Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.

For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a particularly brutal one, and I’m not out of the woods yet.

As a writer, I try to write about everything. But it’s hard to write about depression. For one, there’s the fear that the minute you say, “I’m suffering from depression,” people will look at you funny. That they will nod at you with wincing, constipated face, place a hand on your arm and say, with all good intent, “How are you?” And your pain will war with your desire to be “normal” and not looked at funny by sympathetic people at parties. So you will answer, “Fine, thanks” while you’ll think of all the things you could say: “Partly cloudy with a strong chance of rain later?” “Mostly okay except for that silent sobbing I did on the F train this afternoon which frightened the school children.” “Well, I’m okay now but around 10 PM I could be drinking from a seemingly bottomless cup of self-loathing, so stick around if you’re into that sort of thing.” You do not want to be labeled “That Depressed Person,” which was not a show on ABC. 

Depression is hard to understand, because it is not a consistent state. Depression is rather like a virus, but like a virus, it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups. You can be in a depression and still laugh at a friend’s joke or have a good night at dinner or manage low-level functioning. You grocery shop and stop to pet a puppy on the corner, talk to friends in a café, maybe write something you don’t hate. When this happens, you might examine your day for clues like reading tea leaves in a cup: Was it the egg for breakfast that made the difference? The three-mile run? You think, well, maybe this thing has moved on now. And you make no sudden moves for fear of attracting its abusive attention again. 

But other times…

 Other times, it’s as if a hole is opening inside you, wider and wider, pressing against your lungs, pushing your internal organs into unnatural places, and you cannot draw a true breath. You are breaking inside, slowly, and everything that keeps you tethered to your life, all of your normal responses, is being sucked through the hole like an airlock emptying into space. These are the times Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.

I call it White Knuckling it.

When it’s White Knuckle Time, you will have to remind yourself to stand in the middle of the subway platform, well away from the edge.

You may find yourself on the floor of your shower, your face turned toward the wall while the water courses over your shoulders, your mouth opened in a howl that will not come.

You may find yourself on the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. running, running, running, as if you could outpace the emotional mugger at your back.

You might sit at a dinner party making small talk, hoping that you pass for normal, because you suddenly feel as if you are not in touch with the usual social paradigms.

You will not sleep. Insomnia becomes your permanent house guest, and you will wake, blinking up at the weak moonlight splayed across your ceiling like a crime scene, the very stillness of the house seemingly complicit in your guilt.

Ordinary tasks become extraordinary challenges: The laundry. Phone calls. Emails. Making food. Making decisions. Engaging in conversation. Concentration proves impossible—you stare at your computer screen and all your words feel as if they are trapped behind a curtain far too heavy to lift. Deadlines are missed. These everyday failures compound adding an element of panic to the already untenable situation.

 There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.

If depression were as physically evident as, say, a broken limb or cancer, it would be easier to talk about. The pain could be marked, quantified, obvious to the observer. You would feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your email but you can see the huge hole in the center of me, and I’m afraid it has made such dialogue impossible.” But the stigma of depression is that it comes with the sense that you shouldn’t have it to begin with. That it is self-indulgence or emotional incompetence rather than actual illness. This brings on attendant feelings of shame and self-loathing, which only exacerbate the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of the condition. “I cannot share this,” the depressed person thinks. “It is too embarrassing, too shameful.” And so, you swallow it down, until it feels that your heart is a trapped bird beating frantic wings against the pain you’ve shoved up against it.  Depression isn’t like being sad or blue or wistful. It is crippling. It is a constant whine in your head, making it hard to hear yourself think.

The other trouble is that it is often incredibly difficult to articulate the pain you feel. Words prove inadequate, and the distance they must travel from this deep well of grief and loneliness up to your mouth seems impossible to traverse. It is miles and miles of no-man’s land. How can you communicate something so without form? Depression is a vengeful ghost you see from the corner of your eye always but you know that no one else can see it. So how do you alert anyone to its presence in the room?

Sometimes, people can’t take it anymore. Whenever a suicide happens, whenever I hear of these losses—Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Ned Vizzini—a certain terror takes hold. They didn’t beat it, I think; they didn’t win. Perhaps it is unbeatable, after all. Resistance is futile.

 I have heard people speak of the selfishness of suicide: “How could s/he leave behind a spouse or, worse, children?” It’s hard to imagine someone committing such a terrible act, one that permanently damages those left behind. I have heard well-meaning therapists explain that this is an act of rage turned inward. I’ve spent many years in psychoanalysis. I get it. And certainly, the fact that I have a child keeps me fighting during the bad times.

But I don’t think it’s all that simple.

To these cries, to these explanations, I can only say that you cannot know unless you’ve been there. Believe me, these people do not want to die. They only want the pain to end. The pain is all-consuming. It is a pit-bull whose jaws will not let you go, and the more you struggle against it, the tighter the bite gets, the greater the pain becomes. 

Imagine that you sit, shivering and blue, in a tub of freezing water. If you were not depressed, you’d get out of the tub. But now imagine that you cannot get yourself out of the tub. Your body is weighted to the bottom with invisible stones. The sides of the tub are too high—you can’t imagine that on the other side of the tub is a floor that leads to a warm towel and an exit. You can only see the walls of the tub, closing you in. You can only feel the relentless, needle-prick torment of the icy water. You can only watch, helpless, as your fingers prune and bruise with cold, a strange mix of acute pain and numbness. And you are aware of isolation so complete that it feels as if you are an astronaut whose line has come untethered in space.  As if you have swallowed loneliness and are drowning in it, unable to cough it up and breathe again.

In this state, you can only think of how desperately you want this agony to end. You can only think of doing something, anything to stop the feeling, to keep it from overwhelming you with shame, loneliness, guilt, and bleak-gray hopelessness. This is what it is to experience depression. It is the absence of hope.

I do not want to romanticize depression. The flip side of the stigma accompanying depression is a tendency to turn it into The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect, to borrow from Todd Rundgren. There is an idea that “artists” are such special snowflakes that the very air they breath injures them. This is bullshit. Again, depression is an illness, not a fashion statement. Certainly, there appears to be a large correlation between artists and depression. But I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it.  I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me. It’s why I’m writing this now. Silence = Death, as ACT UP used to say. 

This is why there is such comfort in books and movies and music and art. Why it often saves. I have taken comfort from depressed characters like Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood, Jimmy from “Quadrophenia,” Harold from “Harold and Maude,” Franny Glass, and too many others to name. I have found my emotional DNA in theirs and continue to draw solace from knowing that I am not alone in these murky, hard-to-articulate feelings.

We are not alone. That’s key. 

Time and again, I am humbled by the beautiful vulnerability and resilience of human beings trying to stay on the bendable side of that all-too-human fragility. Everyone, it seems, fights a personal battle every day, one that, hopefully, leads to a greater well of compassion, empathy, and enlightenment. Once, I thought this path was about an idea I had of “self-actualization.” I imagined that this was an accomplishable goal and that it would look like a smooth, shiny fortress, something unassailable. But more and more, I’m coming to see the fallacy of that. That’s a hologram of happiness. That’s a defense against the pain of being human. It’s not about self-actualization; it’s about impermeability. To live in a keep is to retreat from the world. No. I’ve come to think that perhaps it is about the messiness of mistakes, of falling, of the bravery of unvarnished honesty, of forgiveness and love—the forgiveness and love we offer others, yes, but also the forgiveness and love we must extend to ourselves. There is no such thing as reaching the end goal of humanity. There is only the continued, imperfect striving. We are satellites sending radio signals to Earth, waiting for contact: “I hear you. Do you hear me? Over.” 

If you are, yourself, depressed right now, send a signal to someone, anyone you trust. Say the words out loud. Words have power. You are not a freak. You are not icky. You are, simply, human and in great pain. You do not “deserve” that pain. You are not less than for feeling it, and you DO deserve love and care and relief from that pain.   

If you know someone who is depressed, one of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen without judgment and to let the person know that s/he is loved simply for being.

This is not a pep talk to myself or anyone else. This is not a fucking happy face bandage on the very real torment of depression. This is the resistance fighter in me moving in the city shadows at midnight, posting notes to myself and anyone else who happens to need them to keep fighting, to strike back against the enemy. 

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

This is all I know to do.

 And if you take comfort from my words, if it helps you to feel understood in your pain, if it helps you to know you can and will get out of the tub, then I am glad.

 As for me, today, I take comfort from the last line of one of my favorite short stories, J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” a story I discovered during a low period in high school. If you haven’t ever read this story, well, I highly recommend it. It’s about an encounter between two lonely people in an English tearoom, an American soldier shipping off to WWII and a precocious, thirteen-year-old girl putting up a brave front after losing both parents. I won’t spoil it with further banal explanation. You really should read it for yourselves. But suffice to say that the war doesn’t go well for the soldier, who returns, broken, until he receives a letter from the now-grown Esme, which comforts him such that he is finally able to put aside the horrors of war and sleep:

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

 I hope your faculties remain intact.

 As for me, I will do what I must to make my way through the miles of No-Man’s Land. And if I haven’t returned your email, I ask your forgiveness. It may be a while.

 

 

 

 

 

409 thoughts on “Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

  1. Thank you for this. Many years ago, I inked the word “hope” into my skin, right across my spine. I put it there to remind me, in the depths of my hopelessness, that it exists – it is hiding, sometimes out of sight, but it is still with me, however small. I have needed this reminder so many times, and I know I will need it again. But in the meantime, thank you for your brave and beautiful words.

  2. Thank you for posting this. It’s so hard to find the words to say about this, and you’ve put the words in front of me with clarity and eloquence. It brought a tear to my eye to read, because it helps me know I’m not alone – and that you aren’t, either. There’s hope for us all. We might be in the middle of storm with no umbrella, but the clouds will eventually clear. And while another one may be just around the corner, that one will end, too, and the sun will shine again.

  3. Yup, you’ve got it. You have expressed what so many of us have always wanted to put into words, but couldn’t. Thank you.

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing piece of writing. Everyone’s experience of depression is different, but I wept as I read your description, mostly in sheer relief that someone not only ‘gets’ it but has expressed it so well. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  6. It seems a lot of people are crying in response to this – I am one of them, and they are tears of relief. The fact that words fail during ‘bad spells’ is always the thing that feels the most insurmountable: its frustrating and demoralising, but somehow you’ve found the words – beautifully lucid, coherent sentences – and for that I am eternally thankful to you.

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  8. Me too! Yes yes yes and yes to all your words! You say White Knuckling it. My sisters and I (fellow resistance fighters) say In the Alone Cone, or In the Belly of the Whale, or Hanging On With Bloody Fingernails. All code phrases we immediately understand so we can connect in 5 words or less (which is often the absolute limit on what we can offer). But it’s the connection that matters. It doesn’t make depression less real or the symptoms less painful, but it is a thinner-than-thin thread tethering us to anyone or anything “on the outside” as we say. It counts. You are brave and smart and generous with this post. I just came on today to check on more Diviners news – because I LOVE your writing and crave it like chocolate – and this post makes me want to tell you: no pressure. Take all the time. Live and fight and cry and white knuckle. I, for one, will wait decades and not lose a drop of momentum and eager adoration. I’ll tell you what I tell myself in the worst moments – this moment is not forever. It is not forever. It is not forever. I may not be able to even imagine that better exists out there, but I don’t have to. I just have to know this moment will not stay forever.

  9. thank you so much for this. I’m in high school and it is good to know that an adult I look up to so much know’s exactly what I’m going through. Whenever I get so inexplicably lost within myself I pick up one of your books and drift into another world… they make it so easy. Probably because you understand.

  10. Dear,,

    Hi.. please introduce myself,,I am Asian,24 years old. I am unemployed. I have been fired from the job I was in twice. I can hardly find any other job bcs of my bad working experience on my cv.
    Since then, I realized that I am a slow learner. I was fired bcs I did mistakes for so many times and didn’t understand the instructions properly.

    Well, I have big problem with learning new thing. I used to be a very hardworker but still there always be some flaws on my work. My supervisor always mad at me like, “I’ve said it so many times!”. They did right thing. I didnt blame my previous supervisors who fired me. All I am blaming is my ability of learning and understanding.

    Because of this,I know my weakness well. This leads me to have a terrible feeling when it comes to talk to someone, I’m always getting nervous and panic when I have to explain something. That’s one of the reason why I got fired. I have bad communication skill. Why, because I am afraid if I’m doing wrong.

    Ever since the last day of my working, I haven’t applied for any job yet. I have traumatic feeling about getting fired. My mom always scold me and asking why I’m not looking for another Job. In fact, I never told this to anyone before include, (especially) my parents. I told them that my contract was terminated because I had to handle another job outside my Job desc. I didn’t tell them the honest reason.

    I can’t even share this to my bestfriends bcs they are the people I am envy with. They are the people I wish I could be. They are now having good position in their company with good salary. I feel so much intimidated when we go out for cinema or just hanging out,, they’re all proudly spending their self-earn money and sharing their working experience. Meanwhile, I am still using my parent’s money,, and the leftover money from my last salary.Things are getting harder for me when they ask what my daily activities are. In fact Im just doing nothing at home.

    I keep telling lies to everyone. I am really afraid to tell the truth and to be judged. Having myself as a slow learner has already become the most hurtful thing I have to face.

    Now I am fighting so much againts my own anxiety and low self esteem. I am so afraid what if I never get a proper job.
    I am really expecting for you to do me a favor about what to do? What am I supposed to do ?
    I am so much thankful for your help..

    Best Regards
    @noodlesoup6

  11. Hi Libba,
    I hope this finds you a little more close to being “out of the woods.” Know that depression is beatable. But it’s not as simple as dropping a troublesome piece of bling into Mt. Doom and “poof!” you’ve won the tower of depression and all it’s nasty minions will crumble to the ground forever. Depression is a series of constant battles. And everyone deals differently: Ben & Jerry’s (Half-Baked, please), road rage, sarcasm, screaming, cursing, marathons of your favorite guilty pleasure TV show, bursting into tears as randomly as a Disney princess bursts into song… It’s frustrating as hell, because you don’t want to be that way. And it’s frustrating to friends and family because they want to help but don’t really know how. I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I have a very generalized understanding. I too battle with depression. Specifically, the seasonal kind that arrives in at the beginning of November and doesn’t relinquish its choke hold until April. This winter was particularly brutal for a number of reasons, and there were times when I didn’t want to leave the cocoon of my blanket. So yes, I understand…in a generalized way. Depression is all too familiar of a monster, and this post hit home, but I’m finally feeling human. And I hope you’re feeling better too. Hang in there. It’s all you can do. One day at a time and one day you’ll wake up and realize you won this round. If you can go head-to-head against something like depression, you can do anything!

    hugs to you!
    Alissa

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  14. This is wonderful writing about what depression is, but I actually disagree with calling it a disease. That emphasizes the individual nature of it, and that there’s even something wrong with the individual person. I think so many people are depressed, or have what’s called mental illness, because our society is so screwed up. We structure society to not give children (or adults) what they need, and then in some ways blame then when symptoms arise. The more sensitive ones show it, but it’s a common problem.

    I tend to view depression as a truth showing itself, but it’s not just a truth in an individual, it’s a truth of society. It’s a core emptiness that most “healthy” ones share, but are able to divert attention from. Depression (and other ‘illnesses’) occur when the truth cannot be ignored any more.

    The one factor that helped me the most was the ability to be myself and have close connections. To be depressed, or hurting, and have no immediate help come my way – just space and attention. To know there’s nothing really wrong with me, it’s just something voicing itself.

    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
    J. Krishnamurti

  15. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and reading your works since I was a teenager and first read ‘A Great and Terrible Beauty’. Usually, I don’t leave comments but I thought this justified one. I just want you to know you’re not alone. I’ve fought with depression since I was fifteen and I am now twenty three years old. I know how it feels to be standing, teeter tottering on the edge of that black hole and the way you’ve wrote about it perfectly describes just how it feels. Like sitting in a tub of painful, numbing ice water and being unable to lift yourself out. I’ve attempted suicide a few times and have been in therapy off and on for it. The last low I hit started in 2013 and it got so bad that I could barely function. I couldn’t even eat because that would require getting out of the bed for longer than it would take to have a quick shower.

    Thanks to therapy, meditation, and my loved ones I’m back on my feet again. Life is back to normal, but I know (as I’m sure you do) that the monster never really goes away. He just hides under the bed, or in it’s closet, waiting for the best opportunity to take over again. I’ve been better for almost a whole year now, though. And, well… I just wanted to say that when it feels you are out there walking through the miles and miles of No Man Land, and it feels like you are literally carrying the weight of the depression on your shoulders, don’t be afraid.. You are a resistance fighters, as am I and all the rest of us who’ve struggled with this pain. Although you cannot see us and though we are miles away in our own No Man Lands, we walk beside you. We are never truly alone, it’s only the hands of the monster covering are eyes that makes it hard for us to see.

    Stay strong and take it one step at a time. And, if it helps any, I’m sending you a long distance hug. Love is the only thing I’ve found that is stronger than depression. *hugs*

  16. Thank you so much for writing this eloquent piece on depression. I have been battling for over 8 years. I’ve never read anyone write so accurately what I I am living with on a daily basis. I love your term “white Knuckling it”. it is so appropriate. thanks for reminding me that I am not alone. Jenn

  17. Reblogged this on chelseaknight2012's Blog and commented:
    Just read this and Libba Bray has always been one of my favorite authors and to think that anyone you know could be suffering from depression. This strikes a chord deep inside me because my half Andrew struggled with depression before he passed away in a car accident 8 years ago and his brother Austin recently passed away from struggling with depression in March. I’m one of those people who internalizes all their pain and doesn’t like to talk about it and it gets built up and it can turn ugly quickly, which is why I turned to music and then books and TV and movies when my brother died so I didn’t have to deal with real life, but they also helped me cope and know that I wasn’t alone. So just being there for someone to talk to and just listening could prove so much for someone who is in such a dark place.

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  19. First let me say it was incredible brave of you and must have taken a lot of personal power to write this. I know, and you described in this essay, how crippling depression is and it must have been no easy task to get this out. That aside, this is one of the most accurate things I’ve ever read describing depression, I will be sure to refer this to anyone who does not understand what I’m going through, or needs realization that what their going through is not just them.

    As much as I am grateful for this though it scares me. I’ve been battling depression since I started college at the beginning of August 2012 and this February I finally decided to see a counselor and was doing fairly well, I was on my way out of the tub, until today, when I first felt the return of the time consuming sadness. When for the first time in two months I was unable to complete anything. And I’m scared. I’m scared this will be here forever. I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life.

    I’m not exactly sure why I’m saying all of this. Just thought I’d get it out there. I’m going to go read the short story you refereed though and maybe write some more on my own.

    Again, thank you for the piece, I hoped it helped you out a little bit too.

  20. Very brave and honest. Good blog. I don’t suffer depression now, but I have had bouts of crushing waves of the dark stuff. Now I have to say I deal with anxiety. But that can be a driver for my work. I’m going to read your books. I’m so glad I found your work!! I’ll be back.

  21. Libby? May i call u that? anyways i luv ur gemma doyle trilogy i am so attached to it! 😀 u have such great imaginations.I ADORE ur books 🙂 thanx for fullfilling my life.But there is one thing missing in my life.The movie or at least the show

  22. Pingback: A Perspective on Depression | Starre Steering the Helm

  23. Pingback: Fear and Loathing – living and writing with depression and anxiety | Liz McShane

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  25. Thank you for expressing this so well! I too struggled with depression for a long time before I found the courage to speak out. I thought people would think I was weak, unstable, etc. I thought I would feel weaker because I admitted it, but then I realized, it just was. I had depression and I could ignore it and live in shame or accept the help of others. When I finally began to deal with the depression enough to talk about it, I produced a video expressing my journey. I’m glad you’re sharing as well!!

    Here’s my story and I hope it helps others out there like your story has.

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  27. Depression is the heavy coat in my closet, the one I don from time to time. It smells of dust and drags my shoulders down, but it’s a comforting drag, since I’ve worn the coat many times before. Often it takes a long time to remember that I can remove the coat, or ask for help in taking it off.

    It helps immensely whenever I encounter someone else who has this coat in their closet as well.

    Hugs Libba – thanks for sharing! – Kim

  28. Only stumbled across your blog by accident, and this entry may have saved my life. Sorry to be dramatic, but it is what it is. Thank you for writing what I have been trying to say, and avoiding.

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  30. Pingback: » I Have Depression

  31. The bottom line question is “What is life all about”? When you are successful in life but you are still unhappy, you ask this question. When you are not as successful as you wanted to be or you thought you were capable of, you still ask this same question. You simply can’t put a finger to what is going wrong within you. This comes from a space of your “shelf life”. You realize time is running out and you have not achieved much. You want to be bigger than yourself.

    This is the time when finding your spiritual self is absolutely necessary, because that is the only thing that can dig you out. In my experience, there is a way out. There is a mechanism to take you out of that dark space of depression. It is yoga. Not the physical postures only, since to a lay man yoga are just physical postures (to stay fit or loose weight). Yoga is the alignment of your body, mind and spirit.

    Please read up or listen to “Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev”. Listen to him on Youtube. A certain practice he offers, called “Shambhavi Maha Mudra”, in his Inner Engineering Program. It may open up a certain dimension for you, if you are ready. Please look him up. It has helped me in ways beyond imagination.

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  34. Dear Libba, I am reading this over three months later. I fervently hope that since you posted, you have found some relief. Those of us who have suffered from depression are especially grateful for your honesty and your courage to share your story. Especially in the throes of it. Thank you.

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  37. Dear Libba…

    I’ve been a fan for years – ever since I first stumbled upon “A Great and Terrible Beauty” on one of the front shelves at a local book shop, and I check your website from time to time, occasionally commenting on a post here or there, but usually just browsing through your posts and any info on new books, etc. I’ve always enjoyed reading your blog entries, as even those communications are so pleasantly sassy and well written.

    For whatever reason, I just decided to check out your blog again, and this post is a major one. I can see you’ve twittered or tweeted or chirped (or whatever it’s called) since writing this entry for your blog, but I add my wish to those of other commenters who honestly hope that you’ve received comfort, strength, and respite in the meantime. Just by glancing at some of the comments, it is clear that you’ve already had a profound impact on your readers. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us and for your bravery and raw honesty in doing so. I was sad to learn of this pain and am thinking of you and wishing you peace.

  38. Someone I met by chance at a hikers’ event told me about this post and recently sent me the actual link. Your writing is beautiful and evocative. Thank you for sharing from your heart and helping others to appreciate better what depression really feels like. If you don’t mind, I would like to share a link to your post on our website (www.hikeformentalhealth.org).

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  40. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I had no idea she struggled with depression. But I thought I’d just share this, especially because it’s something I’ve struggled with and am still vulnerable to.

  41. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Depression | What can I say? I'm a dreamer.

  42. Pingback: When the Forest is Dark and the Light is Scarce | Amber Skye Forbes

  43. I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your site.
    It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for
    me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a designer to create your theme?
    Superb work!

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