Giving up the Silence for Lent: Reflections on Depression

I live with depression and anxiety. I have been aware of being depressed since I had a major depressive episode in 1987 near the end of my sophomore year of college. As learned more about depression over the years, I realized that I have probably been dealing with this condition since early adolescence if not earlier. This spring as a Lenten practice, I am reading Monica Coleman’s new book, Not Alone.

I am taking a major leap and publicly blogging about it. I chose this practice because Monica Coleman is a writer, theologian, and minister. Knowing about her and her work, I was intrigued by her publishing a book on the spirituality and theology of depression. I was only a few pages in when I decided to write about my experience of reading it. From the beginning pages, Coleman talks about the shame of depression, the stigma still attached to it, and the fear of being judged if outed as a depressive. The book is arranged in 40 short chapters, designed for a period of reflection (such as Lent). I am going to blog my experience reading the book for the same reasons that Coleman wrote it. So that others know they are not alone.  Coleman began a blog called Beautiful Mind Blog about her own battles with depression.  One of the email comments she received said:

I am currently in an inpatient psychiatric program for severe depression. I’m learning a lot about what it means to live with this illness and I am frequently scared. Your posts make it seem like I’m not alone.

Coleman writes:

This book is for the person who wrote this email. This book is for people of faith. This book is for people who live with depression. This book is for people who live with bipolar depression. This book is for those who are willing to walk inside a winding journey. This book is for those who resist easy answers. This book is for those who are willing to go deeper. This book is to let us know that we are not alone. We are not alone in our sadness. We are not alone in our silence. We are not alone in our tears. We are not alone in our faith.Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression . Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Blogging my reflections as I read will help me to feel less alone. I hope that my reflections on reading this book in turn are able to help others feel less alone.

I tried to hide my depression from everyone for years. I thought if only my immediate family knew, the world wouldn’t judge me or punish me. I thought no one could see my pain, my sadness, my fragile emotional state. I thought I was hiding it all. The reality was the world could easily see what I tried so desperately to hide. The most difficult part of depression for me has been fear. Fear others will know about my condition and judge me. Fear I will lose my mind. Fear I will have a debilitating episode so dark that I will need to be hospitalized or unable to work. These fears lead to other fears. Fear that I am unloveable and that no one will love me. Fear that I will be alone. Fear that I will not have health insurance so that I won’t be able to afford anti-depressants (which I hate having to take ). Fear that dealing with the emotional ups and downs will keep me from succeeding in my chosen profession.  Fear that I just won’t be able to make a living.
These fears have greatly affected my life. I made many choices based on safety and security, even choices I knew in my gut were wrong because I was afraid of not having a safety net if I failed. In 2008, I accepted a job in Texas and moved my family there from Massachusetts.  It didn’t work out. I survived.
My struggle with depression made me angry. Depression was also the manifestation of anger I felt at my own parents divorce and buried for so many years. I spent decades of my life denying and trying to hide this anger.
Finally, I dealt with the anger and decided to be more transparent about the depression. I was able to do this because of the intense spiritual work I did for three years training to be a spiritual director. During this training, I learned, among other things, that (some of) my teachers, spiritual director and (some of ) my classmates also lived with depression and similar issues.

One of the things I eventually had to deal with was that I was slowly killing myself by ignoring my health. The biggest culprit was my overeating and my weight.  I weighed 293 pounds at doctor’s visit in December 2011 and decided I needed to do something. In the coming weeks, I hit bottom and I went to my first Overeaters Anonymous meeting.  The first Sunday in February 2012 I stuck to my food plan for the first time.  I lost over 80 pounds over the course of the year in 2012. I also had to deal with the fact that I ate to cover up my pain, my unhappiness, and the fact that I lived with depression.  It’s been a painful year.

If you live with depression (in any of its manifestations) or anxiety or are struggling with overeating or weight issues, I’d love to hear from you and have you join this conversation.

So, here we go. The reflection questions come from the end of the chapters in Not Alone:
How do you hide?
I hide by not admitting to the depression and never telling people how depressed and sad I am. I hid for years. I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself. Everything I thought I was hiding from the world, the world saw any way.
What scares you the most about sharing?
The thing that scares me the most about sharing is being unemployed or underemployed. I am an ordained minister. I am terrified that congregations (or other employers) will not call (hire) me if i am up front and and honest about depression. Although it has now become politically correct to be open and accepting of depression, the reality is many people still regard depressives as less than competent or stable. Does a congregation really want a depressed minister? How can someone who can’t get out of bed, help others who can’t face the world?  Intimately related to this fear is the fear that the ministerial credentialling body in my denomination will hold the depression against me. I will always be in need of some therapy or course in order to keep in good standing. I feel that sharing will cause pity and prejudice. Neither of which is helpful. The irony embedded in this is I believe my depression is responsible for my much of spirituality. I am introspective and reflective. I feel both pain and joy deeply. My first major depressive episode began a lifelong spiritual journey that still continues. During that episode, the pain was so great, I found myself in the heart space of the psalmist, crying out to God for comfort and release. The God of my Catholic upbringing wasn’t up to the task however. How could that all powerful, all loving God allow such pain and misery, both in my soul and in the world. I didn’t know. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. I did, however, feel something, someone out there listening to my pleas and my cries and sitting with me, literally in the dark, crying. I wasn’t alone.  I understand the title of Coleman’s book on many levels.
I have been trying to figure God out ever since, I suppose. I don’t know if I have made much progress, but I know that I won’t; that I can’t give up looking. In some way, the search for the God I have felt next to me and yet still can’t find led me to my Unitarian Universalist faith. As frustrating as Unitarian Universalism and congregational life can be at times, it is the place that best understands my quest.

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6 thoughts on “Giving up the Silence for Lent: Reflections on Depression

  1. Thanks for blogging on this topic. I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in 1998 after a major psychotic breakdown. Living with the disorder has been very difficult for me with both the manic and depressive ends of the spectrum. Recently I have been more open at work about coping with depression and my colleagues and supervisor have been very supportive. What I keep most hidden, even from my doctor, are the manic delusions which I had on and off for years, including a second major breakdown in 2009. Thankfully this symptom seems to be managed with medication now. I am currently working on coping with depression better and look forward to reading more of your reflections on your spiritual journey. I have also ordered the book from amazon.

  2. Love what you’ve been writing recently Tony! I live with depression/anxiety and borderline personality disorder and am a recovering alcoholic. I went to my first OA meeting recently with the story much like you. I’ve never given myself “credit” for having mental health issues…alwas minimize them and their impact. Recently I’ve been working to own them and grieve/accept their impact on my life and those I love. Thanks Tony. Traci Bilger

  3. It’s easier to love oneself (and the world) when we come out of all of our closets. Grace and peace to you, my brother.

  4. I’ve had a pretty good sense of your depression since not long after we met in English Lit way back in the day, and it has never altered a thought in my head that you would be any less worth of love. Easy for me to say that, I realize. I can’t imagine the year you’re having, but what I said over lunch remains true: I find what you are doing to be beyond courageous and I know you will come out fine on the other side. I think blogging about the book is a great idea. I know we haven’t seen each other a ton since you came back, but you are not alone by any means. Let’s hang soon. I love you, my brother. Sic itur ad astra.
    Matt

  5. I read this, and identified with many of the sentiments in it, particularly making decisions about career based on one’s need for safety, which I think is one reason it has been so hard for me to embrace a career even though I desperately want one. The fear that people will see you as less stable and feeling of fragility is very strong. But, on reflection, I realized how ironic these fears are. People who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses are some of the most courageous people. They have to face their deepest, darkest fears and learn to live with them. If that isn’t strength then I don’t know what is.

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