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.

Personal History, Worship

Over the Snowbank

It’s a happy memory from an unhappy time, the winter of 1997. My children and I were still living in the house their father had left, and there was a significant snowstorm on a Saturday night. We woke up Sunday morning, and watched the cancellations on TV, but Large Church never, ever cancelled, so I knew there would be a service, and the choir or whatever members of it managed to get there would be singing. Singing in the choir was the focal point of my life then, the connection to God and community that kept me going from one week to the next as I lived into my new identity of almost not married. 

I told the children, “We are walking to church.”

And so we bundled up, although I think the boys found the notion a bit shocking, and there was LP to cart along with us, age 19 or 20 months. We put her on a sled and pulled her.

But first we had to climb over the snowbank in front of our house. I was the tallest among us, just 5 feet. #1 Son would have been going on 11, Snowman just 6. We hauled ourselves over it and felt triumphant.

Then the real journey began.

At church, I remember the choir director shuffling through his files to find something we could sing, the odd group of us who had struggled our way mostly on foot. I found him upstairs making copies when I went to see if there would be any activity or Sunday School for the boys. Thank goodness there was someone to watch my little one in the Nursery!

(For a depressed person, this had been a super-human effort.)

I stood in the choir loft in the sparsely populated church feeling useful, singing with all my heart, over the snowbank for Jesus.

Baptism, Personal History

Unsticking

There’s a quote you see around the web about being careful how you talk to your children because they will remember the things you say to them. Anyone who has been a parent knows we don’t always say things perfectly. I have one of those children, actually more than one, who let me know when my words weren’t appreciated.

To whit, #1 Son, age about 5: “Mommy, I don’t think you should talk to me that way. I just got home from kindergarten.” He saw himself as being in the school bubble, doing his important work, and that bubble needed to be respected. His young mother, tired out dealing with the toddler in the household, lacked both reserves and reserve. I don’t think my impatience on that day scarred him. We had a good relationship, one of trust and love, and we withstood it. Well, I did. He’s 26. He can write about it someday if he wants.

I know there are other moments of parenting I don’t recall as shining. There have been heated discussions (that’s putting it nicely) with LP, probably well within the range of mother-daughter relationship norms.

But I hope I never said anything personally insulting as my mother did to me. It was apparent that she thought I was unattractive, not meeting the standards she had for me. I was heavier than she liked at times, and she did not hesitate to let me know this was unacceptable. It would give my husband a reason to cheat on me, she said.

I wish I could tell you that story is made up.

There’s another story that sticks in my head, my heart, my gut. In the two months before my wedding at age 22, I had been living at home preparing for the big event, eating almost nothing but salads and oranges. I looked good. I was slender enough to please anyone.

When the wedding pictures came, my mother named the thing I cannot help, my height. “Martha,” she said, “you look like a toadstool in the forest.”

I am still trying to unstick it.

Preparing yesterday’s sermon offered a reminder of the truth that no matter the facts of our appearance or abilities, we are created by God with purpose and possibilities. As my dear one frequently reminds me, in her preaching and in her life, we are all Beloved Children of God.

Young P’s baptism; thank you to her grandmother for the picture.

A few months ago, Young P came up for the Children’s message and asked, “Rev. Martha, can you baptize me?” She is 9 and a complete sweetheart. Yesterday was the day. I told people all last week I was as excited about this baptism as I had been about my own children’s. In the liturgy we speak of Christ’s own baptism, and the dove descending, and the voice from Heaven declaring, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” In those moments, I felt the rush and the heat of the Spirit of God. I felt them in my short, imperfect body. It’s not a concept that applies only to other people. I, too, am a Beloved Child of God.

This is the way the Heavenly Parent speaks to us.

Maybe I can get that to stick, instead.

I hope Young P will always remember it, too. She is a Beloved Child of God, and God is most assuredly pleased with her.

Orientation, Personal History

Pulled

He pulled me into his arms, smoothly, coolly, as if he had done it a hundred times before. He was somebody’s cousin from South Carolina, visiting for the holidays. We weren’t a dancing crowd, this group of friends from high school, now far flung to college, and first he had us pushing back the furniture and playing records, and then we were in cars driving to the Hilton near Busch Gardens, the only place we could think of with a dance floor.

I had a feeling the music would be all wrong. I could hear it when I went with my William and Mary friends to play Donkey Kong in the hallway outside the bar.

Somebody’s cousin loved to dance, and he was good, and he shared his goodness with all the young women, one after the other. I did not expect to be favored. It was the Christmas vacation after a break-up, and I expected nothing. But he stepped toward me, and he smiled, and I went with him to the little dance floor with the godawful disco ball hanging up above and tried to get my breath, because I wasn’t sure if I could do what he did.

It was my dream, you see, to dance with some preppy boy who actually knew how to dance. I was drunk on the fumes of The Preppy Handbook, which pictured a world of categories (where all the boys taped their Topsiders and the girls wore pearls and knew the rule, “get completely dressed for a party, then take off one piece of jewelry) that felt safe and explicable.

He pulled me into his arms, and there I stayed because the song started slow, and I really didn’t want to be that close in his arms for the length of a song, I realized that quickly.

“Someone read the letter you wrote me on the radio…”

My breath was short. Before I could grown too uncomfortable, you’ll know this because you’re hearing the song in your head, before I could wish it was really over, the beat increased and I was flown out and pulled back, shagging to disco.

I liked the attention, but when it was over, I didn’t want more.

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.

Orientation, Personal History

Pressed

Pressed, not pushed, but pressed enough to feel he meant it, pressed up against the locker in the three minutes between classes that felt like an eternity, I let him kiss me.

The school was divided into three parts, each section with a different color theme, and I remember we were near the green lockers, not where my locker was.

He had to open mine for me because I could not remember how to do the combination.

How is it that I forgot the combination so often? I remember turning it as if dialing an old-fashioned phone in a dream — do you have those? I dream that I cannot turn the dial all the way, that it slips, is too heavy for my finger, that the wrong number is dialed because I failed to make the connection properly, because the pressure of my finger was not enough.

Over on the other side of the building, where the lockers were yellow, he did not kiss me, because his mother worked at the high school, and her office was too close by. He never kissed me in the red section, where the library was, the hub of the building, because we never seemed to stop there anyway.

But in the green section, he pressed me against the locker and kissed me.

We were, not surprisingly, observed. Being away from the yellow section was not enough protection, and the green wing of the building provided no camouflage for our use of the precious three minutes, the three minutes in which he assured me of his affection by paying attention to me.

(Hear the refrain, it was still in my head, adjusted only slightly: “He must love me, he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t love me. It’s good to have a boy love me.”)

The biology teacher, I think, told his mother, and she called my mother, and he got a lecture about Public Display of Affection and, I think, a manly wink from his dad as if to say “You’ve got to please your mother, son, and not embarrass her, or it’s trouble for both of us.”

I got a dressing-down about being unvirtuous. My mother pressed home her point. It was the girl’s responsibility to keep things under control, not to let things go too far.

Sometimes, some people seek negative attention because it’s the only attention they can get. Some people would say, “You should be glad your mother cared about you.” Some people would say, “You were acting out to get her attention.” But that’s not how I remember it. I remember thinking I had been doing what she taught me to do — getting a boy’s attention, proving I was alive and valued — and I remember being shocked by the way it exploded in my face.

Pressed against the locker, receptive, I was trying to be the girl I thought she wanted me to be. Oh, I know, and I suppose I knew, that kissing in the hall was foolish and not “nice.” But to win the boy’s attention — wasn’t that what a girl was supposed to do? Wasn’t that what she wanted me to do?

It turned out that “too far” had two meanings, one private and one public. Pressed, I came to understand the difference.

(Part the second. Read the first one here.)

Orientation, Personal History

Vividly

I was 16. It was Sunday night, and the Methodist youth group meeting was winding down, and we were playing Sardines or Hide and Seek all around the sprawling church. At the far end of the education building was a stairwell, and in the stairwell, in the dark, he pushed me up against the wall and kissed me.

Somehow I had it in my mind that being kissed like that meant something. I lived in the fairy-tale world in which every princess needs a prince to validate her existence. Surely a boy who grabs you and kisses you is validating you, right? Because it’s the attention that counts…

right?

I remember that moment vividly, the rush of adrenaline and the narration in my head: “He must like me, he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t like me. It’s good to have a boy like me.”

It sounds so pitiful, but that was the story I told myself every time a boy kissed me. It was supposed to be enough that he wanted to; I should be glad to receive the validation, the proof that I was alive and worthy of attention.

His mouth tasted like cigarettes and orange candy, because he didn’t want his mother to know he smoked. I certainly didn’t want my mother to know I was kissing boys in the dark stairwell at church, either.

We drove home in the back of the youth leader’s station wagon, and he never talked to me. We never ever talked about it again.

I found it puzzling, but pretty soon after that I embarked on the relationship I would have for the end of high school and most of college, with a boy who pursued me until I gave in because, well, “He must like me, he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t like me. It’s good to have a boy like me.”

It never occurred to me that what I liked or wanted had anything to do with anything. My job was to be desired.

And not to let it go too far.

(Part the first. Which is to say, more to come.)