I know so many missionaries. I have friends on all continents except Antarctica. If there were people in need of Jesus there, I’m sure they’d be on that one, too. I remember feeling that fire and that call to go to the farthest reaches and try to share my faith with the world when I was younger. I felt like if I didn’t, then I’d just die. Dramatic? Of course. I was in my early twenties.
I felt like there had to be places in plain sight where people were hurting and needed love. I just knew that I would be the one to minister to widows and orphans abroad. And for a little while, I did my best to do just that. Then I came home and realized that sometimes the remotest parts of the earth were within the people right beside me. And in my own heart. To this day, I sometimes feel that my soul is one of the most desolate places that can possibly exist.
Loneliness is a silent killer, and people who are lonely may not even know that loneliness is the source of whatever it is that they are feeling. Some people are emotionally kind of stupid. I am for sure. More often than not I don’t know how to label whatever emotion I am having at any given moment and I kind of describe it with various types of grunts or gestures. I make off-putting jokes and sarcastic quips because it helps me not to really delve too deeply into what I see going on around me because being aware of things other people are able to ignore makes me feel lonely.
The thing is, I am frequently known for my snarky attitude or the jokes that I make. I’m kooky and quirky. I come off to some as strong, opinionated, bossy, organized, and professional. I seem friendly and fun. I seem lighthearted.
People often laugh at things I observe about the world around me. Why? Because, the world is really messed up, and that can be funny as hell. It’s also really dark and tragic and will just about crush you if you think about it too long.
Unfortunately, I’m wired to analyze, perceive, and resolve. It’s in my nature. I’m also wired to have this really intense empathy for people whose pain I can relate to on some level. Carrying all that around all the time is really exhausting. It wears on you.
I think that because of those characteristics, I have struggled with chronic depression and anxiety my whole life. It’s kind of a perfect storm, and no one likes to even face it internally, much less openly talk about it.
So I’m going to openly talk about it. Feel free to squirm, pity me, claim that my faith is not strong enough, judge me for relying on medication, worry about my sanity, ask me questions, openly mock or deride me, or nod vigorously in solidarity and understand that more people struggle with this than are willing to admit it. In any case, I’m not too worried about it. I know that this post will help someone, and that’s the goal.
I just found out tonight that my favorite comedian/actor died as a result of suspected suicide. Robin Williams has always seemed to be so funny and light-hearted. I always kind of thought that if we knew each other, we’d get along. I always wished he had been my drama teacher or professor. I wanted to know if he was really like Mr. Keating.
Several people I know have expressed shock on social media. Someone even asked if I thought he really committed suicide, since he was always funny. Yes. Yes I very much do. He struggled for years with substance abuse. Often people who seem funny and happy are very sad and/or struggle with depression. Depression is such a weird thing, and I think those people who have keen observational skills and can make them into humor require a dark side. People who are genuinely happy and never struggle with mental illness are often not as aware of all the minutiae that make the world so sad. Those who do are often funny because to laugh is to not cry, and to laugh is to release the pressure that comes with carrying all that weight around all the time.
My story of this summer is that aside from my chronic issues, I have been struggling with the most acute attack of depression that I’ve ever experienced. I had a baby in March, and post-partum depression just about did me in.
This is, of course, after a five year crash course in personal stressors and tragedy as well. I won’t get into all that, but when I took the stress inventory to see if I needed to seek help, I scored a 724. If you score above a 300 you need immediate help. So yeah, you could say I was dealing with some stuff.
Anyway, I had begun to withdraw more and more from my family at the end of the school year. I would go up to the bedroom, turn out the lights and either sleep or hold my newborn son and just detach from my husband, elder son, and the rest of the world. I’d watch television to distract myself. I wasn’t exactly sad. I just didn’t feel much of anything.
In December I lost a friend that I have known for sixteen years. He killed himself. He was not a person I’d have ever expected to end his own life. He seemed so together, despite his sometimes very serious personality. It caught me off guard, and I believe that was the beginning of the dark period that ended with this most recent crisis. I knew that if it could happen to him, it could happen to me. I’d thought about it in the past, but I’d never made an attempt or a plan. Now that I’m a wife and mom, it has not ever been a temptation. This changed my feeling of security about that. He mattered to people, and he still had problems that ended in tragedy. I matter to people, and I got scared that I might end in tragedy as well.
I reached a point where I was at maximum capacity for pain and grief, and I just shut down. Sure, I felt joy at my son’s birth, and I could laugh and smile and make jokes; it just required that I completely ignore all deeper feelings and hide myself from everyone who cared about me.
I didn’t see it happening. It crept in slowly. The darkness arrived more like dusk becoming darkness than a light burning out suddenly. I rationalized my behavior by believing that it was just my healing from the c-section, dealing with hormones, and relaxing while I could. I blamed feeling sick or being tired, but what I see now is that I just wanted to escape. If I slept, I’d be away from everything, and it worked until the nightmares started.
By the time summer rolled around, I was sleeping for large parts of the day because I couldn’t get rest at night. I had begun seriously neglecting the house, neglecting my relationships, and neglecting myself. There were days where I’d skip showering or even trying to get dressed because I knew I probably wouldn’t bother to walk out the door anyway. There were days where I wouldn’t speak to anyone and would reject all incoming calls or texts. Of course I’d still keep up appearances by making funny comments on Facebook, but I just quit caring about much of anything at all.
The only break in the numbness came when my elder son would misbehave, and I’d lose my cool with him. I got nervous because I didn’t want to do permanent damage to him with screaming or fighting, so I just started avoiding him and letting my husband handle all discipline while I cared for my younger son.
The breaking point was when I heard the story of the man who was charged with murdering his son by leaving him in a hot car. Any rational mother heard the story and became enraged at the father, felt compassion for the mother, and broke down with sadness for the child. Not me. I thought, “You know what, I don’t know his life. Maybe that kid is just rotten.”
That was when I sought help. I saw a psychiatrist, and I got my meds adjusted. I started noticing the things I’d been too spaced out to notice, and I checked myself in to an in-patient day program at a local psychiatric hospital. I was so so ashamed that I had to do that. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t even ask for prayer from people during that time. I was embarrassed and felt weak. I felt guilty for being too weak to be a good mom or wife. I felt silly about abandoning my family for a week that would probably be group-therapy-kumbaya-hippy-dippy-bullshit (pardon the language, just being real). I held the negative views of mental healthcare as much as anyone else. I dreaded it, but it really helped me. I processed through some things I had been shoving down for five years now. Some even since middle school. I got a lot out of it. I started to heal, and I’m doing OK now. I’m not magically all better, and I probably never will be. It’s part of who I am. I’m growing to love myself anyway.
It’s insane to me that in our culture, we are far more forgiving of a person with terrible morals or ethics than we are of someone with mental illness. That’s telling of our priorities. We value strength and loathe weakness. Mental illness is perceived as weakness. More than just a weakness, it’s perceived as a problem that is all in the mind of the person suffering and something that’s questionably even legitimate.
The stigma of being that person who has depression has kept me from being open and honest about myself for years now. It’s not just made up. It is very real. There is a darkness inside my mind that holds me hostage and keeps me from just being. It wraps its fingers around my throat and chokes away all of the life-giving oxygen until I go black and can’t keep going anymore. There is a part of me that always wants to just wave and be acknowledged, but I cannot be forthcoming about it because of the people it would alienate or upset. There is a part of me that is terrified that if I am open about my struggles, everyone I love will leave me. Everyone I know will think I’m crazy. And everyone I want to know will run away screaming.
The thing is, the Big-Bad I just described is simply a figment created by the darkness inside of me. I’m not alone in this. I believe many people with that darkness feel exactly the same way. It’s just so covered in shame and silence that none of us are willing to take the risk of discussing it. I wish that people with mental illness issues had a secret “tell” and could identify each other silently. Then we’d know who to trust. It may sound silly, but it is just that scary. I feel my pulse speeding up just thinking about it. I think I’ll probably obsess for a while over developing a secret “crazy person” handshake. Then I’ll fall asleep and have weird dreams that keep me up. And I’ll be OK. Really, I will.
The pressure to be happy or normal, the way most everyone else looks to me, is so great, that I am often crippled by the accompanying anxiety and become useless to do what I had originally intended– obeying the call to minister to the orphans, widows, and remotest parts of the earth.
So, to confront this problem, I want to expose my darkness to the light in order to reach others in similar darkness. I want to say to you– here are my wounds. Here are the harmful thoughts I have. Here is the most painful and isolating thing that exists for me. Here is my secret source of shame. It’s all here. None of it is a secret anymore. I went all One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and did NOT (spoiler alert!) get smothered by a large Native American man.
This past Sunday, my pastor spoke about how Christians are supposed to expose the enemy. So here I am, taking up the challenge. I am exposing something very, deeply personal in order to say to anyone reading it– you are not alone in this.
I don’t care if you are a person of faith or not. You are not alone. Look beside you. Look behind you. Those people you see are likely carrying around the remotest parts of the earth inside themselves, and they are terrified to tell anyone. Help them expose their darkness to the light. It just may save their lives, and it will definitely save yours.