What Depression Means to Me: Nightmares

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Gentle Reader,

I was told to expect them, the nightmares. As I allow myself to work through the healing process, my mind begins to bring to the surface long-suppressed memories.

I can accept this as reality.

But, oh… So much pain.

I had a boyfriend once, many years ago. He was the second boy I dated. My first boyfriend, my high school sweetheart, tried to dump me without actually dumping me by not speaking to me for a few weeks. When we finally did connect, he told me he no longer liked me. Well, to a just-turned-17-year-old with deep insecurity issues, this was quite a blow. Quite a blow indeed.

When this second boy showed interest in me, I was immediately hooked – despite having a crush on someone else. (Funny how that works). We’d been friends for awhile; he was funny, enjoyed many of the same activities I did, was part of my social circle. What could be more natural than to become this boy’s girlfriend?

It began subtly. Within a week of “going steady,” he told me he loved me. I recoiled from this. I wondered how it could possibly be true. Looking back, I wonder at my lack of trust in my own instincts. I should have run – fast and far.

Little jabs were dropped into our conversations. I wasn’t living up to my girlfriend potential. Why was I friends with other guys? Why did I want to spend time with people other than him? That was stupid, unfair. I was stupid.

I didn’t say anything, to him or anyone else. I don’t know why. Who in her right mind would allow that?

It was clear to me that I was being manipulated, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

The timetable is muddled in my head, but I know it wasn’t that long before he pretended to kill himself while on the phone with me. Said he had a gun in his hand and was going to blow his brains out. I begged him not to do it, but he hung up the phone. I couldn’t reach him after that. I spent the next hours in sleepless agony. No, I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t call the cops. It makes no sense, I know. I was trapped. It was my fault if he really were dead.

At school the next morning, he laughed. Treated it all like a big joke.

He hit me once, after I told him that I was afraid he would. “What, like this?” he asked. Whack! Hard as he could, right against my arm. I bruise easily, so nobody asked about the dark stain on my pale skin. I bit back the tears of pain as he apologized profusely and asked for forgiveness.

He always asked for forgiveness.

On graduation day, he screamed at me, calling me words that I don’t care to repeat here or anywhere else. I had ruined his high school experience. It wasn’t fair that I was at the top of the class and he wasn’t. I should have made him do his homework. I should have pushed him into more activities. How could I do this to him?

Amazingly, I stayed with him for another three-and-a-half months. I devoted an entire year to this guy – who forgot our anniversary and blamed me for not reminding him. Finally, after revealing what had been going on – the name calling, the threats, the manipulation – to a friend I trusted, I broke up with him. (Only after this friend plainly told me that I was in a dangerous situation and needed to get out).

That’s when the trouble began.

I worked in a public place with a staff that didn’t make a habit of kicking people out. He would show up when I was there. He followed me around, spewing hatred and obscenities. He followed me home from work. I remember  going to the front windows of my parent’s house to close the blinds one evening, after being home all day, and watching, frozen in terror, as his car slowly went past. He called a few minutes later to say that he’d seen me.

Still, I said nothing. Told no one.

Again, the timeline is muddy, but I know that after we broke up, there was a big group of us who went to the movies together. I don’t know if he had been invited by someone in that group or somehow found out that we were all going, but he was there. Seated a row behind me. Saying I couldn’t wait to get out of there would be a gross understatement. Ensconced between close friends who knew all about the situation, I tried to pay attention to the movie. I don’t even remember what we saw.

Nervously I stumbled out of the theater, hoping to get to the car without him seeing. He had disappeared, however. I relaxed a little. Our group went out into the chilly night air, chattering and pushing as 18-year-olds do. A few split off. I stopped in the lane to wave goodbye when his car appeared. Headlights trained on me, he hit the accelerator, tires squealing. I have no doubt that he intended to kill me in that moment. I don’t remember if I jumped out of the way or was pushed. He screamed intelligibly out the window as he continued on.

Foolishly I held on to the ridiculous hope that we could be friends somehow. Who tries to be friends with a person who wants her dead?

We were at the same Christmas party. He left early. He called me. Stupidly, I answered. The most vile things spilled out of his mouth.

I began dating another boy. We went in together to buy my ex-boyfriend tickets to a play that we knew he wanted to see. The three of us went together – in his car. (I know, I know). It seemed to be all right until we drove home. Again he pushed the pedal to the floor and veered off the road, heading toward a tree. At the last second he swerved away. This time, he said nothing.

At last, after a year-and-a-half, I cut off all contact. I have no idea how long the stalking continued. I did my best to pretend that he didn’t exist, though it had become habit at that point to look over my shoulder. I heard through the grapevine that he failed most of his classes that first year of college, and somehow that was my fault.

His mother claimed that I destroyed his life. She also spread the rumor that I “had” to marry my husband, if you catch my drift.

I’ve been having nightmares about all of this. He appears and tells me I’m horrible. Worthless. Useless. Ugly. I awoke this morning after sleeping for 14 hours feeling like I’d been up all night running a marathon. I’m afraid to close my eyes now.

He’s married now. Has been for…three or four years, I think. I hope and pray that he’s changed. That God has worked a miracle. I hope that he has learned to love. That he’s learned about compassion and kindness.

As hurtful as these memories are, as rotten as the nightmares have been, I bear him no malice. I don’t share this with you so that you’ll get upset. I really do long for him to have allowed the Lord to take control of his life and to demolish that terrible, dark anger. I’m not making excuses for him. Obviously he worked a lot of chaos and left behind a lot of damage. I have to contend with that. But I don’t have to give him further power over me by hating him – which I did for a lot of years.

It is very difficult for me to acknowledge that I walked into and stayed in an abusive relationship, ignoring all the warning signs. Ignoring the Holy Spirit. I believed that I was worthless, so I found someone who would treat me as if I was. I didn’t stand on what God had to say about me. Don’t read me wrong – abuse is never the fault of the victim. I don’t think that for a second. I do, however, think that the victim has a responsibility to understand why he or she has chosen that role.

I don’t know who is reading this tonight. I don’t know what kind of nightmares you face. What I do know is that you are valued by God. He did not create you to be someone’s verbal, emotional or physical punching bag. He did not call you to take the role of victim. You do not have to accept contemptible behavior. I pray that you – and I – would believe Him. Take Him at His word.

My journey to faith. (15)

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

This Post I Don’t Want to Write

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Gentle Reader,

As with all stories, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

I’ve struggled against anxiety for as long as I can remember, and most of the time anxiety has won. I can remember being six years old and flying into panic at the news of a standardized test all the first graders at my school were required to take. Convinced of failure, I couldn’t sleep the night before and broke out in head-to-toe hives. As I grew older, any conflict with a playmate or a teacher sent me spinning.  In my later teen years, I began to have panic attacks and what one ER doctor referred to as a “seizure-like episode.”

You would never know any of this about me if you weren’t directly exposed to it. Anxiety is an intense feeling, arising out of deep sensitivity – a sensitivity that I’ve achieved a Ph.d in masking. This suppression of emotions feeds into the anxiety, perpetuating the cycle and making it all the more difficult to break. I could be about to hyperventilate in terror, and, unless you knew me very, very well, you’d never even see it on my face.

This is, of course, a very simple summary of my life thus far. I’d rather not present you with the nitty-gritty, for that would take a book. What I’d really like to tell you about today is the state of my present existence.

On Good Friday of this year, I sat in the back of my church and had a panic attack, the first I’d had in at least three or four years. How on earth could a Good Friday service make me skip into flight-or-fight mode? How could the candles, the music, the Scripture reading make me feel like I was going to have a heart attack? That’s the thing with anxiety. It knows no rhyme or reason.

I was very frightened by the intensity of the attack. That evening, I unloaded on my husband for hours, not in anger, but in desperation. Something in that Good Friday service triggered a flood within me. All of the anger, the fear, the sorrow and the pain that I had tried to push down for so long came bubbling up to the surface without warning. Chris and I decided that it was important for me to see a counselor and work through some of these issues. I knew that I especially needed to learn better coping skills.

It didn’t take long for my counselor to refer me to a psychiatrist for medication. Her theory after a couple of sessions is that I was, in a sense, “born this way.” She believed that there were physical, chemical imbalances in my brain that had worsened with age and conditioning. Like the dutiful person I am, I made the appointment.

And came out with four diagnoses.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

That’s a lot to take in, and the only way I could process it was through dark humor. I told my husband, who was diagnosed with Clinical Depression four years ago and takes medication everyday, that I “won” because he’s only got one mental illness and I have four. So I started on the medication and began working through worksheets to help me think about my thoughts (do you ever do that?) and examine them to see if they were truthful or not.

As of this writing, I’ve been in counseling for two months, been on the first round of medication for almost four weeks and will probably be switched to another, have spent hours staring at the wall in a daze and haven’t wanted to do much but sleep. Then, yesterday, came another blow: My psychiatrist suggested I do some blood tests to see if my hormones were in proper balance, as they play a crucial role in anxiety and depression for women. At 4:50 p.m. on August 1, I spoke with my gynecologist by phone and was told that I needed testosterone cream (which I refer to as “man cream” and wonder if it will give me a beard so I can go make some money on the side by joining the circus – again, the dark humor) and that there is a very good chance I will need fertility drugs if I ever want to get pregnant.

I hate to be cliche, but when it rains, it pours.

Here is what I really want you to know in all of this:

1. I do not want your pity.

That is probably the worst and most insulting thing you can possibly give to someone who is walking through a valley, and I regret ever doing it to others. What someone like me needs is genuine friendship and understanding.

2. I do not need you to fix me.

I have Jesus for that. I have professionals who know and love Him. I covet your prayers and your love, but not your designs or plans.

3. Mental illness is not a lack of faith.

Go ahead and write to me about this. Tell me I need to pray more. Tell me I need to exercise more faith. Go ahead. I will then send you my journal, which contains more gut-wrenching and heartfelt prayers over the course of the last two months than in the last ten years. I can say without hesitation that my faith has never been stronger, that I have never been closer to God.

That being said, I do recognize that anxiety and depression can fuel sin or make certain temptations easier to fall to. So while I don’t need your criticism, I do need your loving questions and a community of accountability.

4. Taking medication is not a sin.

If you had diabetes, you’d probably watch your diet and take insulin shots, right? Would that be wrong, or would you justify that decision by saying that God heals in all sorts of ways? I’m so sick of the hypocrisy in the church when it comes to antidepressants. * Insert Sarcastic Tone Here * Oh, yes, not admitting to problems and not taking medication to help with the physical deficiencies in the brain will just make it all go away.

5. Get help. 

If you know that you have a problem with anxiety or depression, get help. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by refusing to do so. You’re not a special martyr for Christ by “putting the needs of others above your own.” That’s a twisted understanding of Scripture. God never says that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. If you persist in complaining about problems and refusing to do anything about them, I will very lovingly but very firmly tell you to stop talking if you won’t move forward. I stayed stuck for a long, long time. It’s pointless and, frankly, many of us do it for attention.

6. Childlessness is not a sign of rebellion. 

This last one is probably where I get most hot under the collar. I have never had a desire to be pregnant, and I wonder now if that lack has been a blessing from God. I am not devastated by the news that it may be especially difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve long had a desire to adopt, and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. Barrenness or chosen childlessness is not a sign of a curse or a sin in every case.

I’d like to conclude this post by having you read Ezra 3:8-13, with special emphasis on 12-13:

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak,  and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (NKJV)

The generation coming out of captivity was glad to have a place of worship once again, regardless of its lack of grandeur. The older generation, fewer in number and also coming out of captivity, mourned the lack – but the joy of the larger group drowned out their cries. This is where I stand today. It is plainly and painfully obvious that my life isn’t going to look like any of the lives of the women around me. There might be some who cry out in mourning because I don’t fit the mold – but my joyful embrace of these days that God has so graciously given me will drown them out.

I have surveyed the Valley of the Shadow. I know deep and searing pain. I wear tortuous fear on my back. But I walk, step by slow and deliberate step, with my Savior who lights just enough of the path for this day. I understand what it means to rejoice in suffering, for this intimacy with the King is infinitely precious to me, and I would not have it without this sorrow. He is loosening my chains and teaching me to hold tightly to truth.

And I am unapologetic.

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He-man, Hosea, Gomer and Me

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Gentle Reader,

This morning I punch at anxiety, but my jabs are weak. I’m tired of this battle. I’m ready to give up, give in, run away. Whatever it might take to silence the incessant noise of fear. Heman the Ezrahite (you had no idea that He-man was biblical, did you?) and his Psalm 88 are my good friends right now. There’s nothing like a good, fist-shaking lament when you’re feeling edgy.

There’s also nothing like a little knowledge. In Hosea 4:6, God tells the prophet that His people are being destroyed from the lack of it. What an interesting dedication to make to a man who’d had a whole lot of knowledge dropped on him via his marriage to a faithless prostitute named Gomer – he literally had to buy her out of bondage at one point.

The story of Hosea and Gomer is meant to be a portrait of God’s faithfulness toward His wayward people. This is all about knowledge; what you don’t know (or what you refuse to know) can definitely harm you in many ways. Gomer couldn’t or refused to understand that her husband loved her. She eventually left Hosea, convinced that the lies she did comprehend were better than the truth that seemed all too much. I can’t imagine that Hosea was particularly happy about her lack of love and trust. What man would be?

People are destroyed for lack of knowledge.

Hosea and Gomer both draw the reader to a long look in the face of God. He again is telling His people that He longs for them to return to Him, and what will happen if they don’t. He never leaves them in the dark about the consequences of their actions, whether for good or for ill. I ask you, what kind of God is this, the Lord who loves us so unendingly and faithfully? The Savior who suffers? The King who clearly defines the law?

Nobody else in the world is like that. Nobody else will give us chance after chance. Nobody will unceasingly work to draw our attention and affection. In a way, that shames me. God is God! By simple virtue of His existence, I should drop to my knees in awe. But, no, I need some kind of deal. Praise Him that He understands our fallen nature!

The pictures of Heman in his lament, Hosea in his prophecies and Gomer in her running all coalesce within my frantic heart to form a unique mosaic. The fist-shaking, the crying out and the faithlessness are things that God uses to quiet the soul. That may not seem to make sense, but I see in these three people our very real need to have the poison of sin and sorrow extracted from us by any means possible. And God will use any means. He has the ability and the desire to take our worst decisions and turn them around for His glory and our good.

I don’t know why, but that brings some peace to my aching chest. That slows my breathing just a little. I can close my eyes and unclench my fists. Will there be a battle today? Yes. Will I be anxious? Probably. Will I be in this place forever? Certainly not. God is here, through all the cycles of anger, repentance, fear and, finally, hitting the bottom of the pit with a thud. He extends His forever-reaching hand to me, and is ready to pull me out.

That’s the knowledge we need to keep from being destroyed. We need to know that God is utterly holy, which means He’s whole. He’s not like anyone else. He is faithful and true. Forever. He can be trusted and always knows the best way to go. He’ll never lead us up a mountain or down in a valley without holding us close through the obstacle.

Heman, Hosea, Gomer…me.

And you.

My journey to faith. (15)

A Ministry or a Friend?

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Gentle Reader,

This post is going to touch a nerve, but I feel that the topic needs exploring. Before you read any further, please know that it is not directed at any specific person.

I recently heard the phrase, “Most people are a ministry. Some people are friends.” The words were utterly profound to me. Most people are going to require you to pour into them, and that’s okay. You just can’t expect them to pour into you – and so you need to find some who understand the give and the take of a relationship. Being able to discern the difference actually frees you up to love everyone you come into contact with, because you’ll have realistic expectations of who they are.

This is especially significant to me right now as I finally begin to face and admit to the changes that have taken place in my life over the last year I have lived under the cloud of Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. (There is now some suspicion that Fibromyalgia is also involved. I have either been misdiagnosed or there’s a whole lot of messiness going on up in this here body). You would think I would have adjusted to this by now, but I haven’t.

Would you like to know why?

I have spent the last year trying to managing other people’s reactions. There have been shifts in relationships that I haven’t been able to understand. I’ve tried to keep the talk about the sickness to a minimum; many people are uncomfortable being around the chronically ill. I’ve tried to keep on going with life as it always has been, the best that I can.

I realize now that this is just a sneaky form of lying.

I need to be able to talk about being sick and the emotional, spiritual and mental issues that come with that. Most of the time when someone asks how I’m doing, I’ll say, “Sleepy.” While that’s a true statement, it’s not the full truth. Other words roll around in there, like “confused,” “distraught,” “in pain,” “isolated,” and “hurting.” Yet I keep my mouth shut.

I think it’s because I don’t know the difference between someone who is a ministry and someone who is a friend. While I don’t want to be the sort who natters on endlessly about every little bump in the road (I do have interests other than this illness), I do need to be able to be honest. That starts with trusting people, which is rooted in discernment, which is found in God alone.

We all need to belong. We all need friends. We all need that place where it’s okay to take off the mask, where we don’t have to be “on” all the time. Unfortunately, that place isn’t always there. Or it’s not in the location we assume it to be. I do thank God that I always belong with Him. I always fit. I never have to be “on.”

I don’t know if this is making sense to anyone other than myself, but chronic illness leaves scars that people just don’t talk about. The bald truth of it is that people often abandon the sick when the sick need them most. Why is that? Can we not get past our own petty problems (let’s face it: a good deal of our problems really are petty)? Are we utterly incapable of reaching out in compassion? Can we not see past the ends of our own noses? Or is it worse than that – are our relationships really all about us? When we stop getting what we want/need from that other person, are we happily willing to walk away?

I’ve been very convicted about this myself. As someone who knows the pain that chronic illness brings, I should be very willing to reach out to those who are suffering – and yet I’m often not.

Who is a ministry? Who is a friend?

I know I need to learn to tell the difference.

My journey to faith. (15)