Winter 2008: Coda
That Blue Sky Feeling
By Catherine McCall 83C 87M
One day a depressed man in his mid-fifties gazed out the window of my office and said, “I just want that blue sky feeling again.” That blue sky feeling.
The phrase takes me back twenty years, to a particular Saturday in Atlanta, 1987. I’d just graduated from medical school and had completed one week of internship. Despite the blue skies that regularly bathed Atlanta in those days, the color inside me was gray. A sludge of complacency and lethargy had gradually accumulated inside me. Call it depression, call it fatigue, call it laziness or self-pity or downright despair, I was miserable and too proud or too scared to let anyone know.
Most of my friends had left town, on to new adventures and the promise of glamorous careers. My lover had departed in a painful and complicated way, and I spent most of my off hours pinned to the bed or the couch, sometimes writing in my journal but more often just suspended in the void. Breathing was effortful, as was faking my way through each day.
My therapist at the time said, “Why don’t you just get out and do something, instead of lying around writing sad poetry?”
Anyone familiar with wrestling monsters in the shadows, or what some people call depression, knows how sensible and utterly absurd that advice was, and still would be today. That Saturday her words beat at the edges of my skull. From my bedroom window I could see the crystal sheen of the Atlanta sky, but I could not move toward it.
Except I’d made a promise. Not to my therapist but to my puppy.
For the last two hours she had shaken toys, chewed shoes, hopped up and slumped down, all in an effort to combat her boredom. After a while she landed on her crisp green bed, her black muzzle tilted down in an undeniable pout. Alysheba, named after that year’s Kentucky Derby champion, was now a bursting-with-energy four-month-old. We’d just endured a week of terribly long days apart, and all week I’d told her, “I promise I’ll take you to Lullwater on Saturday.” But now here we sat—me full of paralyzing, self-critical muck and her ready to trade me in for a more exciting mama. But I was it for her, and vice-versa.
“Okay,” I finally said, sliding off the bed. “We’ll go.”
By the time we got to the park it was in full Saturday swing. Happy people jogged and strolled, laughed and chatted. I felt alone and strangely exposed, as if I walked surrounded by bullet-proof glass. The sun couldn’t reach my skin, nor the breeze my ears—such is the deadening effect of depression.
We took the less-crowded path, toward the University president’s home. Alysheba ran in loops as Labs do. She’d dart a little ways ahead then circle back, as if to check on me, to make sure I was following her. Her Lab paws still dominated her physique but her legs and torso moved with something approaching coordination. Her inborn self-sufficiency and loyalty spared my worry, which I had little energy for anyway.
As we trekked along the pavement, the familiar inner taunts drowned out all other sounds. I thought of turning around, but Aly kept exploring new terrain, so I obliged her. Around the bend, a cluster of ducks and small children came into view: a simple family outing, feeding ducks at the park. The people appeared as a mirage, a fading frame of a movie; I felt completely invisible.
Then, all of a sudden, mothers shrieked. Children squealed. Ducks sprinted into the water, squawking and flapping and sending a cloud of feathers into the air. Alysheba never lost her stride. She bounded into the water like a medal-winning bird dog. Mothers scooped up their toddlers in the face of this rambunctious blur of black. Onlookers glanced around to identify the irresponsible citizen with the unleashed dog.
I paid little attention to them because I was laughing so hard. That kind of full-body laugh, where your eyes start tearing up and your ribs start aching. For her part, Alysheba just kept swimming. She swam more like an expert than a novice, swimming for the sheer joy of it now, since the miffed ducks had scattered to the remote parts of the pond.
I smiled as I watched her swim, and that’s when I noticed the most incredible thing—I was feeling something. I was feeling joy, spreading upward in me like a dawning sun, or more like the emerging sun after a storm. Its rays opened the clouds like fingers, revealing a magnificent blue canvas that was there all along.
That I could experience such an emotion, given my state of despondency, was nothing less than miraculous—a shift that remains compelling and mysterious even today. As a psychiatrist in training, I was inquisitive about my inner world. Maybe that psychological curiosity helped me awaken at that moment to the delightful chaos made by mixing children and ducks and puppies. But that sounds way too analytical and refined—like I had something to do with it.
The truth was that sheer grace sliced through me as a lightning bolt splits a tree. By inching out of my fog, in a small act of service to another living creature, I unknowingly had created the possibility for my glass tomb to be cracked open. There was not a spontaneous healing that day, where my sludge evaporated with a single laugh. But the door to my darkness had been set ajar. Just as the thinnest beam of light illuminates the blackest night, joy—once embodied—glows like a laser beam on the soul. It is a light to be followed, to be invited and received. It is something a lot of people, including me, have to learn, or relearn, to experience.
That has been a curious discovery, to realize that many adults must recapture a sense of joy that came so easily in their childhood. Sometimes we don’t remember such joy, not cognitively anyway. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, or isn’t within us still.
We are hardwired to experience love and joy; without these emotions our species would not survive. Yet, in our familiar ruts and task-obsessed lives, we often keep our eyes and our hearts closed to the wonder in our midst. The sky may be a brilliant blue, but if we do not really look at it then we cannot see it, much less feel it, or dwell, even for a moment, in the joy of its beauty and its mystery. The same holds true for a baby or a flower or a puppy splashing into a crowd of ducks. The more we allow the feeling of joy into our experience, the more often we feel it, until the day comes when we notice that blue sky feeling resides within us, regardless of the weather.
In retrospect, that moment with Aly and the ducks marked the beginning of my healing. At the time, I simply gathered my wet, panting pup and commenced for home, more fully attuned to the dance of leaves and the lilt of children’s laughter. I felt the sun on my face and the cool palms of shade on my shoulders. My legs moved in rhythm with my arms, and it felt good to walk.
I’d not brought a towel to dry my dog, and somehow it didn’t matter. I told her we’d bring one next time.