I Want to Tell You About Coming Apart and Struggling Through Depression

A moving account by Susan Moon of her journey back from depression, and how her Buddhist practice both helped and hindered her.

Susan Moon3 April 2024
Broken statue.
Photo by rgms.

Although I suffered from severe depression, I didn’t call it that for most of the several years I was in and out of it. I thought depression was for lethargic people who stayed in bed all day. But my pain was as sharp as an ice pick. Restless in the extreme, I paced and paced, looking for a way out. The visible cause was the drawn-out and difficult end of a relationship with a lover. The invisible causes were old griefs and fears and other conditions unknown to me.

It’s taboo to be depressed. When I was feeling really bad, I still went to work, though I was barely functional. If I had had the flu and felt a fraction of the pain I was in, I would have called in sick. But I couldn’t call in “depressed.” One day I threw a whole issue of the magazine I edit into the computer’s trash can, thinking I was saving it. Then I emptied the trash. I had to hire a consultant to look for it in the virtual garbage, and eventually I got most of it back. But it was myself I wanted to throw in the trash.

Physical pain is hard to describe; psychic pain is even harder. I was in intense, moment-by-moment pain, and all I wanted was to get away from it. The pain was in the thoughts, which I didn’t (and couldn’t) recognize as just my thoughts. (As Buddha said, “When, for you, in the thought is just the thought, then you shall be free…”) A voice in my head repeated what I took to be The Truth: I was completely alone, I would never again love or be loved by another person, I was nothing.

I spent hours every day on the phone. Once, during the 45-minute drive from my lover’s home back to Berkeley, I had to stop and call a friend from a pay phone by the side of the road, so that I could drive the rest of the way, even though it was only fifteen minutes. Luckily she was home. “I just got off the Richmond Bridge,” I sobbed. “I’m afraid I don’t exist. My body’s here, but there’s nobody in it.”

“You exist,” she said. “How could I love you if you didn’t exist? Come over right now and we’ll take a walk on the Berkeley pier.”

I’ve gained some understanding of what it must be like to have an invisible illness, like lupus or chronic fatigue syndrome. I wanted to wear a sign around my neck—I might look okay, but I’m sick!—so people wouldn’t expect me to be functional.

Waking in the morning was the worst of all. The moment consciousness returned, the pain came with it. Oh no! I have to breathe my way through another day.

I couldn’t eat, a common symptom of depression. It wasn’t just loss of appetite. Chewing itself was unbearable. A blob of bread was scary because it got in the way of breathing, and breathing was already hard enough to do. Liquids were more manageable. It occurs to me now that I’d regressed to the stage before I had teeth, when the only kind of eating I could do was sucking. So I drank hot milk with honey, and Earl Grey tea. I lost a lot of weight, something I’m always trying to do when I feel “normal,” but I was too downhearted to take any pleasure from it.

Like many other depressed people, I didn’t sleep well. I clutched my pillow and called out to the flapping curtains for help. I took sleeping pills—sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. I couldn’t read in the night (or during the day, for that matter) because I couldn’t get past the fear to concentrate on anything.

Waking in the morning was the worst of all. The moment consciousness returned, the pain came with it. Oh no! I have to breathe my way through another day.

I didn’t like getting into the shower because I didn’t want to be alone with my skin. To feel my own skin and imagine that nobody would ever touch it again was unbearable. Better to swaddle myself in layers, no matter what the weather, so the skin didn’t have to notice it was alone. I remembered a pale young woman who had lived next door to me years earlier, who began to wear more and more layers of clothing—a skirt over her pants, a dress over her skirt, a long shirt over her dress, then a sweater, a long coat, a cape, a hat—in Berkeley summer weather. Finally her father came and took her away to a mental hospital.

One of the worst things about being so depressed is that one becomes totally self-absorbed. I could hear other people only when they were talking about me: recommending homeopathic remedies for me, interpreting my dreams to me, telling me they loved me. During my depression, one of my adult sons had a serious bicycle accident, and my fear for his well-being snapped me out of my self-absorption for the five days he was in the hospital. I sat all night in a chair beside his hospital bed, hypervigilant, watching him sleep. I put a cool cloth on his forehead, I prayed to whoever might be listening, and I made a promise I couldn’t keep: not to be depressed if only he would be all right.

He came home to my house from the hospital, with one leg in a full cast. It was summer. He sat on the back porch of the house he’d grown up in and I washed his back. One day I walked into the living room where he was reading on the couch, and he said, “My god, what’s the matter? You look like a ghost!”

Dry-mouthed with panic, I told him I had to go see my lover; we had to decide right then whether to break up. “Do you think I should stay with him?” I asked.

My son looked at me with an expression I’ll never forget—a mixture of despair and love. “I don’t know how to help you any more,” he said. “I don’t think you should be driving in the state you’re in. Why don’t you just stay here and be my mother?”

But I couldn’t. I drove out to see the man, compelled by an irrational sense of urgency, with my son’s stricken face burning in my mind.

I had then been a Zen Buddhist practitioner for more than twenty years. I assumed that my meditation practice would steady me. What could be more comforting than forty minutes in the peaceful, familiar zendo, with the sweet smell of tatami straw matting? But it didn’t help. This is something I want to say: at times it made things worse. The demons in my mind took advantage of the silence. They weren’t real demons, but they didn’t care; they tormented me anyway.

My Buddhist teachers urged me to keep on sitting zazen. “Don’t turn away from your suffering,” they said. “Just watch the painful thoughts arise and watch them pass away again.”

“Bring your attention back to your breathing,” my teachers had advised me. This was like telling a person on the rack, whose arms are being pulled out of her shoulder sockets, to count her exhalations.

When I sat down on a zafu, the painful thoughts arose all right, but if they passed away, it was only to make room for even more painful thoughts. I’ll die alone. And, adding insult to injury: After twenty years, I’m the worst Zen student that ever was.

When I told my teachers I was disappointed that zazen didn’t make me feel better, they scolded me. “You don’t sit zazen to get something. You sit zazen in order to sit zazen. If you want zazen to make you feel better, it won’t work.” But didn’t Buddha invent Buddhism in the first place to alleviate suffering? Did all those other people in the zendo really get up out of bed at five a.m. for no particular reason?

Still, I kept going back, hoping that if I meditated hard enough I’d have some sort of breakthrough. In the past, sitting in the zendo, I too had had the experience of watching my worries turn to dry powder and blow away. So now I signed up to sit Rohatsu sesshin, the week-long meditation retreat in early December that commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment. He sat down under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he saw the truth. It took him a week. I had sat many sesshins before, but maybe this would be my week.

The first day was bad. I cried quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. The second day was worse. Tears and snot dripped off my chin on to my breast. I hated myself. Nobody else will ever love me!

“Bring your attention back to your breathing,” my teachers had advised me. This was like telling a person on the rack, whose arms are being pulled out of her shoulder sockets, to count her exhalations.

But I wasn’t on the rack. I was in the zendo. Around me sat my dharma brothers and sisters, hands in their pretty mudras. As for my mudra, I dug the nails of my left hand deep into the palm of my right hand, feeling relief at the physical pain and the momentary proof of my existence. On the third day, during a break, I snuck away to a pay phone down the street and called my sister in Philadelphia. Choking on my own words, I told her I didn’t know who I was. I wasn’t exactly convinced by her reassurances, but just hearing her voice was some comfort.

The fourth day was worse yet. The distance between me and the people on either side of me was infinite, though their half-lotus knees were only six inches away from mine. I thought of the lover who wasn’t going to be taking care of me after all. I’m nobody, I thought. There’s nobody here at all. This feeling of no-self was supposedly the point of meditation, and yet I had somehow gotten on to the wrong path. While a nameless pressure mounted inside me, the people around me just kept sitting zazen. I couldn’t stay another second. I left without getting permission from the sesshin director.

Driving away from the zendo in the privacy of my car, I shouted: “This is the worst day of my life!” (There would be other days after that when I would say it again: “No, this day is worse.”) I drove into Tilden Park and walked into the woods, where no one could see me. I screamed and pulled my hair. I lay down on the ground and rolled down the hill, letting the underbrush scratch and poke me. I liked having leaves get stuck in my hair and clothing. It made me feel real. I picked up a fallen branch from a redwood tree and began flailing myself on the back. The bodily pain was easier to bear than the mental pain it pushed aside.

But I scared myself. How could I be spending my sesshin afternoon beating myself with sticks in the woods? How had it come to this? I picked the leaves out of my hair and went home. The next morning, the fifth day, I called the Zen Center and said I wasn’t feeling well—an understatement if ever there was one—and wouldn’t be sitting the rest of the sesshin. I didn’t sit zazen for some months after that.

I felt angry at Buddhism, as if to say: You told me there’s no fixed self, and I believed you, and look where it got me! I knew the yang of it but not the yin—the balancing truth that there was no separation.

I thought I had failed in my practice—twenty years of it!—and I was bitterly disappointed in myself. Only after the depression subsided did I see what growth that represented: choosing not to sit was choosing not to be ruled by dogma, to be compassionate with myself, to take my spiritual practice into my own hands.

Buddhism teaches that we have “no fixed self.” There is nothing permanent about us During the depression, I wasn’t my “self,” as we say. I didn’t seem to have a self at all, in a way that cruelly mimicked this central point in Buddhist teaching. You’d think that it would be painless to have no self, because without a self, who was there to be in pain? And yet there was unbearable pain. Like a wind-up doll, I went stiffly through the motions of being Sue Moon, but there was no person present, no aliveness—only a battery that was running down.

I felt angry at Buddhism, as if to say: You told me there’s no fixed self, and I believed you, and look where it got me! I knew the yang of it but not the yin—the balancing truth that there was no separation.

I couldn’t have gone on like this indefinitely. I was tearing up the fabric of my life. As I was weeping to my friend Melody on the phone one afternoon, speaking my familiar litany, she suddenly shouted at me: “Stop it! You’ve got to save your own life! You’ve got to do it! Nobody else but you can save yourself, and you can do it! You just have to be brave. That’s all there is to it.” This was an important phone call: she startled me into finding a stick of courage, and I held on to it by reminding myself of her words.

Still, the misery continued, and I finally decided to try medication. I consulted a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac. I took it for about a week and felt much worse, though I wouldn’t have thought it possible to feel worse. The psychiatrist had me stop the Prozac and try Zoloft. I felt it kick in after a couple of days. I didn’t feel drugged; I felt, rather, as though a deadly fog were lifting.

Zoloft is supposed to be good for people who have trouble with obsessional thinking, and I seem to be one of those. Zoloft did what zazen didn’t do—it quieted the voices in my head: I hate him. I hate myself. It didn’t shut them up entirely, but they weren’t as loud and I was sometimes able to turn away from them.

I had a lot of resistance to taking medication. I thought my unhappiness had two parts: negative circumstances in the outside world, which Zoloft obviously couldn’t fix, and negative attitudes inside my head, which I thought my Buddhist practice should take care of. Besides, an orthodox Zen voice whispered in my mind that the monks of old got along without Zoloft. But some of those monks probably obsessed their lives away in misery; others may have left the monastery because they couldn’t concentrate. Buddhist history doesn’t tell us about the ones who tried and failed, the ones with attention deficit disorder or clinical depression.

I took refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha, saying the words out loud, whether I felt anything or not.

I was learning to trust myself. Taking Zoloft and stopping sitting were both acts of faith in myself. So, too, I learned to construct my own spiritual practice. Every morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I lit a candle on my little altar and offered a stick of incense. I made three full bows, then stood before the altar, my palms pressed together, and recited out loud my morning prayers, starting with a child’s prayer a Catholic friend had taught me:

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day be at my side
To watch and guard, to rule and guide.

It was comforting to ask somebody else, somebody who wasn’t me, to help me. Prayer was something I missed in Zen practice as I knew it, so I imported it from Christianity and other Buddhist traditions. I prayed to Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, to fly down from the sky, all green and shining, into my heart. I prayed to Prajnaparamita, the mother of all Buddhas, who “brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion.” Then I took refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha, saying the words out loud, whether I felt anything or not.

That I had shaped this practice for myself gave me confidence. And the early morning incense smoke, though it was thin and drifting, provided a hint of continuity for my days. They seemed, after all, to be days in the same life. One person’s life—mine.

Now I can say this: there are times in life when nothing helps, when you just have to feel terrible for a while. All you can do is go through the agony and come out the other end of it. It’s a gift, in a way, to hit the bottom (though it doesn’t feel that way at the time). If you lie on the grass, you can’t fall down.

There’s a saying in Zen that “inquiry and response come up together.” Perhaps that’s what prayer is. To make an inquiry is already to get a response, because asking implies that there’s something else there. And there’s not even a time lag. The moment you’re asking for help, you’re already getting it, though it may not be the help you thought you wanted. Once, when I called Zen teacher Reb Anderson in despair, he came to Berkeley to see me. We sat on a park bench in a playground, and he told me, “The universe is already taking care of you.” I said this mantra to myself over and over: “The universe is already taking care of me.”

I wasn’t afraid to be alone with my skin because I wasn’t alone; there was nothing, not the width of a cell, between me and the rest of the universe.

One late afternoon at the end of a hard summer, while I was visiting friends on Cape Cod, I walked barefoot and alone down the beach and into the salty water. There were no people about, so I took off my bathing suit in the water and flung it up on the sand. I swam and swam and felt the water touching every part of me. I was in it—no dry place left. I wasn’t afraid to be alone with my skin because I wasn’t alone; there was nothing, not the width of a cell, between me and the rest of the universe. I did a somersault under the water and looked up at the shiny membrane above me. My head hatched into the light, and I breathed the air and knew that I would be all right. No, not would be, but was already. I was back in my life.

I’m more than two years out of the desolation, and I still don’t know why I suffered so much, or why I stopped. I can neither blame myself for the suffering nor take credit for its cessation. I sit again—I mean on a zafu—but not as much as I used to. I also bow and chant and pray. I’ve stopped taking Zoloft, though I’d return to it without shame if I thought it would be useful.

I practice curiosity. What is it to be born a human being? What does it mean to be embodied in your separate skin? There are many other (and more reliable) paths out of the delusion of separation besides having a boyfriend—things like writing and swimming, for example. And most of all, there’s studying this human life. You could call it buddhadharma, or you could call it something else. It doesn’t matter.

I now admit that I sit zazen for a reason: I want to understand who I am (if anybody), and how I’m connected to the rest of it. And yes, I want to stop suffering and I want to help others stop suffering. When I was in despair, time passed slowly, so slowly. Now it sweeps by faster and faster, gathering momentum. The shortness of life stuns me.

Please note that clinical depression is a medical condition. This article is not intended to provide or replace treatment options for those who may suffer from clinical depression or other forms of mental illness.

If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.

Susan Moon

Susan Moon

Susan Moon is a writer and teacher and for many years was the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of socially engaged Buddhism. She is the author of This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Dignity and Humor and The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, a humorous book about an imaginary Zen master. She edited Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism.