Clinical depression. Such a sterile term for a tempest of emotions. For me, major bouts are cyclical but there is a persistent low-lying depression that has been a daily cloud for most of my life. Medication helps, therapy helps, prayer helps. What doesn’t help, even though I keep doing it, is berating myself. I try to will myself into not being depressed.
I once heard someone use the analogy of comparing mental illness to physical injury. Imagine someone who has been hit by a truck and is lying in traction in a hospital bed. It would be ridiculous to yell at that person, to tell him to get moving, shake it off and be productive. Yet because “it’s all in my head,” I continually try to convince my brain to be not broken.
As an intuitive, super-sensitive person, I often absorb the feelings of those around me, even those in the world at large. Since 2016, I’ve experienced an increasing struggle with anxiety and feelings of discord. With Covid-19, the strength of what I’m feeling is “unprecedented.” Grief, with all its accompanying stages (except resolution). Uncertainty, sadness. Even an unexpected gratitude amidst the fear, loss and anger.
And depression. It hit again a few weeks ago, a particularly nasty bout. Color and light drained from my world as energy drained from my body and hope drained from my mind. I knew that God and hope were still there, but they were as hidden as the sun behind days of black clouds and constant thunderstorms. It felt like life would always be this dark existence. I stayed in bed for hours, condemning myself for my laziness. It took every ounce of willpower to get up to forage for food. I skirted the house like a ghost, unwilling to contaminate my family with the darkness. The self-condemnation shifted to my food choices, usually sugar, salt and fat-laden, microwaved at best. I ate in front of the TV, where I remained for more hours. Curled in on myself, in the solace of unthinking and the distraction of badly-written drama, I could sometimes keep at bay the guilt that reminded me how worthless I was. The litany of my poor choices compared to others’ more worthy lives kept me on the couch until bedtime. Still, another four or five hours passed before sleep allowed my broken brain to be consumed sometime in the early dawn.
Even as I report how I have existed the past few weeks, I feel shame and guilt. How privileged am I to complain about how I can lie around for hours? People with real problems have to deal with depression and how to work enough to buy the food I so easily condemn. I don’t deserve the life I have. I don’t deserve anything….
And so it goes. Grains of truth wrapped in lies. Shame. Suffering. Unbidden, the phrase “Lincoln’s melancholy” comes to mind, reminding me that this has a name, melancholy. Depression. Immediately, my mental accuser berates me for comparing myself to Lincoln, who did such good in the world, while I am such a disappointment. Surely God is just as disgusted with me. He’s given me such blessing and I have failed. Done little of eternally significant value. I am the unworthy servant; He should take my talents and give them to someone who invests more wisely. Will I be cast into the outer darkness? I deserve it, worthless piece of…
On Monday, I told Michael I keep hoping I’ll wake up one morning and find the depression lifted. But every day is the same. And I recognize that my own self-sabotage perpetuates the problem: skipping meals and meds, staying up all night, foregoing hygiene and general self-care. I feel worthless and that is how I treat myself. I am a hedgehog, curled up in self-protection, not wanting to puncture anyone but afraid of more hurt.
Michael is gentle with me, as are my children. No one else is as bothered by my lack of productivity as I am. Michael reminds me it is okay to ask for help when I need it. He makes me a peanut butter sandwich. His care emboldens me to respond to a few texts, informing my friends that I’m struggling. Their response is immediate and supportive. I turn off my phone. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just receive their kindness? Why do gentle words make me weep even more?
Still, I know they are lifting me in prayer.
Tuesday, the first day in a while, the weight is less. My actions do not change but my heart feels a bit lighter. I turn my phone on and read the texts. I let the love bathe me. I read a poem in my email, its title capturing my attention:
When I am tired
O ceaseless God, sometimes I am tired.
I get tired of serving when the need is so great.
I grow weary of loving the dying,
healing the shattered,
rejoicing with the hopeless.
I tire of caring for those who do not care,
and forgiving the unrepentant.
I am spent, crying for justice to unhearing ears.
I am not a strong horse, but only a little burro, God,
and I can’t carry the whole load.
Beloved, you are smaller than that:
a tiny blue butterfly
in a blossoming tree.
I do not ask you to transform the tree:
only to do your work
in the bloom where you find yourself,
for there, in that labor,
which is enough for one butterfly,
the nectar of my delight revives you,
and the whole tree rejoices.
I reflect a while on those lines. Beloved. I can be one tiny butterfly, in the bloom where I find myself. The poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, has a heart after God’s own. Once again, his reflection of God’s love touches my own heart and I find myself hungry for the nectar of God’s delight to revive me.
Today is Wednesday. Today the sun is shining and after I get up, I do not return to bed. I feel raw, shaky, like with the chill of the first cold cloth after the fever has broken. I have enough energy to count out my meds into a pill dispenser, a task that felt overwhelming two days ago. I swallow my thyroid medication. I go downstairs to find breakfast. I eat a banana with my pop-tart.
I am cautiously optimistic. Was it the prayer? The poem? Was asking for help, letting in that bit of light, enough to dispel the darkness? Or have my brain’s chemicals finally balanced enough to end the cycle? It is still too fresh to risk looking too deeply; I fear being pulled back into the pit.
I talk to Patti, my spiritual director, today. Her kind words are more of God’s nectar. She reminds me that depression is not failure. That God and hope are still shining, will not be long obscured by the clouds. That the grace I give others to be their own lovely and flawed selves, I can extend to myself.
Hope, like the sun, peeks into my life today.