I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
My brain is a treacherous organ. I’ve made my living from it for almost a quarter century, yet it has a defect that makes this hard sometimes. The defect is mental illness, and it’s been with me my whole life.
Usually, it behaves itself. Lately, it hasn’t been. It comes in cycles, sometimes keyed to seasons (late winter is a bad time for many), sometimes for no apparent reason.
Depression isn’t sadness. It’s not even in the same emotional class. Depression is like a vice on your brain. It can sometimes squeeze so tightly that the sufferer hallucinates. It’s like mental suffocation. And it comes on for no reason, even in the midst of happiness.
Drugs help. If you find someone claiming SSRIs are bad or they only work because of placebo effects or other nonsense, ignore them. I’ve conducted a personal 30 year clinical trial, on and off all manner of pharmaceuticals, and when someone finds the right one, they work. All the chattering therapy in the world can’t do what they do.
I went off a medication last summer while my doctors tried to find the cause of a heart problem. I felt okay so I stayed off it. The drugs, however, provide a floor so that when the depression comes on, it doesn’t get as bad as it might otherwise. The floor wasn’t there when it came on this time, and I felt like Wile E. Coyote being flattened under an anvil.
I felt my mind going. I started forgetting things I’ve taught for ten years. My memory is shot for now. I struggle to get a single thing done. If I work myself up to it and have everything written down, I can still get through public speaking and being around people, but it’s physically draining.
The interesting part of all this, and the reason I’m sharing it now when I very rarely write personal things, is that while it’s put pressure on my faith observations, it hasn’t damaged my actual faith at all. I don’t blame God for this and I accept it as my cross even though I’d really like to stop carrying it for a while any time now God.
Maintaining a regular prayer schedule is nearly impossible in this condition. I visited with some friends last night and spent some in their parish prayer chapel where the Eucharist was exposed. I was able to pray the 22nd Psalm and that was it. The rest of the time, I had hardly a single word in my head, not even the Jesus prayer which is usually my go-to meditation. I just sat silently staring at the sacrament.
And you know something? It was enough. My faith is always too much in my head. There’s a useful side effect to that: it’s very rarely shaken. Even when I don’t “feel” it I know that, intellectually, it’s still a rock to stand on. A faith that is too much in the head grows arid, but one that is too much in the heart is easily buffeted by emotional trauma.
Even when the faith sparks to flame in my heart, it’s always very bound to words. Words are my life. Wordlessness is a challenge. I want to pray? I read. Reading becomes my prayer.
And that’s part of the problem. Reading isn’t a prayer. Reading is the ground upon which prayer takes place. It prompts to the prayer. It’s the context for the prayer. Even the words we speak or think aren’t always the best prayer. “Words conceal the soul within,” as Tennyson points out in “In Memoriam AHH”. Yet they have a purpose as well:
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
Before God, we shouldn’t try to numb the pain away. Before God we should be naked and exposed, as we were in first innocence. That much, at least, we owe him.
And so, sometimes, being stripped down and left wordless before the One Who saves is enough. Perhaps the cacophony of our life and work and prayer and study can, at times and for some, become an obstacle to the work of the Spirit.
Depression scours the mind and the soul like a hard desert windstorm. It reduces you. The intellect is compromised. The emotions are laid bare. You’re pushed to the very edge of a gaping pit of despair and forced to look.
As Christians, we need to think differently. Perhaps that pit is not despair, which after all is a sin. Perhaps it’s not even a pit. Perhaps it’s an invitation, a blank slate, a clean white sheet of paper.
When a computer starts to malfunction, what do you do?
You turn it off.
When you power it all the way down and then restart it, it’s called a cold reboot. A cold reboot interrupts the power and clears the memory leaks that may be causing a system to run poorly. Most everyday computer problems can be solved by simply restarting the system a couple of times.
Perhaps depression functions like a cold reboot of the soul. What does depression feel like? Paradoxically, it’s both a weight and an emptiness. Paradox is sometimes a cue that we’re dealing with the transcendent.
For a Christian, every weight is a cross.
For a Christian, every emptiness is a desert.
The cross is our participation in the divine work of Christ. The desert is the place where we empty ourselves so we may be filled with the Spirit.
And so we are poised not at the pit, but at the opposite place: at the hill at the edge of the desert, in the shadow of the cross.
It’s a place of pain and tears, make no mistake. For the person who suffers mental illness, it always feels like Good Friday, and Easter never comes.
But that’s an illusion, and illusions betray us. Just as we know we must pass through the pain of Good Friday to get to the joy of Easter, so too must we remember the reverse: suffering has an end and joy is assured. The hard part is hanging on long enough to get there.
Maybe if we just shift how we look at that time in the dark it will get a little more tolerable. Maybe if we’re content to sit in silence and just be in the presence of God, some of the weights dragging down our hearts and souls will fall. Maybe we just need to ask Christ to be our Simon of Cyrene and carry our cross a little way.
Everything is towards an end. Everything has a purpose. Even mental illness. Our challenge is to find that purpose, live through it, live in it, and come out the other side.