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At a dark time in my life, an oak tree gave me hope

On a morning walk with my dog, a sunlit tree rescued me from despair.

The oak tree that brought "a sliver of joy" to the writer.Rachel May

It was winter, and snow had just fallen. Under the covers, my dog Piper beside me, I knew where we’d go this morning — but I didn’t want to get up. Action before feeling, my therapists chanted repeatedly. Listen to happy music when you want sad, watch silly movies, read David Sedaris. Getting better was such hard work.

I pushed off the covers, got dressed, and called for Piper. Out we went.

At the Pierce estate in Lincoln, I parked behind the yellow mansion and walked to the meadow speckled with old trees. There was one I’d fallen in love with: A pin oak, with graceful wide-stretched branches, pointed tips on each leaf, and roots so thick they rose up like strong knuckles from the lawn.


Every visit, I’d stand beneath it, looking up. The tree reassured me that longevity and survival — even in terrible circumstances — were possible. Look at me, it seemed to say, Imagine what I’ve seen! The droughts. The coldest of seasons. And here I am.

I’d just been diagnosed with lifelong, severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and saw my life through a new lens; I’d given up so much for what, I learned at 32, was a treatable disorder. I recounted all the lost opportunities, the paths I’d curtailed. And now the OCD was at its worst, so entangled in my body it felt intractable.

I hadn’t told my therapists I was planning to die. The depression had pushed me so deep it had blinded me to my wide circle of friends. I’d lost hope for my future, that I’d ever be able to write again, finish the PhD I’d abandoned, or — my biggest wish — become a mother.

Piper and I trudged across the great field, the snow up to my knees. I set my eyes on one of the far trees along the stone wall, up a slight hill, sliding my feet so Piper would have an easier time behind me with her short legs.


My heart rate picked up, and, 15 minutes later, panting, we reached the far side. I turned to look back.

“We made it, Pipes.”

Her tongue lolled out.

And just then, looking over the field, the sun emerged from the dark clouds and cast rays of long light on the oak at the other end of the field. Its bare arms shimmered silver, almost white in that sun. Bars of light shone, magical against the dark gray clouds. The sight caught me in my chest — a brilliant surprise, a sliver of joy I hadn’t felt in months.

“Pipes,” I said, “look!” I thought of one of my favorite poems, by E. E. Cummings: i thank You God for most this amazing/day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky . . .

If the world was saying anything in that moment, it was: Live. Living is worth it for these beautiful, unexpected moments. More will come. To see them, you have to survive.

I cried in a way that wasn’t desolate and hopeless but, for the first time in so long, relief. This glimpse of happiness.

Eventually, the clouds opened up to reveal blue sky, and the tree stood basking in full sunlight. Piper dashed down the path we’d made, and I followed.


A few days later, I called my therapist and told her about my plan. She got me into McLean Hospital’s depression clinic day program, where staff told me about their residential OCD treatment program. That summer, I checked myself in, and vanquished the monster.

Last summer, 12 years later, I came back to the tree, this time with someone new.

“It’s SO TALL,” my 4-year-old said, looking up.

“So tall,” I said. I lay back and looked at its arms above us, leaves waving in the hot wind.

I turned back to my kiddo, and together, we watched ants crawl along the roots, enticing them onto our fingertips, laughing at the tickle of their legs on our skin.

HELP IS AVAILABLE: You are not alone. Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing or texting 988, or starting an online chat at You will be connected with a local crisis center through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline network.

Rachel May is a writer in Somerville. Send comments to TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.