But depression does not recede with the ministering of kind words from a friend. Joe’s words had been a balm, and the pain stopped smarting enough that I could continue.
But looking back, I do think depression persisted in a milder form for years—largely because of my parents’ ongoing abuse. I made poor decisions that cannot simply be explained away by the inexperience of youth. I truly believed my options were few, that my capacities were limited. The myths about failure and poverty that my parents had planted inside me began to sprout into truth. I still had no thought for my future, beyond eventual escape from my abusers.
Nevertheless, Joe M. had helped me stop thinking of myself as an unworthy person who deserved to die. That was the first step. The next step was to no longer look upon myself with disgust, to stop seeing depression as weakness rather than as an inevitable response to trauma and to a wish for the world to be other than it is.
* * *
Roughly 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama was born in what is today Nepal. Because the earliest Buddhists emphasized his teachings over his biography, the facts of his life are scant. Still, the story that has been passed down is every bit as magical as the stories of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ.
Legend has it that Siddhartha was born to a king and queen. His birth was heralded by prophecies of a great spiritual teacher. He was born under a tree, and his mother died soon afterwards. Raised by his doting father and aunt, Siddhartha grew up in what is modern-day India, surrounded by wealth and protected from the external world of poverty and suffering.
When, at 29, he finally defied his father and ventured out from the palace, he was shattered by what he found. A beggar. The sick and the dying. A corpse. The feeble elderly.
Soon after, he abandoned his wife and child, leaving his father’s kingdom to seek out spiritual teachers who could help him make sense of the suffering woven into the very fabric of human life. After practicing under many gurus, Siddhartha finally found what he was looking for: the root cause of human suffering and the way to be free of it. This freedom from suffering is, among Buddhists, called enlightenment or awakening. Nirvana. Upon attaining this freedom, he became the Buddha. For the rest of his life, he taught others how to free themselves from the unnecessary suffering we so often cause with our own thinking.
But I didn’t know any of this when I picked up the textbook for my philosophy class. I only knew that I was looking for answers. Maybe just one answer.
The same answer Siddhartha had gone looking for in the jungles outside his father’s kingdom all those millennia ago.
Why so much suffering?
* * *
I hated my philosophy class. Instead of lectures, the professor opened the class to debates. These were unstructured and unmediated, so they became dominated by two young men and one woman. All three of them were white and attractive and stylish, and even I could sense the privilege radiating off them like steam from asphalt. They debated murder and mass incarceration and genocide as if they did not understand they were realities. To them, they were merely logic games, and the lives caught up in them mattered less than the justifications a creative—if diabolical—mind could conjure.
We have a word now for what I felt during those classes. I felt triggered.
It was like watching, in real time, my father’s innermost thoughts after he had beaten me or Joe G.’s self-congratulation for “helping” me.
These were not the answers I was looking for. The course, so far as I was concerned, might as well have been titled How to Hurt People and Still Like Yourself.
Three class sessions, and I stopped going. A week later, I dropped the class.
But the attractive, inhumane young people had answered my first question: So much suffering exists, in part, because people are blind to the fact that other lives are entwined with their own. If you are rich but your neighbor is poor, you are doomed to live in fear of theft or revolt. In hurting others, you only hurt yourself.
Still, I kept the textbook.
* * *
At 19, I had begun working an hourly position at the college, but it paid minimum wage and offered no benefits. Even had I known how to go about “seeing someone” for my depression, I had no means with which to pay that someone.
My mother, however, had noticed that I was still not doing well. In what was for her a moment of daring generosity, she bought me a book at the Mormon bookstore in Bellevue. It was a thin paperback with a stock photo of a sunflower on the glossy cover. How to Be Happy was the title. It was roughly 60 pages of suggested activities for those suffering from clinical depression. Many of the suggestions were numbered:
- Blow bubbles.
- Go sunbathing.
- Take a bubble bath.
- Go visit a friend.
- Take a walk.
I appreciated the gesture, but the book was insulting. It implied that depression was just a problem of attitude, not the result of neurochemistry or trauma. The author believed wholeheartedly that suicide and depression could be prevented or cured with flowers and kittens and long walks in comfortable tennis shoes.
It would have been more helpful if it had been a book of humor, complete with comics. Feeling suicidal? Take a long bubble bath! accompanied by a sketch of a woman glowering from behind a mound of bubbles, holding a toaster aloft. Wishing you were burning in hell instead of this bullshit? Go sunbathing, and you will soon! Yay skin cancer! A woman on a beach, her skin covered in boils.
But alas. That is not what they sell at Deseret Book.
So instead of the Mormon happiness book, I picked up the philosophy textbook. I was sitting in the same pink armchair where three months earlier, I had admitted to my mother that I was thinking of killing myself. I flipped to the section entitled “Happiness and the Good Life” and started reading an essay on the four noble truths by H. Saddhatissa. I had never heard of the four noble truths, and all I knew of Buddhism was that it originated in Asia, incense was involved, and the people who practiced it mystified me even more than Wiccans did.
The first truth is suffering. The second truth is its cause. “At death the pattern is disturbed but the flux continues. If we try to jump off the wheel by committing suicide we merely interrupt one manifestation of flux…the cause of suffering persists—whether we will or not.” And this cause, Buddha taught, is craving. I had wanted to be dead, but I was alive. I had wanted my parents to be something other than they were, but this was not possible.
The third truth is that suffering can end. It is not necessary to forever live running towards certain things and away from others.
The fourth truth is that there is a way to end suffering, a way to live that does no harm and attempts to do good, a way the Buddha called The Middle Path.
After reading this brief introduction to the Buddha’s central teachings, I stopped seeing my suffering as a unique curse, as something inescapable, as proof of the dysfunction my parents believed I had been born with. Instead, I saw it for what it was: the human condition. Nothing of which to be ashamed. Something, rather, that could be healed.
* * *
I was not Mormon anymore, but I wanted to leave the right way. I scheduled a meeting with the president at the Singles’ Branch. I sat at his broad desk, eyeing the elderly man who had vowed to marry me off, and I told him I didn’t belong there. I didn’t fit in. I had to leave the church.
He stared at me, uncomprehending, and this—his confusion that anyone might not feel at home in Mormonism—hurt me more than anything he could have said. I began sobbing. He looked aghast that this Goth girl, the angry nun, had turned out to be nothing more than a frightened and hurting child. But still, he said nothing. I sensed that he believed I was falling into the deepest sin, and to have empathy for me was to betray his own beliefs.
“Maybe one day,” I said. “I can come back.” But even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. I would never return.
I turned in my library keys. I stopped attending Mormon church meetings. Each Sunday, I drove to a park, brought a novel, and read for the three hours my parents still believed I was at the Singles’ Branch. As my twentieth birthday approached, as the weather grew cold, I knew I would have to tell my family.
So one day, I did. I did not tell them that I was studying Buddhist texts. I simply told them I wasn’t Mormon anymore. I couldn’t be. I had tried, and I couldn’t.
“You’re being stupid,” my father said. “This is all because you’ve believed the lies of your professors.” Though I could not see how pre-calculus and art history and Asian literature had led to my moral downfall.
“You’ll be sorry,” my mother sneered. “You’ll suffer for this,” she added viciously. “You’re betraying everything we raised you to believe.”
My father clarified for her. “You’ll realize one day what a mistake you’ve made.”
Even as I knew my family relationships were crumbling before my eyes, I marveled at how scripted it sounded. How rote. How melodramatic. They sounded like villains from a Lifetime channel movie. There was no sincerity in what they were saying. They simply said what they were supposed to say as devout Mormons, pretending shock they didn’t feel.
Things became insufferable after that. Before my apostasy, there had been fights; now everyone ignored me if I spoke during dinner. If I persisted, my father simply asked me to leave the table. It didn’t matter whether I tried to share what I had learned in physiology class or astronomy or French. “You need to leave the table if you can’t keep your mouth shut,” he ordered me night after night.
At first, I tried to ignore it. My cheeks burned with humiliation as I tried to eat my dinner, their conversation droning on around me. But eventually, their own rage seeped into me. I ate quickly and silently, stood without speaking to anyone, and cleared my plate while my parents and brother spoke about programming languages and the bugs in the latest Microsoft programs.
One evening after dinner, when I thought it was safe to open my mouth, I offered an opinion. My father ignored me. He was standing with my brother by the telephone, and I repeated myself. Again, he pretended I was not there.
Suddenly, violently, I reached out and snatched him by the collar and shook him hard. Why won’t you listen to me? I screamed.
He looked into my face, and that smirk I knew too well slowly spread over his features. Tears sprang to his eyes. He laughed his delighted laugh and turned to my brother, my hands still gripping his collar. “See what a wreck she is?” And they laughed together. “She can’t even control herself.”
After my brother admitted to our parents that he would be leaving the church as well, they blamed me. “It’s your fault,” my father said. “You led him astray and brought the voice of Satan into this family.”
So I had gone from slut to devil. It had been so easy. One too many questions voiced aloud, a refusal to be the silent ghost they wanted of me, and my family had rejected me as evil.
* * *
My demonization at home was twisting something inside me, warping places inside myself that even the abuse had not been able to touch. I began to avoid the house as much as possible. After college classes and work, I spent long hours riding the public bus to downtown Seattle, the passengers packed in and jostled together in our winter coats, the windows steaming with our breaths. I often ended up, without even planning to, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. I paid my admission and went straight to my favorite room. The floor, the ceiling, the walls all were painted black. In this darkness, stone figures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas glowed under spotlights. Gold and rust-colored and gleaming white.
My favorite was Kuan-Yin, a woman/man depending on the culture and era, who had awakened. But rather than enter Nirvana, out of compassion they had chosen to stay behind in this broken world, a bodhisattva, guiding all sentient beings to liberation. I slid onto a bench and sat in the stillness of that room until the museum staff ushered me out at closing, and in those hours there, I felt such peace. Impenetrable. Unshakeable. Peace. I carried it with me, back through the rain and the long bus rides to the home where my family openly hated me.
It would be many years—nearly two decades—before I found a temple, before I discovered that as a white girl, yes, of course I could practice Buddhism. For now, I simply went to the museum to sit with the statues in stillness, my heart already knowing the words we chant weekly at Treeleaf Zendo—years before I ever heard them.
“With no hindrance of mind—
No hindrance, therefore no fear.
Far beyond all delusion, Nirvana is already here.”