I have Depression

Note: I’m not writing this because a famous actor died, although that has forced some important conversations into the limelight. I’m not writing this to garner any sympathy because we all have our own diseases and struggles. I’m writing this for me, to try and give me a small step toward healing.

I don’t remember when I first encountered the Betrayer. I know it was a long time ago, and I think I had encounters with him as far back as high school. He’s the worst kind of companion. He doesn’t tell me when he’s going to show up, suddenly appearing at my door in the middle of a good day or a bad one. Other times he drops in when I’m on vacation, or with a friend, or at work. Or really, anytime and any place.

The Betrayer has two modus operandi with me. Like a boxer, perhaps, The Betrayer swings hard from the right with his fist – Anxiety. Anxiety comes in rapid-fire jabs. Sometimes I can’t even catch a quick breath in between them. Then The Betrayer follows with his intended knock-out left fist, Depression. It’s staggering. Time slows to a crawl, and the dull and growing pain of the blow sets in for a long, long visit.

I’ve painted around the edges on this subject at times, even using the “d” word once or twice in writings online. But I’ve realized over the past week that there are some things here I need to voice, I need to name, I need to post for my own good.

This week has been hell, but not because a famous actor who struggled with depression committed suicide. It’s definitely sad and it sucks, but that’s not why this week has been hell.

The week started out incredibly well. But the Betrayer showed up in a cup of coffee. It was evening, I was with friends, and I was offered a coffee with dessert. Due to the Betrayer’s existence, counselors have recommended that I avoid caffeine in the evenings. But that’s okay, it’s decaf. No big deal, right? Except.

The Betrayer’s jabs of Anxiety set in. “You know what, it’s probably caffeinated? You know that there is some caffeine in all coffee anyway. You’ll probably be awake all night because of the caffeine.”

That’s how it started. A damned cup of decaf coffee. And the Betrayer has been at it all week since.

But because depression is a thing, because it is real, it rolls down upon me like the fog settles over San Francisco and stays for as long as it wants. Sometimes it’s mild. Sometimes (usually in the winter) it’s a lot worse. This week has been worse than most I can remember.

I’ve read a lot of good things this week as so many who are coping and battling with it daily have shared their wounds openly. We’re moving the conversation a little bit this week, and that’s incredible. But I need to put this out there, in my words, and shine some light on where I’ve been.

Every time you negate or belittle the truth of depression, you’re piling on somebody. Debating mental illness and suicide with somebody who suffers with the disease is callous and cruel. Stop it.

Mental illness isn’t something I’m going to debate. I don’t have the energy to debate whether the Betrayer is real. He is. He lives in my brain. I know it. Professionals know it. I don’t care if you do or not.

Every time someone tells me that the Betrayer can be defeated if I just have a little more faith, a little more joy in Jesus, I wonder if they’ve read the entirety of the Psalms.

Because I’ve been there. I’ve been curled up in a ball on the floor crying for no reason. I’ve spent days moving through the motions while my mind screams how awful I am, how worthless, how everything will surely fall apart.

That’s the reality of the Betrayer. I’m trying to learn how to anticipate his arrival, but he still finds new ways to appear. And his stays are unexpected and as long as he wants them to be.

So, yeah. I have depression. Somedays it’s horrible, nearly debilitating. Some days it isn’t.

But it’s real. Some days my brain hates me and tries to destroy me. That’s the disease, the illness, the battle I face.

Nish Weiseth sums it up best. Nish is an incredible woman who shared her own suicide story this week. Her words are beautiful and broken, truthful and profound. You should read her post in its entirety.

God does heal, absolutely He does. But sometimes, healing happens through good doctors, counselors, practitioners, and yes, medicine. God’s grace can look like a sliver of light on the bathroom floor, but it can also look like a life-changing counseling session or the right combination of drugs to regulate your brain chemistry.

Prayer and a deepening faith have helped many along the road to depression. But it doesn’t always work out that way. It didn’t for me. And you know what? That’s okay. It doesn’t make us any less of a Christian believer. It doesn’t diminish our value in the eyes of God if we find His grace in our name printed on a pill bottle.

And finally, as Christians, we should never be pointing our fingers at the hurting and calling them selfish.
Rather, we should be looking at them with our eyes wide open and saying, “I’m here. You’re not alone. Let’s get help, together.”

Dear Politician

Dear Politician,

Years ago, you and I had an understanding. We respected each other. Our worldviews were by no means identical, but they had space for appreciating our similarities and differences.

Your principled stands earned you a lot of respect and some accusations of insanity, but I for one had no trouble defending you. I could understand that your views were consistently based upon your principles. Even as I aged and grew further away from your political beliefs, I still found space to respect you as a principled person of integrity.

Since you retired from office a few years ago, I had not thought much about you. Your political action campaign people keep signing me up for your emails, and I unsubscribe, and back and forth we go, but most of the time your emails are caught in my spam filter. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t want to hear from you in any forum, so I didn’t mind that my email blocked you from my life. But one got through today, and it’s the last one. We’re done. You’ve wounded me and I need to tell you why.

In years past you professed to be a faithful Christian and I haven’t heard anything to the contrary since, so I’ll assume we’re still working from the same shared value of Scriptures, even if we come to some different conclusions. So I think this should make sense to you.

See, for the past few months I have been preaching at a church in Canada, a lovely congregation who are kind and humble and generous. But they don’t know me all that well, so I’ve been introducing them to me through various stories that reflect the Scripture texts for the week.

This past Sunday’s lectionary readings included a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, from chapter eight. It’s a rough and tumble passage about future fruits and heaven and eternity and suffering. But one passage stuck out to me in particular:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18, ESV)

I thought it was extremely important to focus on this text, but rather than just be the pious outsider telling them to get over their suffering, I shared with the congregation one moment of grief and suffering from my own story.

One Sunday two years ago, when I preached at church on the Transfiguration, the power of the kingdom of God breaking into the world, only to come home and find out that one of my students, a sweet 15-year old girl, had been shot and killed while waiting to drive to the mall. A wrong-place, wrong-time murder. A now-two-year-old unsolved murder on a street not far from my house.

I realized Sunday that I’m still grieving her death. She sat in the front row of my class, Politician. She had a smile and a kind greeting every day. She had a ripple effect on her friends. Their days were brighter because of her. And they have had to grow through this suffering and grief the past two years in ways that must be unspeakable. My grief is heavy and yet I barely knew her compared to so many others.

And because this came up again Sunday, Mr. Politician, I’m raw again. The tears came back again, like they do every few months. And I’d hoped you would understand.

But then I got your email today, the one that happened to get through the spam filters because I moved around some settings on my server. And your email made it worse. Because you offered me the chance to win a free AR-15 assault rifle for donating to your cause.

A free gun for a man grieving the death of someone at the hands of a gunman. Free guns for a country that grieves the death of people by firearms to the tune of 80-some per day.

It’s hard to feel any sympathy or solidarity with you anymore, Mr. Politician. I’d like to think you’re still principled and such, but it seems like you’ve really missed the point. Normal people throughout this country are touched by gun violence every day, and you’re giving away guns for political cash.

I’m not saying you’re more or less principled than any other politician, Mr. Politician. They all might be less ethical and consistent than you, I don’t really know. But this isn’t about them, it’s about you. And me. And a 15-year old girl killed on the streets of Detroit. And all of the others in all of the other states.

I thought we understood each other. But then you tried to give me a free gun.

So this will be the last time I write to you, Mr. Politician. I can’t help but shake my head and wonder where things went so wrong. I hope someday you realize that cheap political points are less important that the lives and principles you used to care about, or at least used to espouse.

Farewell to our Matriarch

This has been coming for years really. While we have all joked about her outliving us, the fact that Jennie Sprague lived until 100 was a bit of a feat. Sure, it was in her DNA, what with her mother living to age 96 and all. The last few years have been rough. Declining health, limited memory, and all of the things that come with the slow creep of death into an old soul. It was especially tough when her daughter-in-law, my grandmother, passed away a few years ago and great-grandma struggled to fully comprehend. At times she knew and mourned, at other times she was oblivious. Death of the mind makes dying so much worse. 

But now it’s over, and we can consider the fullness of the life that was lived.
Born in 1913, the year between the Titanic and the opening shots of the Great War, Jennie only had one sibling, an older sister, survive infancy. They lived in mid-Michigan, in the place where there are a lot of small towns and farm fields as far as the eye can see. Little towns that hardly exist anymore, and seem perfect for the original sepia-toned photographs of the 1900s. That was her childhood.
She lived through the Depression, marrying Roy Sprague in 1932 right when things had gotten bad around the country. In a way, tragedy wasn’t too far away from her. In the middle of the Depression, 1935, she gave birth to a baby girl, Sally Annette, who suffered from spina bifida and died at the age of three. It wasn’t until 1941 when she gave birth to a son, Ronny, her only child to live to adulthood.
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Roy & Jennie.

Roy & Jennie lived in Weidman next door to Jennie’s mom until she passed away in 1981. Not long after that, Roy’s health began to fail and he passed away in 1986. Jennie would go on to live for 28 more years as a widow and yet despite that, she lived more years married (54) than single (47). A stunning number if you ask me.

For me, Great Grandma Jennie was the little old woman who was sweet and doting, yet always a little critical. When I would call her from college she would be sure to add a line about never expecting to hear from me again before she died, always asking for another call or letter. When I grew out my hair one summer, she always commented about what a nice hair cut I had, her passive-aggressive way of telling me to cut it as soon as possible.
Grandma Jennie also was a safe place, a person we loved having come and stay at our house growing up. Her proper attitudes about certain things were always a challenge (she was not too keen on our dogs growing up), but she and I always had our asthma nebulizers and piano playing in common. There are photos somewhere of a duet that she and I played, but unfortunately I gave up playing and her memory and physique betrayed her in later years.
Perhaps the most lasting part of Grandma’s legacy I will cling to is her steadiness. She was a steady, consistent person. She was committed to church. To food. To family. To a smile. Even through her cranky, critical moments, there was always a happy note in there somewhere. Her joy with children was unmatched, as she cooed and sang with them even when frailness and dementia were taking their tolls.
I have nothing but good memories to remember Grandma by, which makes me so happy through this veil of tears. Her 100th birthday in October, when she was in good spirits and great humor (when asked what the next century would hold for her, she laughed and dramatically pointed to the ground saying “I’d better be under, and soon!”).
Grandma Jennie & Bear

Grandma Jennie & Bear

Despite all of the things she lost in life, especially toward the end, Grandma’s love persevered. And she even found the inner strength to love on my baby Bear.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

Faith Remained

Numbers tell me that I’ve got 10 years to go until I reach middle age. I think that means I’m still considered a young adult. But I don’t feel like it.

The winter thaw, here, has been slow in arriving. Normally in Detroit we have had a warm snap or two already, but this is truly one of the first days over 40 degrees since November. Each year I have noticed that the physical rust hangs on longer, the aches and pains of picking up outdoor activity again seem to linger longer than the year past. I can tell I’m getting older. I can feel it.But in the grand scheme of things, though, I’m young. If the life expectancy today is just shy of 80 years old, I’m young. But someday I’ll be old, and I wonder about that often.

I wonder because I listen to artists who have aged, and as they have aged they have wrestled with things of faith and death. The little annoyances give way to the questions about eternity, about health and the inevitable end for all of us. And sometimes those artists tell the aging process in their recordings, even if they don’t set out to do so.

Last week a 1980s set of Johnny Cash recordings was released, and one of the tracks is a Southern Gospel-styled hymn titled “I Came to Believe.” It’s upbeat, it’s catchy, and it is the type of song I can imagine singing when I was growing up in a small Wesleyan church.

Johnny wrote the track and recorded it (and the rest of the Out Among the Stars album) around 1980, when he was in his late 40s.

Fast forward until 2003. Johnny was recording several tracks with the producer Rick Rubin for the follow up to American IV. Johnny was 71 years old and died in September 2003 after recording several dozen tracks for what would become American V and American VI. Buried on American V is a recording of “I Came to Believe,” which would actually be the first version released when American V was released posthumously in 2006.  Take a listen.

Johnny lived a full life. Drugs, divorce, two rounds of incredible fame and success, life with an incredible partner in June, wonderful children and friends. Through it all, Johnny had a faith. A faith that was sometimes rosy, and sometimes rough.

Faith still. Faith while looking death in the eye. At the end of his life, with death on the doorstep and knowing that all earthly things would be lost, for Johnny Cash, faith remained.

Undershirts and Empty Words

As a kid I am sure I always wanted to “be cool.” Flipping through some second and third grade writing projects recently I found several mentions of Jake, the coolest kid in class and someone who was definitely not my friend, yet I went out of my way to name-drop him when I could. “Played soccer at recess with Jake.” “Was on Jake’s winning kickball team.” I suspect my contribution to any athletic success was minimal but I had the pride of being able to tell myself and my friends that I was on Jake’s winning team.

When middle school arrived and I actually started to gain some athletic ability, the need to be cool never waned. Being committed to basketball, it was suddenly all about wearing the right athletic gear, practicing (or appearing to be practicing) a lot more often and having cool headphones. Unfortunately I did not have cool headphones, or a portable CD player, or the right athletic gear.

One of the most contentious pieces of clothing I adopted then were a-cut undershirts or “wife-beaters” in common slang. They fit perfectly under a basketball jersey without showing, whereas the guys with white t-shirts looked conservative and awkward. T-shirts under the jersey were the public way of declaring that you were still uncomfortable with your body and its changes during teenage years. Unseen shirts under the jersey said you were confident and comfortable.

The contention over the shirts, at least in our household, was the name. They are formally called “a-shirts” (in contrast with t-shirts) because of their cut. You can roughly see it when you look at them. But most everyone I have ever met calls them “beaters,” short for “wife beaters.” My mom was adamant that we were not calling them that in her house. So they had a bi-polar identity for me. Call them a-shirts to keep mom happy and beaters to everybody else because, well, that’s what they are called.

I vividly remember a conversation with my mom where I insisted the “beaters” term was no big deal. “Mom,” I argued, “it’s just a word. It’s empty and doesn’t mean anything. Somebody who wears one isn’t a wife beater or something!”

empty words

——
Not too long ago I was digging through digital archives on my ancestors and I came across a photo of someone I never knew. A direct ancestor of mine, he was a rotten person. Mistreated his wife and kids, walked out on his family to have a new one, the whole bunch. A really disgusting person by all accounts, and my flesh and blood too.

This photo shows him standing proudly, in front of his home I assume, wearing nothing but slacks, and of course, a wife-beater.

wife-beater

The skeleton of empty words was suddenly animated by the flesh and blood of this guy and his actions. This man standing proudly, wearing his own identity. The words of his shirt speak as loudly as the sandwich board advertising $5 pizzas or going-out-of-business sales.

empty words

No such thing. They ring with meaning far beyond what middle school me could have envisioned. The words are sharp, they are biting, and in my flesh-and-blood’s case, they are true.

I won’t use those words any more if I can help it. Because they are real. They mean something. Somebody suffered because someone was those words. Those words were part of someone’s identity.

And I am not that. I refuse to be that. I reject it. And with it, I reject those words.