“I struggle to find light,” Tamara says from her blue recliner throne. It’s day two of our self-made creatives’ retreat, and our intimate group of photographers and painters and musicians and writers is sprawled across the great room in various states of dress, one-by-one sharing stories of struggle and success. I memorize the beautiful, open faces around me, the bodies folded around coffee mugs and champagne glasses, fingers twirling pens and massaging keyboards. And I think, “I’m so fucking glad to be alive.”
In the fall after I turned 19, I swallowed 200 anti-depressants, laid down on my bed, and waited to die.
I didn’t want to die. I wanted to stop feeling, and I wanted to stop hurting. I’ve heard people say that suicide is selfish, but it felt explicitly unselfish to remove my broken, miserable self from the world. I was doing everyone a favor.
There are abuses and violations that leave their mark long after science will say you’ve healed. But more painful than the past was the very present certainty that I was all alone. I was unworthy. And I could not – should not – be seen.
Obviously I didn’t die. Visions of my mom’s face and my dad’s laughter lured me, dizzy and hallucinating, out of my bed and into the nearest hospital. (I don’t remember driving there.) Phantoms of my brother and sisters navigated me through the numbness and the allover ache. I would stay alive just one more day. And then one more. And one more after that. It was my cat who got me out of bed those mornings, and cried to sleep with me at night.
I zombie-walked through the next two years, drinking too much, sleeping too late, in and out of destructive relationships, caring little for my own safety or health or comfort.
It was at the ocean in 2002 when, for the first time in too long, I felt the sun come out. It was like a sliver of heaven broke off and pierced my heart. I thought then that maybe I would be okay.
Almost 13 years later, I’m at the ocean again, gathered with this community of women to find inspiration, to find connection, to find light.
For a photographer, the struggle for light is literal and unironic. We are Einstein’s proverbial light monkeys, simultaneously chasing exposure and inspiration – the light that is seen and the light that is unseen, both vital, both consuming.
I wouldn’t describe myself as depressed any longer. But depression still has its roots in my head and in my heart. They’re not as deep as they once were, or as strong. I like to think I’m killing them with endorphins. It seems right that I would shrivel them with love and laughter and sea air and sand in the crevices of my heels. It is fitting that I rip them out, one by one, over and over if need be, with hands made strong from holding a camera, with fingernails stained by ink, with teeth worn sharp from talking, talking, talking – all the talking I never did before, but so desperately needed.
If I have found any comfort, it is that my artist’s soul is equipped to tell my story. It is that, for every one hundred of you who do not understand, there will be one who understands all too well, who has walked this road, who has crumpled beneath the weight of the world’s cruelty and your own weariness of it.
You are not alone. We are not alone. And there is the magic I overlooked those many years ago, in the dark, with my plastic bottle of death and my soul cowering in a corner. I was never alone. And the tools to find my kindreds were at my disposal all along.
So I pick up my camera; this is my story.
I pick up my pen; this is my truth.
Pick up your running shoes, your paint brush, your guitar, your pastry cutter, your knitting needles, your chisel. If we artists are prone to melancholy, we are also prone to miracles. We may sway toward darkness, but on the opposite end of the pendulum’s arc there is light.
The next time I lay down to die, I hope to be an old woman, with deeply-etched laugh lines and gnarled knuckles from gripping my camera too fervently, my pen too fondly.
Because it won’t be tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.
I still have so much light to find.