Depression. Suicide. Addiction.
These words can bring out the worst in those who walk through the complexities of life without their empathy shoes.
Every time these loaded words come up, judgments get passed, solutions are given, and all too often the complexity of these issues is lost.
The complexity of these issues is lost.
I do know depression intimately and—in my darkest moments—even suicidal thinking. Addiction also hits close to home, as it has been a part of my extended family.
So when a blogger boils severe depression down to a single black and white dichotomy, I remember the years of treatment and counseling it has taken (and still takes) to unravel the mysterious and even conflicting layers of mine.
When a newscaster equates suicide with cowardice, I think of the courage it takes to even get out of bed when one is deeply depressed.
When a commenter on Facebook says he doesn’t feel sorry for someone who took her life by overdosing on the drugs of her addiction (another day, another celebrity), I consider the mental torment of addiction, the difficulty my loved ones have had regaining and maintaining sobriety, and I can’t help but wonder how many of us could actually do it … particularly that compassionless bastard on Facebook.
And when anyone has the arrogance to stand over the soul of a wounded human being he didn’t know and proclaim that the departed just needed to know Jesus, I want to scream that maybe he did and that knowing Jesus simply hasn’t saved everyone from everything.
In the face of ignorance, disdain, or even naivety, my heart is often overcome.
I am overcome.
And I could literally write a book about how it feels. No really, it would take a whole book, because my feelings about hearing and reading such things are so layered and deep and complex and hidden under a mountain of emotional and spiritual baggage and shame and stigma and pain.
So I can’t really get to that today.
But I can do this: I can share a tiny piece of my own story again.
I share it to remind those hurting that they are not alone,
to remind those handing out solutions that not all stories are the same,
and to remind myself that God’s love is deeper and wider
than our collective naivety and ignorance
about any of these things.
I entered the locked-down psych ward of the behavioral health center with very little dignity but a whole lot of courage—the most courage, I believe, that I’ve ever had to muster.
It was a beautiful summer day in July of 2005, but it was not beautiful for me. It was the longest day of my life—the day when I gave in fully and surrendered, handed over my wallet and my toiletries, signed all the papers, waived my rights, and said, “Something inside me is broken, I am not myself, and I can’t fix this on my own.”
I have sat, since that day, bald and sick, as gloved nurses infused red toxins into my veins. But the thing is … when you sit down in the chemo chair to fight cancer a host of people are cheering you on. You are a hero and your bravery is lauded with kudos and praise and love from everyone who has ever been part of your life.
When a Christian walks into a psych ward to fight depression the support is hard to come by.
There were not kudos or praise or love, except from a very precious few who either saw what kind of shape I was in or had been there themselves.
And as that awful, longest of days came to a close, I sat at a conference table safely tucked away off the main hallway of the ward, and I looked across the fake mahogany at Dr. White—with whom I’d just shared all my feelings, all my darkest thoughts, all my smallness, all my fears, all my very real desires to just give up—and waited with sagging shoulders for his response.
It didn’t come right away, and I wasn’t used to that. I had grown accustomed to knee-jerk diagnoses, quick solutions and swift prescriptions from busy mental health practitioners. But just when I believed that maybe he’d fallen asleep, maybe he hadn’t been listening at all, his voice suddenly came at me from over the table, gentle but imploring …
“So, Tamara, … how does all of that make you feel about God? I mean, how do you feel about him … in light of all of that?”
I’m fairly certain I burst into tears. No clinician—even the Christian ones I’d seen—had asked me a question so open, so honest and without a hint of expectation. Dr. White genuinely wanted to know how I felt. About God. As a Christian in pain.
And so I told him my truth, which might surprise you.
The truth was, I felt very close to God that night.
There would be plenty of other nights, years later, when I would be angry with God, when I would wonder where His justice had gone, if He’d forgotten my name, how He could be so silent, but on that particular night, despite my depression and sadness and desire for eternal slumber, I was at peace with God.
I was at peace with God.
And if your theology and beliefs about mental illness prevent you from believing the sincerity of that, then I hope you’ve never uttered words like “come quickly, Lord Jesus” or “he’s gone home to be with Jesus—thank God his suffering has ended.” Because if you have then you should be able to understand how it is possible for one to be tired of living and tired of suffering, but not tired at all of Jesus … but I digress.
Dr. White didn’t second-guess my answer.
He didn’t try to tell me that being at peace with God was incompatible with depression and that I must have been harboring a secret sin or being dishonest with him. He accepted my truth gracefully. He asked a few more gentle questions, changed my medications, told me I was in the right place, told me I would get better again, and told me to get some sleep …
(The original version of this story is found here.)
Nine years later and it’s still really hard for me to write about that experience. But I did it anyway here on the blog last fall.
And as I reflect on it again today, re-edit it, retell it, what strikes me the most is Dr. White’s response.
Read it again:
He didn’t try to tell me that being at peace with God was incompatible with depression and that I must have been harboring a secret sin or being dishonest with him.
He accepted my truth gracefully.
He asked a few more gentle questions, changed my medications, told me I was in the right place, told me I would get better again, and told me to get some sleep …
His response was compassion for the complexity. His response was love for the very real needs. With this response, he held his arms wide open for my pain, his heart open for my truth, his mind open for my healing. And it mattered. It deeply mattered in my life and in my story.
His response made a difference.
Oh, my dear friends. So can yours.