What a Billboard Cannot Say
David watched his mother struggle with depression and didn’t know how to respond. In this story, he shares about the experience of watching her slowly disappear from his life, and what finally gave him the strength to stand with her as she suffered from something he could not fix.
Driving onto the Golden Gate Bridge on my way to a writing workshop, I noticed that tall guardrails had been installed to protect the construction workers. At least I presumed they were there for workers.
Moments later, I passed the middle of the bridge, where a suicide hotline sign showed years of weather damage. How many people have called that number? I wondered. Near the highway was a yellow billboard — you see them popping up all over San Francisco and every other major city — announcing, “You are worthy. Of everything. Every. Single. Thing.”
I had never attended a writing workshop and had no idea what to expect. But as I sat down to tackle the first prompt — fill in the statement, “On the way here…” — I found that all I could think about was the rails, the sign, the billboard. I wrote fast, not pausing to analyze, and I realized when I finished that I was writing to my mom. When my turn came to read, I had to push back tears.
Two years earlier, my grandmother’s health had begun to decline. As she got closer to death, tensions that had festered in the background of my mom’s family began to worsen. My mom found herself blamed and guilt-tripped by a sister who felt she was not pulling her weight. One family gathering ended with my aunt yelling at my mom from the street in front of my parents’ house. For the past 20 years, my mom and my grandmother had spoken to each other daily, either in person or on the phone. But as tension built between the siblings, even their relationship became strained.
Around this time, my mom took a terrible fall while rushing to her car in a parking lot. When she went to the hospital, they told her she had broken her shoulder. Later, we discovered that she had also completely severed her rotator cuff. Months of immobility and pain while the break healed were followed by surgery to repair the torn rotator cuff. The recovery from the surgery was worse than from the break, and opioids were prescribed to manage the pain.
The medication became a crutch that my mom depended on. And the day she was supposed to finish taking it, her mother died. Overwhelmed by her own physical pain, and the family drama, she was not able to process this loss. And yet it was immediately clear that it had left a massive void in her life that could not easily be filled.
It was around this point that my mom began to sink into herself. The injury had made her unable to work as a substitute teacher. Now she continued not to take jobs. She spent long days at home and started to miss social engagements. Because I am the only one of my siblings who still lives in our hometown of San Francisco, I spent the most time visiting my parents. One evening after dinner, my dad turned on an episode of The Office. “I’m sorry we’re so boring,” my mom said.
“You’re not!” I reassured her. But it was a lie. Lively dinner conversations that stretched on for hours had slowly been replaced with muted chatter between my dad and me about their upcoming trip to France, my mom playing the role of a piece of furniture. Weekly dinners had become something I dreaded, and made occasional excuses to miss. This stretched on for months.
I noticed that my mom ate less and less at dinner as time passed. She has always been small, but in these months she lost more than 20 pounds, registering in the lower 90s when she stopped weighing herself.
As her body faded, so did her personality. She had been the life of every party she attended, frequently the last to leave. But now she was a husk of her former self: pale, gaunt, and empty. When she went to parties, she tried to vanish into the woodwork, terrified that someone would see what she had become or would ask her how she was doing. Slowly, she stopped going entirely.
In March, my parents left for a month abroad, a trip for which they had been saving and planning for years. One afternoon I called to check in. “How’s it going?” I asked, excited to have something to talk about with my mom.
“Oh, you know,” she answered. “I’m not sleeping well. It takes me forever to get going in the morning.” She went on for a few minutes before passing the phone off to my dad.
“Mom’s not doing great,” he told me. “We might come home early.” I had thought the trip would be a nice break, a chance to unwind and refresh. Instead it had been the opposite; in front of the places she had always wanted to visit, my mom was more aware than ever of how much she had changed, how not herself she felt. “I ruined France for your dad,” she told me later.
I called my older sister that evening. All the siblings had been talking about the worsening situation since the beginning, unable to determine what to do or say. I asked her if she thought mom was ready to say the “d-word.”
“Yeah,” she said. “She told me yesterday that she thinks she’s depressed.”
When my parents got home, we started to talk about therapy. Every few days one of us would do some research and make a suggestion. But my mom was indecisive — a symptom of her condition — and felt that nothing would help.
At Mass one Sunday, an acquaintance saw my mom’s face, gaunt and exhausted, and reached out. “I know that look,” the woman said. She told us about a full-time outpatient program at a nearby hospital that had helped her recover from crippling depression. After some convincing, my mom decided to give it a try.
What followed was the lowest period of the entire saga. Every fear that nothing could help, that this was the “new normal,” seemed to be confirmed as day after day my mom went to the program without result.
One day I came over for dinner and my mom told me about a group poetry session she had attended. She fished the poem out of the recycling bin and had me read aloud the tragically optimistic platitudes the participants had written. “How is this supposed to help?” my mom asked, chuckling. We all laughed; it was the first time my dad and I had seen my mom really laugh in months.
But for weeks, the program seemed to be a total loss. My mom theorized that its main purpose was to give depressed people something to do all day — a way to keep an eye on them so they didn’t kill themselves. Real change seemed impossible.
“I just need to stop feeling this way,” my mom would say. “If I could just… I don’t have any reason to be depressed.” The depression was her fault, she seemed to say — the result of her own weakness. If she could just bootstrap her way out of it. She felt like she was a burden on my siblings and me, and especially on our dad. “You can go home and get away from me,” she said one evening, “but I’m what he comes home to every night. He has nowhere to go.” This narrative ran on repeat in my mom’s head, echoing the chorus of her worthlessness and lack of value.
It was around this time that I started noticing the billboard affirmations. “You make a difference.” “We all belong <3.” “You are beautiful. Dazzling. Radiant. Gorgeous. Yes, YOU!” And while I knew these were words my mom needed to believe, I wondered if they could reach her where she was. A billboard or a bumper sticker can share a message, but it cannot form a relationship. It cannot be present.
In the two-and-a-half years that my family has walked this road, the most difficult thing has been this personal presence. It has also been the most crucial thing — to be present to a person whose suffering we are utterly powerless in front of. A billboard cannot convince someone that “you might not believe you’re worth loving, but I do.” Mere words can’t either. It is only in staying with them, being present, that these words can take hold.
What I found was that I could not stay in front of my mom’s suffering on my own. I wanted to solve it. Failing that, I wanted to avoid it. It felt impossible to stand in front of suffering I could not resolve. I knew nothing I did or said could prevent my mom from taking her own life if the pain became unbearable. I wanted to run.
I spoke to a priest I’m friends with, and he pointed me to the Virgin Mary, who was powerless in front of the torture and execution of her Son. And yet she remained. During those evenings at my parents’ house, I started to pray: “Mary, help me stay in front of this. Help me see how your Son is using this pointless suffering.”
My family is not out of these woods yet. A few months into the outpatient program, the doctors started my mom on a medication that helped. She started to feel better, to eat more, to go to family gatherings and parties. She became her old self again in many ways. But the underlying problems still have to be addressed. And ultimately, in all of this, the most crucial thing is to remain with Mary at the foot of the cross — to be present. A billboard cannot do that.