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I’ve hesitated for many months writing this post, because I know that my experience is not the only one out there, and I know that talking about depression as a helpful thing might seem like I am making light of many other people’s horrific experiences with depression. 

But still, I have my experience, and I’ve been wanting to write about it, even though it (and my resulting thinking on depression) is perhaps a bit radically unconventional. Please don’t read this as my thinking I’ve got the final word on the subject. I don’t. But I do have (more than a few) words on the subject, based on my personal experiences and observations and readings, and they’re just getting more and more muddled sitting inside my own head. Hence, the attempt (again) at trying to sort them out by putting them in writing.

(1) I have frequently seen depression compared to other illnesses, but most of those comparisons tend to fall short for me. In my experience, I have found depression to be most analogous to physical pain. And just as I think about pain as my friend, not my foe, so I think of depression.

I believe that depression is our built in warning system that something is going wrong. If I burned my hand and could take a pill that totally numbed the pain but, otherwise, allowed me to function normally, my hand would not only not heal, but would likely deteriorate further. Pain is what screams out to us “Stop” when we are damaging something in our bodies. Pain also serves as a boundary and guideline throughout the healing process.

Now, I’m aware that sometimes the pain system malfunctions. And I believe the depression-pain system also can malfunction. I’m not ignoring that possibility. But I do believe we err in primarily thinking of depression as a malfunction rather than a healthily functioning pain-warning and healing-guiding system.

(2) I believe that depression is not only a warning signal similar to pain, but also a built-in recovery system.  Calling things like the sadness, lethargy, brain fog, etc., “symptoms” of depression is accurate from one angle. But from another, it misses the possibility that those things, by nature, force us to slow down, or even stop.

I hear people talk about how paralyzing depression is, how little they can accomplish, and I have experienced those very things myself. But, at some point, I began to realize that my body was beginning to restore itself as I gave in to those “problems”.  I’ve heard about doctors inducing a coma in burn victims which makes the body almost completely shut down, allowing all of the patient’s strength to go into the healing process. The coma also prevents the person from damaging their tissue further by doing anything.

I have, at times, experienced depression as something near to a walking coma. But, out of that, I found that what the lethargy did by preventing me from doing all the essential things I thought I had to do, was allow healing and rebuilding to happen.

There is, of course, a complication with giving in to the “problems” of depression and receiving them as gifts, allowing me to rebuild. And that is that depression is chemically rather spiraling.  The brain chemicals of depression do seem to be self-repeating and self-defeating.

I’ve addressed this by being rather intentional in my depression. I let myself shut down as much as I can (which is almost always I little more than I think I should). And then I build in a “snap out of it” feature into the plan. Obviously, one cannot just snap out of depression, but I do make use of some of the things that others have found helpful when they are depressed. I try to eat better, exercise a tiny bit, listen to a funny radio program (CarTalk is my anti-depressant of choice, if you must know), visit with a friend.

I make myself do those things, even though I don’t feel like it. Now that’s not a novel way of dealing with depression, but the difference is that I only make myself do those things AFTER I’ve intentionally taken the space to be as depressed as my body is screaming it needs to be.

For me, this means that I will often take an entire Saturday (and sometimes part of Sunday, too) to be therapeutically depressed. And I really do see the payoffs in feeling deeply restored afterwards. I’m hardly ever as happy as I am when I come off of letting myself be as desperately sad as I feel the need to be. And I also find that I experience a peak of restored energy after letting myself be as physically lethargic as my depression is screaming out for me to be, for a period of time.

I don’t actually like being depressed. It feels miserable and awful, just like being in physical pain does. But I’ve found that “giving in” to the pain, and feeling it, as is, is, for me, one of the most effective ways of walking through the pain towards healing and rebuilding my strength.

Meanwhile…

…the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.

(from “The Weight of Glory”, a sermon by C.S. Lewis, 1941)

Carried

Last week, David Ker wrote a CyberPsalm in the form of a prayer for a friend and coworker, Ada, who is battling cancer. I also know Ada, though it has been years since I’ve seen her. Several mutual friends have written me recently, asking me to join them in praying for her.

During this same time, my heart has also been heavy for H., a man in the church I attend now, who is battling a similar cancer. I found myself struggling in my prayers for him, and that struggle was compounded in my prayers for Ada.

I have walked through some very painful things in the last few years. And through the process, I have experienced the Lord’s faithfulness as I have clung to Him. Having more or less come through the worst of that time, I do not necessarily find myself to be more confident in my praying. If anything, the only spiritual practice I find my confidence increased in is lamenting.

And so as I would try to pray for my suffering sister and brother, I could not find the words, only tears. Tears for them, for their spouses and children. I could feel edges of the pain and uncertainty and sorrows they and their families must be walking through. And yet the words to put in a prayer did not come.

During my most painful days, I struggled with the things that God does not do and did not do for me. Now, I think I struggle more with not understanding the things he does do, and with wondering how on earth my prayers are supposed to fit into all of that. I find myself feeling something along the lines of, Lord, I know you can do anything, but as to what you want to do and plan to do…I just don’t know.

And so my prayers (and some would say my faith) are weak and uncertain. And yet I continue to trust the Lord confidently with my tears–crying out and clinging to him, for myself, for my children, and in my longings and cries for Ada and for H. and for their families.

When my friends asked me if I would write a prayer for Ada and send it along with the prayers of others, I wondered how I would send a feeling-prayer, instead of a word prayer. I cannot bottle my tears up and send them in the post or via email.

I did, however, have a verse that kept running through my mind as I thought of the suffering and sorrow Ada and H. are facing, and of all my unanswered questions about how to pray for them.

A short while later, there was a beautiful photo* on my National Geographic Photo of the Day link. I ended up combining the photo with the verse, using my new Corel PhotoShop program.

This is the closest I can come to putting all of my questions, longings, trust and doubts into a prayer for Ada and for H.:

botswana river crossing color with brown

And just because my mood (and therefore my tears and prayers) are less colorful some days than others here’s the same photo, with a sepia effect:

botswana river crossing sepia lightened

Listening to Canon in D while finishing up these photos, I felt like I had just about  found a tangible expression of my heart’s cries and prayers. (If only talking with people was as “easy” as showing them a photo and telling them to listen to a song. There are days when, as hard as praying in words is for me, that I am so thankful the Lord sees my heart, understands the things I feel in response to a song or to a photo, and gets my prayer, after all, even without the words.)

~~~~~~~~~~
*This photo was  the National Geographic Photo of the Day for May 10, 2009. Here is the description: “A Mbukushu mother and child cross Botswana’s Okavango River, whose seasonal floods bring life to a parched land.” You can see five more beautiful photos from the same book, Mothers and Children, at this link.

The Biggest Pain

If you have been depressed, what is/was/has been the most difficult symptom, side effect or manifestation of the depression?

If you have walked with someone you love through depression, which part of their depression is the thing that was most difficult for you?

Either way, is there any particular aspect of depression which seems to be dangerous? I suppose with this question, I’m pondering what the specific thing is in depression that leads some people to consider taking their own life as an answer.

I keep thinking I have things I want to write about depression, and instead I just keep coming up with more questions and ponderables. I do have thoughts that aren’t questions, but because I think about so many things both linearly and from lots of different angles (each one in a linear sort of way), I quickly get bogged down by all the different details and have a hard time organizing them enough in my mind to transfer them to written words. So, for the time being, I find trying to write down all my varied thoughts on depression to be, well, depressing.

How do you think about depression?

Is it something to be:

Managed?

Brought under control?

Endured?

Survived?

Treated?

Something else?

…with a little help from Van Gogh (thanks, Wikipedia) to paint a picture of how a friend’s friend has been feeling lately:

clip_image002

And the prayer, prayed on behalf of this young man, borrowed from Viktor Frankl (quoted in his biography, When Life Calls Out to Us):

God, you have stricken me with mind;
So help me now to bear this life.

I’m thinking about stepping into the mud a bit, with a few posts on depression. I’ve avoided this topic for a while, because I hate the way the intensity on the subject seems to breed misunderstanding and get in the way of productive, helpful discussion.

I reread much of the book of Job this morning, the way I sometimes like to read it (only reading Job’s words, and cheering him on for his courage in proclaiming both his despair and his innocence, in the face of well-meaning friends, who kept getting it all wrong).  And that rereading, combined with concern over my friend’s friend, has stirred up my desire to wrestle with the topic of depression, again.

Super Mom vs. God’s Designs

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot lately on all the ways I’m falling short as a Mom. Sometimes I feel like I’m just making do with broken pieces all around. My own limitations and brokenness. The fallout and brokenness in my kids’ lives from the realities of abuse, divorce, learning disabilities, bullies in school, etc. There is so much imperfection in their little lives, and every bit of it takes its toll on them. I’m acutely aware of my ineffectiveness in mitigating for them the effects of life in a hard world. Or even being able to equip them with the resources to live well in that world. There’s so much more I’d love to do to actively help and equip them. Yet, I’m limited by my own limitations and the very real struggle to recover from the weakening effects of abuse in my own life.

I want to do so much more for them. I see my limitations, but when I follow that line of thinking to the end, I see that it’s not just my limitations. Even if I could do everything I dream of doing–even if I could be as good as Mom as so-and-so, I couldn’t be enough to perfectly equip them with the resources to live an ideal life.

And so, here I sit, rethinking that ideal. The first thing that is helping me is one little part of a very long conversation at The Evangelical Village. My reaction started with this statement from a commenter:

I am curious as to how you justify using single women as an example to prove your point? We would all agree that God’s design is not to have families being run by single mothers who have to do all of the providing, nurturing, etc…

And here is the response, which gave me a big “aha” and triggered some connections, which have been leading to some smaller “aha”s

God’s design lasted until Adam and Eve were put out of the garden. In the garden, they did not have to labour over the soil to feed themselves. The labour of providing is a post Eden task. However, death also has entered into the equation. Men and women die at different times. Although society at first arranged that widows be remarried, this was not enforced among the early Christians. Paul says they should remain unmarried.

What is God’s design in this? That husband and wife both be immortal? That neither one suffer illness? That all men and women remarry ASAP?

Cannot God’s design be evident in how we surmount life’s difficulties. If either husband or wife fall seriously ill, is it not God’s design that we surmount this and remain faithful providers and nurturers of our invalid spouse. Is not this courage part of God’s design?

Somehow, I do believe that God’s design is not just about us finding a way to return to some perfect Garden of Eden state. It’s not about throwing every ounce of energy into making perfect marriages and families happen, nor about succeeding at creating the ideal of perfect social justice and equality in our societies or world.

I don’t have a fine-tuned theology on all of this, so please don’t throw too many theological rotten tomatoes my way if you disagree! I struggle with what God’s design really is. And how His sovereignty and our free will play into it all.

But I think when we act as if God’s design is all about our attaining heaven on earth (whether we focus most of our energy on attaining those ideals in our own homes or in our wider societies), what ends up happening is either

  1. an obsession that leaves us disdaining, dismissing or angry at those around us who frustrate and keep that ideal from happening (i.e. I have to be mad at a spouse who is keeping me from having the perfect marriage; mad at the President who is messing up the world by making (depending on his political leanings) things like war or abortions or poverty or laziness or whatever easier; or mad at myself for my own very real weaknesses which keep getting in the way of my moving towards a family or culture that perfectly reflects God’s design) or
  2. a frantic whitewashing of our efforts that don’t turn out to be perfect or ideal, and then holding our breath and squinting just so, hoping we can convince somebody (ourselves? God? people around us?) that we ARE getting it right!

I’m not exactly ecstatic with the thought that so much of God’s design has to do with redeeming the terrible things, and with how we surmount those difficulties in life. There are times I admit to finding great comfort in that, and there are times (like now) that I would love God’s design to be a whole lot more about things working out right, all around, the first time, rather than about how well we get through the tough stuff or how much of the evil that others get away with is redeemable in our lives.

Even with that tension, though, I think we do ourselves and God a disservice when we assume we’re doing our best at living out His design when we’re most perfectly imitating what we imagine God designed to happen in Eden. If that’s the case, I’m going to have to work my tail off just to get back to ground zero.  Who, though, is not in the same boat? None of us is operating in a context that sets us up to even come close to life as God designed it to be in a perfect paradise. Not one family who looks like they have it all together is doing so from some perfect (or even nearly so) attainment of an Edenic ideal.

A friend of mine who is going through marriage troubles was told by another friend that she probably shouldn’t take in an exchange student because it would be sad for that student to have her example of a Christian family be one where there was so much emotional disconnection. What?!?! So this Mom can’t live out any kind of good example of faith and love and perseverance and godliness because her marriage isn’t good enough? I’m not even married, and I’m learning a lot about love and forgiveness and wisdom from how this woman lives out her faith in a tough situation. And she keeps telling me that she is learning a lot about honesty and patience and resting in God from watching how I live out my faith in a tough, single parenting situation. Do the two of us only get partial credit for loving and glorifying God and living out His design, because our lives aren’t a perfect reflection of God’s design for families?

A comment from a post at Familyhood Church helped bring some of these thoughts together for me:

God’s requirement is that we walk humbly with Him, and leave the glory of it up to Him. I no longer believe that I can make glory happen by being a super-saint in a super-church, my job is to live where I am, learning love, faith and obedience, seeing God where He already is, dwelling in His flawed broken children. And that is enough.

I’ve said before that if God is going to bring hope into my desperate situation, it’s going to have to be His doing. I can’t (and won’t) paste it on like some sort of self-generated commodity. If He’s going to bring light, it’s going to have to be right here where it’s dark, because like Jeremiah (or was it Isaiah), I can’t get myself out of a dark, muddy pit on my own. Yet, somehow it seems to me like God’s design isn’t contingent on whether or not I’m in the pit or out of it. On whether or not I’m depressed (don’t get me going on the topic of needing to fix my depression so God can use me better ;-)!) On whether or not I have the perfect Edenic family scenario. On whether or not I’m able to give my kids all the things they need to make it in a tough world.

I can’t be a super Mom any more than I can be a super saint, or my church can be a super church. But I can be a Mom “where I am, learning love, faith and obedience, seeing God where He already is, dwelling in His flawed broken children [which includes me, and my dear little ones, broken and flawed as they are by the realities of divorce and by, well, just life in general]. And that is enough.”

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