Some days – or periods of life- are sunny and hilarious and fun to write about, and others are dark and terrifying and so hard and sad that words aren’t enough.
In the last few days I’ve been reminded several times that we just don’t have any idea what people are dealing with inside their heads and hearts. Depression can be mean and unrelenting, and even very sick people can become masters of hiding their illnesses as they scrounge for a way to escape their pain.
If you’re wondering who I’m talking about, it’s no one I know personally this time, though over the years I have lost several friends I’ve loved dearly to suicide. Horst and Reggie and Leah were beautiful, gifted people, creative and funny, sweet and giving. They had people who adored them, including me, and they were children of a God who treasured them and surely wept beside them over their suffering.
I thought of each of them when we made a stop last week along the beautiful Natchez Trace. Do you know about the Natchez Trace? It’s a historic trail that runs from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. We had planned to make it part of our cross country trip for two reasons: #1, because it’s supposed to be stunningly green and beautiful (and it was!) and #2, because it’s an important part of the story of Lewis and Clark, which, thanks to my history loving husband, has become part of our family’s life. We’ve all been educated by Todd Ramsey and Ken Burns about their journey- how Lewis and Clark were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to find a water route across the west to the Pacific ocean, to establish trading relationships with the native Americans there and to do an extensive study of plants and animals and the land they encountered. But hearing about it wasn’t enough. When each of our boys turned 16, Todd took them out to Montana and spent a week retracing their steps by canoeing the Missouri River. I blogged about Ben’s trip here, back in 2009. (Sarah had a different adventure since skipping showers for a week and digging her own latrine every time she needed one wasn’t exactly her dream vacation.)
So why’d we visit the Natchez Trace? Lewis’s story there is sad, but it reveals so much about mental illness. Meriwether Lewis was known by historians to have struggled greatly with melancholy, even during the expedition. He may have struggled, but he completed the mission! By the end of the journey Lewis had survived brutal conditions, near starvation, and had encountered thousands of miles of land that no non-native had ever seen before, all while keeping the entire Corps of Discovery safe, 33 people, save one man who died of appendicitis. By the time he returned, Lewis was 35 years old and an American hero. Yet in his own mind, Meriwether was convinced he was a failure! He struggled to complete his journals on the expedition, he had not found what he and Clark had been searching for- easy passage by water to the Pacific, and he was consumed by the accusations that he had misused money and was a poor administrator. So Lewis packed up his journals and set off for Washington DC to settle things. Along the Natchez Trace, some 70 miles southwest of Nashville, he spent the night at an inn called Grinder’s Stand, where it is believed by most historians that he took his own life.
I look at the monument to his life and work, a single column, cut short, and I weep for Meriwether, a child of God and a hero in our national history. I look at it and I long for my friends. I look at it and I thank God for medicine that enables people to live the lives God means for them to enjoy. I look at it and hope that one day people will think of people suffering with mental illnesses in the same way they think of those suffering with heart disease or diabetes or any other illness, with compassion and open arms. I look at it and I want people to know that women and men and girls and boys who suffer with mental illness are beautiful and loved, that they are strong and fight hard, and that they need our understanding and support.