Beyond Beige

Surviving a Battle with Severe Depression

Martha Manning

Job has got to be, in the words of singer-songwriter Sting, the ultimate “king of pain.” I have a little copy of The Book of Job, with sections underlined in different shades of ink, depending on the profound suffering he describes. Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, declares that it contains one of the “greatest and most terse expressions of despair and soul weariness we have.”

Job may have been the first to so clearly articulate the fundamental lament of human suffering: “WHY?” Why have God and Satan colluded in a bet to find a “perfect and upright” man who will keep the faith despite every lousy thing they do to him, including slaughtering all his animals, then his 10 children, then covering him with boils, and throwing him into a heap of ashes. The one thing they leave him with, for a while, is a less than supportive wife, who advises him, “Curse God and die.”

Overwhelmed by his ruin, he cries, “I am afraid of all my sorrows.” Those sorrows take form in powerful words that are both extraordinarily raw and current, a scriptural gift for generations whose suffering is abandoned by the very language that could help at least to define it.

When Job comes to “complain in the bitterness” of his soul, he graphically describes the pain itself, the confusion about why it’s happening, and the isolation it’s caused him. But most of all, he shares his absolute horror at himself. Anyone who’s suffered a severe depression can summon a resonance to the futility in trying to solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which he finds himself. Everything he once knew is wrong. The man who felt satisfied with his life never knew it could be so impermanent, so cruel, so impossible to bear: “When I say, My bed shall comfort me, . . . then thou scarest me with dreams and terrifiest me through visions: so that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life.”

Because I know that severe depression frequently recurs, I keep Job close. In the indignity that comes with suffering, the loss of myself and my words, Job is my guide. In paralyzing sorrow, he’ll always be my guy. I just have to keep finding pens in different colors.

The Body’s Betrayal

Depression hits you where you live, annihilating even the basic functions, and graduating to the most complex. Sleeping and eating are early casualties. You feel like you’re inhabiting another person’s skin. Your energy is scarce and compromised. Anxiety—depression’s best friend—may spill over into an almost unbearable agitation. Your eyes are dull, your muscles go slack, and your face holds a gray pallor. Not only must you battle depression, you must cope with the reinforcements called in to fix it. Just like chemotherapy, ECT and other treatments, which can help, can also hurt in their quest to heal.

At its worst, depression extinguishes the pilot light, depriving you of the substrate that makes you feel real. That light is the essence of being awake and alive. More than one writer has asserted that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness: it’s vitality. Vitality is what lets us want to move and be, to reach, to initiate, to react. It greases the wheels of motion, allowing us to be energized and able to protect ourselves if necessary.

Depression can make reconciling the extremes in our behavior difficult. We’re exhausted, but can’t stop moving. We’re calorie deficient, but unable to bear food. We’re fatigued, but can’t sleep. Our minds race and then shut down. These dichotomies confound both sufferer and healer.

As we feel the loss of vitality, a growing dread suggests that without it, we’re nowhere. A friend I made in the hospital suffered cruelly from the double whammy of AIDS and depression. His recognition of that fact was obvious as we lined up for “vital signs,” or as I called them, “signs of life.” When the student nurse lifted his arm to take his pulse, he waved her away, saying, “Oh, don’t bother, honey. I don’t have one.”

Sleep is mentioned often as the area in which sufferers began to sense trouble. Depression betrays the popular belief in sleep as an escape or respite. I envied the guy next door to me in the hospital who slept 23 hours a day. Whether it comes fitfully, or not all, most sufferers find themselves in a constant state of hangover, with the increasing fear of the night when it’s daytime and the morning when it’s night.

Life on an inpatient unit is remarkable just for the fact that so many depressed people are together. In the night when sleep eluded us, we silently did laps around the hall, eerily muted by blue floor light. In our robes and hospital socks, we were ghosts, haunting the place for the prize of well-being.

Waking up meant confronting again and again the fact that you are just where you were when you closed your eyes: in hell. It’s that slow-dawning realization that brings another kind of morning sickness, which for me always began with the lament, “Oh God, I’m still here.” Sometimes I stayed awake all night just to avoid the torture of waking up.

Beyond Beige

I’ve had several therapists who’ve helped me save my life through a number of self-smashing depressions. One of the ironies of surviving a bad episode is that you’re often the last to know that you’re doing better. Sufferers see their progress slowly, but maintain the fear that it will evaporate if they even sneeze wrong.

I began with my current therapist just as I was crawling out of the horrendous year that was my last bad episode. One afternoon, I walked into her office and the first thing I noticed was the color of her clothes. Putting aside my reticence about making inconsequential remarks about someone’s looks, particularly a therapist, I blurted out, “You look really cool.” This from a woman whose clothes preferences had always been divided into tan and black. The tans went in one pile and the blacks, the other. One tan went with another tan, even when it really didn’t. The blacks went with the blacks. Sometimes a tan went with a black, but rarely. I might start the day courageously by putting something on from one pile or the other, after which I often slept in them, and sometimes even wore them for another day. I doubt that this was ever wasted on her.

She named the colors of her clothes. Fuchsia. Turquoise. Chartreuse. I was fascinated. Then she looked me up and down and said kindly but confidently, “You know, Martha, beige isn’t really your color.” My first response was to figure out how offended I should be. But I wasn’t. I was cast back for a moment into the real world, a world where women talk to each other about clothes. Her remarks stayed with me for days. And they bordered on making me happy, as I considered a new wardrobe.

It wasn’t just my ugly, faded clothes I started feeling free of. I wasn’t condemned to an ugly beige life either. Maybe she’d just made a throwaway comment. But maybe it was some unconscious alchemy, where some of the greatest truths are told. Betting on alchemy, I ventured forth.


This blog is excerpted from the article, "A Journey Through Fire," by Martha Manning. The full version is available in the July/August 2018 issue, "When Depression Comes Back: Going Beyond the Limits of Therapy."

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Illustration © Roy Scott

Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: anxiety and depression | chronic depression | clinical depression | coping with depression | cures for depression | curing depression | dealing with depression | Depression & Grief | depression and anxiety | depression symptoms | help for depression | hospital | Hospitalization | Hospitals | overcoming depression | severe depression | suicidal | suicide | Suicides & suicide attempts

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