Anxiety, Depression, Faith, Orientation, Personal History

The day Lucy gave me her pacifier, and other things about depression

It was spring, just barely, in 1996. I was a patient on P6 at Maine Medical Center. P stood for Pavilion, but everyone around Portland thought the “P” meant P(sych)6. I had a postpartum depression that devolved into a major depression. I can look back now and see how it happened, a mixture of a primary care doctor’s hope that a little Zoloft would do the trick and my own shame about being on meds keeping me from talking to anyone who might have actually helped.

Depression hurts. It actually hurts, physically. It drains all the light away. Bewitched by bad brain chemistry, a depressed person doesn’t see things the way they are and especially not the way they could be. I was in seminary in 1996, and I critiqued my faith and I stopped sleeping and I kept my spouse up all night talking but never quite telling the truth. On Maundy Thursday I dragged myself to the church where I was interning and played a tiny part in the Tenebrae service, doing one reading, snuffing out one candle, then leaving the sanctuary as all the readers had, to walk around the building and slip in at the back for the rest of the service. I knew I was in deep trouble by how much effort it took to accomplish that simple assignment. It should not have been so hard, would not have been so hard for a person who did not ache in body and spirit.

It was the next day, Good Friday, that I sat in my bathrobe in the chilly kitchen of our old house and watched Lucy, proud and smiling, crawling toward me still in her pajamas, and realized it was 11 o’clock in the morning, and I needed help.

When you call the psychiatric line for your insurance on a Friday, and it’s also Good Friday, and it’s also Passover, they suggest they can find you someone on Monday. So please try to get through the weekend, and if you can’t, then go to the Emergency Room.

It’s so matter-of-fact when they say it.

There are some things I can’t write about, because they involve the other parent of my children and because, honestly, I don’t know if I remember them right despite having intense sense memories of that day and the next, when I did go to the ER, where a middle-aged medical resident looked me hard in the eye and said, “I think you feel worse than you’re telling me.”

I nodded.

I spent six days in the hospital, six bizarre and sometimes scary days, traumatic enough that I determined I would never get into *that* state again, although I’m not sure what made me think I could prevent becoming depressed in the future. I sat in group sessions about assertiveness and wondered how someone as bright and educated as I could have landed there in a room full of depressed people. I sat in a room with a huge circle of medical professionals who asked me to tell my story and then informed me that a person thinking of driving a car off the road *while* driving the car is not simply having suicidal ideation. That person has a plan.

I’m not sure how the people around me felt about my depression. If I use words like “disbelieving” or “ashamed,” I fear I project my own feelings at the time onto them. Even my boys knew it somehow wasn’t an ordinary stay in a hospital. After all, I was wearing my own clothes when their father brought them to see me. I was allowed to leave P6 and go be with them elsewhere in the hospital. Someone I knew vaguely walked by. I felt embarrassed, in my own clothes, wearing a hospital bracelet. I felt sure she knew.

Another day, my husband came in just with Lucy, who not only could crawl, but was also starting to “cruise.” That visiting hour was particularly crowded on P6, so we sat in the hallway on two chairs, facing each other, while she moved back and forth from one of us to the other. She had a big MAM pacifier in her mouth. On one move toward me she plucked it out and popped it into my mouth instead.

I’ve written this part of the story before, and I have described that moment as a turning point. I wouldn’t be that mother whose child had to parent her. And while it was a significant moment, certainly, the truth is I didn’t get all better all of a sudden, and I didn’t get better forever. When depression swelled again, and it did, I hated to admit it. I needed that to be behind me, and I refused to acknowledge its presence with me. I made poor choices from that place of pain and confusion in the neighborhood of the edge of the abyss. I ignored my actual desires, remade myself into something I thought the world wanted me to be and then limped along more anxious than depressed (most of the time) for a good many years. I did a great job pretending my depression had been a one time thing. Until today you would find no category for depression on this blog that covers over ten years of my life, yet I can promise you there were times. There were times.

This is one of those times. And I write this recognizing that I remain ashamed, not because I think depression is shameful, but because I know many people have given thanks right along with me that I came out and found love and moved toward a more authentic life, blessed by God and finally, finally living as the person God made me to be. Why the hell am I depressed? Why do I have to worry people who thought of me as safely, even victoriously, settled for all time? What is wrong with my faith?

And that’s the key to the feeling of shame for me, a shame I would do anything to lift from anyone else who suffered with such a feeling. Please, I would say, remember how Jesus reached out to those who suffered, whatever their pain, whatever their illness. Remember how he loved them, how gently he spoke to them, how he touched them with his own hands, how he implored the darkness to leave them. Remember that he understood and cared, and that his experience on the ground with us is surely part of God’s being now.

God understands.

Knitting for people I love helps.
Knitting for people I love helps.

People don’t, not all of them. They look for something or someone to blame. I am guilty of this, too. Explanations reassure us that something or someone is in control, for good or for ill. (It’s the same sort of thinking that leads to a theological position here lampooned by The Onion: Leading Cause of Death in US is God Needing Another Angel.)  I liked blaming hormones, and when a friend asked me yesterday whether the nearness of menopause might be a factor, I liked the sound of that. Postpartum, menopausal – this is all hormones!

But I know there have been other times, and the truth seems to be that I tend this way at times, with or without particular cause. Years of behavior modification have taught me to try and do the things I love at other times, even if I don’t feel particularly enthused about doing them. I’ve done a lot of knitting the past few months, and actually finished projects. I remind myself of things I committed to do, and make sure I do them. I turn on the kind of music that is supposed to be good for a person’s brain.

This time around, I see a therapist, and I tell her how I’m really feeling. Well, I do it as best I can. Because the truth is I often still feel worse than I’m saying.

I take comfort in knowing depression is not a uniquely modern complaint. People have been crying out to God about this darkness and this pain for thousands of years.

Have mercy on me, Lord, because I’m depressed.
My vision fails because of my grief,
as do my spirit and my body.
My life is consumed with sadness;
my years are consumed with groaning.
Strength fails me because of my suffering;[a]
my bones dry up.
‘I’m a joke to all my enemies,
still worse to my neighbors.
I scare my friends,
and whoever sees me in the street runs away!
I am forgotten, like I’m dead,
completely out of mind;
I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed. (Psalm 31:9-12 Common English Bible)

And in case you think that’s the modernized influence of a new translation, here’s verse 9 from the King James:

Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble: mine eye is consumed with grief, yea, my soul and my belly.

All that and more can be found in the Psalms. But so can this:

But me? I trust you, Lord!
I affirm, “You are my God.”
My future is in your hands. (Psalm 31:14-15a, CEB)

Today I’m giving thanks for the way that Psalm came across my screen. Even though some days, even a lot of days, I feel closer to verses 9-12, I’m making sure to say these today: I trust you, Lord. You are my God. My future is in your hands. Amen.

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28 thoughts on “The day Lucy gave me her pacifier, and other things about depression”

  1. Such magnificent courage! Blessings- blessings- blessings on your witness! So desperately needed! What is a preacher – if not a voice for the voiceless?

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  2. i instantly feel connected to you because of so much of a shared experience. this – “a depressed person doesn’t see things the way they are and especially not the way they could be.” oh my word. so true. so true for me. and i hide scared. i hide behind a pseudonymn because it’s too scary to admit it all online for the world to see. i do have friends in real life who know what’s up though. i was in bible college in the early 2000’s when depression came crashing down on me. i’ve never heard this before: “[they] informed me that a person thinking of driving a car off the road *while* driving the car is not simply having suicidal ideation. That person has a plan.” that’s kind of scary to put it that way… i never looked at it that way… and thankfully i haven’t had those thoughts since i got back on medication, i don’t think…

    anyway… thank you for sharing… we are not alone… there are so many of us fighting this monster…

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  3. Martha, I have discovered that the times when I “assume” that I should be at my most “joyful”, even when I’m following my dreams, are the very times that depression manages to escape its confines and wreak its peculiar havoc. And I,too, like to blame it on hormones or reaction to external factors. And,the fact that I cannot “fix” it seemed a failing of my faith for a long time.
    Thank you for naming so much that I have encountered. x

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  4. Yesterday, in an exercise on understanding ourselves, I put “healthy” as an adjective for myself. I have never have before, but now that I’m feeling well- I’m afraid to take it for granted. I know this feeling- how can it happen to me- but there it is, happening to you. I’m praying for you- so hard, so often.

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  5. From one Martha to another… Your story parallels mine, I too, had a turning point when my son brought home a picture of his family, in which everyone but me was smiling. And I too, had the experience of thinking that because I was out and moving in a positive direction, all “should” be well…except it wasn’t. Sometimes all we can do is keep putting foot in front of the other, taking it one minute at a time… Prayers, love and blessings.

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  6. Simply putting all this into words is way beyond where you’ve ever been. Own that courage. Know that you have so much love surrounding you and you will walk in the light with all of us beside you. xo

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  7. Someone very close to me is walking the same walk right now, and your descriptions sounds achingly familiar. I am sorry you have found yourself in this place, but beyond grateful that you have people you can talk to. You are loved, and you are not alone. (((HUGS)))

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  8. Oh Martha. Love and prayers to you. Thank you for your courage in naming the unnamable. My personal excuses include hormones too, and lack of light in the winter, and physical pain… And fear keeps me silent too. My mother and my grandmother all suffered to one extent or another… Grandmas favourite prayer, “pray for me as I will for thee, that we may merrily meet again” attributed to St Monica. She lived long and well even in her dark days. Bless you my friend

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  9. Your phrase, “I determined I would never get into *that* state again, although I’m not sure what made me think I could prevent becoming depressed in the future” really struck a chord with me, Martha. I too regularly feel worse than I let on and I also keep saying I am not going back into that state. You name it now and admit it – I think for me that is key. I tell people when I feel myself on the slippery slope and ask for help and knowing that there are places and people I can go to for help makes me feel there is a safety net. But the fear of going back “there” is always there – my biggest fear and my hope is in taking steps earlier to stop it being so bad. But then again I only seem to be talking about me controlling it again and that is part of the problem!

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  10. Again, we share so much. I’ve been where you were… wasn’t hospitalized but probably should have been. And still suffer on occasion. It never goes away but I have found peace and learned to give myself space without (much) guilt. Thank you for this, Blessings and Love!

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  11. Martha, Thank you so much for sharing. I, too, have struggled with deep, deep depression. Right now I am doing okay, but never know when I will be hit with it again. Sunday, May 25, we observed Mental Health Awareness Sunday at the church I attend, and I had a chance to preach about the subject of mental illnesses and our need to reach out to and welcome and enjoy the gifts of those in our midst who journey with depression or other mental health challenges or brain disorders. I used the Acts 17 passage from the lectionary and reminded myself and others that God is never far from any one of us, for in God we live and move and have our being, and we too are God’s offspring, God’s beloved, God’s own unique creation. It’s important at least for me to remember that that is a fact, no matter how I may feel at any given moment; and to remember that different simply means different, not deficient. Thank you so much for the gift of your sharing, even from your point of pain. Many blessings to you!

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  12. Martha, I just saw this post today, and your writing, honesty, and spiritual nakedness stunned me. It is beautiful, true, and it cut me to the quick. Too much of my life has been lived depressed, and despite a lifetime of drugs and therapy, my only real relief has come from acknowledging and holding onto it, and not resisting it with so much of my energy. And only then do I feel the care and compassion of Jesus, the support and presence of God. Thank you very much for putting such words to such crippling circumstances. God bless you, over and over again with abundance.

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