Why I Walk (the deep dark)

Every year, my family participates in a walk in downtown Chicago, on the banks of Lake Michigan, along with hundreds of other survivors of suicide. It’s sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and is called “Out of the Darkness.” We walk for Caity of course, my beloved sister who took her own life over four years ago now. We also walk for my cousin Jena, who suffered for years from manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder) and died by suicide, as well as my dad’s cousin David. We walk as survivors—those who have been through hell and come out the other side, even if sometimes we still slip into its grasp with our guilt, anger and what ifs.

As with all things, it is a both/and, an all-in. We honor survival, we look death in the face, and we celebrate life. Celebrating Caity’s life means burst of rainbow color, “Love like Cait” signs everywhere and lots of joy. Arms around each other, signs held high, we walk those miles because we must. We must embody the hope that one day, fewer will die in this way. We must DO something. We do it together, knowing we are not alone. We remember her, remember them, in every way and any way possible. We are, like her, rainbow warriors of the light.

For me, while I walk for Caity, I also walk for so many more, and I walk for myself. Before Caity slipped into her first deep bout with depression, we joked that she never had a down moment in her life. I remember being a little girl, pensive and worrisome that I was, wanting so badly to help and comfort my baby sister in any way that I could. When she was little, and our bedroom walls adjoining, I would tell her, “Cait, if you ever need anything… especially at night, if you’re scared or if you can’t sleep, just knock on my wall and I’ll be right in.” As someone who was often so filled with thoughts and worries I found it hard to sleep as a child, this made perfect sense to me and would have been what I wanted. She just looked at me with a smile asking, “Er, why would I feel sad?” She would knock on my wall anyway, knock-knock-kn-knock-knock, and I would respond, knock-knock, and head over, just so we could cuddle and talk into the night.

The deep dark has always been present for me, something I have always been on guard against. I am always aware of the moments it will arise, and am fiercely committed to the sleep, exercise, prayer and good food I need to keep it at bay. I have become conscious of my nervous system, my stress levels and have clung to spirituality as a means of survival. Meditation has saved my mind multiple times, as have good friends and vigilant community. I know its shape, that deep dark, its compulsions, its favorite times to visit (early morning, late at night). When I first started going to therapy after Caity died, I jokingly asked my therapist if she could give me a “diagnosis” since we both knew I was just there for grief and that wasn’t really a diagnosis, right? She looked at me, smiled kindly and said, “Erin, I don’t need to make anything up. It’s pretty clear you’ve had depression most of your life.” Oh. She described it like an armor over my heart, my emotions, that with time and love and more therapy, would slowly crack and then crumble so that I might live free. Oh. Suddenly, so much of my own journey made sense. I wasn’t just serious or melancholic or overly spiritual—something in me leaned toward the deep dark. Something that could be healed.

In my life of relating to others and my work in ministry I have come to know that so many of us lean toward the deep dark, or maybe it leans toward us. We can’t help it. It just happens. It is simply there, arising out of nowhere and because of nothing we have or haven’t done. Some of us carry a burden so heavy it seems like we will never crawl out from under it. Some of us decide the pain is too great. And some of us keep struggling every day, to go to work, to feed the kids, to finish school, to pay the bills, to believe in something, anything beyond this dark. We put one foot in front of the other, do one thing at a time, because it’s all we have energy for. Some of us surrender softly to its waves, some of us fight like warriors just to get out of bed. For some, it is a physical surging of energy trailed by a death-like stillness. For some it is pure lethargy. For others it is the constant negative self-talk, the vicious claws of hate and betrayal or the more subtle persistence of self-doubt. Its colors range from gray to blue to black, sometimes jolted by a peek of light, which can make it worse because then we know that something, something else is out there. Why can’t I reach it? For many, like me, the deep dark has simply always been there, coiled on the edges of existence. Coping mechanisms have become like breathing, ever-vigilant sentinels against the night. For others, like Cait, the deep dark shows its face suddenly, shockingly, bringing an unbearable suffocation, and leaving a chaos of trauma in its wake.

In a tremendous way, every year I walk for all of these—the ones living with mental illness, with depression, with anxiety, with diagnosed and undiagnosed deep dark. Those who work so hard every day to live, to be themselves, to believe in life and to choose love. I feel you, I love you. You are a warrior, in all the forms that shows up. I honor you and each moment of your surviving. I walk for you, for me, for glimpses of hope and moments of resurrection.

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