Depression, Gospel of Mark, Lent

Things we know but cannot explain in a sound-bite (Mark 1:29-45)

A lot happens in the first chapter of Mark. Early in my ministry, I preached a sermon on this section entitled “The Magical Mystery Tour,” both because I thought it sounded a little sassy, and because Jesus seemed to become a regional rockstar in a hurry; today we might say he went viral.

But it does seem like people are mostly showing up for the transactional aspects of his ministry.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed.  The whole town gathered near the door.  He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him. (Mark 1:32-34, CEB)

It’s a straightforward thing, healing those who are broken in body. But whatever the underlying spiritual condition or psychiatric diagnosis of those afflicted by demons takes us into territory that is less measurable, some kind of super-natural wilderness journey. Does Mark mean that the evil spirits are silenced, or the people who have been troubled? Further down, Jesus also calls upon a man with a skin disease to be silent, but the man doesn’t listen; he goes on his way and tells whoever he feels like telling! Jesus asks him, but doesn’t prevent him. I guess it’s because this guy with refreshed skin and a happy new outlook on life knows he has been healed in body, and could point to the person who healed him, but has no real idea who has done it for him.

Some evangelical voices have gotten pushback over the past week or so for suggesting that mental health issues are entirely spiritual issues. I’m not going to link to them, but I will say one made a statement on Twitter and some others made remarks during a women’s conference. As a person who lives with chronic depression, which is sometimes no problem and other times a significant factor in my daily life, I can testify that there are times when my life in a faith community and my personal spiritual practices help, but there are others when they do not, and I’ve long since moved past thinking that how well I do the practices or how active I am at church can make all the difference, or that God is not helping out enough, but I also know that most of the time, in most situations, it helps that I have those resources, except for the times when it really, really doesn’t.

That’s a terrible attempt at a sound-bite.

Recently I heard Suzanne Stabile say that she has noted a trend among church leaders in her circles to have a semicolon embroidered on their stoles or to have a semicolon tattoo on their wrists, so that people in church who struggle with mental illness will know it’s safe to talk to their pastors and other faith leaders. The point of the semicolon, as described by Project Semicolon, is that you are the author of your own life; like a sentence punctuated with a semicolon, it’s not over.

I’m glad that my story did not end when I was most depressed, more than twenty years ago, and at serious risk of dying by suicide. I’m grateful for the people I was able to trust, somehow, who understood that brain chemistry was no reason for shame and that my identity as a person of faith both helped and made things harder. They were so good to me, and along with the medical and mental health professionals who treated me, they saved my life.

Jesus is going to move on to other territories; he has more to do than heal people in one neighborhood or one community of their physical or mental or spiritual afflictions, which sounds okay if you don’t have any of those challenges, I guess.

He’s going to move on because he has something else to say, and a story to reveal about himself, even though he’s not ready yet for anyone to know it.

Healing God,  it’s hard to put you into a few words, but let me try. Thank you for coming among us. Help us to remember that the story is not over


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 1:29-45. You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts..

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.

Depression, Mothering, Personal History

They have that luxury

I don’t remember that Mother’s Day specifically. The spring of 1996 is a blur. I had been in the hospital for almost a week in early April, diagnosed with a major depression, probably a lingering postpartum depression. I do remember that everything felt painful, and my desire to be alive was still a fragile thing.

When you’ve spent three months quietly thinking about driving off the road instead of going home, the thoughts don’t go away easily.

Here is what I remember. I remember the doctors and nurses wooing the information out of me and explaining to me, gently, that thinking about driving the car off the road *while you are in the car* is not suicidal ideation; it’s a plan.

I only knew I didn’t want to go back there, to be one of the people who went to the hospital over and over again, but life on the outside had not changed and the state of my brain chemistry did not improve markedly in that short time. April was excruciating and May even worse as it became clear that there was no help for my marriage and I was going to have to figure out how to take care of my children by myself at a time I could barely get out of bed in the morning.

I wonder if anyone in my life understood how near I stood to the edge of the abyss?

I put on a pretty good show when I thought it counted, but I also remember sitting in marriage counseling with an affect so flat I could not show any expression about an incident I cannot recount today without breaking into a laugh.

I don’t remember what happened on that Mother’s Day, the last one when I was still married to my children’s father. I do wonder if he had any idea how close he came to having three children for whom Mother’s Day would be a wound for the rest of their lives.

There is one reason I didn’t kill myself. Somewhere inside me, some part of me less broken than the rest spent a long dark ride back from Boston giving me two reasons why driving the car off the road would be a bad idea. The first was I might not actually die, and that couldn’t possibly be good for anyone. You see, I felt by then that my worth was so small, my value to minimal that no one would miss me, that my absence would be better for everyone concerned. The second was that I needed to look at the insurance policy and see if my death would be covered should it be ruled a suicide. I drove the rest of the way home, where I discovered that I would need to be insured for another six months, and then came the terrible realization that my death wouldn’t necessarily solve anything. I didn’t feel good about this; in fact my despair grew because there seemed to be no escape and by that weekend, I had checked into the hospital.

There is one reason I got better. Because I was clear that I was only a risk to myself, the staff suggested my husband bring my children to see me in the hospital. First they all came, the boys shy and cautious and sweet, Baby LP beautiful and unknowing. Then another day it was just the baby. She was nine months old and cruising, that time when little children can’t walk yet, but will stand up and move from one person to another holding on to a leg or the furniture. She stood against my legs, looking up at me, and then she pulled the pacifier out of her mouth and popped it into mine. And in that moment I pledged to her that I would live and be her mother and not expect her to take care of me.

That was sixteen years ago. Sometimes my children remember Mother’s Day with a phone call or a card, and sometimes they don’t.

They have that luxury.