Mar 26, 2014

A Cry in the Night

We are all there from time to time. We may try to deny that fact. It may be because we see it as a weakness or a lack of faith. Maybe we believe we need more vitamins or sunlight or a vacation. So we do our best to ignore it. We stuff it down deep and keep on playing a role that we think the world wants us to play. We go into our jobs and nod at our coworkers. At church we act super holy and smile, or super penitent and solemn.  Modern social media presents us with another opportunity to put on an act.  We either hide our true feelings beneath a flurry of meaningless status updates and Buzzfeed links or we flood our friends with a neverending deluge of griping and moaning.  

I'm referring to the blues, depression, feeling down.  It seems that there are cycles that the average person goes through, happiness and sadness.  But this feeling I'm talking about is more than that.  It is that soul-crushing emptiness and despair that doesn't get fixed with chocolate or a collection of cute animal pictures.  I would wager everyone knows what that feels like.  You can be super religious or not even believe in God.  There are times when something seems to go wrong in our brains and we just take up residence in the darker places.  

We have seen this throughout history.  The prophet Elijah was so depressed at one point (when most people thought he should have been the happiest) that he wanted to die.  Israel's king Saul would go into deep funks.  The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to battle gloominess.  Abraham Lincoln supposedly suffered from two major depressive breakdowns.  In short, it isn't uncommon.  In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan had his characters traverse the Slough of Despond (Despair).  It was pictured as a virtually impassible dark, wet, marshy area.  What a wonderful picture of despair! (And another argument for why books rock.)  You literally get bogged down and can't break loose.

To me, that bog has a vortex at the bottom that sucks me further into the darkness.  It becomes harder to escape and easier to believe the voices that echo in the gloom.  Oh yes, the voices.  How could I forget those?  They are the ones that we are able to block out most of the time with television and music and iPhone apps.  But they come out with a vengeance in the dark.  They are hateful and destructive.  They remind us of our failures and minimize our successes.  They rip and shred and bruise.  It seems so wrong that something so hateful could exist in our own heads.  (Hateful self-talk should be the biggest argument against the theory that humankind does anything possible to survive.)  These accusing tones live deep in the bog and feed on darkness.  And they become louder and louder.

To anyone who can honestly say that they have never battled depression, first say a silent prayer of thanks.  You are a fortunate soul.  Next, know that there things you can do to help those who are struggling.  Don't judge them.  It isn't as if they went looking for this.  Second, don't try to give them advice on how to shake it.  Trust me, they have thought of everything you could offer.  They already are beating themselves up for struggling.  They already are wondering why thinking happy thoughts, listening to uplifting music, and praying isn't curing the problem.  They already are convinced they are doing something horribly wrong.  So your suggestions, no matter how well intentioned they are, will come across as judgment.  Third, try to understand that this is not just being in a bad mood or being down.  It is something that the person cannot shake, no matter how hard they try.

Picture it this way.  Imagine you fall into a deep well.  It is dark and gloomy inside - darker than you can believe.  The further you slip down into the well, the darker it gets.  How can the darkness get darker?  Yet it does.  It is completely black.  The darkness actually feels like it has weight, crushing you.  The voices get louder and the way out seems further and further away.  Hardly a pretty picture.  How can one climb out when they cannot see where they are going?  In that much darkness, climbing out and climbing deeper seem the same.

The worst part about depression, despair, the blues is the lack of hope.  Hope is such an unbelievably powerful concept.  I don't think we actually think about just how strong hope is.  One of the themes of The Hunger Games trilogy is the value of hope.  There are some great discussions with President Snow (the evil despot) about hope in regards to Katniss Everdeen (the reluctant hero).  He talks at first about how hope is valuable, even to a dastardly villain.  "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear."  He recognizes that his subjugated people need hope or they will lose the will to live.  The threat of death would be meaningless to a person who has no life worth living.  "A spark is fine, as long as it is contained."  It is almost how adding a little salt to a chocolate dish enhances the flavor.  A little hope makes the fear more real.  However, he recognizes that the hope he offered is getting out of control by the second book/film.  Instead of being a spark, she has become a beacon.  "Fear does not work as long as there is hope."

This is where I believe our role lies when helping a person in these sloughs.  We are to offer them hope.  Going back to that dark well I was describing earlier.  Imagine if you were to fire a flaming Hawkeye-style arrow into the wall of that pit.  What happens?  Does it provide a way out?  Nope.  Does it fix the problem?  Not at all.  Does it remove all the darkness?  Negatory, good buddy.  But it offers light.  It offers hope.  It points the way up and out.  It gives a little brightness to their world.  The truth it, you never know just how important your words can be to someone.  You don't know what they are going through, what they are struggling with.  It could be that your words are just what they needed to hear.

The other day, I was in the middle of one of these painful patches.  I struggle from time to time with depression.  I am a melancholy personality type, so I drift in that direction anyway.  But I have been battling for a while.  For almost two years, I have been on an anti-depression/anti-anxiety pill.  It has made a world of difference.  But there are still breakthrough moments that defy even the best chemistry can offer.  Last Friday, I went on a field trip with Gabe's class to the local park.  We hiked through the woods and then did a scavenger hunt.  That was followed up by the Daddy/Daughter Dance the same night, and then coaching Gabe's soccer team on Saturday morning.  To a normal person, this would be a reasonable amount of activity.  But, for a person suffering with rheumatoid arthritis, it was the definition of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point theory.  I had been battling with allergies and minor illnesses for a couple of weeks.  The Friday/Saturday combo pushed me over the edge into a full-fledged RA flareup.  RA is a weird thing.  It isn't strictly swollen joints.  It is your immune system trying to destroy your joints.  It does crazy awful things to your body.  Medication for it actually destroys your immune system to stop this destruction.  This leaves you vulnerable to other things - like infections, illnesses, etc.  Mix all of that up, and I was down for the count.  I was exhausted.  I was down.  Sunday, I slept in until 11:30am - over 12 hours.  To anyone who knows me, this is unheard of.  Monday, I woke up, dropped the kids off at school, came home and went back to bed until almost noon.  Yesterday the same thing happened.

Fatigue, pain, illness, flare-up.  I was in a bad state.  And last week I started getting very dark in my mind.  I was doing all the right things to control it.  I was fighting my hardest.  I wasn't letting thoughts take root.  I was fighting the voices.  But it felt like I was getting pulled under the waves and was helpless to escape.  Finally on Monday night, I was laying in bed and trying to sleep with the voices pounding in my head.  Heather was laying there, falling asleep.  I spoke up and told her just how dark things were getting.  I had told her about the struggle of the past week and a half, then about the pain I was wrestling.  She had been a very supportive wife and friend - doing all the things she should do in this situation.  But in that moment, I was crying (literally) for a rescue.  I told her how the voices were continually telling me I was worthless and pointless.  I was explaining how when I am at my best, I am out there with people and teaching and investing in young people.  The opportunities here are limited for that.  My latest Kaplan class had just ended (a correlation I had not recognized until just that moment).  So I was feeling alone and isolated and worthless.  That sends me into my default mode of pulling further and further away into my dark hole.

After listening to these things, she responded.  "David, you are the glue that holds this family together.  Without you, I don't even know how we would function.  The only reason I am able to do what I do is because I never worry about things getting taken care of because I know you are doing them.  Your kids love you to pieces.  I love you.  You are anything but useless."  It was as if she had selected the multi-flaming-arrow move from Hawkeye and launched them all into the wall of my pit.  The darkness exploded with light.  Those words were so incredible and important to hear.  If you have read this blog for a length of time, you know that I have shared my efforts to become a better man, a more reliable husband, a more tender and loving father.  To have my wife say those things to me in my deepest moment of need?  They demonstrated just how far I had come.  They didn't erase the last ten days.  They didn't fix everything.  But they offered me light and love, and so importantly hope.

The last couple of days, I have grabbed onto those words and used them to gain footholds out of my well.  I have used them as weapons to fight off the accusing tones in my head.  And I find myself slowly emerging from the darkness.  More and more, I am realizing just how important we are to each other.  The words we say, the actions we take.  We don't have to be doctors to heal.  Our pastor back in Orlando used to say, "We were not meant to live this life alone."  I am fully convinced that those words are true.  (Sadly, he forgot those words - something that still breaks my heart every time I think of him.)  We were not meant to live alone.  The seminal television show Lost had as its mantra, "Live together; die alone." (Although, some of the most heartbreaking deaths occurred when they were together.)  We never know when a person near us is on the verge of losing it.  We never know how our words may be just what someone needs to hear - or what someone WILL need to hear later.  There are things that people have said to me in my past that still serve as flaming arrows and anchors for me.  It could be Charles Wise saying, "You're a good man, David.  You're a good man." Or it could be Cary Smith tenderly commenting, "You are not an angry man.  I have seen angry men.  You are not angry.  You are a man who lashes out when he feels out of control.  But you are definitely not an angry man."  (That was the first time anyone had said that to me - countering an assessment that had been all too frequent in my life.)  Those words will last my life.  The ones my wife said the other day will go into that treasure chest.  They are words of life and hope.

The same time that I was dealing with all of this, a friend of mine, Adel, from my Apple days posted on his Facebook a story about his life.  He was in a dark place too and something that could be seen as completely random and minor helped to shine new light on his situation.  It really drove home the reminder that we need to be there for each other.  I appreciated his transparency.  And, truthfully, it is what led me to write this.  To anyone striving to be a writer, you know how hard it can be to write.  The negative self-talk rings loud when a writer sits down at his computer, squelching many a good effort.  So imagine writing about depression.  It is a minor miracle that this post ever got finished, and it is a testimony to how important I think it is.  I have often joked that I only hope my life can serve as a warning sign to others.  I truthfully do hope that my failures and weaknesses can help others escape or avoid those.  (Shoot, I would guess ninety percent of the arguments I have with Josiah is trying to keep him from repeating my mistakes and his insistence that he won't, as he does.)  Today, I doubly hope this is true.

For those of you struggling, let me offer you hope.  You are not alone.  You have great worth and value.  There are people all around you that love you and think the world of you.  For those of you not struggling, love those around you.  Don't give up an opportunity to speak words of encouragement to those people you love.  You may think they will tire of hearing you love them, respect them, need them.  But your words may be salvation to them.  And to all of us, take this as a challenge to embrace the chance to change someone's life.  It is so easy to slip into sarcasm and negativity and criticism.  We see that all the time on Facebook and Twitter and the Interwebs.  For once, put that aside and be genuine and truthful and love on someone around you.  Tell them how important they are.  Tell them how talented and beautiful they are.  Give them hope.  Richard DeVos owns a really crappy basketball team, in the Orlando Magic.  But he once said, "Few things in the world are more powerful than a positive push. A smile. A world of optimism and hope. A 'you can do it' when things are tough."  Those are true words.  Go spread some light in the dark.


Unknown said...

Once again, David, I am moved by what you wrote. I am so sorry you have had to walk this path, but I am so amazed that God has enabled you to write so honestly and openly. Your words have such a powerful visual and emotional impact and I certainly think others who read what you have laid bare will profit. Not many people can write so personal a story and bring hope to others as you have done. I am proud to be the uncle of a man of God who can care for his family as you have and to write so convincingly of the hope that is availalble through God's grace and the love of others. I honor you.

Rebecca Rosario said...

Thank you for your authenticity! I am so appreciative as I too have struggled in this area, severely....Grace and Peace

Shannon Mitchell said...

Beautifully written. You have been blessed with a wonderful family (I'm glad to be a part of it too!). Thank you for sharing! I hope you don't mind, but I just had to share it on my own blog.