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  • Writer's pictureSteph Shuff

Gray is the only color

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

During the fall of 2014, I was just getting back from what should have been one of the best vacations of my life. My boyfriend and I had gone on a two-week trip through Europe: we enjoyed amazing food, the company of wonderful friends, and the beautiful sites and cities for which Europe is widely known. It was a dream come true.

When I returned from that vacation, I felt strange. It wasn’t a feeling as strong as sadness, which tugs and pulls and makes its presence known in choked words and shallow breaths. Rather, it was a vague sort of vacancy, an emotional void. There was no feeling at all. My life lacked color and texture, as if I were looking at everything from behind a veil. As if every detail was coated in a layer of dust, like a dirty vehicle in an empty parking lot. I attributed the feeling, or lack thereof, to the post-vacation blues. I figured within two weeks I would rebound back to my normal, positive self.

I didn’t rebound. Instead, the hole got deeper. Months went by. The holiday season came and went. I felt alone, unknown, swimming in a sea of fake friends and superficial relationships. I felt oppressed by social media and the picture perfect lives of those around me. I dreaded my alarm, my commute, my life. My job, which I had always enjoyed, felt like indentured servitude. My entire world felt forced, fake, fraudulent. I felt at the same time both burdened and bored by my existence and everything in it. I was suffocating.

I did not know this at the time, but I was suffering from depression. Rather than name my depression for what it was, however, the empty feeling I had was subsumed by an incredible amount of guilt. How dare I — a privileged, intelligent, attractive young woman — feel this way about my life? How dare I suffer when so many others suffered more than me? My depression only deepened as a result of this guilt and the belief that I was not allowed to suffer at all.

By some stroke of cosmic luck, I made the acquaintance of two unlikely friends, whose names I have changed here for privacy: Paul, an older, recently divorced, well-to-do Manhattanite that was as sprightly as he was spry; and Jessica, a late-thirties wife and mother and the penultimate professional working woman. We were the unlikely trio, the three of us. In our own unique ways, we were lost. And somehow, we found each other.

We became fast friends one fateful night over a candle lit table where we shared fresh sushi and dry sake. After I made a few unusual and intimate confessions about my life and my struggles — the type of confessions our dearest friends may not know about us, much less strangers — Paul made a suggestion that would change my life. He recommended I go to therapy.

I recoiled at the suggestion, but he had a strong sense of urgency and insistence that I did not understand at the time. We made a pact that night, the three of us, that each of us would pursue a challenge in our life that would be both difficult but vital to finding our way. Paul and Jessica made their own commitments. Mine was to go to therapy.

Within two weeks, I met the doctor who would alter the course of my life. Her name is Dr. Dana Harron, and if you are in Washington, D.C. and in need of therapy, put her at the top of your list. She did not participate in my (or any other) insurance plan. I have heard that the best doctors never do. It is a sign of the current state of our collective mental health that the best doctors are out of reach of most people, health insurance or not. For the next 18 months, I would pay nearly $10,000 out of pocket to find my way back to myself.

The next several years would prove to be the most difficult of my life. Those of you that have been friends with me for some time probably remember the first time I cut my hair into a cropped pixie cut from the long blonde mane that I had worn my entire life. That haircut marked the beginning of a period of struggle and growth and rebirth that continues today; that haircut was suggestive of something much deeper happening within myself.

Like shearing off the weight of my hair, and with it, the burden of my past, my gender, my sexuality, and my shame, I began to cut away the things in my life that no longer served me. Possessions. People. Presumptions. I began to connect to something deeper than myself. Purpose. It was a long and arduous process that is still a work in progress. I wake up every day and try to remember that I am both perfect and flawed in the same breath.

There were times that I relapsed — I fell hard and often back into old patterns and cycles of self-destruction. But each time I emerged from a period of self-doubt, I felt stronger, more resolved, as though I had been forged in fire and tempered like steel. Today, I am far from perfect, and I still struggle with destructive relationships and self doubt. I hurt people and they hurt me. But I work hard to love myself, and to love others, and to surround myself with people that love me.

Love — the selfless, unconditional kind — has become my guiding light. I have always thought of myself as a romantic at heart, but what my younger self failed to realize was that the pursuit of love starts and ends with self love. Unconditional love for self seems selfish, but it is the most selfless thing we can do; it gives us a map to feel unconditional love for others.

I am no Buddha. I am far from enlightened. But I am doing my best. And I am forgiving myself and others when we fail. Which we do. Often.

Paul and Jessica are still there, in the periphery of my life, never to be forgotten, my debt to them never to be fully repaid. Dr. Harron is still around, too, and I am still working on paying off those debts as well. I am sure that each of them was sent to me like guardian angels in my time of need. They and so many other saved me, and in the process, I learned how to save myself.

I share this story with you in the wake of the suicides of two people that I never met, but whose lives I imagined would be full of glamour and wonder and joy. Kate Spade, a fashion icon, part of the Manhattan elite, a wife, a mother; and Anthony Bourdain, a storyteller, truth-seeker, and chef; a global citizen in every sense of the word.

Their suicides make me recall with sharp clarity the most difficult part of my depression. It was not the depression itself. It was the guilt and shame I felt for being so empty, despite living such a blessed and glorious life. I realize now how much Bourdain and Spade must have struggled with this same guilt and shame. I am sad to know that all the financial resources and all the adoration in the world could not save them from themselves. I wish I could have told them that it was ok. Whatever it was. Sometimes, sadness is the only way we can know joy. And to know great joy means to open ourselves up to great sorrow.

These are the waves on which we ride in life. We are dashed against the rocks of despair; we are exalted on the winds of elation. Depression takes many forms, but for me it was an absence of both joy and sadness. A numbness; an emptiness; a vacancy. It was a suffering worse than the deepest sorrow I have ever felt.

If you feel a vacancy, a void, an emptiness that cannot be filled — know that it is ok. You are not broken. You are human, and you are never alone. I am here with you, and through time and space, we are all in this together.

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