Darkness pressed against me. The palatable wall thickened. It forced itself closer, trying the consume me, trying to smother my light. I reached down, pulled more strength from my wick, trying to burn hotter. The darkness refused to relent. Liquid wax pooled just beneath me. It rose as blackness forced my heat to retreat. Candle edges, easily dealt with only moments before, refused to melt. Darkness closed. Molten wax rose. Panic set in. I couldn’t get enough oxygen. I couldn’t breathe. Without breath, there was no flame. I looked to the other candles far across the darkness. They burned hot, not mere pinpricks. Their candles melted. Darkness didn’t smother them. They burned bright.
What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I? The answers came as wax reached for my throat and darkness covered my head. I’m useless. I’m weak. I deserve to be smothered.
Depression and Anxiety. I’ve been haloed by them my whole life. It took me years and ultimately becoming a writer before I started to even comprehend the darkness and rising wax around the people that I loved. From a distance, their flames burned, perhaps flickering more than mine, but life’s breezes hit us all in different ways, right? I’m a listener, an encourager and a bit of a goofball by nature, so I listened and they brightened. I illuminated their victories and they brightened. I clowned it up, and they brightened.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I did it on instinct, much as I do as a discovery writer (pantser.)
Life separated me from some of those guttering candles.
Some found other listeners.
Some snuffed out their own lights.
One—my father—let the darkness take him only a handful of days from now back in 1989.
A candle flame appeared at my side. Its brightness quelled the darkness. It leaned close enough for its warmth to hug my own, our flames joining a moment to melt away the wax ridges.
“So, you lit the candlebringer’s proposal,” it said. “How incredible was it to light that moment for them? Did she accept? How did it feel? Tell me everything.”
To those that suffer depression—almost always accompanied by anxiety if not even greater burdens—life feels much like the candle flame above. The brightness of day hides their troubles. Darkness circles their mind in a spiral of negativity feeding off itself to grow stronger. When they most need others—need listeners, they isolate themselves. They may even stand right next to us, doing the things they love most but not glowing with their normal joy of it.
They may not feel they deserve help. They may not feel they deserve your notice. They may be embarrassed to reach out, not wanting you to think poorly of them. They need you to notice anyway. Quiet your inner three year old demanding attention and listen. Really listen so they can vent those feelings out into a safe place. Problems often seem huge and insurmountable when we’re staring at them with tunnel vision. Distract their attention from the rising wax. If they’ve sat in the same chair, telling you about the eighteenth crushing darkness about to smother them this year, you can still encourage them. Ask them about the previous incident. Remind them that they survived it. They succeeded. Encourage them that perhaps even if this incident is different, they can succeed again. Remind them that they’re not alone. They have friends.
Be that friend—the kind of trustworthy friend that doesn’t care what time it is and never shares their secrets.
Listen. Distract. Encourage.
Buy them the time to step away from that darkness, then encourage other kinds of help. Encourage them to keep an honest journal on their thoughts and feelings at that moment, something they can use to look back at their victories—not to mention distract themselves from the depression while they accomplish a journal entry. If they’re anxious around crowds, be the body that separates them from a room full of convention goers so they can be part of what brings them joy but feel safe.
Your three year old self can have attention when everyone is better.
It’s my good fortune to have met and befriended a former president of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness.) He teaches classes on mental illness awareness and was happy to discuss my experiences and point out the ways that I’d helped without realizing it—even clarify the approaches I listed above for others. Apparently, he’s never tried to get anyone to understand how it feels to be a candle flame in his classes, but he offers an analogy most US Adults can comprehend.
He associates the feelings of depression with those stuck in the upper most floor of the Trade Center Towers. Imagine smoke filling our office with heat driving you to those high windows. Flames lick your ankles, rising toward you. The smoke chokes you, squeezing your chest. You don’t want to jump out that window. It seems there’s no way to survive the fall. The flames rise higher and higher leaving you unable to find any hope, any other choice but a hopeless jump.
I think the candles are a bit less gruesome, but apparently some people are afraid of enchanted castles.
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
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