Hope Through the Cold

Three nights ago as I was walking home, I saw patches of grass glinting back at me for the first time in months. Winter is almost here, and the golden leaves which hang like an archway over my beloved Prairie Path will linger for a week or so more before giving way to the bracing Chicago wind. Even now, the blankets and fleeces which I had put away for months are again serving their purpose, insulating fragile flesh from the stinging cold just outside. The hardest season of the year is about to begin.


Winter is particular difficult for those who, like myself, struggle with seasonal affective disorder. For the last six years or so, I have entered into a depression around November and come out of it in May (give or take a month or two). If I had never learned to look for a seasonal pattern, I would never have known that these depressions had any rhyme or reason to them, for both the entry into depression and the exiting from depression feel unoccasioned, as second nature. The only part of it that truly feels unnatural is when the birds chirp, the flowers sprout forth, the church celebrates Easter and I am still in a rut. My reaction to the lack of sunlight is delayed about a month, it seems.


Perhaps I might take a lesson here from hibernating mammals, for when they perceive the spectral leaves and feel the nights grow longer and colder, they scavenge with extra diligence and prepare for a seasonal slumber. There are two lessons to be gained here: to surrender to the darkness that is to come, and to make ready for its coming. The response of surrender to impending darkness is a wise one, for it channels the energies of the mind away from its vain efforts to keep the inescapable at bay. As mindfulness theory contends, the intellect often spends itself trying to fix what it cannot affect. This leads both to frustration over not being able to change the thing one wanted to change, and frustration that one’s efforts have been squandered. Alternately, when the mind’s exertions are drawn away from what it cannot fix, the sense of failure is supplanted by that of calm recognition. To adapt this realism—one might even call it courage—in the face of suffering is to suffer with Christ, the lamb who “did not open his mouth.” But passivity in the face of impending darkness is only half of the equation; the other is preparation. Just as those hoarding mammals preserve as much of the fall fruit as possible to sustain their slumber through the winter, so I might cling to those things which perpetuate human existence and my fragile existence in particular. Can one make an exhaustive list of them? I think not. Here are a few that I would like to consider: meaning, companionship and perspective.

Of course, these three staples of human existence are not disjunctive: considering one necessarily entails considering the others. Meaning might be considered as that which encompasses the other two, for it is as to personhood as molecules are to an object. To say that meaning is the stuff of our existence is a truism, for without meaning life would be… meaningless. But the thing about meaning is that it does not depend on us. My actions have significance whether I see that significance or not, because they put me in relation with others. In fact, I would argue that the development of personhood (which is to say the development of a self that exists within ethical space) is simply understanding the import of one’s actions for other people. Even if I do not feel like making dinner, the act of preparing a meal is inherently meaningful: it puts me in relation to others. Even if I eat on my own, I am in a relation for good or for ill with the people, animals and habitats which are involved in producing the food that I consume. One might call the most significant of relationships companionship, for companionship is a relation of commitment. This commitment leads to constancy, which results in trust. You do not fear the abandonment of a true companion, for companionship transcends contingency and thereby promotes authenticity. It is from these relationships that we derive perspective, for in them we gain a safe space from which to contemplate everything from our existential angsts to our everyday foibles. From the safety of relation, we are able to see where true meaning lies and align our emotions accordingly.

Now I see the expanse of the winter before me, likely a tundra of confusion, loneliness and even terror. But significance does not depend on the presence or absence of hardship, nor does the loving kindness of companionship. These elements of life cling to me stronger than I could ever cling to them, and they will see me through until the warmth of spring.

Click here for information about Seasonal Affective Disorder.

On Transparency

I’ve been writing the book that I’m working on for a month and a half right now, and have about fifty pages done. I’ve been privileged to work with several excellent readers, and am very excited to have the end product ready. In many ways, I feel like writing this book is the most significant thing that I’ve ever done. Finally, I’m able to address some of the central questions that I face on a daily basis in writing. Finally, I’m able to try to translate my own hidden experience into words and themes that others can understand, and maybe even benefit from. Finally, I’m taking the jump to share the thoughts and feelings that are all too easy to hide.


But there are a lot of risks that come with the type of vulnerability that I’m striving for. If I publish this book, I will no longer be able to control how other people interpret my experience, for to speak is to offer one’s words up for another’s interpretation: a risky act. And so many of the anecdotes told in this book are intensely private. With every reader that I’ve worked with, the question has been the same: if you put this work in print, will you be hurt by it?
This is a really important question. After all, I’m just 22. There is, I trust, a lot of life left for me to live, and the folks that I’m working with are right to wonder whether that which I’m writing will cling to me for the rest of my life. The opportunity cost of even mentioning that I deal with bipolar in a public forum is extra scrutiny by potential employers and apprehension from people who don’t understand mental illness. If I go on to write more books, I’ll be able to say more than what I say in this first work, but never less. It’s funny to think that many authors are ashamed of their first books because of their lack of artistic nuance. Once in a while, I wonder if I’ll be ashamed of this first attempt because of the rawness of its content.
But as I’ve continued to converse with those who are advising me, I’ve realized something really important: while transparency is necessarily risky, it is also inherently valuable. The openness that I strive towards (and often fail at) is Christian truth-telling, pure and simple. For when you become a Christian and submit to the waters of baptism, you are announcing to all of heaven and earth that you don’t have it together, that you fail often, that the best that you can do is to witness to Christ our hope, because you are not your own savior and never can be. Put simply, to confess Christ is to confess that you are a sinner. Furthermore—and this is extremely important—to confess that you are a sinner cannot simply be to announce one’s unworthiness, but to confess specific instances in which one has failed and is in need of God. To speak forthrightly of one’s own struggles and shortcomings is a theologically significant act. As St. Paul writes: “we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus.” And, as Christ puts it, privacy is not eternal: “what you have said in the dark will be shouted from the rooftops.”


So I’m still writing, and I still hope to publish one day. My hope is that my writing will prove not an isolated act of forthrightness, but an invitation to transparency for those who read it. Truth begets truth, honesty begets honesty. When I gave a Sunday school presentation five months ago which was to become the skeleton of this book, there were no less than four people who came forward about their own struggles with mental illness during the Q&A session. If four more embrace vulnerability after reading the book than I’m working on, then it will have been worth it.

Chaos

Over the next several months I’ll be posting excerpts from a book that I’m writing at the moment. Its purpose is to combine memoir and theology in retelling the gospel from a mentally ill perspective. I’m super excited to be working on this project, and I hope you will enjoy it, both now and in its published form! Here’s a chapter from the Creation section, entitled “Chaos.”

“And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”

Here is one of the relatively few things that I’ve learned while fighting mental illness over the last decade: if I don’t know what I’m feeling, it’s probably nothing good. Many people imagine that depression is simply a besetting sadness that will not lift. While consistent sadness is indeed a hallmark of depression, it is only one of a range of symptoms that occurs in a depressed soul.  Another one: numbness.

Physical numbness means that the body has lost sensation in one of its members. Emotional numbness means that the heart has lost sensation partially or altogether. Physical numbness generally comes with the knowledge that one part or another of one’s body is unfeeling. Emotional numbness oftentimes comes with no such warning. In fact, one’s spirit can continue for weeks, even months at a time before recognizing that it is unreceptive.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, I was almost entirely alienated from my own emotions. The prayer, fasting and scripture reading that I had practiced so diligently that year had taught me not to be attentive to my interior state, but rather to ignore it—a chronic tendency that I have while communing with God. As friend after friend asked me how I was, I earnestly replied “I don’t know,” or “OK’ in my less vulnerable moments. Let’s be honest: I didn’t really want to know what I was experiencing. Months of spiritual, emotional and sexual frustration had left me in a miserable state. I tried harder to pray, but found no release. I didn’t think that my emotions were important at all and tried to avoid them. And several times that year, I had been near-overcome with desire for a romantic relationship, but found only rejection and dismay. The result: fear, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, disgust. The fact that I was not perceiving these emotions did nothing to change their inchoate dominion over me; in fact, their hiddenness gave them strength. Paradoxically, I subconsciously felt these emotions and trembled at their power over me, but consciously I could not even name them. Since I could not name them, I could not control them. Since I could not control them, they began to control me, working both chaos and its thick concealment within the depths of my soul.

I know several people who are convinced that the theory of macroevolution is unbiblical and should be rejected on theological grounds. I know even more who are convinced that the Darwinistic model of evolution poses no particular threat to the historic Christian affirmation of the creation of everything by God ex nihilo. But I know relatively few people who are interested in reading the creation account found in Genesis as an epic, which is disheartening. Since the creation account is not a scientific account of how various objects came into being, it should not be read primarily in relation to such scientific accounts, but rather within the genre in which it was written, which is an ancient creation epic. In short, the reader of Genesis 1 and 2 should pay much more attention to Enuma Elish than The Origin of the Species, because Genesis was written within the literary context of the former, not the latter. One of the aspects that distinguishes the Genesis account among ancient creation epics is the utter sovereignty of God over all created matter, including all other spiritual forces.

But curiously, although the Genesis account never posits multiple dueling deities as other Ancient Near Eastern accounts do, it still mentions a primordial chaos: “and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” For the ancient Israelites, water symbolized anything that was unruly, unpredictable and dangerous. After all, they lived on the shores of the great Mediterranean, the sea which would daunt their oppressors, the mighty Romans, over a millennium after they settled Canaan. The waters in the context of the Genesis account are primarily metaphorical and thus symbolize a pre-existing state of chaos prior to God’s sovereign ordering of the world. And I wonder about that chaos, because at times my very soul seems to be made of its stuff. So often, the emotional monsoons which characterize my inner life seem to have been taken directly from the primordial chaos of years past and transplanted to the present as a remnant of pre-creation bedlam.

Chaos where order ought to be is extraordinarily destructive; in fact, it is nothingness. I am most harmful to myself and to others if I do not know what emotions I am experiencing. Subconscious fear makes me defensive and bossy, subconscious shame renders me indecisive and withdrawn, subconscious anger exhausts me. But where there is chaos, God creates and calls us to create. The act of naming is essential to creation, because to “call each thing by its right name” (as Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame) is both to capture what it already is and to determine what it shall be. One of my particular tasks as someone prone to internal chaos is to create meaning from it precisely by naming its elements. This leads me towards inner wholeness and towards communion with others, because being able to identify that I am feeling anxious or joyful or despondent about whatever it is creates the meaning and catharsis of compassion between me and a community. Furthermore, we don’t need to identify our feelings on our own. I cannot tell you how cathartic it is for me to have a dear one say “it sounds like you’re really guilty about this” or “wow, you’re happy today!” We have no indication that the creative act of naming was completed in the Genesis account; if anything, it started in earnest when Adam named his helpmate Eve and thus laid the foundation for the new human community, created by the word of God and continued in the paradox of human identity and difference. It is not as if God created us once and for all, wound us up like little carpet cars, and then released us to go as far as we can before we need his help again. Rather, God is constantly re-creating us, continually calling us out of the primordial nothingness from whence we came.

For this reason, I don’t think that there is any meaningful difference between creation and providence, for in both we sit on the very edge of chaotic nothingness, suspended only by the will of an inscrutable God. This truth is, quite simply, terrifying.

And at times the precariousness of our existence seems so real. I remember the spring of ’17, in which my emotional life seemed to be one massive Gordian knot, chaos crossed over itself in a thousand different directions, looped, knotted, tangled, unbreakable and screaming. As that internal chaos grew ever more deafening, it dragged me slowly and inexorably towards nothingness. Before I was almost overwhelmed by the temptation to kill myself, I felt void of the desire to live. Several times I caught myself thinking that my greatest aspiration in life was to die a Christian death. I fantasized about my funeral, too. Even on the days when death seems a distant possibility, the presence of emotional turmoil is enough to crumple me and bring me powerless to tears, at the mercy of whoever is willing to withhold judgment and listen during the time it takes for me to figure out what I’m feeling and why.

Prayer Without Answers

The hallmark prayer of the Christian faith begins “Our Father…” But how to call God “Father” when he seems so distant?

I’ve been plunged into utter darkness twice over the last two years, both because of mental illness. The first time I was disabused of my delusion that God wanted me to marry a woman who had no romantic interest in me. As I came to grips with the loss of the future I thought was mine and the God I thought I knew, I started to understand an ominous, transformational reality—I cannot know the mind of God. Lost in doubt and despair, I cried out to God: “where are you?” “why the f*** did you do this to me?” Even now, I trust that somehow God used that delusion for good, but I have no idea what good, and if I’m honest, I’m still angry at God for allowing me to believe it. The second time I was plunged into darkness was this last spring, when I spent a hellish week in a behavioral health ward in Aurora, IL. Every day I was tormented by thoughts of trying to kill myself or hurt someone else. My mind constantly screamed at me, telling me to get it together or else. Just as the year before, I felt the absence of God acutely. Why would he abandon me (or so it seemed) to suffer this? Didn’t he care about me? Even now, as I sit on the porch and write and wonder if I’m even out of the same depression that ended me in the hospital five months ago yesterday, I have no answers to these questions.

How can I pray to a God that I have trouble trusting even at the best of times?

Should I try to speak to a God who seems to have abandoned me time after time again?

Can I bear to join God’s trusting people in the act of prayer when it seems like all is indeed lost?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been advised to read the Psalms. And truly, what good advice that is. But sometimes I find even the psalms of lament to be too hopeful. How can these beleaguered bards of Israel possibly bear to lift their eyes to the heavens when they are experiencing betrayal, rejection, doubt and despair? To move with most of them from a retelling of woes to an expression of hope in the God who was, is and is to come is oftentimes beyond me.

Even so, I have company in the psalms. There is a man remembered to posterity simply for the fact that he dwelt in darkness and prayed about it. He knew no hope, outside of the bare act of prayer. He knew no companions, for they had all become as darkness to him. His name is Heman the Ezrahite, author of Psalm 88.

For years I wondered about Heman. Why wasn’t he like the other psalmists? Why couldn’t he find perspective on his suffering? Why does the psalm attributed to his name end in darkness? But now I find his words comforting, not because they are expressions of doubt and despair, but rather because they witness to the truth that our hope does not depend on our ability to see it. Heman did the only thing he could—to cry out and complain to the God who seemed to have abandoned him. He prefigures the famous prayer of Christ on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many days, that’s all I can do, too. And Heman gives me hope that that’s enough.

That it’s good to keep praying in darkness.

That it’s acceptable to God if you pray without being able to see the end of your suffering.

That it’s good in the sight of God to pray even when you feel unable to trust him.

That it’s OK to pray without answers.

I don’t know where my journey of faith will take me. But at least I know that I can always pray to God, no matter what I feel. And that’s hopeful news indeed.

Alternate Medicine–Worth it or not?

For the last several days, I’ve had a cacophony of smells emanating from the middle compartment of my backpack. You see, I’ve been carrying around a kit of essential oils that I thrifted in Eagle River, Wisconsin, and the lids don’t keep as tight during travel as I hoped they would. Even so, I’ll try to screw the caps on just right and keep them around. I like the smells of grapefruit, orange and rosemary gently and persistently knocking on the doors of my nostrils as I write. I like participating in a medicinal practice that has been around for centuries (Wikipedia claims that the earliest record of them was in Al-Andalusia around the 13th century). I like the feeling that I am going against the grain of modern western medicine, which tends to offend the senses if it engages with them at all. That said, essential oils still seem…gimmicky. Too hippy, too new-agey, too unscientific, too weak. Fighting my mental illness with aromatherapy seems akin to protecting oneself from getting wet in a rainstorm with a pilates regimen. Cool and strangely admirable…but utterly ridiculous and ineffective.

But as I reflect on my own mental illness, which is diagnosed in the language of modern psychology and treated by means of modern psychiatry, I can’t help but thinking what help I might have sought, if any, if I lived a mere couple hundred years ago. Psychoactive drugs? Forget about it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Didn’t exist. The essentials for fighting mental illness—faith, hope & steadfast love—would still have been available to me. I still would have been able to pray and to chat with friends, even though the particular social stigma of my environment would dictate whether my particular set of emotional reactions and needs was stigmatized or not. But as far as medicinal treatment is concerned, I could have been prescribed anything from St. John’s wort to ginseng. And I probably would have taken it. And I might well have gotten better because of it.

How? To be sure, many homeopathic or alternative remedies for mental illness have a persistent effectiveness that has solidified their place within traditional medicine cabinets. But the effectiveness of these medicines also comes from the credence granted to them by the patient. As Andrew Solomon writes: “It is my absolute belief that in the field of depression, there is no such thing as a placebo. If you have cancer and try an exotic treatment and then you think you are better, you may well be wrong. If you have depression and try an exotic treatment and think you are better, then you are better…Frankly, I think that the best treatment for depression is belief, which is in itself far more essential than what you believe in.” To paraphrase: it is no mistake to claim that a particular treatment for depression can cure you even if there is nothing inherently curative in that treatment.

I am no connoisseur of alternative treatments for depression; even though I have read of them, I could not recommend one over the other. Even so, I maintain that many alternate treatments for depression such as aromatherapy, adventure, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, homeopathy and the like can in fact be helpful for treating depression. Here are a couple of practical and theological questions that can help when evaluating alternative treatments for depression:

– How expensive is it? There is a vast array of treatments for depression, and many of them are cheap or free. Try ones that are less expensive before breaking the bank.
– What understanding of the body does this treatment reflect? Many alternate treatments incorporate the body in ways that pill-taking does not, which can be very beneficial for mental and overall health.
– Are spiritual forces involved in this treatment, or have they been involved in this treatment in the past? Some treatments for depression are shamanistic; others import non-Christian spirituality. Some treatments which originated in other religious contexts can be redeemed; others must be left to rest—Christians of different stripes have wildly different opinions on where exactly the line should be drawn. Note: do not confuse xenophobia for the perception of spiritual darkness. For years I distrusted all things Asian, including far Eastern folk medicine. This was not for theological reasons, but simply because I was subtly trained by some evangelicals to see demons behind everything Asian—an instinct that has since, God be praised, left me.
– Do you desire it? Remember, oftentimes the greatest benefit from alternative treatments is simply the care and attention that you give to yourself during administration and the trust that they can, perhaps, heal you.

Look for posts in the future on distinctly Christian alternative treatments for depression—prayer, scripture reading, confession… In the meantime, keep walking the Road Called Hope! Please send a link to this blog along to someone who you think might benefit from it.

Death Our Foe (part 2)

Consider these stats on suicide from the National Institute of Mental Health:

— In 2015, suicide was the second-highest cause of death for 15-24 year-olds and for 25-34 year olds in the United States (CDC data).
— By 2014, age-adjusted suicide rates had grown to 13.0 people per 100,000 in the United States (CDC data).
— In 2015, a staggering 1.6% of all U.S. 18-25 year-olds attempted suicide. That’s one in every 63 (NSDUH data).

These stats are helpful inasmuch as they capture the destructiveness of the mental illness epidemic in America. Even so, mere numbers cannot capture the loss felt by even one family mourning the death of a loved one to depression. In my previous post, I argued that the church, as the fellowship of eternal life, ought to fight against depression, a bringer of death. But how can the church fight against depression?

This is one of the central questions of A Road Called Hope. In fact, the desire to see my friends in Christ face mental illness in solidarity with those who suffer it was the central motivation behind my creating this blog. Here are three ways in which the church can fight against depression, and ultimately against death:

1. Pray for the mentally ill: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard congregational prayers for a litany of its ill or bereaved members. Would we consider adding the ill in spirit to our corporate prayer lists, if they are willing? There are two great benefits of doing so. Firstly, Christ answers the prayer of faith and can save the lives of the suicidal. Secondly, praying openly for the mentally ill validates our life-and-death struggle and empowers us to ask for help when we need to. Which brings us to…

2. Provide concrete assistance: Straight after I left in the hospital, I stayed with dear friends from church for a little over a week. They hosted my mother and I, fed us, cared for us, let me play with their granddaughters and provided a place of healing for me. Staying with them and going to an intensive counseling program was far more healing for me than being in a psychiatric ward. Whose number can the mentally ill in your church call when all hell seems to break loose?

3. Dispel the stigma: We depressed Christians have long been ashamed in the church because of the myth that we are less godly. On the contrary! Christians who struggle with depression regularly have tested and tried the grace and providence of God over and over and over again, and have a valuable perspective to share with the church, especially bereaved or ill Christians. Remove the stigma of mental illness in the church, and empower depressed Christians to serve in the name of Jesus. This is perhaps the greatest antidote the church can offer to the deadliness of depression.

There are few things that I’ve found more meaningful than the fight against death. Do you have a story of fighting against the temptation to commit suicide, or helping someone else to? I’d love to hear about it! Please comment below (if you’re in the home page, you’ll need to click on the post title and scroll down).

Death our Foe (Part 1)

Have you ever had someone near you die?

To be honest, I have not. I’ve seen my closest friends grieve the loss of loved ones, and I’ve been in communities that mourn the death of a cherished member. But I’ve never had someone really close to me die.

Here’s what I’m told it’s like: there are waves of grief, sadness, anger, despair. One moment life was normal, and then the next the tint of existence seems to have darkened. Hauntingly, the rest of life continues as normal—but how can there be a normal anymore? Oftentimes, the initial shock is followed by painful introspection, as one’s relation with the bereaved is interrogated and brought into question. The ‘what-ifs’ come as a flood and pierce the mourning with regret. Encouragements, considerate or not, are evaluated, accepted, rejected, clung to, wrung out until there is nothing left in them and the mourning continues on.

If we take St. Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection seriously, then taking up the fight against death is one of the central tasks of the Christian life. Death is not, as many American Christians have assumed, simply a passage to disembodied bliss. As in 1 Cor. 15:26: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” To die is to suffer a defeat, albeit a temporary one. Though death has, as Paul explains, been robbed of its sting, it still witnesses to the power of sin and to the corruptibility of all life before the resurrection to come. Death is still our enemy. To fight against death with the armor of God—faith, hope, truth, righteousness, the readiness of the gospel—is the Christian’s war. Alternatively, to hold fast to faith, hope and love is to fight death, which together with sin and the devil has been considered one of the great enemies of humankind. And to fight death is to fight its causes.

Depression is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Consider these sobering stats about depression, taken from Solomon’s Noonday Demon:

— “Worldwide, including the developing world, depression accounts for more of he disease burden, as calculated by premature death plus healthy life-years lost to disability, than anything else but heart disease. Depression claims more years than war, cancer, and AIDS put together. Other illnesses, from alcoholism to heart disease, mask depression when it causes them; if one takes that into consideration, depression may be the biggest killer on earth.”

— “The statistic traditionally given is that 15 percent of depressed people will eventually commit suicide; this figure still holds for those with extreme illness. Recent studies that include milder depression show that 2 to 4 percent of depressives will die by their own hand as a direct consequence of the illness.”

As Solomon goes on to argue, the human struggle against mental illness is one of the defining fights of modernity, similar to the cause of environmental preservation (and, I would add, cancer treatment, racial reconciliation, economic justice and gender equality). It is a struggle for life, against death. Like these other great struggles, it concerns all countries, races and cultures. It is a battle that will be won and lost simultaneously in the lives of millions and millions who do not know each other but face the same enemy—depression, and ultimately death.

What if the war against depression was waged first and foremost by the church? Why shouldn’t it be? As heirs of eternal life, shouldn’t we be fighting against one of the greatest causes of death?

Surely. But how? More to come on Sunday.

(to comment, please click on the post title and scroll down to the bottom).

Towards A Spirituality of Depression

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be creating posts inspired by Andrew Solomon’s excellent Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression which I picked up at Powell’s iconic bookstore in Portland just a couple of days ago and since enjoyed thoroughly.

I recall Dr. Mark Talbot, a well-respected professor of mine, talking about a book on psychology written from a reductive materialist perspective. “To be sure,” he said, “the author and I differ at several important points. But as I’ve read his work, I realized how very much we agree on.” In the same vein, I think that it’s extremely valuable for Christians to read books on psychology that are not explicitly written from a Christian perspective. Why? Just because an anthropology is not explicitly Christian does not mean it’s wrong. Additionally, digging deep into books written with a different set of fundamental claims concerning meaning and reality can sharpen our own Christian claims to the same. (All this and more you’ll learn if you get a philosophy major at Wheaton College!).

Paradoxically, I’ve found Solomon’s anthropology thus far more orthodox than a certain common quasi-Christian understanding of human beings—dualism. Dualism, which has its roots in platonic philosophy, posits a fundamental distinction between spirit and body. Not surprisingly, this almost always leads to a hypervaluation of the spiritual at the expense of material things, a misplaced emphasis on the other-worldly and unbiblical disdain for the this-worldly.

If this quasi-Christian dualism is allowed to hold sway over the Christian behavioral clinic, it will render depression either a bodily illness or a spiritual malady. More often than not, the physiological causes of depression will be neglected at the expense of supposedly superior “spiritual” remedies. The problem here is not believing that the gospel of Christ brings good news to the downhearted, the problem is separating human beings into bodies and souls and claiming that the body cannot be a cause of spiritual illness, nor medicine a remedy.

Solomon, however, articulates a more holistic understanding of depression when he writes (I quote him at length): “Chemistry is often called on to heal the rift between body and soul. The relief people expressed when a doctor says their depression is “chemical” is predicated on a belief that there is an integral self that exists across time, and on a fictional divide between the fully occasioned sorrow and the utterly random one. The word chemical seems to assuage the feelings of responsibility people have for the stressed-out discontent of not liking their jobs, worrying about getting old, failing at love, hating their families. There is a pleasant freedom from guilt that has been attached to chemical If your brain is predisposed to depression, you need not blame yourself for it… [but] there is no essential self that lies pure as a vein of gold under the chaos of experience and chemistry.”

I’m eager to see the church move towards an attitude towards depression which incorporates both the spiritual and the bodily. What if we weren’t fooled by the twin lies that depression was either physiological or spiritual?

What if we seek to bring healing to the whole person, not just their spirit or their mind or their body?

What if we remembered that Christ healed those troubled in body and spirit, and do the same for the depressed?

To be sure, even if we take these things into account, we’re still left with many more questions than answers, first and foremost: how does the interaction between mind and body work in cases of depression? Short answer: I don’t know. But I’ll return to this question later, likely in my upcoming posts about Solomon’s Noonday Demon.

(to comment, please click on the post title and scroll down to the bottom).

 

Vocation

Over the summer, I worked at HoneyRock Camp in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. The first couple of weeks that I worked there, I hardly knew if I was going to be able to stay another day. The depression & anxiety that had landed me in the hospital just a few short weeks ago threatened repeatedly to send me home. Even so, I was able to persevere through a brutal training time and enjoy a meaningful and most of a productive summer at camp ministering to ninth-grade campers and their counselors.

Two Sundays ago, just one week before the end of my employment at HoneyRock, I came to the nurse’s with a panic attack. All I thought I needed was a quiet place to rest for a couple of hours and call my girlfriend. The nurse thought differently, and explained that she could not safely release me back to camp without further medical attention: my two choices were to leave camp temporarily and go to the hospital, or depart for good.

Waves of frustration, anger, sadness and shame rolled over me, engulfing me in their violent surge. After all the work that I’d done to stay healthy for the whole summer, was I going to have to leave now? What of the campers and the counselors that I was leaving behind? Couldn’t I just be a “normal” person, capable of holding down a job for an extended amount of time? How would I manage to provide for myself and my loved ones in the future?

In the last two weeks, much of the shame that I felt that dark evening has been overcome by the love and compassion of my girlfriend and her family. Yet doubts about my career still remain, and likely will for the rest of my life. My mental illness makes life very difficult even in the absence of the bustle and hustle of a job. Add the responsibility of a full-time job, and making it through one more year or even one more day can seem an extraordinary task.

And it would be easier if finding a job was merely a practical concern, merely a box to tick off on the long lists of tasks that make the rest of existence possible. Yet Christians such as I who believe in the already/not-yet of Christ’s lordship over all creation cannot think of work as a mere means to the end, but hold that the work is meaningful in itself. That working is not only a career but a calling. And if this is so, any mental illness that prevents a person from working is not only a hindrance to her money-making but to her life’s vocation.

Or is it?

When scripture speaks of vocation, it does not only or even especially think of a person’s line of work. In fact, the Bible speaks of calling primarily as a summons to love, to life in Christ, to holiness (e.g. Eph. 4:1-3, 2 Pet. 1:10). Contrary to some Protestant understandings of vocation, the primary vocation of every believer in Christ is not determined by a job that they have chosen, but Christ’s choice for them. God does not first call us to a job, but to a kingdom.

I’m still disappointed about having to leave HoneyRock early, and, if I’m honest, still worried about my job prospects in the future. But as a follower of Christ, my primary calling is irrevocable. It has nothing to do with my capacity to overcome my own mental illness well enough to be able to work. It has everything to do with my pursuing the tasks of faith, hope and love. We are not called to a career, but to a hope.

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Truth & Companionship

I’m a natural extrovert, so when a bout of depression hits, the best thing for me is to get in good & trusted company pronto. For a long time, I accused myself for this. Why could I not be a good Christian and find peace and victory from waiting on the Lord in prayer and solitude? Why could I not glean encouragement from the reading of scripture? When I asked these questions, the lies of the enemy came thick and fast: “you’re unworthy, you aren’t really following Christ, you just need to try harder and get your crap together.” And for years I believed them.

But now I’ve started to think differently about all this. I’ve realized that encounters with the living God are not necessarily or even primarily solitary experiences. In fact, for many, they happen most often within the context of the faithful community, the beloved lovers of God. What this means is that it is no less spiritual to find solace in the company of others than in solitude, especially if depression makes solitude unsafe. If we take St. Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ seriously, every believer in Jesus that we find is in fact Christ to us—Christ to love and be loved, Christ to speak to us and be spoken to.

As Bonhoeffer puts it, the word of Christ in the mouth of a sister or brother is sometimes more powerful than the word of Christ in our own heart. This is a truth that witnesses both to our dependency and desire for community as human beings but also to the power of Christ to work through us, around us, despite us. In the mystery of God’s goodness, my weakness so often coincides with another’s strength. So often, another is ready & willing to speak truth to me precisely when & where I need to hear it. This means that, when I am depressed, I do not need to fear that I am abandoned to search for truth and meaning on my own, but can lean into the breast of Christ and receive comfort and truth from the members of his body.

With this post, as with others, I would love to hear what you think! When you are depressed, do you more often find solace in solitude or in community? How have you experienced Christ working through others to comfort and restore you when you’re down? Please leave a comment in the comment box (If you’re on the home page, you’ll need to click on the post title to do this). And please share this post/blog with your friends on social media!