This is my fourth post in a Lenten series where I share reflections as I read Monica A. Coleman’s new book Not Alone.
Dylan Thomas was wrong. After the first death, there can be plenty of other deaths. Just ask a person living with depression who has died over and over again, falling into the darkness like entering the underworld and then rising from it, resurrected to die again later when the cloud of darkness returns.
Lent is a good time to delve into the topic of depression. Depression is being out in the dessert for 40 days and nights (or longer, much longer). Depression is being crucified. Depression is like dying. Finally, depression is also resurrection. Monica A. Coleman points out that there’s a big difference between resurrection and resuscitation. All those folks who poke fun at Christianity and resurrection by talking about Jesus the Zombie and focussing on the reanimation of dead tissue miss the point entirely.
Resuscitation is coming back to life, but resurrection is being reborn into a NEW life. She talks about the famous quote of Heraclitus “No one ever steps int the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and they are not the same person.” This is very true of people who live with and live through depression. Coleman writes “It’s poetic. It’s also a hard, ugly truth: When you come back from the dead, you aren’t the same person.”
The reality every depressive faces is that there was a time (or a couple of times, or a series of times) where a fundamental shift happened and your life changes in a permanent way. She calls it “falling off the shelf.” It happened to me. I wager it has happened to everyone who knows depression. Coleman describes this process as a death and explains it using the analogy of the breakup of a personal relationship, which she claims is never really a breakup, but a series of three breakups:
“There’s an initial breakup: the breakup before the breakup. There’s the moment when something falls off the shelf inside of you. It’s the moment when deep inside yourself, you know it’s over. It can be months or years between this moment and the actual breakup, but it did happen. It’s quiet. It’s almost imperceptible. You kind of know it when it happens, but you usually only really know it in hindsight. It’s when something has been said or done or expressed— something has happened. And you realize that there’s no turning back. This is it. Something broke. Something fell off the shelf. Something died. The death of depression is a lot like that. It’s quiet. It’s invisible. It’s not like a rotting egg or broken vase. There are no sensory signs. There’s no audible crash. Some time when you weren’t paying attention. Some time while you were trying desperately to get up, get dressed, and go to work. Some time when you gave all your energy to making dinner for the children. Some time while you were trying to eke life out of lifelessness . . . something died. And because there was no unbearable stench, or spine-curdling scream, or shards of glass on the floor, you missed it. Because your breath never stopped, you thought you were still alive. And so the death of depression, like that first breakup, may not reveal itself for awhile. It took me three years to realize that I died in depression. Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (pp. 30-31). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
It took me years to realize that I died in depression as well. I fell off the shelf in 1987 and it took decades for me to both understand and accept that when I came out of that initial deep depressive episode that I was not stepping back into the river of my life, because I had died. Only now, after falling off the shelf two more times over 25 years am I starting to find pieces of who I was (or more accurately who I was becoming – hey I was in college and my life was really just starting in many ways) when I first fell; when I first died. For years, decades, I just wanted my life back. Actually sometimes, I just wanted my life to start, but fear of falling off the shelf, fear of dying again kept me from venturing far out into the world, trusting myself, trusting others and the world itself enough to live and grow into me and thus forge a life and a living. When Coleman writes about wanting her life back she uses all capitals:
Trying to protect my relationships and my career from my internal desperation. I spent a lot of those years angry about what had happened. My journal is filled with various phrasings of these words: “I WANT MY LIFE BACK!” I spent most of those years trying to get my predepression life back. Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 31). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Like Coleman, I tried to hide my death, my falling off the shelf and my search for my before depression life. After I fell off the shelf for third time in 2011, I just stopped trying. I finally accepted myself as a person who is like this, who lives with depression. Now I am awaiting resurrection.
Reflection Questions from Not Alone:
When has something fallen off the shelf inside of you? What was broken? Who are you becoming since the crash?
My history of depression includes dying and falling off the shelf three times: 1987, 1995, and 2011. After each fall, I became more open about my depression and my feelings and my life with other people and the world around me.
My first fall was in the spring of 1987. I had just spent a second year at college after having taken a year off from school to work in a furniture factory and play in a rock band. I fell hard. I ended up in a bedroom at my mom’s house for almost six months. I thought I was losing my mind. I had nightmares, including one where I was locked in a jail cell with Jesus and The Devil who were having a theological argument and kept asking my what I thought. Another one that I remember was looking up at a statue of the Virgin Mary (I was Catholic at the time) that came to life, but turned into a vampire and kept trying to kill me. I hated being awake and I was terrified to fall asleep. I don’t remember being suicidal, but I remember thinking that I understood people who wanted to die and why people talked of it as being an escape. I dragged myself to work as an Arts and Entertainment writer for local newspapers. I can’t believe now that I remembered enough about plays, movies, concerts or people I interviewed to write about them. It felt like there was a fog over me, literally all the time. I remember trying to describe it to a friend who said she understood and that she called hers the “brain cloud.” That’s been my name for it ever since. I remember constantly feeling like people would know I was a crazy and losing my mind. I remember not wanting to tell anybody for fear of their reaction. I remember going to a therapist who only wanted to talk about why I didn’t have a more secure job and why I wasn’t working more. I stopped going to therapy. I didn’t get any medication, and by the fall my mood had improved enough to not have to drag myself to class and to work.
What broke at that time? I guess looking back on it, any innocence I had left was shattered. I no longer trusted the world, I became more skeptical of other people, and the worst was I didn’t trust my own mind. I began to live in fear that I could fall into that abyss at any time, any place.
After that first death, I became both a more spiritual person and a more politically involved person. Things became so dark, I understood why people cry out to God, why we look for God, why we will place faith and trust and hope in anything that reasonable or not, might save us from the darkness. God didn’t save me from the darkness, rather God accompanied me through darkness. I began to search for God and ponder what God is like because God obviously isn’t a supreme being who can intervene and save you from hurt and pain and darkness. God had to be something else. What was it I felt sitting with me through the depression. I don’t know. I’m looking for it, still I guess. It made me pay ever more attention to all the thoughts humanity has had about God. It’s no accident I ended up first a religious educator and then a minister.
After that first death, I also became an activist. I became politically engaged and it was human rights issues that drew me out of my room and back into the world and in many ways, it has been human rights ever since. Health care, the environment, jobs, education, religious freedom,LGBTQ issues, gender equity. They are all basically human rights issues at their core. I became a person who had to live for more than himself, because my self was too dark.
The second time I fell off the shelf was Christmas time in 1995. I was working as a youth minister in a Catholic church in New Hampshire. Work conditions deteriorated and my brain cloud got much stronger. I crashed hard. This time I was unable to work and left my job. I was unemployed for two months. I couldn’t hide what was happening as by this time I was married. I was ashamed. I began therapy which helped me finally understand what these falls off the cliff were. I also began the game of chance that is finding an anti-depressant that worked. I can’t even remember the names of some of the medications I tried. None of them seemed to work very well or do very much for me. Eventually I ended up on paxil which helped more with my anxiety about my depression than the depression itself. My self broke. My identity broke. There was no more pretending to myself at least that I was a “normal” person. I was a depressive. I dreaded the darkness and its ability to return. I hated it. In a way I hated myself for being this way. I became the type of person who delved into distractions, work and hobbies. I was an introvert who hated idle moments because too much time on my hands left too much space for my mind to roam and I couldn’t trust my mind. No longer could I trust my feelings as I usually felt down. By 1998 I felt better on an ongoing basis. I had become a father, and would shortly own a house. Still in corners of my mind there lingered the shadow that could rise again, as if from Mordor, to spread it’s dark power over the dominion of my mind.
The most recent rise of the darkness and my most recent death and crash off the shelf happened in the early winter of 2011, shortly after I resigned from a position as minister of a small, struggling Unitarian Universalist church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I fell off the shelf with a loud clattering bang that really only my family heard for the most part. I had failed at my chosen profession, I couldn’t find another job or source of income. I couldn’t stop thinking about how terrible I was. Now I know this isn’t all true. But depression does this to you sometimes. It distorts reality, which is why many depressives learn not to trust themselves, either their feelings or their reasoned thinking or both. I became angry. I became a hermit. I didn’t like talking to anyone. I was terrified my life was basically over. Again this is what depression does to you. I desperately needed to be working again, but I wasn’t allowed to search for work in my denomination and faced the prospect of being unemployed or underemployed with trepidation. Then, I became a person who has nothing left to hide, no choice but to accept help and be grateful for it. The turning point came when a colleague, then still a seminarian, sent me an email telling me I had been “grace bombed.” The email contained a link to a vimeo page wherein there were posted video messages from my friends reminding me that I was ok, loved, and would basically come through it and rise again. Some just tried to cheer me up. It was a wonderful pastoral response from a bunch of pastors. In contrast to cold bureaucratic response of my denomination, this was tending to my soul. My soul actually mattered to my colleagues. Soon after this I found a job I loved. I was still underemployed, but enjoyed what I was doing. I also began to finally address a long standing weight problem through Overeaters Anonymous. In the wake of this death, 25 years after the first death I started to become a person who trusted others again, who slowly began to trust himself again, who had nothing left to hide because it just wasn’t worth the energy. Perhaps, just perhaps I am also getting a glimpse of the me I might have brought along on the journey from the beginning had the depression not arrived on my door. I am trying to bring that person back into who I am and have become through the journey of depression. Dare I say it, but I feel a little more whole, authentic and a lot less shame after this present resurrection. That’s not to say, life is easy. It isn’t. I had to leave the job I loved because I just wan’t making enough money. But the resurrection continues….