Beyond Blue

I stayed relatively silent about my depression for two decades because I felt I had no right to complain.

Two million children in Africa die a year from Malaria. That’s suffering. Mothers risk their lives to give birth in war-torn Iraq. That’s suffering. Women in Darfur risk rape for their freedom. That’s suffering.

A rich, white American woman suffer? I don’t think so.

But that’s like saying the boy with an iPod shouldn’t cry when he breaks his leg because his parents are loaded. Or my affluent neighbor who suddenly lost her husband to a heart attack last year is self-serving to grieve. Her money invalidates her pain, no?

I agree. I haven’t walked a mile in an Afghan woman’s sandals. And based on the headlines I read, I don’t want to. I feel for her, and I pray for her. But it’s unfair to say that I’m immune to pain because I’m rich (compared to the rest of the world) and white and American.

If depression, bipolar disorder, and all mental illnesses weren’t so painful, why would 30,000 Americans kill themselves each year? Why would suicide take more lives than traffic accidents, lung disease, or AIDS? Why would suicide be ranked as the second-leading cause of death worldwide among females between the ages of 15 and 44 (according to the World Health Organization)? Why would depression be expected to be the second most debilitating disease worldwide by 2020, and be considered (according to some experts) more debilitating than many common medical conditions today, such as diabetes and arthritis?

But who cares about the numbers.

Jesus didn’t teach us to compare each other’s burdens and vote on which one deserves compassion. His greatest commandment was this: “That we shall love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and that we shall love our neighbor as ourselves” (Matthew 22: 37-39).

Which means that if my neighbor is grieving the loss of her husband, I show up with flowers.

From my original blog, in case you missed it:

I haven’t always been so candid about my depression and anxiety. A year ago, while in the eye of the storm, I bailed on delivering the keynote address to a large Catholic convention. My hands were trembling so badly that I was having difficulty getting a spoonful of Cheerios to my mouth. Holding a microphone would have been problematic, not to mention inspiring the masses.

“I’m sorry,” I explained, “I’m having some health problems.”

I stayed vague because I was afraid that the event coordinator wouldn’t understand. So few people had.

Many months later the topic of depression made front-page news in Annapolis with the suicide of Phil Merrill, a renowned publisher, entrepreneur, and diplomat in the Washington area. Eleven days later Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan withdrew his candidacy for governor of Maryland because of his struggle with depression.

Articles cited all the people that had come out, past and present: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Kay Redfield Jamison, Archbishop Raymond Roussin, Mike Wallace, William Styron, Art Buchwald, Robin Williams, Patty Duke, and Brooke Shields. Their reputations were still in tact, so maybe depression wouldn’t be the end of mine.

These people “came out” to help others. Abraham Lincoln wanted people to know that his melancholy was a “misfortune, not a fault,” and that his humor, his jokes, were the “vents of [his] moods and gloom.” Surely Lincoln’s heightened sensitivity made him the empathetic leader he was.

British Prime Minster Winston Churchill referred to his deep melancholy as his “black dog.” It was the teacher of perseverance. “Every day you may make progress,” he wrote. “Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”

Without Lincoln and Churchill and the others, then I’d think I really was going crazy, that I was the nut ball my twin sister called me in the fourth grade. They were missionaries of truth about mental illness, which is what I want to be.

On “yes” moments, the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold wrote this in “Markings“:

I don’t know Who–or what–put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone–or Something–and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Have you had a yes moment?

Our Christmas tree is now on the curb with the rest of the 33 million trees Americans bought this year (according to the National Christmas Tree Association). I’m feeling guilty of course (don’t all depressives?) for not being a better steward of the earth, but the evergreen is such a lovely and expressive symbol for me at this time of year, that I couldn’t imagine our home without one.

Deep in the belly of winter’s death, the evergreen cries out with a voice of hope, continuity, and stability. Just as my moods are like the winter wind–crazy and unpredictable–God is like the evergreen: forever alive and constant, beautiful and dependable. Sometimes on dreary January or February days, I’ll sit at the back window of our house with a cup of coffee and gaze at the five evergreens that line our back fence. To me, they say something similar to this poem written by Teresa of Avila:

“Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing make you afraid;
All things pass;
But God is unchanging,
Patience is enough for everything.
You who have God lack nothing.
God alone is sufficient.”