One of the things I find most interesting about being a writer is that, most of the time, the things that most need to be written about are the things I least want to share with other people. Partly, that is because I am an intensely private person and, partly, it is because nobody with any sense likes to feel uncomfortable. I think that humans have a very real and natural tendency to mostly keep their struggles, troubles, difficulties and sorrows to themselves. If they are feeling weak, if they are failing, falling apart, lost, lonely or burdened, most people will go into their houses and shut the door, waiting for the calamity to pass and hoping against hope that they will never have to share their intense vulnerability, their loss or their failure with anyone else.
It’s a reasonable way to feel. None of us wants to seem weak because, ultimately, the thing we want more than anything else is to be loved, to be admired and respected. And the weak are hard to love. Their neediness, their clinginess, their walking-open-woundedness is messy and uncomfortable and threatening, not to mention just a real downer, man. And I get that.
It takes a really unusual person to be okay with discomfort—to be comfortable with just how uncomfortable a difficult situation can be. It is a rare, holy and much needed gift. And from the perspective of human history, there is probably a very good reason why most of us run from other people’s problems, from their honesty. On a very basic, elemental level, it is our “fight or flight” response kicking in, telling us to tuck tail and get the heck out before the tragedy or depression or attempted suicide or broken marriage or addiction or whatever it is oozes out and infects and endangers us and our families, too.
I wish that I was brave. I wish I could say with any degree of honesty that I am impervious to other people’s opinions about my weaknesses and that I am able to share my vulnerabilities and even failures without a moment’s hesitation. But sadly, that is just not the case. The truth is, I want to be loved and respected and admired just as much as the next guy. And so I mostly keep my losses, my weaknesses, my open-woundedness to myself. I would much prefer it if other people thought of me as easy-breezy, charming, funny, intelligent, confident and always, always, always competent. On my good days, I am several of those things. On my bad days, I am probably not any of those things.
Even so, though I want the love and admiration of others as much as anyone does, there are days when love and respect does not matter to me nearly as much as honesty; as much as the ability to be truly human. And today I feel the need to admit that what I actually am—more than smart or funny or clever or confident or any other trait that I could long to foster in myself or present to the world at large—is human. There are days when it is important to stand up for humanness. For brokenness. For messiness and dirtiness and icky-sticky emotions. Today, for me, is just one of those days. It’s been a messy couple of years on planet earth. And while I understand, more than I could ever fully express, what it is to be messy, I also understand what it means to have hope. And if I can give one tiny particle of hope to someone who is drowning in grief or sorrow or loss or depression, I would love to be able to do that.
Seven years ago, I became pregnant with my first baby. I had waited, well, my whole life to become a mom. Not to mention that I had waited seven years into my marriage, through three masters degrees and a doctorate (between my husband and me), and six moves. So, as I am sure you can imagine, it was a pretty big deal. I was thrilled. Beyond thrilled. Over the moon. I was smitten with that baby from the moment of his conception. And as time has gone by, I have only become more so.
Anyway, for the first couple of weeks of my pregnancy, I thought that everything was golden—until one morning, it wasn’t anymore. On day thirty, I woke up at four in the morning, vomiting. And I kept vomiting. For eight months. It kept going and going and going and going and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t stop. I remember spending hours and hours every day trying to lay perfectly still, not even breathing too deeply, because any time I moved, even a little, I began to vomit again. It was pretty much the worst. Thing. Imaginable.
I had a condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum. Which, as far as I can tell, is the latin phrase for, “Wow! That is an UNPRECEDENTED amount of vomit!” Something like one percent of women have that particular condition during pregnancy. As it turned out, I was one of the few, the proud, the lucky, the one percent. The condition was so severe that I couldn’t sleep at night, and if I did sleep for an hour here or there, my body would wake me up so that I could get back to the more important business of vomiting some more. I couldn’t keep water or food down—and by the time by my son was born I was so malnourished that two weeks after I gave birth to him, I was in clothes two sizes smaller than I had been when I got pregnant with him (and I was thin when I got pregnant).
I was so very ill that for every day of those eight months, I was too weak to even sit up. I could not get out of bed. And eventually, one of the valves in my heart decided not to work—there was so much strain on my body from the vomiting that my heart just couldn’t keep up. At six months pregnant, I was hospitalized. And then, to make matters worse, other problems developed: acid reflux from all of the stomach acid I was forever throwing up, terrible muscle pain from lack of sleep (which eventually developed into full blown fibromyalgia), serious blood pressure issues from lying down all the time, horrific back pain from de-conditioning. And on and on. I spent eight months in bed, so sick that I genuinely wondered if I would die before my son was ever born. I remember wondering whether the doctors would somehow be able to keep him alive if I were to die before term.
It was a mess. A beautiful mess, don’t get me wrong—after all, I got my son out of it. But still, a mess. I remember the exact moment that I felt the first reprieve from the terrible and debilitating illness that pregnancy was for me: at twelve or thirteen weeks, even as I lay in bed too ill to move, I could feel what felt like the flutter of butterflies inside my belly. It was beautiful. It was holy. It was good. I bubbled up with joy and thankfulness.
And then, again at fourteen weeks, one night at three or four in the morning, I felt what seemed like a gigantic man-foot kick me in the bladder and I giggled into the darkness. I woke up my husband, put his hand on the man-foot rooting around inside my gut. And we laughed as we lay there holding on to our boy, giggling in the dark, until we fell back to sleep.
It was the most beautiful, amazing, miraculous pregnancy that you can possibly imagine, and the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. Even so, I was so ill that my Ob/Gyn scheduled an emergency c-section at 37 weeks because he was just not sure that I could go on any longer. He was absolutely right to do so; there was just no way I could have safely delivered my boy all on my own. My body had nothing left. No sleep. No rest. No strength. No calories. No fat. No muscle. No endurance. Nothing.
After my son was born, the nurses brought him into our hospital room and placed him on my chest as I lay red-eyed and pale in my hospital bed. I was too weak to sit up or support him with my arm muscles and there were what looked like deep purple bruises rimming my eyes from…lack of sleep? Malnutrition? I was too weak to hold him, so my husband and mom-in-law and mom held him on my chest so that I could still cuddle with my precious baby boy. I spent hours kissing him and whispering to him about how long I had waited for him, about how precious he was to me, about how he was the best thing I had ever done. My husband held his little body in place as I nursed him, because I was too weak to hold him for myself. For the first four months after he was born, friends and family members stayed with us around the clock while our little family tried to recover from the trauma of the pregnancy and c-section and the fibromyalgia with which I now dealt.
We held our precious boy, staring at him for hours, snuggling, feeding, and kissing him, reveling in the taste and touch and smell of his skin, the sound of his belly laugh, the happy grunting noises he made as he ate. We watched him grow fatter and fatter and stronger and healthier and more beautiful with every week. And the joy and gratitude I felt were immeasurable. He was our miracle. There was no question that he was with us only through the grace and goodness of God. And I was absolutely certain that it was a miracle that he and I had lived through it. I had never been so happy. I had never known that kind of joy before. Yet, the sorrow I felt at the same time was unendurable. I could not shake it, no matter how hard I tried. No matter how disciplined I was or how hard I worked to move on, to recover, I could not escape the enormous ocean of grief whose waves washed over, knocking me on my face, time and time and time again.
And honestly, the insomnia that went with the depression magnified its effects ten thousand fold. Human beings who do not sleep cannot possibly be functional, capable, able, healthy people. The human body can not keep going without sleep. For three years, I did. not. sleep.
For the first two years after my son was born, I thought that if I disciplined myself to prayer, to the study of Scripture, to daily exercise, to time spent working with my therapist, to hours devoted to meditation and the singing of psalms of praise, to many hours spent with family and friends, that I would eventually get over what had happened. And I was insistent that recovering from this depression should happen without the use of medication.
For reasons I still cannot understand, it felt like failure to admit that I needed medication. What was worse, it felt like a lack of faith to go through so unremitting a depression to begin with, especially as I looked at and held and played with and laughed at the most beautiful baby in the world. I was so intensely blessed. I knew that without a doubt. I had a wonderful life, in spite of everything I had been through, and even in spite of the fibromyalgia I now dealt with on a daily basis. I was truly filled with a joy I can not even express and even so, the sorrow sat in my chest like a boulder too heavy to ever be rolled away. I was determined that with perseverance, patience, faith and an iron will, I could recover without medication. I was determined that I would not respond to the goodness of God with ingratitude. And depression felt like the worst sort of ingratitude.
After all, I had made it through alive, hadn’t I? I lived with a husband I adored, a precious son, I was blessed with wonderful friends and family. I had all of my basic needs met. My life was a truly good thing. And yet…I could not stop grieving.
And, honestly? Honestly? It was through a sort of insidious “Christian” philosophy and teaching that I had come to believe (without even meaning to) that depression was a spiritual weakness that ought to be overcome through faith. And even as my conscious mind openly rejected such thinking, my subconscious somehow allowed that kind of poison to seep in. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the time, the teachers, thinkers, friends, etc., that had lead me toward this view of mental illness had not really meant to teach that at all; many had not even wanted to believe that that was true. Even so, it remains, even in the twenty-first century, an incredibly destructive teaching (often times an implicit teaching) within many branches of Christianity. And it is an incredibly dangerous one. Frankly, though I rationally understood the truth—after all, I had known plenty of depressed Christians who truly loved Jesus and who were people of integrity and courage and strength—emotionally, I remained convinced that if I could just love and trust Christ enough, I could get through it.
You simply cannot imagine the determination and self-discipline I employed during that time: no matter what, no matter how debilitating the illness should have been, I relentlessly got up every morning, worked out, showered, dressed, went to therapy, spent time working on a novel, spent quality time with family, did housework, cooked, worked in my yard, spent hundreds of hours listening to sermons and worship music, ministered in my church, spent time with friends, tried to nurture other people, tried to think less about myself and my own sorrows. I planned out every minute of every day so that I simply would not have time to be a depressed person. On and on and on I worked at it. Reading everything I could find about how to treat depression, how to get on with it, how to overcome your “weakness,” how to be whole again. And I painstakingly applied every principle that I came across in my own life. For over two years.
And guess what?
It didn’t help.
No matter how hard I worked, I could not get over what I had been through. I could not recover from the grief and sorrow I felt over having been so ill that I feared that I might die every day for eight months. I could not get over the grief and sorrow I felt at the chronic illness I now dealt with. I couldn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
I spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands, in prayer, in reading Scripture, crying out to God for deliverance; for His help, that He would allow me to endure, that He would teach me to have joy in all circumstances, to be content no matter what happened, that He would listen to my prayers, that He would answer me; that He would bear me up; that He would let me hear his voice; that He would keep me from faltering.
And do you know what happened? Nothing. Not a sound. Not a word. Nothing. To this day, I don’t know why He chose to allow me to go through such a time of despair. To this day, I do not understand why He remained hidden for so long. There were times when the anger and isolation I felt were indescribable, unfathomable. There were countless nights where I lay in bed, fighting Him tooth and nail, screaming at Him in my heart. I felt rage. Blind rage. Through it all, He remained completely, utterly quiet. I wish I could tell you that I have it all figured out; that I understand why God operates in the way He does. But there are many ways in which He is a mystery to me.
Then one Saturday night, I lay in bed, sleepless, and realized that a plan of suicide had sprung fully formed into my mind. Without me ever having consciously engaged in suicidal ideation (in fact, I had always painstakingly turned my mind away from those kinds of thoughts) or made a decision to take my own life, my subconscious mind had made it for me. And I have to admit, it was a pretty good plan. Very neat. Very clean. No muss. No fuss.
I would send my husband and son out to run errands. And then put a sign on my front door for my husband to find when they returned telling him to turn around immediately without entering the house and drive our son straight to the home of our best friends. The note would instruct him to call 911 on his way back to our place. Then, after having taken care of the note, I would run myself a bath and lock the bathroom door (as a fail safe to make sure that there was no possible way our two year old could accidentally find me) and I would shut the shower curtain so my husband would not have to walk in and see my suicide first thing. And then I would slit my wrists with my husband’s grandfather’s straight razor and go to sleep, forever.
I lay there all night thinking about it. Considering it from every possible angle. Would it work? Was there anything I was missing? Was there a less messy way? A less traumatic way? Would my husband ever get over it? Would it ruin my son’s life? Would it be easier for my husband if I did it outside of our house? I thought and thought and thought and thought: systematically laying out the best possible plan to end my own life. And as I lay there, two things came into my head over and over again: first, if I went through with it, all of my friends, my siblings-in-law, my brother and sister, my parents-in-law and parents, my husband and son would never get over it. Never, never, never. No matter what. I was certain of that.
I thought about how, for the rest of their lives, every day would have a shadow hanging over it. I thought about how they would probably never feel truly joyful or at peace again, without at least some small pang of loss and sadness, and possibly despair. And that I would be the cause of that, forever and ever. I recognized, even as dangerously depressed as I was, that in some ways, I would not just be ending my own life, but theirs, too. And the responsibility of that took my breath away.
Also, no matter what had happened, no matter how pissed off I was at God, no matter how much I felt in that moment that He had failed me, no matter what I had lost, what I had suffered, what God had allowed me to endure, there was something that remained inside of me, telling me over and over and over again, ad nauseum, ad infinitum, (and let’s be honest, a lot of the time the voice inside my head was actually my husband’s voice calling me relentlessly back toward the light) that God’s love redeems all things, restores all things, recreates all things. There was something inside of me that kept telling me that no matter what, God’s stories have a good ending. What happens in the beginning and the middle is often a complete train wreck, but the end is always a thing of beauty. No matter what. No matter what. And that if I could hold on a little longer, I might somehow get to see the good ending to my story.
Something inside of me, something beyond the rational and beyond the tangible, told me that no matter what hell happens on this earth, His intention is to make something holy and beautiful and good out of it, even if we can not see it at the time. Something told me that if I could just stay alive long enough, God would heal me, in His time, in His way. Because that’s what He does, He heals. That’s who He is, the Healer. Something told me that God can make holy even the most unholy circumstances on the planet. Something—I am assuming it was the Holy Spirit, the grace of Christ—kept telling me that the bottom was solid. That the pit had bedrock at its base and that, eventually, I was going to stop falling and that, by God’s grace, I would land gently, back once again on solid ground.
The next morning, I got out of bed with a war being waged inside my brain and soul that I cannot put into words. I later had a psychiatrist tell me that when serotonin levels become dangerously low inside the gut and human brain, the brain actually starts sending messages that the person should just “go ahead and end it,” because the human body simply cannot go on functioning with serotonin levels that dip below a certain point. So, basically, that Sunday morning, while my broken brain was trying its best to kill me, my soul was fighting desperately, fiercely, savagely to keep me alive.
I got up and made a call to our worship pastor telling him that I would not be able to help with worship that morning. Later at church, a very odd thing happened. I went over to talk to him and thank him for being gracious about letting me off the hook and, for some reason, I told him very calmly and rationally that I was going through a postpartum depression and that, frankly, I didn’t feel much like worshiping God that morning. And that to be even more frank, in spite of how much I loved Him, I kind of felt like God was a big, dumb, butt-munch, jerk at the moment. And then it just all spilled out of me. I told him everything. Calmly and quietly and politely. It just poured out—like someone else was doing the talking for me.
I have no idea why I told him what I told him. I never say things like that. I never tell people personal things or what is really, truly going on inside my head. I just don’t. I am far, far too private for that. But for some reason, that morning, and perhaps it was because I was on the verge of death, I was completely vulnerable and honest about how broken I was and probably, that unwitting honesty saved my life.
Our worship pastor—who went on to become a good friend of ours—listened and listened. Instead of being shocked and appalled and disappointed with my lack of faith, he acted like he heard this kind of stuff every day. No biggie; join the club. In fact, he almost seemed like it was kind of blasé. I was astonished. After he listened to me talk for what seemed like five years, but what was probably only a few minutes, he said he was going to talk to his wife and have her call me after church. Nonplussed, I politely asked him why. “Because,” he said, “she went through a depression this severe after our second was born and I think you need to go to the emergency room right now.” I was surprised and a little incredulous, but I thanked him and said I would wait for her call.
A little while later, she called me and almost immediately said, “Run, do not walk to the nearest hospital, RIGHT NOW! I will meet you there in twenty.” And for some reason, the most private, quiet, independent, strong-willed girl I know, after two years and four months of refusing medication, broke down and went to the ER. My new friend met me there with Chipotle, magazines and juice and and we sat on my hospital bed and talked and laughed and goofed off and somehow found a lot of joy in the midst of some of the most awful circumstances. Then she proceeded to kindly—and in a very charming way—boss around pretty much every single person in the hospital. And for some reason, the doctors and nurses just grinned at her—like she was, indeed, very charming—and did whatever she asked them to do. I was floored. She stayed with me the entire afternoon and into the evening and made sure that I got the best care, the warmest blankets, the fattest pillows, the most frequent restroom breaks, the most private cubicle, the best doctors and the best drugs known to man. It was pretty bad-ass. And honestly, it saved my life. It saved my spirit. My soul. My brain. And definitely my body. She was a warrior-angel and for me, that day, she was the very presence of Christ himself.
For pretty obvious reasons, I really like that chick a lot.
Anyway, I spent four days in the hospital, talking to doctors and nurses and therapists and sleeping and praying and waiting. And at the end of it, they sent me home with a new psychiatrist and a big fat wonderful delicious bottle of antidepressants. Thank God. Those babies have kept me alive for almost four years now. They allow me to sleep every night. If I could, I would kiss them on the mouth.
Eight agonizing weeks after I left the hospital, I noticed the tiniest difference in my ability to deal with the sorrow. The antidepressants were starting to work, just a little. I could smile just a tiny bit more. Laugh a little. Snuggle my baby boy closer. Whisper secrets in his ear. I laughed at my husband’s jokes for the first time in a couple of years. It wasn’t much of a difference—the sorrow and anxiety were still enormous—but it was enough of a difference for me to hang on and resolve to stay alive for a little longer.
Eventually, through therapy it came to light that not only was I dealing with a major depressive episode, but also PTSD. Which basically means I was a pretty damn big mess.
It took another three years for me to mostly recover, one agonizing day at a time. And even today, I am not quite who I was before I got pregnant; I think I will probably always be a little different. I jump when somebody makes a loud noise. I am a little more easily stimulated than I once was. I was always a little sensitive to sound, but now I am certainly more so. My reflexes are faster. I succumb more easily to stress. I am just a tiny, tiny bit buzzy. And it’s so subtle that I almost don’t notice it, and yet I do notice it. And also, though the feelings of depression are very rare now, they are still occasionally present, though they are mostly associated these days with a certain—ahem—time of the month (sorry to embarrass you, oh, gentleman reader).
On the whole, I am just a little different, not so much so that most people would ever notice, but it is definitely there. And yet, there are good changes, too. Honestly, who I am now, having been through what I have, makes me a far more useful human being than I ever was before. I am, for instance, completely comfortable being around screwed up people and mentally ill people. I am totally fine with being with people in the midst of a crisis or a tragedy. I am comfortable with the elderly, the sick and the dying. Because I have been through almost all of those things myself. I know what it feels like. And more than anything, I understand that no matter who or what you are or the circumstances in your life, you always need to be treated as if you are human, as if you deserve dignity. As if you are yourself. And, perhaps most importantly, as if your problems are not anathema.
Even with the changes, the slight differences in temperament, I am nearly back to the me I once was. I notice it now every day: I can take a little more. I can handle more responsibility. I do not get angry or stressed or upset the way I once did. I can sit and read the news without weeping. I can concentrate again, finally, often for many hours at a time. For a while, I could not be in the same room with the news or, say, a serious movie, television show or action movie—for the longest time, it was just too much…static, too much chaos, too much adrenaline. Now, I can watch a difficult or intense movie without being affected by it overly much.
I am finally happy and playful and goofy and silly again. I sleep better than I have in years. And also, by God’s grace and kindness to me, I am wiser. And kinder. And more compassionate. Slower to judge things I do not understand. More patient with other people’s failings. Quicker to recognize that so many things are beyond our control. Less surprised to find that people are, well, people. And God knows I am stronger, because His terrible mercy allowed me to be broken in half and his unfailing goodness forged me back together.
I remember reading once that scar tissue is the strongest tissue in the human body, and that when a bone is properly set after being broken, it heals stronger than it was before the break. I can attest to the truth of both of these things. In some ways, I am weaker than I was before, more fragile (and I probably always will be) and in some ways, far, far stronger, because God’s strength in us is made more perfect through our weakness. I had a friend tell me once (after my son was born), that I have what she referred to as “the gift of spiritual triage.” In other words, I am completely comfortable with sitting in the middle of someone else’s muck and mud. And I think that is true. Other people’s shit doesn’t scare me anymore. I am not afraid of “catching it,” because I have already caught it. And by God’s grace I have been inoculated. And I am immeasurably thankful for that. For that very reason, going through what I have is worth it a thousand times over. I have always wanted to be a useful person. Now, in my own way, I am.
As for Christians and depression: the church still has a long way to go. It is still true that some well intentioned (or at least I hope so) Christian blogger is forever sticking his or her foot in their mouth. I still read on a regular basis that someone is preaching about faith and recovery from depression and how depression is sin. And blah. blah. blah. It’s misguided nonsense. Sometimes, yes, I have to turn my laptop off for a day or two. Shut it down. Walk away. Pray for patience and grace. And, thankfully, grace is a gift freely given, so it always comes.
One of the things I love most about the spirit of God is that He is never through with revealing the truth to us. He keeps peeling back the layers of his love. Gently, over time, as we are ready for it, He teaches His people more about the truth, about His heart, about His love for the broken and about how we may help heal the brokenhearted. And I recognize that, over time, He will reveal more and more to the Church about how to respond with wisdom and integrity and kindness and true compassion to those who are suffering with the terrible burden of depression.
I think that with every passing year, the church understands a little bit more about what depression is not: it is not a lack of faith or character or resolve or integrity or self-discipline. It is not a sign of emotional or spiritual weakness. It is not. a. choice. It is not something that can be ass-whipped with “the Sword of Good Christian Resolve.” It is a thing that happens, in spite of the very best of our very best efforts. A disease. An affliction. A result of living in a broken world. And yes, oh, yes! It is a thing that Christ can and will redeem, as He redeems all of Creation.
Yet, the redemption is one of being burned with fire. And pretty much no one is a fan of being burned. It is an unbearable pain. You should no more blame a person who deals with depression than you should blame a man on fire running from a burning building. In many respects, we live in a world on fire. It is not very surprising, then, when people are ignited by the flames. In fact, I would say it is more surprising when they are not burned. So, instead of casting blame, or causing shame in those who are already broken, what we as the church should do (and we are definitely getting better at it), is help put the fire out in any way we can, by any means necessary. And then we should sit and hold the victim and treat the burns, until such a time as healing can take place.
Lastly, to those of you who are depressed or dealing with suicidal thoughts: There is nothing wrong with you, except that you live in a fallen, imperfect world and you are working with a fallen, sometimes broken body and a fallen, sometimes broken brain. All of Creation groans, man, and it will continue to do until such a time as Christ restores it to its former glory. And He will. You can bank on it.
And also, being diagnosed with depression is no more your fault than being diagnosed with lupus or cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease or Crohn’s disease. You should no more push yourself to live without the appropriate treatments and medications than a person with heart disease should try and go without anesthetics during an open heart surgery or beta blockers and blood pressure medication after the surgery. Get the help you need. Whatever that help may be. Christ is endlessly merciful and compassionate. Far more so than anyone on this planet. He is not disappointed in you. He does not judge you. He is nuts about you. And he wants your health and restoration far more than you could ever imagine. So much so that He was willing to die in order to give it to you.
Last of all, I love you. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. You are not alone. I am a short facebook message away, as are millions of other people who are and will continue to deal with depression. You are not alone.
You are not alone.
God be with you and bless you and keep you, even to the end of the age. And may your heart and soul and body and brain be healed, both through the efforts of your family doc and through the work of the Great Physician. And in the meantime, friend: hunker down, take your meds, see your shrink, talk to your pastor, spend time with people who remind you of who you are and who you’re meant to be, and hold fast. The story is about to get really good.