I said I needed a quick restroom break. It felt easier than explaining to my friend that I needed to go sit alone—away from him, away from everyone—in my car for a couple hours.
At the time, I was being ushered to the opening dinner alongside hundreds of others. Standing in line next to an acquaintance with whom I was truly looking forward to catching up, I felt the familiar jolt of panic. It was overwhelming. If you are “normal,” then all I can say is to try to imagine being filled with fear, anger, shame and self-loathing all at the same time. I just knew I had to get out.
For the last decade or more, I’ve been privileged to be a part of a burgeoning community called The Rabbit Room, a website-turned-non-profit-organization that fosters substantive art and meaningful community. For the last nine years, the RR has hosted a long weekend in Nashville to celebrate the arts, eat wonderful food, encourage artists and generally geek out on things like Tolkien or Springsteen or Malick. There are concerts and discussion groups and presentations and art exhibits. It is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my year, a compass of an event every fall that points me back toward truth and meaning.
Unfortunately I’d brought a bit of home with me to the event. The last few months have brought not only significant vocational changes but a very real return of my battle with depression. It’s been several years (as in 15 or so) since I’ve felt this defeated. Despite a hundred reasons to feel grateful and glad, it’s all I can do most days to find a reason to get out of bed. Some days I stay up just long enough until my wife leaves for some errand and then slip back in bed. Other days I’ll sit at my desk and start to cry.
I stopped looking for reasons a long time ago. Logic left a long time ago.
For months I’ve had this weekend marked on the calendar. When a person is desperate for answers, it’s easy to place disproportional hopes onto something—a person, a place, an event. I knew better than to expect some sort of magical healing, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted so badly for this weekend away to be just that, a weekend away from my emotional ills, my illogical problems, my mental prison. Instead I felt the tinge of panic and this looming dread (honestly it’s hard to find the right description) and made my quick escape on the opening night—just an hour or so after registration.
A sampling of thoughts sitting in a dark car in Franklin, Tennessee:
“Look, there’s nothing here for you. Just drive home and be done with it.”
“You will never be free from this. If this place and this community can’t help you, then nothing ever will.”
You can imagine the rest of the script. Failure this. Pointless that. If you’ve dealt with this, then you know it well. If not, it all likely sounds stupid (it is) and silly (I agree).
After dinner, I made my way back inside to the crowd. I knew there was going to be a large-scale event which meant I could essentially hide in the crowd while several friends performed the evening’s concert. It felt safe enough to sit there and at least face forward and pretend things were normal. And then something magical happened.
My friend Dave, who sings with his wife Licia in a band called The Gray Havens, opened the show with “She Waits,” the title track to their brand new album, a beautiful song of longing, a song of future hope. Something in me stirred that’s hard to explain, but the mental script I’d lived with stopped in that very moment as Dave played the piano.
A few minutes later, my friend Andrew took the stage with a full band and sang an unexpected song entitled “All Shall Be Well” from an album nearly 20 years old. It ends like this:
And the night can be so long, so long
You think you’ll never get up again
But listen now,
It’s a mighty cloud of witnesses around you
They say “Hold on, hold on
Just hold on to the end
‘Cause all shall be well…”
Just like that, the cloud was lifted. It has yet to return. For the rest of the weekend, I felt light and free. I was glad. I was grateful. In the sessions where I was privileged to present, I felt awake and alive. The days were filled with inspired conversation, delicious meals, new friendships, challenging ideas and hopeful reminders.
I returned to my family with a clarity I’ve not felt in a very, very long time. I’m hopeful for the future. I’m grateful for the present. Those are two statements I’ve not made without lying to some degree for months. I’m not foolish enough to believe that something broken just magically went away or that I won’t be prone to those emotional battles in the future. I’m opening up to friends who know me best. I just set my first counseling session in nearly a year. If there’s work ahead, I need to be ready.
For now, however, I’m overjoyed by the gift I’ve received this weekend—a community that has allowed me to be included in something so beautiful, a wife and family who were willing to let me leave to enjoy it.