when reasons fail

Reasons fail spectacularly when the subject is depression. Last week, a well-meaning journalist or two (no, I can’t remember which) offered Kate Spade’s separation from her husband as a ‘reason’ for her mental health struggles.

It would be great if depression and anxiety worked that way. Find the cause, fix the problem, job done. But they don’t work that way. Depression is depression and not just a grumpy mood (sort of like mine today), because it doesn’t obey reason. By that, I just mean that depression happens whether or not it’s warranted. I remember reading somewhere that suicides are more common in spring (no, again, I don’t remember: humour me, I’m having a bad day). Why? Because the new life that comes in spring is so incongruous with the cold, dark winter inside that it pushes people over the edge. The world looks beautiful, and that makes everything feel worse. See how that doesn’t make sense? (That is, unless you’re depressed. If you’re depressed, I am sorry; I know you understand this all too well.) Anxiety, though that’s not the main demon that haunts me, also eludes logic. We’re all anxious from time to time, about stuff that seems anxiety-producing for most people. That’s not disordered anxiety–it’s typical. So we might be tempted to think that an anxiety disorder is just like that, only worse. I suspect, however, that it is not only different in intensity but also in form. And although I don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, I’m pretty sure that logic doesn’t cure it.

That’s not to say that bad things, painful things, frightening things, that happen in our lives do not contribute to depression (and anxiety and the rest). I’m a pretty functional person most days. By that, I mean that I can do the usual sorts of daily tasks at home and at work with the same amount of cheerfulness and grumbling as the average person. I try to be cheerful more than I grumble; sometimes I fail. This basically even keel is thanks in large part to some chemical help my brain gets so that it can stay focused on the task in hand. When things go wrong (sometimes even small things), though, distraction increases and despair looms. Then I don’t move between cheerfulness and grumbling: I go straight to complete despondency. Everything is going wrong, I am a total and complete failure, and the world would be a better place without me in it.

Hey, presto. I am no longer that even-keeled, basically functioning person. Now I am languishing under the boulder of depression, completely paralysed emotionally and psychologically. And I cannot shift that boulder, no matter how much I try to convince myself that there is no reason that it should be there. Reason has left me, and I am bereft. As long as the boulder sits there, I’m not going to get anything done. (Okay, sometimes I can do laundry, but that doesn’t get my articles written or my teaching prepped.) And I know from others’ accounts of their experiences with the world-ending psychological catastrophe known as depression that mine is nowhere near as bad as it gets.

The thing is, it isn’t the stress that caused my depression. Well-managed depression is like  a fault line that runs through someone’s mind. (There’s a lot to be said about mind/body/soul in depression, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight treats the subject very well in Darkness Is My Only Companion.) Most days, the landscape looks like solid ground. But on some days a small bump can trigger a massive tectonic shift. Coping mechanisms crumble, and the mind comes crashing down. My mind comes crashing down. And in the rubble, it’s hard to tell whether there is even an ‘up’, never mind figuring out which way it is. There, in the rubble, it can seem like the world has already ended. Suicide just brings into force the perception that’s already there. That perception is depression’s doing, and reason doesn’t really come into it.

When I reflect on my own psychological earthquakes, I think the only reason I am still around is the psalms. I’m serious. When I was a teenager, my inner life was a mess. (My outer life, too, but that’s a different story.) I have no idea how I stumbled into the psalms. I wasn’t a pious person. But boy did the psalmists know how to lament. They could say, ‘life totally sucks’ (my teenage lament) in the most beautiful ways. So for years (no exaggeration), I would conclude every journal entry with one psalmist’s question to himself: ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me?’ And I would add his encouragement to that depressed self: ‘Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.’ In the psalms, I found my ‘up’.

That’s not to say that religious practice can save everyone; on my worst days I would forget that there even were psalms. But for the most part, the psalmists have been my companions in despair: just the right company for my recurring misery. And I am very grateful for them.

Deo gratias.

 

 

 

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in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

Wednesday of the 31st week in ordinary time

The Lord is my light and my help;
  whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
  before whom should I shrink?

I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
  in the land of the living.
Hope in him; hold firm and take heart!
  Hope in the Lord!
                                      Ps 27 [26]

*          *         *

What if the darkness, the enemy, is not on the outside? I don’t have enemies. Nobody wants to hurt me; I don’t have anything to fear. Not really.

Probably this is the case for lots of us. I have been reading Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation, and have just finished a section on fear, and the sorts of things we fear. Loneliness, failure, and poverty seem to top the list. Mental illness, though, might figure in somewhere. Depression and dementia threaten us from the inside, as it were, robbing us not of possessions but of our very selves. About dementia, I know little. About depression, I know way more than I want to. I know how depression eats away at hope and cripples love.

Knowing that “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living” somehow fails to lift the darkness and gloom. As surely as I know it, and as firmly as I believe it, making the step from knowledge to hope is well nigh impossible. It is as though there is a black hole where joy and peace ought to reside, swallowing every tiny ray of light that comes near it. I can stand outside myself and see that the sun is shining, that I have everything I need, that I am loved by God and by my family. All these things ought to lift the darkness. But no: the blackness eats up all the comfort that this knowledge ought to provide.

The darkness comes from the inside and works its way out–in impatience and sullen silence, in not-caring and not-doing. I can see it seeping through the cracks, however much I would prefer to keep it to myself. I ask my soul, “why are you downcast?” and “why so disquieted within me?” I say, “Hope in God, for again I shall praise him!” I know it to be true, however little consolation it brings.

I dwell sometimes in darkness. That is just the way it is. Fortunately I have been up and down enough that at the bottom I can still just remember that it isn’t always like this. For that, and for the psalms, which have been my truest companions since I was a teenager (somehow reminding me that darkness is not my only companion), I am grateful. Because of the psalms, the thought comes unbidden (or is that the Holy Spirit?): “the darkness is as light to thee.”

So I wait, brooding, for the ‘fiat lux’ and for the dawn.

Deo gratias.