I did, last Saturday. That's right -- just before our wonderful, almost giddily joyful Reformation Day at church.
Why? That's a good question...one with a smorgasbord answer. Take a generous helping of middle-aged hormones simmering in the dark of the moon, add twin scoops of friends' sorrows and Seasonal Affective Disorder and a serving of post-retreat/back-into-the-world letdown, season with a splash of anxiety and a sprinkling of depressive genes from both sides of the family, and then take your seat at a table surrounded by to-do lists, with an unhappy elderly mom and a pouting dog as your dining partners. In a world gone mad. Yeah; that might do it.
Imagine your emotions on a roller-coaster ride that suddenly plunges down...down... down. You find yourself so far down that gravity presses in on you from all sides, and it's hard to breathe; you feel as if you've been buried alive. This is what depression feels like. And in addition to feeling like this, you also feel guilty for feeling so bad. Why should you feel bad? Was your house washed away in a hurricane? Are you starving? Has someone you loved died? Are you in the midst of a war? There's no good reason to feel like this. But you do anyway. And the sadness comes in waves, like nausea; at one point you will feel better, and think, "Oh, it's going away now" -- only to be buffeted by another crashing feeling of sorrow and hopelessness.
Fortunately, thanks be to God and to a very patient cognitive therapist years ago who spent hours listening to my teary gut spillage, I have a kind of toolkit I use when I feel blue. Part of it is about maintaining a detached perspective, like my Buddhist friends: Yes, I am feeling sad. This is what sadness feels like. Then the sadness will pass away, and I'll feel something else. Part of it is about distraction -- interrupting the ruminating, the marinating in sadness. (Ironically, I find listening to the blues, the waaaaay down blues, one of the best means of doing this.) And part of it is about prayer. About being face down in the ditch, chewing mud, and asking God for help. When I'm in this frame of mind I find that the ancient Jesus Prayer -- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner -- says it all. Sometimes even that is too much, and I'm reduced to a simple Help. Help me.
And the Lord Jesus Christ does. Always. Not by waving a divine hand and making my sadness go away, but by staying with me in a way that is real to me. A clergyperson I know notes that, in his experience dying people are less afraid of dying than of dying alone, and I think this is true of suffering or sadness of any kind. Bonhoeffer called Jesus the One Who Suffers With Us, and in my experience that is true in an individual as well as a collective way.
Sometime late at night, my bout with depression stopped. It just stopped. Whatever was messing up the recipe of chemicals in my head ceased and desisted. It's like a fever breaking. Thank you. Thanks for being here. I thought of my favorite Psalm, Psalm 40:
I waited patiently upon the Lord
who stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me up out of the desolate pit,
out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff
and made my footing sure.
He put a new song in y mouth,
a song of praise to ouur God. (RSV)
At first I hesitated to write about this episode, because I didn't want to sound whiny -- all things considered, I have far less to whine about than most human beings on this planet. But for anyone out there who does suffer from depression -- an ongoing depression, or sporadic episodes like mine, or perhaps situational depression -- I want to encourage you, with all my heart, to seek out help. I still draw upon the advice of the therapist I saw a decade ago. Talk therapy helps; it really does. And if your therapist, through your work together, ascertains that you need some pharmaceutical help as well, s/he can help you get that. And never discount the power of prayer; a friend of mine likes to talk about our living lives of practical atheism, of saying all the right things about "almighty" God but thinking and living as though there isn't one. Like the song says, Jesus walks...walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, as well as through the good, happy times. You don't have to suffer alone.
"The Scream," Edvard Munch