It hides in plain sight—in the colleague who drinks too much, in the friend who keeps canceling nights out, in the teenager who won’t leave his room. It is frequently found running in tandem with other life-threatening diseases. It is in our colleagues, in our friends, in our families.
Depression has afflicted Tracy Thompson most of her life. To the outsider looking in, she was a happy person with a rewarding career, a beautiful family, and a large circle of friends. But lurking beneath the veil of contentment was a dark, inexplicable, and all-consuming despair that she would later dub “The Beast.”
In this unflinching chronicle of her continuing battle against “The Beast,” Tracy Thompson writes with ceaseless candor on her struggles and the internal war that pursued her from youth to adulthood, undermining relationships, complicating her career, and threatening her family. Thompson recounts this most personal and vital battle to reclaim her life before depression could take it from her. A seminal work on depression at publication, The Beast remains an essential read to the millions of Americans enduring this affliction, in either their loved ones or themselves. It offers an insightful perspective on the disease, and a glimmer of hope.
“Ms. Thompson takes a clear-eyed look at work as well as love, intertwining the success story of her journalistic career (she eventually becomes a reporter on The Washington Post) with her record of numb despair, suicide attempts and hospitalizations.” —The New York Times
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It is deep in the night; morning is a mirage. And the thing I have dreaded has happened: the beast is outside my window. It is a mechanical beast, and it screams — steel against steel, a heavy thundering of weight. There is the oppressive sense of something huge and black. It is confined for now, but it threatens to bolt loose, breaking all natural laws; if I move, it might notice me. I lie motionless, trying not to breathe. The beast slows, grumbling, then shudders, slides, and finally comes to a raucous, banging stop outside my window. Somehow the silence is worse than the cacophony which preceded it. It is a silence of something about to happen, broken at intervals by another metallic groan as the beast moves, muttering in its sleep. The fear is a bubble which rises from the pit of my stomach to my lips. Then there is a shadow in the doorway: my mother.
"It's a freight train, Tace," she says tiredly. "Go back to sleep." In a minute, I hear her voice across the hallway, in my parents' bedroom. "I swear, I think she can hear those trains the minute they leave the station in Chattanooga."
I am sitting on my mother's lap. She is kneeling or sitting cross-legged on a bare hardwood floor. I feel warm and happy. There is sunlight coming through the window in front of me, and a breeze moves the sheer curtains. I am laughing.
It is summer, and I am in the backyard, a shelter under a cool canopy of oak trees. My mother's chaise lounge rests on bare dirt, next to the duck pen. She is sitting with the mother of one of my playmates, and they are sipping iced tea from tall frosted metal glasses, and I should be comfortable. But I'm not. I feel a familiar, gnawing fear. What's wrong? Something's wrong. I keep waiting for it to happen. "It's so nice to sit back here when it's raining, the trees are so close you don't get wet at all," my mother is saying. Somehow that casual remark is branded in my brain as if she had said, "The Russians are bombing us," or, "I am dying." Those were the things I expected to hear.
Most of my early memories are like sunlight through a tree, dappled with dread. "My hill-and-dale girl," my mother called me. At night, after everybody was asleep, I would kneel at the cedar chest in my bedroom, making a shrine by spreading the white sheer curtains around me. There I would bargain with God for relief from this awful sense of guilt and impending disaster. If I could be good enough, my father would not lose his job, my mother would not die of cancer, our house would not burn down. I would go to bed holding a cross made of plastic that absorbed light and glowed for a while in the dark, hoping to drift to sleep while the emblem of my Savior watched over me, a magical purplish glow. But the glow often faded before sleep came. On some nights, I drifted in and out of an anxious doze, snapped into consciousness by the crowing of my grandmother's rooster across the cornfield from my bedroom. It might be dawn; it might be three a.m. The sound, like the call of a mockingbird, years later, seemed an accusation aimed at me for sins I could not name.
Verily, I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crows, thou shalt deny me thrice.
Anxiety was in the air, like a virus.
My mother was afraid. "I had a terrible dream last night," she said one day. The four of us were in the car, at the top of a hill deep in the countryside south of Atlanta. We had been "visiting," dropping by relatives' houses on a Sunday afternoon, an old Southern custom. Now it was late. Ahead of us, the sun had burned to a dull orange and was sinking behind a knotted bramble of bare tree branches, throwing shadows across monochrome fields marked with the stubble of last summer's corn. My mother was always having terrible dreams, prophecies of disaster or interminable slow-motion nightmares in which she could not escape the thing that was pursuing her. It was the legacy of her past: a childhood of poverty, the early loss of both parents, years of deprivation and abuse from relatives. From all of that she had salvaged her Southern fundamentalist faith. Jesus was her refuge, the one Being who had never deserted her or made her feel unworthy; she loved her Savior with the fervor of an abandoned child. But even kindly Jesus warned us of doomsday, and that was what she was talking about now. My sister and I leaned over the front seat; she sat beside my father as he drove, and looked into the sunset.
"The sun was blood-red, like it was the end of the world," she said.
"What happened in the dream, Mama?" Her words gave me a chill. "Were we in it?"
"Yes," she said, shortly. Then she shuddered. "I don't want to talk about it." No matter how I pressed her, she would not say more. I leaned back into the car seat. How horrible it must have been, that she couldn't tell us. The dream was an omen; I believed in omens. We expected the end of the world, the Second Coming of Christ. It could happen at any moment. For no man knows the day or the hour. I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. But I knew what her dream was about: it was about me, being left behind. I was not going to heaven.
I could not remember a time when I did not know that. The faith that steeled my mother for life, which my father accepted and which seemed to come so naturally for my older sister, did not come naturally to me.
From the beginning, my confusion centered on this thing called the Second Coming. It was supposed to be the moment of ultimate rapture for all Christians, when believers were to be caught up in the air and taken directly to heaven. We heard the Bible verses in church. I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken and the other shall be left ... Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. It was a moment all Christians supposedly longed for. But every description sounded terrible, disorienting, and strange to me. I just didn't get it. And the fact that this alternate view made no sense, that I awaited the Second Coming with horror and dread, was proof of my difference from others. And different, to a child, was a curse. Different meant defective.
"I can't feel at home in this world anymore," we sang in church. But the world was my home. I was in love with the tangible; in my mind, even the letters of the alphabet possessed shape, color, texture, weight.
This was Georgia, twenty miles south of Atlanta. The time was the early sixties.
One night when I was seven, President Kennedy was on television. I said, "What is it?" The adults stared at the television and did not answer. Afterwards, we had a family conference around the round oak kitchen table about what to do if a nuclear bomb fell on Atlanta. Do not get on the bus, my mother ordered; I will come get you, no matter what. At church, pale men in dark horn-rimmed glasses bent over me and asked me to suppose that godless Russians had threatened to shoot me if I did not renounce Jesus Christ. What would I do? I would renounce Jesus and go home, I thought; maybe then they would leave me alone. But I didn't say that. Telling the pale men that I was ready to knuckle under to the godless Russians was not what they wanted to hear.
The imminence of nuclear war, centered around someplace called Cuba, got tangled up in my mind with the Second Coming. I couldn't decide which scared me more: the godless Russians or Jesus in the sky, coming to judge the quick and the dead. Somehow I always thought both events would take place directly over the marquee of the Roosevelt Drive-In Theater, visible from our back doorstep.
My mother remembers one Fourth of July in either 1962 or 1963. She and my father had stepped out into the driveway around midnight to watch the annual fireworks show put on by the drive-in. My sister and I were asleep, they thought, in the back bedroom. At some point, between whistles and pops, she became aware of screaming from the back of the house. It was the two of us, awakened by the noise. We thought it was the end of the world.
I have no memory of this event. I knew only that annihilation loomed. It could happen while I was asleep, while I was pulling up my socks, while I was fighting with my sister; I could wake up from a nap and discover myself doomed to eternal hell while the rest of my family had gone to heaven in the Great Rapture or the giant mushroom cloud, whichever came first.
One day in fourth grade, I left my seat in the classroom and went down the hall to the girls' room. I walked close to the wall, trying not to take up space. Inside the rest room, I crouched behind a toilet, my arms wrapped around my knees. I did not cry; I was just wordlessly sad. Unable to figure out why, equipped with only a child's logic, I eventually decided I was sad because President Kennedy was dead.
Even then, this rationale did not seem satisfactory.
There were clear signs on at least one side of my family — my father's — that a vulnerability to mood disorders was woven into the family genes.
At some point in the 1930s, one story went, my father's mother simply went to bed and stayed there for a decade. No one knew exactly why, though there was some vague mention of "female troubles."
In retrospect, it seems she simply gave up on life. By the time I formed my first memories of my father's mother, she was a bent woman, frailer and more elderly than her years, who sat on the sofa and seemed to absorb all the light and levity in the room. Her need for human contact — any kind — was insatiable, but her usual way of asking for it was to request personal favors. "Would you trim my toenails?" she would ask. "Would you wash my hair?"
Years later, as an adult, I learned of another child — a girl born before my father, whose existence my grandmother rarely spoke of. Her name was Helen Faye. She had died at the age of three in a household accident. While my grandmother's back was turned, Helen Faye managed to climb up on a stool near the stove, where she upset a pot of boiling water. She died several days later. My father was sent to live with his aunt in Gadsden, Alabama, while his older brother stayed at home to help care for their mother.
My father's father was a roguishly handsome man who was one of Birmingham's first motorcycle policemen. No one in the family ever heard my grandmother call him anything but "Boy" — not in the demeaning sense also known then in the South, as addressed to black men, but as a simple word of endearment, an unusual gesture in a woman so reticent. At some point after Helen Faye's death, he left. In some versions of the story, he simply departed — went out for a pack of cigarettes, as the saying goes, and never came back; in other versions, they had fought over his decision to go look for work in Mobile. His brother found him, years later, working on the docks in San Francisco. When I was an infant, my mother says, there came news that he had remarried. My grandmother was living with my parents then — she spent most of her life, after her bedridden period, shuttling from one son's house to the other — and my mother was awakened in the night by the sound of racking sobs. By then, he had been gone for several years. My grandmother still wore her wedding ring.
So death and abandonment took up residence in our house, trapped under a blanket of suffocating silence, and for comfort there was a kindly Jesus who might come at any moment to judge the quick and the dead.
Of my mother's family I know even less. She has a picture, taken about 1929, of two little girls standing against the side of a house. It appears to be morning. Both have bobbed hair and are carrying Easter baskets. The older one, about seven, looks directly into the camera. The younger one, who is about three, is looking off to one side — distracted for the moment by a butterfly, perhaps, or the appearance of the family cat. Looming across the foreground of that picture are two large shadows, a man and a woman, evidently the adults who are taking the picture. The three-year-old is my mother. The shadows are her only visible reminder of her parents.
She never knew her father. He left not long after that, for reasons never explained, the way men left families in the Depression to seek work elsewhere or simply to rid themselves of the burdens of a wife and children. My mother was told that he had died. She has only vague memories of her mother — a serious, deeply religious woman with auburn hair, who worked in the Nabisco factory in downtown Atlanta, making biscuit boxes. She died of influenza when my mother was four, the winter after that Easter snapshot was made. My aunt — the seven-year-old in that picture — was told that as their mother was dying, she made her own sister promise to take care of her two little girls.
The promise was casually made and just as casually broken; poverty had made my mother's family bitter and mean-spirited. Two children, to them, simply meant a bigger grocery bill. Neither my mother nor her sister has ever spoken of their relatives with anything approaching affection. The only uncle who was financially stable, an accountant with Coca-Cola, did petition to adopt them. But the courts refused to give him custody, citing his alcoholism. For a time, my mother and her sister shuttled between the homes of various relatives, treated like the unwanted children they were. My mother remembers a family argument that ended with the two of them being pushed out of a car and left by the side of a deserted road in the country. How long they were there she does not remember; it seemed like a week, though it was probably not more than an hour. She remembers standing there with her sister in the tall grass, watching the car drive away. She was six years old; her sister was ten.
The two of them wound up as full-time residents of the Southern Christian Children's Home in downtown Atlanta. During one particularly lean period, money was so scarce that the children got a piece of bread with some pasty peanut butter for dinner at night. My mother learned to eat the bread and save the peanut butter, rolling it into a ball to eat in bed at night before she went to sleep.
My aunt left the children's home at sixteen to make an unwise marriage. My mother was luckier: she was adopted at the age of eight. Not surprisingly, she lavished her unqualified adoration on the man who came to her rescue. He was a rawboned Georgia farmer named John Derrick, whose wife, Cora, could not have children. I called him Pa-Pa. By the time I was four or five, he was retired from Southern Railway, the job he had taken to pay the bills. But at heart he was still a farmer, and up to the year before he died, he was still reflexively putting seeds in the soil. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on his lap while he fished a knife out of a front pocket of his worn overalls to peel an apple for me.
My memories of those years are primitive and sensory.
The dirt road out front is red clay, gluey and slick when wet. I dig it out from under my nails, find it between my toes. I walk behind my grandfather, Pa-Pa, as he plows the upper cornfield with his white mule, Becky. It is early spring, and the crumbling clots of dirt are cold, as if the plow is opening up the winter earth to the steady spring sun. The dirt smells dark, a musky scent of manure and rain.
Later, in another spring, I remember lying on the earth outside the barn, across a dirt lane from where Pa-Pa plowed. He died on a spring day like this, a day like an old lady's idea of heaven: a little too hot, a little too perfumed, a little too floral. I smell honeysuckle. Running under that scent, like the harsh one-note plaint of a diggery doo, is a faint animal stench from the barn. The sun is hot on my back. I lie facedown in the grass, my face pressed to the earth, and while I sleep it seems I can feel the earth move, almost imperceptibly, toward late afternoon.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Beast"
Copyright © 1995 Tracy Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am sorry to see that new copies of this book are no longer available. While I still struggle with depression...what this book did for me was put into words everything I was feeling but could not describe to other people. It helped me to realize that I was not the only who had ever felt this way.
Not as good as The Noonday Demon, but a worthwhile, thought-provoking memoir of a newspaper reporter's struggle with depression and the effect of her illness on her work and her relationships.
Tracy Thompson's 'The Beast' is a surprisingly attractive and readable tale of the author's battle with mental illness. Her imagery and metaphors are both original and precise. This book is a nice slice of life for ANYONE to read--not just for those who struggle.
THIS IS HANDS DOWN THE BEST BOOK I HAVE EVER READ ON THE SUBJECT. NOT ONLY DOES IT COME TO US IN FIRST PERSON, IT IS WRITTEN BY A WOMEN WHOSE GIFTED USE OF IMAGERY HELP US TO COME AS CLOSE TO KNOWING WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO SUFFER FROM DEPRESSION AS ONE CAN WITHOUT EXPERIENCING IT. I HAVE ALREADY TOLD 10 OF MY FRIENDS TO GO OUT AND BUY THIS.