A Story of Hope for Those Who Struggle with Depression

A few weeks ago Stuart and I were visited by a former student of mine, now a wife and mother who spent many years living in Indonesia, which is her husband’s home. Karin will soon move to Bangladesh, where her husband will be working for Habitat for Humanity, and she hopes to continue online work for her master’s degree in education. Karin told me that one of her life-changing experiences came in 1995, when she took a course called Women and U.S. Cultures with me during a semester when I was clinically depressed. “Why did that class matter so much to you?” I asked. “Because you had the courage to ask for our help,” she said.

After 15 years, I still remember what hell that semester was. I operated on only one cylinder — sleeping little, unable to focus my thoughts. I sometimes took an hour to get out of bed; at meals I tasted nothing and could hardly lift the fork. I gazed at my image in the mirror one Sunday morning and did not recognize the face.

After Karin left my house, I rummaged in the basement to find the packet of letters students and colleagues sent me that dark semester. The folder is about two inches thick, and the letters, now beginning to yellow after 15 years, still move me to tears.

Each week of that class, I felt the eyes of about 30 beautiful young women and a few beautiful young men on me, as I opened my mouth and began to speak. I thanked them for their prayers and invited them into the course content. I was afraid, I told them, but they gave me strength to keep putting one step in front of the other. They studied hard, carried out group projects, entered into deep conversation about what they were reading and writing. At the end of the course, having returned almost to my normal high level of energy and joy, I wrote those students a four-page single-spaced love letter. We wept and cried together.

I am grateful to Karin for reminding me of that class. One of my fears in 1995 was that if I showed my students my weakness, I would be a poor role model. It turned out that the opposite was true. It could have been otherwise.

Amazingly, a year after I wrote that letter, I accepted an invitation to the Goshen College presidency, a role I enjoyed for eight years and which led to my present work at the Fetzer Institute. I could never have imagined as I struggled to move my heavy carcass out of bed, that these words of my therapist would actually come true: “If you go through this lonesome valley step by step, not only will you be a better role model than if you try to evade or deny your weakness, but you may discover that, instead of an obstacle, your depression will be a teacher whose humbling lesson you need before you can hear a greater call to a fuller life.”

She was a wise one, that therapist. And I will always love the students whose devotion to literature and cultural study was a form of healing. Now that they are walking their own lonesome valleys, I pray for each one and remember the poem sent to me by my dear student Katie, who sent me a water color painting and whose tender spirit reached me through these words of Emily Dickinson,

How many flowers fail in Wood–

Or perish from the Hill

Without the privilege to know

That they are Beautiful–

Shirley Showalter


  1. Jennifer Jo on April 24, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    You are so right: it's scary to go out on a limb and reveal our weaknesses, not only because we'll appear lacking, but because then others may not trust us. But the miracle/irony is that the exact opposite is true—our vulnerability deepens relationships and makes us better role models. And yet…me/we still always struggle with sharing the hard parts. It's like a tragic comedy, no?

  2. shirleyhs on April 25, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Exactly, Jennifer Jo. Thanks so much for the comment. I have already been to your blog, and I love it! I see you also follow my neice's blog More-With-Less. Small world!

  3. Lanie Tankard on April 25, 2010 at 4:38 am

    Shirley,That was absolutely beautiful as well as eloquent. I'm reading Kathleen Redfield Jamison's memoir now, NOTHING WAS THE SAME, and see that same philosophy in her approach to share what she was experiencing when she wrote AN UNQUIET MIND. We are all on this earth to help one another through our time here together, and you are so good at it!Hugs,Lanie

  4. babsland on April 26, 2010 at 2:06 am

    I remember that semester and being so confused. I was in my own little world, but still scared and worried for you and U. Stuart and my cousins. One of my regrets about being at GC was not taking a class with you because so many students spoke so highly of you and seemed so envious of me when I told them you were my aunt, which of course made me (and still makes me) very proud. I knew Karin too. She was my RA when I was a “Frosh.” Thank you for sharing this very personal story.

  5. Gutsywriter on April 26, 2010 at 4:10 am

    A wonderful post about you but now you have me wondering why you went through such a tough period, 15 years ago. How nice to have your students loving you, and keeping in touch.

  6. Kathleen Friesen on April 26, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Thank you so much for this reflection. I too have discovered the strength in vulnerability. It's one of those “upside-down” things. It has the power to connect us in ways that I don't fully understand. Your story immediately brought to mind David Whyte's poem, “The Well of Grief”:Those who will not slip beneaththe still surface of the well of griefturning downward through its black waterto the place we cannot breathewill never know the source from which we drink,the secret water, cold and clear,nor find in the darkness glimmeringthe small round coinsthrown away by those who wished for something else. By David Whyte from Close to HomeHere's to finding the steps for navigating today,to finding the small round coins in the darkness…Kathleen

  7. marycoxpace on April 26, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Powerful! Courage. Wow!

  8. margo on April 27, 2010 at 3:10 am

    How beautiful. . . how important to share these stories. When I went through postpartum depression, I vowed I would share my story as often as I could because I just didn't hear women talking about it. Thank you for this.p.s. found you through Jennifer Jo!

  9. shirleyhs on April 28, 2010 at 2:10 am

    Hi, Margo, thanks for finding me and thanks to Jennifer Jo for the shout out. I had the same motive for telling this story. Depression seems absolutely endless, and the old self, the one you knew before the cloud descended, seems to disappear. But with love most of us come back again, and when we do, we have a deep empathy for anyone else who suffers this kind of pain. Thank you for sharing yours.

  10. shirleyhs on April 28, 2010 at 2:11 am

    Thanks, Mary.

  11. shirleyhs on April 28, 2010 at 2:31 am

    Thank you, Lanie. I have read review of this memoir. But I haven't read the book. Do you want to do a guest post review?? Thank you for so much encouragement and support, in life and in this blog. It is hard to write about inexpressible feelings, but it is worth it to try–if it stops one heart from breaking, to use Emily Dickinson's words again.

  12. shirleyhs on April 28, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Dear Barbara, it was because of this kind of pain, inflicted on you and others who wanted and needed my “strong self,” that I suffered twice. Both for myself and my family but also for the young women who were looking for alternate selves they could emulate or at least appreciate. When Alicia was in college, she did a Senior Show imitation of me as Super Woman. I think I took the joke a little too seriously. :-)I'm sorry, too, that we never took a class together. Now, however, I am taking Motherhood 101 from you as I read your blog. I enjoy it so much, and I admire you as a smart, creative, indepentent, loving woman I am proud to claim as my neice. One of the things I learned was that weakness could become strength for me personally, but also–I am that I dispensable! You grew up to be a strong woman without taking my class! Some of the pressures we put on ourselves to be perfect or at least “super” are misguided ego. We aren't as important as we think we are, and the lessons we teach may well be inadvertent humility or survival instead of triumph.

  13. shirleyhs on April 28, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Well, Sonia, believe me, I wondered “why” a lot also. One of the hard things about depression is that it is incomprehensible. You start a thread of causation and instead of leading you to a destination, it leads you to another thread. I did work out some issues with my therapist, but the many writers who walked through the valley of the shadow said it best–the Psalms were important to me. So was the beginning of Dante's Inferno, “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself In dark woods, the right road lost.”

  14. shirleyhs on April 28, 2010 at 2:50 am

    Thank you so much, Kathleen, for these words from David Whyte, a poet who speaks to me both as a writer and as a leader. His wisdom in both worlds is deep.The small round coins in the darkness–a lovely image.

  15. mary pace on May 30, 2010 at 2:42 am

    A beautiful story. What incredible triumph. 🙂

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