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By Kristen Hogan

And it came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the 1980s. At ten or eleven, I’m skinny, long limbed, and hovering in the space between the deserted dining room table and my uncle’s glass-doored gun cabinet, hoping to sneak another slice of banana cream pie. Instead, I overhear my grandma and my aunt arguing in the tired kitchen behind the yellowing Formica countertop.

“You need to take your medicine.”

“I don’t want to be dependent on medicine.” My grandma spits out the word medicine as if sniffing something rotten in the pantry.

“But Mom, you feel better when you take the pills.”

“No, I do not!” My grandma curls her lips. “I feel nothing when I take those pills. No happiness or joy or excitement.”

My aunt hunches over, her hand tapping on the counter. “Look, if I don’t take my pills, I feel like something terrible is going to happen, something awful just around the corner. Without my pills, I would be a mess.”

“Well, I don’t know why you need medicine,” my grandma huffs. “It’s not like you had a difficult childhood.”

My aunt’s chest caves inward with her exhale.

I’m transfixed, forgetting my quest for pie.

It’s a century ago on a beet farm in Preston, Idaho. My grandma is running across a field with uncombed hair flaring in the wind. Her cotton dress catches on cattails and hitchhiker weeds, and she tugs it free with the frustrations of a child who is running with a single purpose: to be free of the insults barked at her a moment before. “Little brat! Can’t you do anything right?”

Her cheeks are red but not from cold. She is just a child, surviving in rural Idaho with a cruel and, most likely, clinically depressed mother.

I am haunted by a line from her personal history. I wanted to be free from the domination of my mother. I felt how special I was as a child and how much I wanted love which I did not seem to receive.

As my grandma grows into an adult, she struggles with her own mental health. But unlike her isolated mother, she lives during a time when a host of treatments for mental illnesses invade polite society: electroshock, lobotomy, cognitive therapy, Valium, and eventually Prozac. She tries a host of remedies, doctors, and strange ideas. One such expert prescribes a pendulum for her to wear around her neck, claiming its energy will cure her distressed soul. She looks for answers in priesthood blessings and new-aged mind cures alike. After she dies, I rummage through her collection of paperbacks with titles like Feelings Buried Alive Never Die and You Can Heal Your Life.

Yet for me, Corma Chapman is simply Grandma with her silver-rimmed glasses, round face, and permed, bubble bob hair. Living less than a mile away from our home, my grandparents are staples of my childhood. My seven siblings and I visit often, sometimes daily in the summer, helping Grandpa pick raspberries in his garden plot down the street or shelling the endless bowls of peas in Grandma’s kitchen. She sews me a pair of Raggedy Ann dolls from scratch with orange yarn hair, black-and-white striped stockings, and a stitched heart on each chest. I’ve kept them to this day, tattered and unclad, in my treasure chest. We sleep over for our birthdays, playing Flinch into the evenings and eating waffles and poached eggs for breakfast. I don’t remember any hysteria or instability from Grandma, just hints of something yawning under the surface like in that kitchen on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s December 1998. My mom hands me a manilla folder full of papers and pamphlets. She’s labeled it depression in her spiral slanted cursive.

“Dad has gathered all this information over the years. I think you have depression, Kristen. I know you are still sad over what happened, but this is more than sadness.”

It’s been four months since I graduated from college and over six months since my ex-fiancé and I mutually called off the wedding. We still talk on the phone, but he lives in another country, and our relationship wallows in the we-have-no-future-but-I-can’t-say-goodbye wasteland. There are mornings when swinging my legs out of bed is beyond funereal, the ache in my chest spreading like dark brown liquid against the sheets. I occupy the tiny basement bedroom at the end of the hall and, after work, I hang out with my younger sister who is a freshman at BYU. We make late-night runs to Little Caesars for Crazy Bread and dipping sauce. We watch chick flicks. We go on dates with boys.

Inside the folder, I find glossy pamphlets like those displayed on racks in waiting rooms and a research paper written by my father about the causes and treatment of depression. I read a chart dissecting the differences between depression and mere sadness. I read through everything—the small-font sidebars in the pamphlets, the intellectual report from my father about chemical imbalances, a step-by-step guide on how to relax. I’m suddenly on fire with this newfangled reason for my grief that burrows underneath my daily life.

I swallow the information wholesale.

Sadness is human. But this is not sadness. This is something more—or less—than sadness. This is not apathy. This is not as listless and passive and dull as apathy. It is an active dread, like the dread my aunt spoke of in the kitchen. It’s the dread of Mrs. Burridge in Margaret Atwood’s story “When It Happens.” The lonely woman waits in her country house for the truly terrible thing to happen. She doesn’t know what it is exactly, only that “everyone knows something is going to happen, you can tell by reading the newspapers and watching the television, but nobody is sure what it will be, nobody can be exact.” The reader is never quite sure if the danger is real or only the delusions of an unstable woman. But when I read this story, I know of this disquiet, this dread that lives like the beating heart of a creature in the woods. And I want out of the woods and the paranoia.

My doctor prescribes Paxil and it’s a drowsy fix, like I’m moving underwater. But I no longer want to die.

It’s a weeknight during the mid ’80s. My dad is the only one still lingering at the kitchen table, forking the food on his plate into a tiny squirt of ketchup on the side. His eight children have scattered after finishing off the lasagna in one inhale. But my dad is not eating lasagna, he’s on a strict diet in hopes of easing the stomach pains that will later be diagnosed as byproducts of anxiety. As my mom stands at the sink, he asks her for something he could look forward to eating. Is there a treat of some kind that will fall within the diet?

My mom doesn’t know of a treat that will fall within the diet. Her soapy hands yearn after the dishes hidden beneath the frothy surface. She doesn’t have any answers, but she can get the dishes spotlessly clean.

 I overhear this conversation as I reenter the kitchen in search of my art project that my mom has inadvertently thrown away. At the tender age of twelve, I don’t yet understand my high-strung sensitivity or the way I mirror the melancholy of others. My dad’s slumped shoulders and forlorn expression hollow me out like scooping a nut from its shell.

“Why are you doing this diet?” I blurt out. “It’s so dumb!” I’m surprised at the ice-hot fury I feel towards my dad and his shopworn sadness.

His response is unspoken but swift. He cocks his head at me, his eyes brimming with a look of wilted injury. I can hardly breathe as a wave of shame slams into my chest. It’s just a look, but it seems a shove or a slap. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to. I slip from the room completely undone.

I did not know it then, but my dad was suffering through a prolonged period of depression. I felt his sadness, like a somersault in my stomach. But I was used to the sadness; it was there before his sadness. It was as familiar as Neapolitan ice cream on a Sunday night.

It’s three generations ago. My great-grandfather loses his wife during childbirth and four snotty-faced children stare up at him with forlorn eyes. In his grief, he retreats to the local red- rock mountains where his sheep wander among the sagebrush and purple wildflowers. He leaves his children for hours and days to the whims of hired help. When he finally hires a permanent housekeeper, he makes her his wife within months. Whether he marries for convenience or for love, the terse family history never does say. The housekeeper-now-wife sweeps the four children aside as her own babies come to populate the two-room ranch house.

One by one, his older children leave home to escape the endless contention with their stepmother. Years later, they will write that they knew so little about their own father because he withdrew from family life when his first wife died. Did he ever speak of his grief to anyone except the sheep? Did he not recognize the harm of isolation? Did he not see the pain of his children?

In a genealogy book published by my grandma, I read about the seven daughters of the Kershaw family who all work as full-time spinners in a mill in the county of York. Their small stone home on Holts Lane consists of two rooms on the top floor and a kitchen on the bottom floor. They sleep together on straw mattresses with a feather tick on top. Thanks to the Factory Act of 1833, the girls cannot be worked for more than eight hours a day if under the age of thirteen. One daughter writes: “When I was just a small child, I worked in the factory winding warp on spools for weaving. The noise was terrifying in the mills. I wanted to cry, wanted to hide, but most of all I wanted to run, run right away. My sister said, ‘Come on there is nothing to be frightened of. You will soon get used to the noise.’”

In these and other stories from my pedigree charts, the old-school vernacular speaks of shut-ins, frayed nerves, rambling desperados, cruel stepmothers, domestic malady, melancholia, unwanted noises, and diseases of the mind. Today we use different language: anxiety, depression, psychosis, bipolar, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia, schizophrenia. But in both history and modern day, the same muffled horror surrounds mental conditions. With a physical illness, there is a reverence for the process, a singleness that unclutters the experience. You need only focus on resting and healing, and there is no shame in it. You are not to blame. But mental illness vibrates with contractions and subtleties and guessing games and unsure diagnoses. Black and white fade into mushy gray and settle in your stomach like congealed oatmeal. All the aspects of selfishness seem to be caught up in its hem and exasperated people wonder if it’s all in your head. Around each mentally ill person resides a thread of people tattered and torn for the love of them. The cure for a “disease of the mind” can be as varied and fleeting as butterflies in flight.

It’s the present day, 2023. At a weekend retreat, my four sisters and I rummage through boxes rescued from the basement of my parents’ house after our mother’s death. We sort through vintage photos of unsmiling ancestors, letters from my grandpa to my grandma during the war, shreds of old neighborhood phone directories, and a collection of notebooks and planners. In a lackluster three-ringed binder, we discover the journal of our grandma from the 1980s. She had meticulously printed her entries from her DOS computer, folded and torn away the dot matrix sidebars from each page, and inserted them chronologically into the binder. Tucked inside the front pocket, my sister unfolds a dateless letter. The printer ink is fading, and it begins with a simple word: Mother.

My sister starts to read it aloud.

I am writing this letter to give you my feelings about you and my growing up years.

A letter, written by our grandma for her deceased mother, crystallizes in my sister’s hands.

I can never remember a kind word you spoke to me. I grew up trying to please you and hoping for a better relationship, but it never worked. I would like to be released of all these sad, frustrating, and angry emotions which I have had all my life.

We pause in speculation over the catalyst for the letter. An assignment from a therapist? The product of a lonely and desperate night? A letter written with a prism of purpose?

I would so much like to feel close to you and to know that you now realize and understand what you did to me and that you are sorry and have repented, and I would like very much to forgive you and be able to forget and be free of this burden which I have carried all these years.

My grandma is still running through the field in Preston, her hair still blowing in the air. For sixty years, she has kept running to keep the darkness in the dust behind her. But now, with this letter, she is turning to face the landscape of her rural childhood. To face her deepest wound—the lack of love from a mother.

I used to look at a knife and be afraid I would hurt myself, or at times I was afraid I might jump out of a window. I always felt things in my environment hurting me. I would give anything if I could have a real good cry once in awhile to get these feelings out of me, but I have been emotionally stymied as to either good or bad feelings. This I am now trying to break. I am beginning to realize that you had some serious problems yourself and with no insight you took your feelings out on your family. I am hoping you have understanding now and want things to be right and I can have a trust that this is possible, and if you have not changed that I can have your influence taken from me.

I’m only beginning to understand how my grandma feared nothingness and paralysis more than emotional pain. She feared a styming of senses and curiosities. She was never running to avoid heartache but to feel something, anything, even if it was only the wind on her face and the weeds tugging at her skirt. She ran to gather up insight and tiny stems of joy. She ran to pair her insignificance with the sky and then to find some meaning in the vastness.

It’s dusk on any given day. My heart still melts and is swept away to the west and down beneath the horizon with the setting sun. This is the time of day it seeps into my bones, and I struggle to cook the stir-fry and drive carpool.

There remains a vulnerability at dawn where dread clings like cobwebs from dreams I can no longer remember. Only by arising early and moving through the quiet house to let the dog out can I shed the cobwebs from my mind. I wonder if my grandma coped in many of the same ways, with routines and cognitive skills and the usual distractions of family life.

Sometimes, I still hide behind sunglasses at track meets to avoid the banter of parents, or shutter in a bathroom stall at a writer’s conference until the dread dissipates. Sometimes I taste grief beyond what the situation merits, like when I sob for hours after my daughter returns to college after Thanksgiving break. And whenever we camp in the Wasatch mountains, I sense sadness in the silence of the trees.

 I know its shape. I know its many names. I inherited it from my grandma, from my dad, from my ancestors, from the entire human race. It flows through my DNA like the blood in my veins. It flows to you and in you. It lingers in the air we breathe and in stories that confront us. I read that “mental health issues are common” in an article on the internet. This part is human, the mental anguish, the loneliness in everyone’s heart. An ache that blankets the entire world.

Strange, how comforting this thought can be.



Kristen Ott Hogan graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1999. Her work has appeared in Literary Traveler, bioStories, The Raven’s Perch, Aji Magazine, and Segullah, among others, and on her website: She co-authored, Phoenix Flame, a memoir chronicling her nephew’s battle with mental illness. Kristen lives in Syracuse, Utah, with her family.