Depression, Abundant Faith, and Just Getting By

This is the 7th in my Lenten series on depression, sharing my reflections while reading Monica A. Coleman’s Not Alone.

Anyone who lives with depression knows there are many days when just getting out of bed and doing anything is a monumental achievement.  It’s difficult to explain to those who haven’t experienced it, just how debilitating depression can be.  When you are depressed and in the middle of a depressive episode (and you really have to understand that these can last months, even years for some of us), just getting out of bed, getting dressed, and feeding yourself are all you can manage on the day’s “to do” list.

Coleman talks a lot about “to do” lists in this chapter and as a person who makes these lists daily to help her organize and prioritize the day’s activity, she discusses what is the bare essential “to do” list when she’s in the throes of depression.  She talks about how depression can reduce the list to the barest of essentials and reflects theologically on the parable of the mustard seed as a story that teaches us we are good enough for God and just plain good enough, even if we can’t get through the to do list.  This is her take on the parable of the Mustard Seed:

It would take years for me to realize that God does not want me to have a legalistic faith. God will not disown me, walk out on me, or lose my number if I don’t pray every day. God is not waiting to shake a finger of shame at me if I do something that indicates I am human. God just wants me. That’s enough. Jesus kept trying to tell his disciples the same thing. He used a metaphor that his agrarian audience would understand: a mustard seed.

I’ve seen a mustard seed (I use it when I make curry spices). It’s small. This isn’t to say that we only need a little faith to perform miracles— and you don’t even have that much! (That’s the message I’ve heard in sermons.) Rather, I understand Jesus to be saying: You already have enough. Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 55). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Once again, I see this as a marker of my Universalist faith.  I am good enough just the way I am. It’s a point of grace easy to give to others and easy to point out, but much more difficult to believe about one’s self.  Sometimes with depression you feel great, just like “normal” people with the usual amount of energy and interest. Sometimes you can not literally drag yourself out of bed and you live in a state where actually getting to hell would be an improvement. Yet, as wonderful as good days and weeks and months and even years are, and as bad as the depths of depression can be, most of the time we live in the middle ground.  We get by. Things are, well, OK. And Coleman does a great job of pointing out that is just fine.

I’ve had a an up and down relationship with my dad over the years, but he did give me a few things I’ve always remembered and found very helpful. One was that he would always tell me “There is nothing you must do. There is nothing you must say. There is nothing you must be. You’re OK just the way you are.”   It has taken me a lifetime and  finding the saving power of grace in Universalism to actually begin believing it.  Coleman shares this to emphasize the point:

Andre Myers, a composer, wrote a song for children living with cancer. The refrain perfectly captures the attitude I try to have most days— whether I’m moving mountains or tapped out by list item number six:

Because I’m well enough to hear the goodness in a loving song
and I am well enough to feel night’s beauty dance into the dawn
and I am well enough to love the person that I strive to be
and I’m just well enough to know that I am strong just being me

Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 56). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Reflection Questions from Not Alone

What five things are enough for you on any given day?

There are days when just getting up is an accomplishment.  When the depression has me in its grip, I too have a list like Coleman, that I check off as the major tasks for making it through another day.  They may not seem like much, but when it is a struggle to just get out of bed, they can feel like major accomplishments.  One – Get up. Get out of bed. Get dressed. As all people who live with depression know, there are days where this does not happen.  Two – meditate  for 30 minutes.  This takes planning. If just getting up is a struggle, this task suffers because it is much easier for me do upon waking or shortly after waking up.  Three – Exercise.  I run, bike, hike, use stationary bikes and elliptical trainers. I light weights.  This too is  a task better done shortly after waking.  Four – Eat well.  This is a major task for someone like me who overeats as an addictive behavior.  Eating well means not only eating the right foods (no sugar, no breads, no gluten, no deep fried, no dairy) but also the right amounts and God, are the right amounts small, tiny even, compared to how I used to eat.  Some days I fail. Most days, even when depressed, I keep to it.  It took me eight  months of strict adherence to a food plan to lose to 80 pounds. The depression has made a minor return over the winter and I’ve put 12 back on.  Five – Get some work done.  This sounds simple, but it isn’t.  When the depression kicks in, it can be hard to concentrate. It’s easier to just listen to music or watch movies on Netflix, or hang out on Facebook and Twitter.  Depression makes it harder to concentrate and I know I’ve spent days at work, where it looked like I was busy and productive, but actually accomplished, well, nothing.  Usually when the depression has set in, I will not get out of bed on these days, but sometimes I manage to drag myself out and I then have nothing left to get anything substantial accomplished.

How do you know when you are well enough?

I know when I am well enough because I am able to get out of bed and go about my day. I know I am well enough when I don’t overeat.  I know I am well enough when I get anything productive done. I am involved in quite a lot.  Beyond work I am involved in national cohorts and with national committees. I am usually volunteering some type of time with a community organization such as a neighborhood center or farmer’s market. If am not getting anything done in a given day for work or volunteer commitments, I know I am having trouble concentrating and that’s a sign of depression for me.

I also know I am well enough when I am keeping appointments. When I start rescheduling things or missing things, I know that I am more depressed than I had thought and that while I wasn’t looking the brain cloud swept in like a storm front to dominate the landscape.

I also know I am doing well enough, when I am able to laugh.  When the depression is at its worst, I lose all perspective and little can move me from my sadness.

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