When the Floor Falls Out



For six years of my childhood, I lived in a doublewide mobile home on ten acres. My dad was a horse trainer and he ran training stables about forty minutes outside Seattle. I spent my days running through the fields, playing in the creek, and riding horses.

During a particular season of those six years, my mom went through a difficult bout of depression. She stopped wearing make-up, smoked lots of cigarettes on our porch, and disappeared into over-sized flannel shirts. Our trailer was dark and musty, small and cramped, with brown carpet and dark wood paneling. The former residents had cats and in one of the rooms, the smell of cat urine was so strong, it gave me a headache.

I don’t know all the details of my parents’ marriage, but those were some challenging years. The difficulties of life and their painful pasts were catching up with them. They were trying to figure out how to overcome it all. My dad was trying to make it in a tough business, and my mom was trying to remain stable for three girls. We didn’t have a lot of money. By that I really mean we didn’t have a lot of money. I told my mom one afternoon we needed to go to the grocery store because we were out of food. She shook her head. “We don’t have money to go to the store, Tina.”

There is something dangerously powerless about life when you don’t have money to go to the store to feed your kids. We didn’t starve, but life took a toll. On all of us.

Which is what life does. It takes a toll. Even when things are going well, life can still be overwhelming. For example, the other day, I was standing in my kitchen, looking at the toaster and had a moment. I’m 39, I thought. This is about as good as it gets. For better or for worse, this is exactly who I am. Then came my moment of astonishing clarity: My ass is probably always going to be just a little too big for the rest of my body. I’m not joking. For about two minutes, I felt the most profound grief wash over me. I could hardly stand upright. Everything felt so damn sad. (Note to self: Don’t spend lots of time looking at the toaster or at one’s oversized ass.)

One day, out of absolutely nowhere, my mother announced she was going to paint our family room white. My dad opposed it. My sisters and I thought she’d gone mad. So like a woman on mission, she went to the store, bought white paint, rollers and tape, and proceeded to transform the dark brown cave into a white room of light.

It was an act of rebellion, as if she were physically speaking to her depression and troubles. “You will not keep me bound and in the dark. I’m not powerless. I still have some say over my own life.”

* * *

When I first moved to Chile, I crashed into a painful time of depression. Darkness overwhelmed me. I wept most of each day for over six months. My strength was rent from me, and I was left with no reserves. I forgot a lot of things that were important. I forgot how beautiful life is. I forgot that there is goodness in this world and it’s worth fighting for. I forgot that my life matters. I sat in my pain.

After my kids came home from school every day, I’d cry in my bedroom, buried under the blankets of my bed, and leave the television on to keep them company and muffle the sound of my weeping. My sorrow swirled around me, and rolled on top of me in big, over-arching waves. I’d hide in the bathroom when I’d go to large gatherings and tremble with anxiety, afraid of my own shadow. I drank a lot of red wine.

That was okay for a while. It’s okay to feel our pain and sadness, to stare at our losses  and give ourselves permission to take a deep breath and realize that the equilibrium of the whole world is so damn off we don’t even know what to do with ourselves. We lick our wounds, drink too much wine, and smoke too many cigarettes. We let our kids watch way more television than is healthy for them, or maybe we read romance novels until all the damsels are the same woman and all the knights-in-shining-armor merge into one ridiculous story. Or we read Twilight too many times and wonder why the hell she didn’t pick Jacob. Then, by some miracle, we remember.

We remember that we’re worth it, that life is indeed terrible and sad and filled with tsunami-sized losses, but there’s also this glimmer of something else we need to acknowledge—that we’re not powerless over everything. We still have some choices, even in all the mess. So we do something that puts some of the control of our lives back into our own hands and somehow, hope springs. 

Maybe we take a class, or we start to journal every day for 15 minutes. Maybe we decide to start walking in the mornings before work, or we plant a flower garden. Some of us secretly begin saving our money to go on a trip to Italy, or to escape a bad situation. Maybe we give half of our clothes to the Goodwill and practice radical generosity. Or, like my resilient mother, we get up, and paint our family room white—even if no one understands it and they call us crazy. It was not crazy. It was her sanity. It is sane to remember we still have choices and we can do something to feel better about our own life.

Depression is common for so many. The floor falls out from under us and we plunge into the dark sea of sorrow, and feel powerless to change things. My mother taught me something significant about our dark seasons. During one of her lowest moments, my mom remembered, and she did something about it. She painted her walls white.

This is my legacy.