In his writings, the great reformer Martin Luther, who turned the theological world of the sixteenth century upside down, returned again and again to a very basic problem: how do you believe in the atonement, or grace, or the saving work of Christ, on a personal level? How do you really take in that those things apply to not just humanity in general, and more to the point, not to some category of “good people,” but to a sinner like yourself? “I have often experienced,” he wrote, “and still do every day, how difficult it is to believe, especially amid struggles of conscience, that Christ was given, not for the holy, righteous, and deserving, or for those who were His friends, but for the godless, sinful, and undeserving, for those who were His enemies, who deserved the wrath of God and eternal death.” Luther noted that when he found himself consumed by the forces of sin, it was nearly impossible to turn to Christ for rescue and forgiveness. He attributed this at least partly to the work of the devil, whose voice constantly whispered in his ear, reminded him of his unworthiness, and informed him that Christ would surely damn him. He described his experience of being frightened of Christ: “even at the mention of the name of Christ,” he recounted, “I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that He was a judge.” Luther also observed the inexorable and unforgiving logic of the conscience: “You have sinned; therefore God is angry with you. If He is angry, He will kill you and damn you eternally.” He went on to even suggest that as a result, “many who cannot endure the wrath and judgment of God commit suicide by hanging or drowning.”
The only way to quiet these condemning voices is, of course, to throw yourself utterly on the mercy of the Savior. But Luther was well aware that this is much easier said than done. To turn to Christ, to look for grace, while being assailed by the forces of judgment and condemnation, he observed, was enormously challenging: “to do this in the midst of struggle is the hardest thing there is. I am speaking from experience, for I am acquainted with the devil’s craftiness . . .”
The first time I ever went to see a therapist, I was 18 years old and a freshling at BYU. I’d finally gotten up the nerve to admit to my bishop that I was suicidally depressed, and he referred me to the university counseling center. I’d never been in therapy before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Unfortunately, it turned out to be kind of a disaster from the very beginning. The person who did the intake asked me about my suicide plans. When I hesitantly told him what I was thinking of doing, he said dismissively, “oh that would never work.” I was seriously burned by that brief interaction; years and years later, therapists would plead with me to share the specific details of my suicidal thinking and I would remain reticent, not wanting to re-live the shame of being told that my plans (and by extension, me) were not worth taking seriously. Read More
I recently emerged from a very long depression. While I am quite enjoying this rare life interlude of an existence not characterized by overwhelming apathy and despair, and am wanting to just savor the radical sense of being remarkably and unexpectedly enthusiastic about this whole being alive thing, my therapist keeps pushing me to think about how I can cope better when the depression returns. This isn’t a fun question to tackle, of course, because in my current state I’d prefer to believe that the depression won’t ever return. I do realize that this is completely wrongheaded. My particular manifestation of bipolar disorder is constituted by something like eighty percent down, fifteen percent in between, and a mere five percent up. (To really look at that, which I don’t often do, makes me feel both profound grief about how much of my life I’ve lost to depression, and intense rage about the unfairness of it all. Which is probably why I don’t like to think about it too hard.) But I do know in my head, at least, that the chances of the depression being permanently gone are close to zero, and I’ve thus been reluctantly willing to do the kind of strategic thinking that my therapist is asking me to do.
As a follow-up to my last post on chronic suicidality, I thought I’d mention some of the things that have kept me going over the years.
I’m like Hermione—when life throws you lemons, go to the library. Except that it’s hard to find books that have anything helpful to say. I’ve read my share and more of self-help books, and they’re almost all completely stupid—they don’t really speak to the experience of utter despair. There are some books on depression that I’ve found to be worth reading, though they can be hard to find. I prefer memoirs, accounts of people who’ve actually experienced it. But what’s helped me the most, honestly, is poetry. Mary Oliver in particular has a way of re-connecting me with what matters in life, of making me see things differently, without being cheesy or sentimental. For example, “The Journey”:
It was junior high when I first started thinking about how I’d really prefer not to be alive. I don’t think I got to the point of actually thinking about how I could bring that about—it was just a desperate unhappiness. But by high school I was starting to think more actively in that direction. I read all the books I could find about suicide, looking for information about methods, but also, I think, hoping to find something that would somehow help, even if I couldn’t articulate what that help would look like. If nothing else, learning more about it made me feel less alone with my demons. Read More
I’m sitting in a small room on the fifth floor of the local hospital. I’ve had to change from street clothes to scrubs, and my possessions are being examined to see what I can keep. I didn’t bring in much; I turned most of it over to my sister Melyngoch when she left me in the ER. A nurse is sitting at a computer, answering question after question. I haven’t been in this particular hospital before, but I’ve been in enough similar places that the drill is familiar.
I’m reading the questions over the nurse’s shoulder. She has to check boxes about my attitude. Am I hostile? Aggressive? Withdrawn? I can’t help but notice that all of the options are negative. She checks “other,” and writes, “overly polite and helpful.” I can’t help sighing a little—it’s a reminder that whatever I do, however I act, it’s going to be seen through the lens of dysfunction. She asks my name, to find out if I know who I am, and I answer her. She asks if I know where I am. In the psych ward, I say. She corrects me, explaining that this is actually the “stress care unit.” I just smile. I know perfectly well where I am, regardless of what they’ve decided to call it.
It’s gray outside. That’s not unusual here; it’s been gray for days, and I know this is only the beginning of some long months. I remember that from living in the Midwest before, years ago. But twelve years of living in California got me used to seeing the sun on a regular basis. I knew this part of the move would be challenging.
This past summer I was starting to crash yet again. Life was increasingly appearing both bleak and terrifying, and I was barely treading water. I hadn’t been hospitalized for an entire year—an accomplishment, that—and I saw myself headed to the ER once again. Except that I wasn’t sure I could stand yet another trip to the regulation and boredom of a psych ward, and I wondered whether this time around I could keep myself safe.
I’m eating Cheerios for breakfast, and contemplating the small plastic pill box sitting in front of me. Seven days of psychotropic magic. Unlike my evening meds, the morning ones are small and easy to swallow. But the thought crosses my mind, as it so often does—why am I doing this, exactly?
After too many of them, the hospitalizations start to blur together. Sparse double bedrooms with doors that you’re not allowed to shut. Showers that turn themselves off every minute or so, so that you have to keep pushing a button to keep them going. Rules against having anything sharp, against shoelaces, against pens, against personal electronic devices such as cell phones or laptops. That last one makes life particularly challenging. One or two payphones for the unit, with stiff competition and time limits. A common area with a television which, except during groups, is on almost constantly. If you aren’t all that fond of television, it’s likely to drive you crazy. Crazier, I mean. Read More
I’m going to share with you something important I’ve learned in therapy (said the blogger, both of his remaining readers scrambling for the exits). In order to have healthy relationships, we need to have healthy boundaries. And when constructing boundaries, we must be aware that they can be either too porous or too rigid.
First, the problem with too porous: Read More
This guest post is brought to us by my daughter, the crooked girl. Recently I wrote a post on my perspective of her depression, and I invited her to write her own experience. This is what she wrote:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
I learned recently that a large number of deaths in the water take place within mere feet of the victims’ companions. Mario Vittone writes in a post on aquatic safety that “drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect…drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event.” Most people have not been trained to recognize the signs. This description struck a chord with me because, although I have never experienced such physical danger, my struggles with mental illness feel like a different sort of drowning.
Sometimes I dream that I’m watching a girl drown. The water is deep and dark, the current is strong yet gentle, almost caressing her. It seems to be a slow-motion drowning, lacking in drama and velocity. And I’m standing right there on the shore, waving my arms ineffectually as I look on in despair. I am useless. Sometimes it seems that she isn’t even trying to swim, and I become frustrated as she stops stroking and kicking, apparently consigned to letting the waves calmly wash over her and carry her out to sea. Read More
In the middle of my mission, I had two very sick companions one after the other. With both companions, their health was so bad that we slowly spent more and more time in the apartment until they were eventually sent home. It was a challenging experience for me in both cases as I focused my energies entirely on supporting them in this frustrating circumstance. After the second one went home, I was assigned an extremely energetic and capable companion. I missed my previous companions, but was relieved to have the pressure taken off so I could focus on missionary work again. However, soon after I got this new companion, I spiraled into depression. Read More
I have long been wary of Ether 12:27, with its assertion that “if men [and women] come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.” My response has generally been along the lines of, actually, I’m all too aware of my many weaknesses. So thanks, but no thanks—if this is what God is up to, I’m better off keeping my distance. Read More
Although this post is a bit off topic for a Mormon/feminist blog, I feel that it is important enough to discuss that I am including it here. As most people are likely aware, on July 20th a 24-year-old man came through the exit door of a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on the audience. Twelve people have been confirmed dead from the shooting, and 58 people were injured. Read More
I’ve debated for quite a while about whether to post this, but I think it’s a topic worth discussing. I would, however, ask that in commenting, you especially note number five of my recent pointers about ZD: “Don’t assume that discussions of difficult personal issues are invitations to point out the poster’s failings, recite platitudes, or give lectures. And unless it’s specifically requested, giving advice is dangerous territory.” I might be a little twitchier than usual in moderating comments.
In the spring of 2001, I decided to go off the antidepressant I’d been taking since the previous December. It was one in a long line of psychotropic meds I’d tried over the years–and as was usually the case for me, I found it difficult to tell whether it was making any difference. As I often lamented to my sister Eve, I needed a control group, a control “me” in order to make an informed judgment. My decision to go off this particular drug was motivated by a number of factors. I was feeling burned out on the whole project of experimenting with medication. I also suspected that this drug was numbing me out a bit, making me feel less alive, and I didn’t like that.
Usually sometime in January, I write down a list of the things I’d like to try and accomplish during the upcoming year. It’s usually not a long list, and I’m not very intense about it, and I usually only accomplish one or two things on the list (and this is often based on the fact that one to two things on my list are things that I think I will likely accomplish). However, I enjoy doing some thinking about how my life has gone for the past year and what I’m trying to envision for the upcoming year.
Except this year I’m not sure if I want to write up a list. Read More
Lately I’ve been thinking (yet again) about depression, and particularly about the ways in which it gets discussed. I periodically run into disputes between those who are convinced that depression is at its core a biological illness, and those who are convinced that it’s a spiritual one. I find myself uncomfortable with both positions, because they both arise from a dualist understanding of the human, one in which spirit and body are qualitatively different things and not really connected to each other. If you take this perspective, you’re likely to conceptualize depression as either a spiritual problem or a physical one–and I’m not crazy about either version. Read More
The first and most severe episode of depression began the winter I turned thirteen and lasted eighteen months, at the end of which I was numb, seared, barely alive. During the summer that followed, as I began the slow process of putting my life back together–a process which would take many years, and continues still–every weekday morning I would get up, put on my old jeans or shorts and a T-shirt, go out into the desert heat, and cross the street and the blazing, empty parking lot where the seagulls congregated on the dumpsters to the junior high, where I had to attend summer school. This winter I will turn thirty-five. During most months of most of the intervening years, despair has been my quiet, constant companion, in Lauren Slater’s words, my country. After more than two decades of struggling against the illusion that comes with every intermission, the illusion I have conquered, and the fatal false hopes that it will not return, I struggle to face the prospect that despair may be the condition of the rest of my life. Read More
Growing up, I somehow picked up the idea that I wasn’t really supposed to feel certain things: anger, jealousy, fear, resentment, despair. Of course, I felt them anyway, but I interpreted that as evidence of some horrible character flaw. This was reinforced by the Gospel of Positive Thinking so often preached at church, as well as the cultural expectation that women in particular ought to be “nice.” I was so convinced that such feelings were unacceptable that I remember being too scared to confide even in close friends when I felt intense jealousy over a particular situation. I was sure people would think less of me for having such a reaction, that I’d be judged as selfish and not sufficiently loving. Often my response to a problematic emotion was to try to banish it as quickly as possible, sometimes to not admit even to myself that it was ever there. Read More
I was inspired to write and make this post because of the series over at By Common Consent on Mormons and Mental Illness.
I’m a graduate student in my late 20s who’s suffered from bipolar disorder since my early 20s. I have no formal training in psychology, but one of my academic interests is psychology and emotion in 20th century American culture (one of my specializations is cultural studies). Typically I look at mood disorders and emotions as cultural and social phenomena (as was perhaps evidenced by my last post on this blog), but I thought I’d temporarily suspend that avenue of thought and explore some thoughts on mood disorders and spirituality that stem from my own experiences. Read More