May is Mental Health Awareness month.
May began by saying goodbye to my dear mother-in-law, whose mental health story is not mine to tell, but whose heartache was evident to all of us who had the privilege of knowing her.
Both on the long drive to Iowa and during our time there, I felt a deep sadness. I looked through old pictures hoping to find a radiant smile on Marlene’s face, but only found one very early picture where she seemed barreled over by joy. In her last decade, perhaps longer, dementia stole even more from her. Knowing enough of her story, I had this sense that it was all just so unfair, that her precious life marked by a gentle spirit suffered under the afflictive fog of depression, robbing those she loved of her innate radiance and joy.
We drove back late last week, Sara and the girls in our Highlander following me in my father-in-law’s 2007 Mercury Montego, now my youngest daughter’s ride. I spent most of the drive in silence. I wasn’t feeling much. I didn’t want much, not even an appetite for an Audible book, my normal driving-fare. I’d been doing a lot of attending to others in this season, but I couldn’t even attend to myself, let alone find God in the fog.
You don’t even know the fog has descended. For most of us acquainted with it, depression is so familiar that it can feel like a comfortable old coat. I’ve worn this coat for as long as I can remember, saved by meds and counseling and a curious spouse and good friends who attend to me on occasion. Depression and anxiety are like really old companions who lurk in the shadows, coming out now and then to remind me of their presence. Sometimes I even greet my depression: Oh hello depression, I didn’t even see you old friend. How long have you been hanging around?
My depression isn’t marked by the deep ebb. It’s more like a rolling tide that swells with joy and gratitude for a season and then releases into malaise for the next. In depression, even small things feel overwhelming. This has the effect of increasing anxiety and, for me, compounding shame as I think about those I’ll disappoint or things I’ll forget and how there’s just something chronically wrong with me because of it.
In this season, it’s hard to pray. It’s hard to write. I judge many of the sentences that come from my mouth because the hazy fog disrupts my speech.
I don’t write this to solicit pity but because “if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours” (Buechner, Telling Secrets). It’s because there are pastors and writers and theologians and counselors and chaplains who do the work of making sense out of this world for others, but who can only do it because we’re deeply acquainted with non-sense, with darkness and sadness and the familiar fog.
Buechner goes on to say that “it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” And so we tell our stories. This is mine.
I’m in the gray ebb right now. But I’m functioning. Because I’m a helper, you’ll still experience me caring and think I’m ok. Because I’m from the Northeast, you’ll hear a quick sarcastic quip and think I’m ok…but maybe not as funny as I think I am. Because I hate disappointing you, you’ll probably get a late email with an apology and think I’m ok. But the reality for those of us who do the mental health dance is that we’re constantly tuned to “we’re not ok.” And we perpetually wondering if there will ever be a time when it will really be ok.
I’m aware of it now, so I’ll return to familiar patterns of self-care. The Psalms become a constant companion to give voice to hidden currents of sadness. I create space to feel sadness or rage or disappointment or despair. I try to share honestly with close companions, and I ask for grace when I can’t come through (as I just did with a colleague who asked me to speak at a commencement event). I exercise. I check my alcohol intake, but even more my motivations. I try to eat healthier and take my meds. I rest into the arms of the God-who-is-always-home, greeting me with a smile even as I feel sadness.
And I wait for it to pass.
But in the meantime, I greet this familiar friend. Hello again. Another day of the dance, huh? OK. Be gentle.
And I whisper a quiet prayer to remind me of what’s true:
Christ above me.
Christ below me.
Christ to my right.
Christ to my left.
Christ behind me.
Christ before me.
Christ within me.
To all of you struggling, I lift a prayer for your downcast spirit (Ps. 43:5) and take some comfort knowing I’m not alone.