? Drawing? You chose drawing. You drew the horses you loved as a child. And pastures, creeks, and streams, birds and squirrels. Creating art uses both the emotional and the logical side of the brain. The two sides talk to each other.

And that was a problem of yours. Remember? In depression, when the emotional side of the brain gets excited, it flares, heats up, and overpowers logic. This explains why people can explode, commit horrendous acts while irate, and feel remorse once the emotions settle.

But for you, fear clouded your logic. You saw enemies everywhere. Your mind even revisited your past and reinterpreted events, convincing yourself that an enemy pursued you. Fear prevailed and you sought reasons to justify your fear. You said you were just listening to your instincts, your gut feelings. But with the hormonal imbalances, those instincts and gut feelings were undependable.

Paranoia set in. You perceived reality through an alternate state. None of us could convince you otherwise. What’s the point in being logical with an illogical mind? You sought to prove us wrong when we argued, to defend your perception of reality. So we hushed to keep your anxiety levels down.

I prayed with you every night. And you kissed my cheek, something you haven’t done since I was a child. And you’ve been thanking me daily for being here. You said something yesterday that disturbed me. That you didn’t want to be a burden on the family. You apologized again today.

But let me ask you, if I was sick and in bed, or if the situation was reverse, would you feel I was a burden? No. Burdensome feelings would be the last thought in your head. You would be worried and concerned about me. So it is with myself and the rest of your loved ones.

Don’t give up, Grandpa. Please don’t give up. Keep getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other. Time will heal. As you once said to me, “The sun will shine again.”

Part 4
My fondest memories of growing up was when we bought that house just across the road from you, and spent our summers there. On the weekends, Dad made Wayne and I mow and weed-eat your grass. Following, Dad would present watermelons from the farmer’s market and Grandmother brewed Luzianne sweet tea for everyone.

Dad invited all of your sons and daughters to join us, his brothers and sisters, who never left town, who all had found clerk and desk and teaching jobs in order to be near one another.

Once we ate, drank, and we kids spit the watermelon seeds at each other, adult talk began, so I would wander away and lay my eleven year old body under the maple trees, whose leaves turned into a sugary yellow and fiery red in the autumn.

I would stare up through the limbs and into the animal clouds, and I imagined being an adult at nineteen years old with a backpack, traveling the world with a best friend, and “being nice to people.”

And I did just that. I traveled through eighteen countries before my thirty-first birthday.

You said you were proud of me in your kitchen, that summer I spent with you because I was burned out on my career. And having trouble processing what I had encountered in the third world countries. You said I had turned into a fine young man. That I was a leader. You don’t know this, but I needed to hear that from you.

Every young man needs a wise, loving, trusted elder, to look him in the eye and say, “You have what it takes. You’re on a good path. I wouldn’t change a thing about you. You’re respected. You’re loved. I’m proud of you.” But you had always taught us to, “Seek first to understand before being understood.” And Wayne and I have tried to apply that throughout our lives.

During the darkest times of your depression, you leaned heavily on your faith. And a love-hate relationship revealed itself. You said that on one of those nights, you were laying in bed, encountering another sleepless night. You sat up, burst into tears and told God, “I just don’t trust You anymore. How can I trust You if you’re going to treat me like this?”

And in faith, in the depths of your being, unintimidated by your anger and pain, and like a wise grandfather, you heard Him say to you, “It’s okay, James. It’s okay. When the fog clears you’ll realize I was with you the entire time. And I’ve always been with you.”

One of my favorite memories of you is like a video reel that replays in my mind when I return to nostalgia. You’re wearing your sun hat, sitting in a wooden weaved chair under your favorite weeping willow tree that overlooks the pond. Under it, I find you reading different the Romantic and Victorian poets. CS Lewis. Tolkien. Thoreau. Aristotle. The Hebrew and Christian Bible.

The frogs croak, the crickets chirp, the locusts tweed. And at the breaking of a single blade of grass, the anthem ceases, and the frogs hop into the water with a thud. Water bugs skate across its waters. Long winged insects hover and bounce above the waters. Fish roll, disturbing the muddled surface.

I remember walking up to you once. You smiled and patted my leg and your eyes reverted back to your pages. We saw each other daily. And you were well aware of my short attention span given the surroundings of the countryside left unexplored.

I squatted near the frisbee sized mushrooms with their smaller growths sprouting out beside them. I searched beneath their tops for toads, not because toads hung out beneath mushrooms, but because I had seen too many cartoons that suggested they did.

At night time, you watched us from your porch as we boys waited for the lightning bugs to come out at dusk. They hung in the air, dipping and flashing. And we boys tried to catch as many as possible in those old pickle jars you kept in the utility room. But once captured, the lightning bugs wouldn’t flash their light. I guess, when trapped, their light dies out.

And so, I recall these little stories, these flashes of memories, and I read to you every night. You no longer stare off and mumble. You hold lengthy conversations now and are open to receiving visitors, who once before you would have held in suspicion.

Two weeks ago, Dad gave you a pair of five pound dumbbells and you’d walk in circles in the living room doing shoulder presses, bicep curls, side laterals. You weren’t ready to spend most of your time outside, like you always have, but you knew you needed exercise. You said you could “feel your core healing.” The rest will just take time. That’s the thing about time. We cannot control time’s time table. Time just takes it’s time.

You’ll now go for two or three short walks a day outside, but not for long periods. You get nervous and retreat back into the house where it’s safe. You’ve made significant progress in just these four weeks. The doctor said it’ll take you at least two months before you’ll be back to your normal self. Even then, she said she wants you to take the medication for a full year. We won’t argue with her.

We went for a two hour drive across the countryside yesterday. You said you wanted to see the autumn leaves change. And so we did. And as you pointed at landmarks and recalled memories from your childhood and stories passed onto you from others, you smiled. And you thanked me for driving you.

One of my friends, Ronnie, who went through clinical depression at age thirty-seven, he said it took him four to six weeks to get through it. I asked him to write you a note of encouragement. And he said, “James, you will know when you get your relief. You will feel like your life was handed back to you.

In the meantime, having the family support of your close ones should be cherished, take time to rest, catch up on non-professional passions or hobbies you may have neglected due to your responsibilities in life, and take some time to enjoy the changing leaves. You’ve earned it.”

As I reflect on all that has occurred, I wish to remind you, to speak into your own life, the words which were spoken by Someone all those years ago: “It’s okay, James. It’s okay. When the fog clears, you’ll realize I was with you the entire time. And I’ve always been with you.”

And I’m thankful the sun is shining again.

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Did you like this article? Make sure to check out The Mason Jar, a coming of age love story from the male perspective by James Russell Lingerfelt. The novel helps readers find healing after severed relationships.

The Mason Jar movie is scheduled for pre-production in 2015 and will be directed in the same dramatic and romantic tones as The Notebook (2004) and Pride & Prejudice (2005). Follow him on FacebookPinterestYouTube, Google+  or Twitter or subscribe to his email list for updates.

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