Just to the south of Nashville, there’s a beautiful bridge that enables the Natchez Trace Parkway to cross over State Highway 96. One of the highest overlooks in the area, the spout routinely attracts drivers, hikers, and bicyclists to enjoy the beautiful view. For Naomi Judd however, the bridge represents a spot where she had once planned to end her life – unbeknownst to anyone.
The Grammy-winning artist talks about that moment, her long battle with depression, and sometimes difficult road to cope with her illness in her compelling book River of Time: My Descent Into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope. One might wonder just how such a beloved entertainer, known the world over for the music she made with daughter Wynonna, could find herself at the end of her emotional rope. In a candid discussion with Sounds Like Nashville, Judd said that her bout with depression, and her willingness to share her story in book form, come from a childhood where she never won the acceptance that she so desired.
“When I was a child, people really didn’t pay attention to me – I didn’t get the demonstration of love and belonging that I always craved. Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton told me that they didn’t either when they were growing up… for different reasons. I say all of that to say that a lot of entertainers, when they think about which direction their life is going to go in, and when they think about a career, they choose to become communicators. That’s really what I do. I write the songs,” she reasons, adding that those that were impacted by those lyrics might very well have been going through some of the same feelings that she was, and she wanted to help them find their way back into the light.
“There’s an old saying about where you can’t choose your relatives, but you can choose your friends. I began to develop this amazing kinship with the fans. So, when I was going through stuff, I would connect with them, as if to say, ‘Here’s what I learned. What are you going through. How are you?’ That’s the reason I wrote the book, because I was going through a terrible time in my life – one of the worst. Depression hits forty million people, so I knew that if I was going through it, there were other people out there,” she explains. Judd admits that her candor might take some longtime Judds fans by surprise – especially a childhood marked by sexual abuse from her great-uncle, as well as three hospitalizations in recent years for depression. “This book is shocking and raw, and I know that it’s going to startle people because I was forthcoming about the horrors that I went through. But, it’s really a survival manual. It tells people how to get through it, and offers them the things that I use to keep my sanity, and keep myself happy.”
The book also serves as an education manual on the different forms of depression. “The more I got into it, I was studying with all these different psychiatrists that I was going to for myself, they have taught me so much about all the different types of depression. I was diagnosed with the one called severe treatment resistance – which means they tried every medication, electroshock convulsive therapy, where they plug you up with electrodes all over your head, and shock you into Grand mal seizure. That type of depression is as bad as it gets,” she states, adding that there is also OCD, panic attacks, and phobias – before getting to the one that affected her the most of all.
“There’s also what is called GAD – which stands for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That means you’re just nervous all of the time. Some of us were born with different wiring than other people. I certainly was. That’s one thing that allowed me to become a songwriter, and a singer, and to be able to talk to people in an arena of twenty thousand people. I feel like I know how to communicate with them because I’ve been there. Those with GAD are hyper-vigilant, which means you are always on edge – don’t ever sneak up behind me because I might deck you. That’s one aspect of GAD. Another is being very empathic – where you understand the other person’s emotions. Females are more empathic than males are. We can read other people’s faces – there are forty-two muscles in the human face, and I learned how to read all of them through my studies. People with GAD are very sensitive, and are very tuned in to other people, which can be a blessing – or a curse,” she allows.
Talking about her life in such depth was not the easiest task for Judd, who has lived her life in the public eye for well over three decades. “One of the things that I told in the book was my deepest and darkest secrets, which I had never told anybody, except my personal psychiatrist. That was really tough. The first time I ever told my story, I had to come back to the farm and take a walk into the woods by myself and come to terms with the fact that I had told another human being. I had never shared it before because it was so scary, so dark, and so awful. But, as I began to realize that I did write this book for other people, and was hoping that maybe they would be able to see themselves in it, and maybe get some ideas. This book is full of hope, and tells people how I am healing and recovering, and how I’m doing right now, which is great. Hopefully it will make you say ‘Wait a minute. She survived it. This is what I am going through too. Maybe I need to read the book, and hear the rest of her story.’”
And, Judd says that story doesn’t make her – or anyone who has endured it – any less than anyone else. “Mental illness is a disease, just like heart disease or diabetes. Depression is a disease of the brain. It’s not a character flaw. It’s nothing you can control. You have a disease of the brain, because it doesn’t make the good chemicals that you need to be comfortable and happy. You can’t treat it like a broken arm. It’s not a handicap. When you have depression, other people only know it by the way that you are acting in front of them, unless you tell them that you are going through the dark night of the soul.”
Perhaps the most emotionally graphic parts of the book deal with three separate hospitalizations, which were as traumatic on the perennial CMA winner as one might imagine. “It was hideous,” she admits. “I have a deep spiritual faith, and I found out I just had to have that faith, because I was in such horrible pain – spiritual, psychological, mental pain. I was scared to death of how much worse it was going to get, and I knew I couldn’t handle it if it got much worse than this. What I did was tell myself to just hang on for one more minute, one more second, one more feeling, because faith says there is something on the other side of that. Then, once you’re there, you go to the next step. That’s what the book tells you about.”
Judd has a message for those struggling with depression, and she doesn’t beat around the bush. “Find a psychiatrist, a therapist, or a really concerned friend who is smarter than you are. If you have a problem, you need to talk to somebody who has more answers than you have. I would go to my therapist and tell them that I wasn’t feeling good about myself. I’m really scared because I don’t know how much darker this is going to be. I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails right now. I really need you to teach me some new stuff. He would teach me all of these integrated approaches which would keep me in the present, such as exercise, music, meditaion, yoga, pilates, just living in the moment – those are just a few of the things that don’t cost money, and are not invasive. They are things that you can do right now to help yourself reduce the stress. That was one of the biggies for me, having someone to affirm my feelings: you’re not going crazy. This is a really hard time. Maybe you were born this way. We’re going to have to figure out how to handle these situations with your brain not making enough of a happy chemical. I want the reader to know that I’ve been there. I get it. And, I am standing in front of you right now and telling you that there is hope.”
One of the moments in River of Time that is particularly moving is when her husband of twenty-eight years, Larry, told her that watching her battle her emotional trauma affected him more than her hepatitis diagnosis in the 1990s. She said it was much worse. “I certainly don’t want to be hurting physically, but I can tell you that mental pain is worse than physical pain. With physical pain, you can name it. It’s real. If you stub your toe, you know that it will get better. When you start going through anxiety and panic attacks, or severe depression, you can’t just ‘snap out of it.’ – and don’t ever say that someone with depression or panic attacks. You can’t snap out of it. It doesn’t go away, and I can’t describe it to anybody. Larry would say things to me such as ‘Action conquers fear.’ If I just did something, like get up and walk around, take deep breaths, and realize that I didn’t want to have this feeling. I needed to focus on something, get in touch with my environment, don’t talk or think about the bad of it, talk about how it’s going to get better.”
And, for Judd, it has gotten a lot better. Depression is still something that will forever be a part of her life, but she says it’s under control – and occasionally, she still passes that Natchez Trace Bridge on Highway 96. But, the emotions that she has are totally opposite to those she had just a few short years ago. “It’s such a completely different feeling. It might sound crazy, but that bridge gives me hope today. I was really at my lowest point. Every year, suicide outnumbers homicide. When I found that out, I was absolutely appalled. I had to say it a couple of times before I could wrap my mind around it. That’s how bad depression can be. But, now it’s like looking in a rear-view mirror. When you have lived through a tragedy, and you’re on the other side of it. You want to reach out and help everybody that you can that are still back there, standing on that bridge thinking of something disastrous. I wanted to say to people ‘Been there, done that. I understand just how dark and tragically scary it can be – depression – but look at me. I’m on the other side now. I’m healing, and I’m recovering.’”
River of Time: My Descent Into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope is available for purchase now.