Part 2-C in a multi-installment series for Lent.
The Hell of Depression – My sophomore year of college, The Devil was after me. You may not think the Devil is real, but he is. I was introduced to him by a friend at the college radio station.
I was a college radio geek. My freshmen year I got involved with our campus radio station. WXPL FM 91.3 Fitchburg State Radio (Pray for Waves!). We had a broadcast radius of about 10 miles on a good day. This was the mid 1980s at the height of college radio. And college radio was the home of all the alternative music. We played vinyl. We used an analog board. We played looped track ads and public service announcements. We kept hand written logs of airtime. My first semester I signed up to be an intern. I wanted my own radio show and a semester of internship was required. I also got involved in the music department, making decision on what music to play, what was in heavy rotation, medium, light. Keeping stats – on paper – of what was actually played, on what show, at what time. I didn’t get an internship my first semester, but I did get on 2nd semester. I interned with a DJ named Ruth on her two hour mid- day air time slot on I think Thursdays. Ruth was a very with it, smart, put together and very attractive senior to whom I was “the intern” She taught me how the board worked and gave me a lot of tips, but she talked at me and through me, not to me. She called me Tommy for the first couple of weeks. Another student interned on Ruth’s show with me. I’ll call her Lucy. A year later in the spring of sophomore year, she was the reason The Devil got after me.
The more you hung around the college radio station, and the more you did there, the more likely you were to get press passes and free tickets to shows I met Johnny Rotten, although he was going by John Lydon then and his band was PiL not the Sex Pistols. I saw the Del Fuegos, the Smithereens, and the Replacements, among others. It paid off to hang out in the radio station office and I hung out there a LOT! So did Lucy , my co intern from Ruth’s show and I would see her come and go very often. One day as I was hanging out in the radio station office with some of the usual crowd, I noticed Lucy hadn’t been around in a while. “Anyone seen Lucy around lately, I asked?” The small group went silent.
I don’t remember who said it, but someone said, “Should we tell him?”
“I don’t know,” said my friend Craig.
“Tell me what?” I asked. “What?!?!”
The mood had changed. Everyone was somber. You’d have thought Paul Westerberg had died or that U2 had split up.
“Tell me What?!” I said again
“It’s a little weird,” said Craig.
“OK, “ said Craig, “She’s left school.”
“She left school because she wasn’t doing too well…mentally. She kept saying that The Devil was trying to get her and The Devil was constantly after her and the Devil was following her around and The Devil is on her trail.”
“That is weird,” I said.
“There’s more,” said Craig.
“She said the Devil is after her so relentlessly because he can’t get YOU! The Devil can’t get you, so that’s why the Devil is on Lucy’s trail all the time. That’s what she was saying.”
Craig looked up, saw the clock, and said, “Aw crap I’m late for marketing.” And grabbed his backpack and shot out the door. The rest of us followed him, as we were late for afternoon classes too.
All the way to class, I kept thinking “The Devil is after me?” It bugged me the rest of the day. On my way home after my last class, I saw a fly poster for a local hardcore show. The DEMONS with Haunted by Satan and Hell’s Schoolchildren at the Armory. All Ages. There was a drawing of a devil’s face and its eyes stared right into mine. This was too creepy. All of a sudden Satan was everywhere. Over the weekend, the free movie at the student center was Legend – Tim Curry as The Devil. I didn’t go.
I was home the next weekend and my mom was watching a talk show about how Satanic cults were hunting young people and tricking them into devil worship. My mom told me she was going to see a Catholic priest named Father Ralph DiOrio who healed people with the touch of God. While she was gone I channel surfed and ran across a movie about an insect swarm, or so I thought it was, but as the scene changed I realized it was The Exorcist 2. The evil spirit of the air was commanded by The Devil to possess children and this spirit took the form of a locust and flew towards the camera and into my eye. I had, in a very real sense, lost it, and The Devil was after me.
I knew it wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t real. Yet to a part of my brain that seemed to be on overdrive it felt real and it felt true. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The Devil was after me. What was I going to do?
I stopped going to classes. I failed a final. I ended up disappearing from school just like Lucy. I spent day after day alone in my room at my mom’s house terrified. I had bizarre and weird nightmares about devils and demons. I couldn’t sleep. I lost my appetite. Eventually my mom got me to tell her what was going on. I told her everything. Lucy, The Devil, the nightmares, the insomnia. I remember her telling me I was definitely NOT being chased by The Devil.
She wanted me to talk to a priest. I was skeptical. But I was also terrified of something I was certain I didn’t believe in. She was persistent. I finally gave up more than agreed. To this day I thank God, the universe, and all of creation that the priest I talked to was responsible, sane, and pastoral. He listened patiently to my story. When I finished he told me my mom was correct. I was not being chased by The Devil. He told me I was probably depressed and should see a psychiatrist and a therapist. I did. I learned about depression and anxiety. I learned about intrusive thoughts. I learned about the (still brand new at the time) medications that could help. Although I would struggle off and on with depression and anxiety from then on, it was never as debilitating as it was that spring and summer. That priest could have confirmed my fears, warned me of hell, or tried to take advantage of my weekend mental state and sexually assaulted or abused me…but he didn’t.
This entire episode both created cracks in my faith and re-committed me to a spiritual path. I became more church involved, still at odds with a lot of the church’s teaching, but intensely interested in what praying actually was and meditation. Intensely interested in the healing and siding with the oppressed I saw in the ministry of Jesus. Emerging from this first bout of depression both deepened cracks in my faith in terms of Catholicism, but also pulled me into a spiritual way of life that has been my path ever since. I ended up getting confirmed while in college, having discovered in the aftermath of this episode that being about the missio dei was the way I kept myself out of the deepest of the pits of hell that is depression. Whatever I did and whatever my path turned out to be, it was going to involve working to bring about the Kin-dom of God.