What Depression Means to Me: a Tenacious Hope

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Gentle Reader,

I’m housebound today, caught in a swirl of Kleenex and Vicks VapoRub. The invader is making its way from my sinuses to my lungs; I’m certain that this has turned into another bout with bronchitis.

It is beyond difficult to feel hopeful in the midst of illness and depression. If I had my druthers, I’d pull the covers over my head and never leave. That seems like the safest option. Instead of ramming against the brick wall, straining and striving to break through, I could just give up. Give in. Call it quits.

My eyes fall upon the Christmas tree. Twinkling lights and precious ornaments, each with a story to tell. (Except, perhaps, for the Batman figure my husband insists upon hanging each year). Gifts chosen with care and love.

It’s not about the tree or the wrapping paper, I know. Christmas is so much more than that.

The tree transfixes me. It’s light reaches through the dark fog surrounding my heart and I remember.

I rub my ears and wince at the ache. Despite the clog, I hear. Hope. The tiny Baby who grew into the Man.

I don’t know how anyone gets through this life without Emmanuel, God with us.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.

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What Depression Means to Me: the Gift that Keeps on Giving

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Gentle Reader,

A few weeks ago my therapist presented me with information about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR , through the use of a light bar, finger tapping or auditory stimulation, seeks to replicate the eye movements associated with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this phase of rest, the eyes move at random and dreams occur as the brain sorts through information in an effort to create meaning. This is the brain’s God-given way of healing and restoring itself. When trauma occurs this process is interrupted. Sleep is no longer comforting, as the information now within the brain is overwhelming and often nightmare-producing.

EMDR is primarily used in therapy when the patient suffers from disorders that have roots in distressing life experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. While the memories are never erased, the goal is to reduce the “re-experiencing” of the distressing experience. The therapist uses the process to stimulate the brain’s natural restorative cycle, which has often been suppressed, in order to help the patient deal with the experience and heal from it.

This all made sense to me. I nodded my head, signed the forms, asked a few questions. What I didn’t realize until later was that my counselor was telling me that she saw evidence of real trauma in my life. As I sat down to complete the timeline that all EMDR clients must craft, I was overwhelmed by all of the painful events listed there in black and white. So overwhelmed, in fact, that I had to lay the project aside. I never went back to it; I just gave her the little I had finished.

Today my counselor went over the treatment plan with me. She wanted to make sure that I understood all the components of EMDR as well as a non-clinician can. My blood froze for a moment when she read the official diagnosis:

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (delayed and chronic) exhibited in symptoms of depression and anxiety…”

She must have seen the startled look on my face, because she very quickly reiterated to me that there were some truly terrible things on that timeline of mine. Still I struggled to accept it. Post-traumatic stress disorder? Isn’t that something that military people get?

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following as symptoms of PTSD:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts.

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.

2. Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

3. Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.

Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. – PTSD

Somehow this is more difficult to own than depression and anxiety, but, looking over the list of symptoms, there’s no denying it. Just yesterday I saw a car that belongs to someone who really hurt me in the past. In mere seconds I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach (my breath was gone), tears pooled in my eyes and my heart began to pound – exactly what I felt during our last intense confrontation. I wasn’t just remembering how bad it felt – I was back in that moment.

The set of symptoms that I experience most frequently are in the second group. I will go out of my way to avoid anything that looks similar to what has gone before; it’s only been the last few months that I can drive past the church my husband and I used to attend without wanting to scream, and even then my palms are sweaty and I’d rather be anywhere else. When I can’t do a simple task like wrap a Christmas present, I am back in kindergarten, ashamed to sit at my desk and grapple with cutting out a picture of Santa Claus while everyone else goes to storytime. So, I put gifts in bags. There are a million and one ways to engage in avoidance.

EMDR will bring me face-to-face with my trauma. I won’t be able to avoid it anymore. I’ll have to do the work of understanding and healing. I’m scared to death. Yes, I want to come out of this dark valley, but I sure don’t want to turn around and do battle with the monster that’s been following me. He’s big and nasty.

He is quite possibly of my own making. My own fears. My own inability to process and forgive.

John the Beloved Disciple wrote about big, nasty monsters in his first letter to unnamed church. He told that little flock how to discern between spirits that came from God and spirits that did not. In that context he added this bit of encouragement:

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. – 1 John 4:4 (NKJV)

My God is bigger than the monster. He’s better than this gift that keeps on giving. I have to hold to that.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.

What Depression Means to Me: Shut Up, Paul

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Gentle Reader,

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NKJV)

I’m terrible at memorizing Scripture. Terrible meaning I just don’t do it.

This is pretty ridiculous, really. I know how easy it is for my thoughts to go down a dark path. I know that I need to put truth in my mind, truth that I can recall at a moment’s notice. A decade ago I had no problem memorizing entire scripts for plays. On Thanksgiving I sang a song from my childhood that I hadn’t heard in over twenty years. I might be exhausted and my mind might not be what it once was, but I know I have the ability to engrave God’s truth onto my soul.

I chose the above passage to work on over the coming weeks on Saturday evening. Once again I lay on the couch, growing discouraged at how much life I miss while wrapped in this fatigue. Chris was gone, helping with a kid’s program at our church. Friends were scattered here and there. I was too tired even to walk up the street and visit my family. An introvert like me does appreciate her time alone, but there can be too much of a good thing.

I flipped through my Bible, looking for words of encouragement. Something I could hold on to.

As I read what the Apostle wrote all those ages ago, my first response was to say (out loud, even), was, “Shut up, Paul.”

Isn’t it funny how the Spirit works in giving life to the Scripture? I don’t think that God was upset about my reaction. Those are hard words to read in the midst of fatigue and depression. How on earth can I possibly rejoice? This concept shakes me all the more in the face of stolen debit card numbers and possible identity theft.

I closed my Bible. I didn’t want to hear it.

Then I considered the first part of the passage. “Lest I should be exalted above measure.”

“For whoever exalts himself will be humbled….” – Matthew 23:12a (NKJV)

I don’t think that God strikes people with ailments or calamity because of their sin as a general rule. If He did, then surely those who perpetrate crimes would be in a far worse state. I do think, however, that God knows each of us so well that He knows exactly what to allow into our lives to accomplish His purposes. I know how arrogant I have been in the past. (Though this arrogance is so often a mask for crippling insecurity). Now, as I live with this exhaustion (physical, mental and emotional), there is no room for arrogance. I can’t exalt myself when I know just how small and weak I am.

I think that this passage shows us how God saves us from ourselves. If I weren’t sick and sad, I would keep going, blustering my way through life, set on my own plan and path. I don’t have the energy for that anymore. I don’t even have the desire. I want only to curl up in the lap of my loving Father and let Him soothe my wounds.

He does, in His own way and His own time. I have no doubt that He works on the delicate pieces of my broken heart, knitting them together so that I can love as He loves. I am learning to be content to wait in this position until I am released to do otherwise.

Now, instead of wanting Paul to shut up, I say, “Thank you, Lord.”

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.

What Depression Means to Me: Labels

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Gentle Reader,

On Tuesday I got into what was for me an embarrassing situation. It was late in the workday; not the time to begin a new project. This OCD girl just needed to get her in-basket completely cleared out, though. I pulled out the last remaining item – a video game. It had been sent to me via the internal courier service that schleps materials between the various libraries in our network. This video game was missing its check-out case. Would I please make new artwork for it and charge the patron the appropriate amount for the loss?

I stared at that thing for a full five minutes before I even began to understand what it was. My confusion must have been evident because my coworker told me that she’d handled something similar to that before and would take care of it if I wanted her to. I waved her off, nasty inferiority complex coming to the fore. I’m not an idiot. I didn’t need her to do anything for me.

As it turns out, I did need her help. The library requesting this new artwork had failed to send the display case which contains vital things like the barcode and sequence number. I knew something was missing. I knew I didn’t have all the parts. I just couldn’t figure out exactly what the problem was. My coworker quickly grasped what had happened and again offered to take care of it for me.

I felt so stupid.

There is little else that I hate more than feeling stupid.

As I drove home that night, struggling to hold back my tears of embarrassment and shame, I wondered aloud who I would be if I wasn’t smart. What a leap to make, right? A case of simple end-of-the-day fatigue, of normal humanness, shouldn’t send one into a tailspin involving questions of identity. But it can, and it did.

Labels, even positive ones, leave a deep imprint. Many things come easily to me. I’m used to being known as the intelligent, capable one. When I’m confronted with a task or a situation that I don’t understand, fear rises. What if I’m not smart? What if “x” person is smarter? Where does that put me in the pecking order?

I have based much of sense of self on being smart. It’s imprisoning. I don’t try my hand at things I am not confident I’d be good at. I gave up playing basketball in high school because I enjoyed being involved in the drama club more, yes, but also because I wasn’t the best player. I loved basketball. I don’t do much cooking because I don’t enjoy it, yes, but also because I’ve made so many mistakes. And so many others are better at it. I’ve thought about making jewelry, but I’m convinced I’d only make ugly things. I have a confident speaker and teacher hiding inside me, trapped by fear of failure. At all costs, I must be smart. Or at least appear to be. So I stick to the safe road and never try new things.

All of this circled around in my mind in the space of a few seconds. Other labels joined smart – Reserved. Unemotional. Witty. Dependable. Plain. Intense. Afraid.

The thing about labels is that they aren’t always untrue. A bag of flour is a bag of flour. Does “flour” really capture the essence, though? Think about all the things you can do with flour. It’s absolutely essential. What if labels, instead of being concrete definitions, could be starting places? What if “smart” could be “willing to learn” and “ready to try?” What if “intense” could be “feels deeply” and “passionately active?” Labels can be slapped on you in abuse, and those should be rejected with the grace of God (and sometimes the help of a professional). But these true labels…maybe they just need to be seen from a different perspective.

When I woke up the next morning, I no longer felt so stupid about the video game. I could see the parts clearly in my head and I knew what was missing. (It’s amazing what distance and sleep can do for you). I also knew that I had reached a new stage of this journey in the valley. Identity cannot be based on any label other than “in Christ.” I can’t look to other people to define who I am and I can’t even look to myself, really. He has to tell me about me – and I have to trust Him. There will always be someone smarter, someone prettier, someone wealthier, someone funnier. There will always be times when I really don’t understand, when I do need help, when I don’t have the answers. I will never find the peace I crave if that constantly throws me.

Labels. We’ve all got them and we all give them. Our self-imposed prisons are thickly plastered with them. I think Jesus longs to be invited in to either cast them in His light or tear them apart.

My journey to faith. (15)

 For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.