Every now and then I read a news story about how volunteering helps teens or war veterans deal with depression and stress. Here is some more information about how volunteering helps people who volunteer:
These articles do not surprise me. Many years ago, when I was fourteen and fifteen, I was deeply depressed. I wrote about that time in Heart Warriors, but it was back-story and not much made it into the book. Still, it happened. It happened that I was a self-harming, deeply depressed, self-loathing, suicidal high school freshman. My compromised emotional and mental state led me to act out in ways that further isolated me at school and home. By the beginning of sophomore year, I was on the edge of an abyss. It is the absolute truth when I say I am lucky to be alive today and lucky for the twenty-four years that I’ve lived since I crawled out of that deep dark place.*
I didn’t get escape my depression on my own. It wasn’t therapy, family, or church that helped me, though I did see a school counselor once or twice. She recommended that I volunteer to give myself something to do. I came out of my dangerous depression, day by day, week by week in a place most people find terribly depressing. I found hope and happiness at the same place people were going to live their last days – at a nursing home.
When I started volunteering at Bonell Good Samaritan Center my first assignment was a woman named Ruby Moore. She was born on December 22, 1900 on a farm near Kiowa, Colorado. Her husband, Allen, had died recently and she was a very lonely woman who welcomed my visits every Tuesday and Thursday to write letters for her. Ruby’s brown eyes had gone blind by the time I met her in 1989. For her 90th birthday, I bought her some stationary with big flowers on it that she could make out on the paper. To look at her, it was hard to believe she was past 90, her hair was still pretty dark, and she never colored it. Seeing Ruby and her roommate Hannah Winter (Hannah was deaf and Ruby was blind) was a real treat. No one was ever so happy to see a fifteen year old girl than those ladies.
I got such a high from being wanted and needed that I expanded my responsibilities to Wednesdays and Saturdays. I went to the nursing home four days a week, writing letters, wheeling people around, taking them shopping, helping with crafts. I even got up early (those who know me know this is quite a feat) to fill in for the lady who did the morning juice cart before school for a few weeks. I didn’t like giving that job back – people are always happy to see the girl with the juice cart.
Most of my time was spent with Ruby. She told me stories of buckboards, growing up with eight sisters, and rattlesnakes. She told me stories about both wars and the Great Depression. Ruby was a portal to history and generous with her memories. Sometimes, though, time with Ruby could be painful. Sometimes she lost her train of thought, and I gently prompted her, reminded her to whom we writing , read back some lines. Sometimes she was frustrated with herself and it left me uncomfortable, like I was pressuring her.
The most painful part of spending time with Ruby was when she talked about Allen so lovingly and then her stories always ended with her realization that he was gone. Ruby’s blind brown eyes would fill with tears. She always had a handkerchief with her, I suppose because people born in 1900 were accustomed to handkerchiefs. I watched her dab her tears from the thin skin beneath her eyes and my heart broke for her. Yet, I did not really understand what I was seeing because I was fifteen/sixteen/seventeen – I could never understand as a child what it would be to lose someone you’d spent every day with for seventy-one years. Sitting in that little room, writing letters, I witnessed something so much bigger than me. The biggest reason to live was to love, and when the love was lost, you had to go on living. Watching Ruby grieve for her husband hurt, but the way she relished her memories woke up my heart and my depression dissolved in her tears. I couldn’t feel sorry for myself in the face of such resilience. By making me see how much love and joy could be had in a lifetime, that blind woman literally saved my life.
For two years I went to Bonell several times a week, then I got a “real” job; real in that it paid money. McDonald’s was just down the street from Bonell, so my first summer working there I often spent time at Bonell on my way to or from my job at Mcdonald’s. Into my senior year I still volunteered. I only took one required class and three electives my last year of high school, which meant I only spent four hours a day at school. This left me time to work for money and to volunteer.
I was still went to Bonell after I graduated from high school. Then in the fall of 1992 I moved out and really had to work. I think I went back to Bonell once or twice before I stopped going altogether. I never told Ruby that I wouldn’t be coming back. I never “quit” Bonell, I just disappeared from there like I disappeared from my college classes. I didn’t plan to leave, I just dissolved. I thought I was becoming and adult. I was the same age Ruby was when she married Allen. I was eighteen, and I wanted to escape all that I used to be. I wanted free from the loneliness, the illness, the hatefulness I’d heaped on myself for years. Now that I really had no desire to die, I wanted to really live, away from my origins, away from memories of how desperate I was to be liked and needed, and that meant I drifted away from Bonell and Ruby. I wasn’t aware enough to be cruel. I wasn’t aware of anyone but myself, and even though I was doing better, I never loved myself enough to believe anyone could miss me.
When I remember Ruby, I feel the warmth of her kind company, but those memories are tainted with my youthful selfishness. I feel both blessed and remorseful. I wonder how long she waited for me before she forgot who I was. I often wonder when she died and where she is buried. I can’t say I feel guilty for the choices I made at eighteen. I believe guilt is a futile wish to undo mistakes. There are no do-overs, just do-betters. Abandoning Ruby wasn’t so much a choice as a consequence of my leap into living. It wasn’t wrong for me to move with the season of my life, but I was wrong to think only of my life.
In the dawn of my adulthood, I didn’t see the world beyond myself. I understand that, and I can forgive my younger self her limited vision. I cannot change the past, but my true self, the self that emerged from Ruby’s tears a stronger person, regrets that I didn’t make a more graceful exit into the life I began when I left Bonell. I feel shame for slipping away from people and things that kept me tethered to the earth, when I had been so ready to leave it. I don’t feel guilty because I know what is done cannot be undone. I do feel a remorse that drives my desire to treat people better at thirty-eight than I was capable of treating them at eighteen. I needed to know more of the world to know myself.
I can’t see Ruby or apologize to her, but I can share what I learned from her. Rather than wallowing in guilt for what cannot be changed, I can allow the truth of it to expand my empathy and compassion for others and for myself. That’s life’s greatest challenge; I can’t do it over, but with a some reflection I hope to do it better.
* I’m not suggesting that volunteering is a “cure,” for depression, but it can help. If you are having suicidal thoughts seek medical attention immediately.