A Beautiful Day at the Park, A Miserable Day at the Park

This is the tale of a park I visited 3 times in 6 months.

Twice as Dr. Jekyll.

And once as a very depressed Mr. Hyde.

I discovered Adams Ricci Park in Enola back in early May, as part of a spring blitz in which I took the kids to over 20 different parks within a 30-minute drive of our house. As the air warmed up and the flowers started to bloom, Greyson and Violet and I visited this sprawling green space one Saturday morning. (We were one long year into a rigorously maintained quarantine, and Danielle and I were trying to give each other much-needed “solo time” away from the kids each weekend.)

The 3 of us played at a small playground and explored a butterfly garden, with Greyson reading all the signs labeling the flowers. We also hiked down a steep path to the Conodoguinet Creek, a meandering waterway that was a big part of my childhood. I enjoyed a pleasant exchange by the creek with an Indian man in which I mentioned that I thought the Adams Ricci playground would be bigger, and he happily informed me that there was indeed a huge playground I had missed as I drove through the park. (That’s how expansive this place is!)

So I warmly thanked him and took the kids to that playground. Which turned out to be the nicest one we had ever visited. Greyson and Violet had a blast climbing around on the high-quality jungle gyms, swinging on 4 different kinds of swings, seesawing on a 4-person seesaw, and spinning on a new-fangled merry-go-round that looked like a space capsule.

And me? I felt pretty upbeat that day.

This was toward the beginning of my depressed, insomniac funk. But I hadn’t fully sunk into the quicksand just yet, and a beautiful moment in nature still had the power to fortify my soul. On that particular day I was thinking fairly clearly and finding beauty among the shards of bleakness of the world. I was deficient in sleep, but I was able to punch that fatherly clock (not to be confused with a grandfather clock) and do my best to enchant the kids.

All in all, it was a good day for the kids and a good day for me.

Fast-forward 2 months.

I took the kids back to Adams Ricci in July. By this time, my mental ship had run aground on the jagged rocks of the most debilitating kind of depression. The kind of depression that flattens out all emotions and turns everything to greyscale. So I decided to take the kids to a place that I remember being special, in hopes that a big, impressive playground could conjure up the magic and wonder that I was utterly unable to conjure up myself.

But no such luck. The park was pristine, but my headspace was a mess. It was the kind of day where the kids would have been much better off just exploring the playground by themselves while I sat on a bench and watched from afar. Then my clouded eyes (of the cumulonimbus variety) and canyon-deep furrowed brow wouldn’t directly affect their play. But they were clingy, needing me to stay with them. And I couldn’t keep my grinding mental funk from permeating our interactions.

I remember a feeling of desperation and claustrophobia. And heat. I was sweating bullets from the blazing sun, from the demands of taking care of the kids, and from my own pummeling sense of inadequacy. Every little fuss from either Greyson or Violet felt impossible to handle, like a stinging personal defeat. And in nearly every moment, I was assaulted by guilt for not being able to give them what they needed.

Even the kids, who can entertain themselves better than anyone I’ve ever met, weren’t having much fun. I think they were absorbing my mental chaos by osmosis. I had planned to stay at the park for a few hours, but instead we left after just 30 minutes. As I recall, we then went to my parents’ house, who were not home at the time. There I laid face-down on the carpeted floor in their sunroom, trying my best to render myself invisible while the kids played.

I was exhausted. I was overwhelmed. And I felt worthless.

Fast-forward 4 months.

I took the kids back to Adams Ricci last weekend. It was the first Saturday of November, and the radiant weather made it feel more like September (but with foliage).

I had felt like myself, that greatest of all feelings, for 3 peaceful months. And I decided to revisit a few depression-scarred places in one weekend, to personally redeem them from oblivion. The next day I would solo-hike White Rocks Trail, another beautifully serene place where I remember feeling truly despondent last summer. Hiking it again replaced that despair-saturated memory with a happy one.

The same goes for Adams Ricci. Our November visit was the diametrical opposite of our July visit. The kids had a wonderful time, and I felt both deeply connected to them and deeply in command of my dad role. I also struck up a few fun, friendly conversations with strangers while I pushed the kids on swings or the 4-person seesaw. My extrovert self was back in full bloom, and I was readily able to savor each moment with the kids.

It wasn’t a perfect day. Greyson had a fussing jag about his feet being cold, and he insisted that he wanted to go to Grandma’s house. But since I was once again in command of my parenting faculties, I was able to weather it. (The peanut butter sandwiches I had brought along helped too.)

I would also give ample credit to the greatest seesaw-type contraption I’ve ever seen. A ride so smooth that the kids were happily hypnotized by it for a full 25 minutes.

3 different seasons. 2 opposite headspaces. 1 beautiful park which became a microcosm of my whiplash-inducing year.

I am deeply grateful to be fully on the other side of that whiplash. Will depression at some point whip me again and put me back in a clouded mind? Or will exercise, daily writing, frequent time spent in nature, and an effective antidepressant combine to preserve my sunny headspace?

I can’t pretend to definitively know the answer to that question. But I’m taking one day at a time. Even as those days grow shorter, and I’m well aware of how the encroaching darkness of November and December sometimes blunts my joy and blurs my clarity.

But even if that happens, I’ll try to write my way through it. Because writing is my therapy.

Writing infuses me with a deep sense of purpose.

And it fills me with pure joy.

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