Doubt

Confession: It’s a good thing I joked about coming off antidepressant meds while I still could—while it was fuzzy and funny. I wasn’t laughing two weeks later. I thought I was losing my mind.

But I’d rather not think about that so much now—only say hence, six blog posts in three weeks. I can’t write when I’m very unhappy.

A brain is an odd thing.

Carefully I weave the fabric of my life—choices and plans, colors and textures. When I awake in the morning, I take up the thread. I weave.

Then I ask one question—Why? And the thread unravels.

I’ve come to a very important decision. Doubt may be a necessary path at certain times in life, but it’s not meant to spend a life on. I used to love asking philosophical questions for kicks—Who are we? Why are we here? What is this all about, anyway?

But I’ve lived there for a few months now, the last month worst of all, and I see what sickly colors bloom beneath this grow light. I thought I had lots of doubts, that they were coming from deep inside me; I see that instead, I was having them insinuated, hurled, bombarded at me–temptation disguised as philosophy: the temptation each morning to unravel all I’d woven the day before—the temptation to avoid moving forward because I simply had to keep chasing these winding rabbit trails to nowhere—the temptation to avoid trusting Him until I could figure Him out.

And then I came to a fork. I knew it was coming up, but I thought it looked this way, that I had to choose between faith and unbelief.

first fork

When I got there I found it looked like this:

second fork

that my paths of faith and unbelief had been separate long enough, and I split in two, gritting my teeth into duty.

He drew me forward into love.

Not “The world is ugly.”

Not “The world is unfair.”

But “The world is. Now, what am I going to have for breakfast?”

Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the hope of the world.

There and back again

hope

Change comes slowly, and is shy of being quantified. It took a lot of time, a lot of living, just to heal.

My depression is seasonal, but it was getting worse. I wasn’t getting back my zest for life in between. In the summer times I didn’t ponder taking my life, but I would always have been happy if my life were taken from me.

My doctor, who has been pronouncing me “stable” at periodic check-ups since that first one, likes to remind me nowadays, “You were way beyond SAD when I first saw you. You were severely depressed!” (Thank you very much.) Because my struggle is seasonal, we have to take things a year at a time. She allowed me to cut back my medication dosage by half last spring, and we’re now on schedule to come off entirely at Easter.

And in January 2013? Most days I have energy, hope, ideas. I feel good. But I’ve had gray days too, days when I am anxious or exhausted and the world does not look worth getting out of bed for. The struggle is not behind me.

I want to share with you some things that brought me out of darkness, but behind them all—Jesus has been good to me. I love Him so much, and I owe Him my life. He held me securely when my mind was sick and confused.

Gray feelings come to many people, for many reasons, but depression proper is rarely one-dimensional. There’s usually more going on than meets the eye. On the most basic level, my body was not getting enough light. But Jesus addressed many areas of my heart, used many things to draw me back to hope.

1. Medicine helped me.

It really did. It gave me the space and ability to heal. For what it’s worth, my doctor and my mentor agree that depression should be treated as both physical and emotional, not as one or the other.

2. Talking with a mentor helped me. A lot.

My darker emotions churned inside, and I didn’t know where to go with them. I thought I was good at processing things, but that was in my journal. I was not good at allowing others into my darkness, or at walking head-on into struggle rather than circumnavigating or jumping to quick fixes.

I think that one of Satan’s most vicious weapons is isolation, when we believe that we are quite alone and must be silent. I grew up blessed with a good family—a mom and dad with whom I could talk freely. Now I have a good man who listens to me well. But I had to learn to broaden that support base, to open my heart to others. When you talk to a spouse or a family member, they are on your team. They are biased, slightly bent in the same places you are. Meeting Jesus in community is one of the most life-changing things I know. I wrote more about that here.

Daniel Defoe says,

How frequently, in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can we raised again from the affliction we are fallen into. (Robinson Crusoe)

For me, the evil was not depression. The evil was calling for help. The evil was admitting I didn’t have it all together. The evil was letting people in. And that “evil” became one of Jesus’ most effective tools in saving me.

3. Exploring truth helped me.

I believed some wrong things about Jesus and the world. Maybe it seems like a good thing to yearn for heaven so earnestly, or to have no fear of death. But I wanted heaven as an escape because I couldn’t handle life. And some fear is normal—a healthy safeguard that God puts in place. These days when I hear of a life cut short, I feel sad. Not jealous.

Jesus allowed me to take this slowly, but he has begun opening my eyes to His beauty and presence in the world. He is up to something. His victory is already assured—and I get to be a part of His work in changing this broken earth.

4. Learning to recognize my triggers helped me.

I mentioned holidays and shopping, so we try to watch carefully what we commit to over holiday seasons, and keep things simple. Sometimes in the winter I give my mom a grocery list, and send her out for me. But I have more subtle triggers too. Unsettled pain. Unresolved anger. I had to learn to feel when I was going there, and get some rest and help.

5. Creative outlet helped me.

I grow stuff now—lots of houseplants, summer veggies. I plan gifts. I spend time in nature. I write a lot—that alone has been revolutionary in helping me to process life. The path here will be different for each person. What do I love? What am I good at? I had to find ways to incorporate joy and purpose into my weeks with a few concrete habits.

6. Coming to terms with my depression helped me too.

  • Permitting myself to struggle—I’m a very human woman who faces ordeals I find hard to withstand. It’s okay to feel, and even to feel black. That doesn’t mean I have to go under.
  • Allowing time for healing
  • Getting the rest I need—i.e. in the winters: a lot
  • Working at learning the balance between getting out and doing things (to stay engaged and afloat), and saying no (when it’s simply too much)
  • Accepting that my bent toward depression is one of the things that makes me need Jesus and His people

I don’t know how to wrap up a story that hasn’t ended. But once again I thank you for your grace to me. If you or someone you love struggles with depression, keep in mind it will not look just like my story. Depression wears many faces, and each of them should be taken seriously…

The End.

The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning. -Ivy Baker Priest

Falling

I am in the middle of a story about my experience with seasonal depression. Begin at the beginning right here.

*****

Heading into winter 2010-2011, I tried hard to keep things upbeat. I meant to use my lamp. I really did. But I didn’t start until I crashed into a black weekend—Thanksgiving. I tried fitting in lots of fun activities at Christmas, like I’d done the year before to keep things buoyant. As if that were a magic key…

This year it was too much. I had a four-month-old baby. I was homeschooling my five-year-old in kindergarten. My three-year-old was at nearly the height of his mischief, and we were trying to come to terms with what was driving him. We were living in town, our house on the market for three quarters of a year, with no offers. We faced church-related stress.

All year, I could handle this… sort of… but not in the winter.

By mid-December I could feel myself falling into darkness. I felt trapped and depleted, and had frightening drops into thinly-veiled panic on several fronts. I felt anxious, lost, inadequate, teary, worthless. I was exhausted. I was lonely. I couldn’t seem to get together with anybody… everyone sick or out of town or snowbound.

The world looked so ugly to me. I can’t describe this well to anyone who has not experienced it… and I will not try, completely. But all I could see was the ugly. Power lines and asphalt roads alone were about enough to drive me batty—the whole earth choking in technology and vulgarity. Town was the worst. I could not go grocery shopping for my family without experiencing despair and inner panic. What kind of world do I live in? Here I can buy pre-packaged Colby cheese: I can buy it in a chunk. I can buy it sliced thin for sandwiches. I can buy it sliced thick for crackers. I can buy it cut into cutesy shapes. I can buy it mixed with Monterey Jack. I can buy it shredded, or crumbled, or cubed. I have ten pre-packaged choices for how I want to buy my Colby cheese, and all around the world there are people starving to death.

Well, it is true: the world has some nasty undersides. But I could not see Jesus in it. All I could see was irony and despair, and they left me incapacitated, with no path forward. What cheese should I buy? What store should I stop at next? I had several town-triggered emotional crashes that winter, in which I ended up sobbing in my car in some grocery parking lot.

I thought about death a lot. I wrote in my journal, Wintertime has made me want to die, but even in my best times, I feel that I would welcome death.

I heard about an old friend of mine, under 30 years old, pregnant with her third child, who was diagnosed with pretty severe cancer… and I wished it was me. I could think of death in any form and feel no fear at all. I would check in my mind—If someone held a gun to my head, what would I feel? If I were in a car accident? If I were in a burning building? I don’t know how I would have felt if placed in real danger, but in my mind I could never feel anything but gentle humor, relief, and peace.

I yearned to go. Death looked so easy, so welcome. I thought of making it happen. In early February I wrote in my journal It is hard to be honest with him and hard not to be. I wish I could take his face in my hands and say “Honey, don’t be frightened. Couldn’t you please let me go?” I feel trapped, held against my will to live here so long, so long. Jesus doesn’t give me a choice. Seems if I want to be with Him I have to stay. Why did He make it so long?

All this time I was getting up in the morning. I was eating fine. I was sleeping fine. I was appearing at social functions.

Ryan worried about me. Talked with me. Encouraged me to invite some women into the darkness with me.

So I went to church one awful weekend in mid-February; went to Sunday school with the good ladies of my church, and said “I am feeling a lot of blackness…” I began to cry so hard I could not go on. They were so kind to me. Cried with me. Prayed with me. And offered things. One lady ordered me a huge boxful of vitamins. One gave me a Bible verse to cling to. One suggested I see a doctor.

I met with a mentor, for the first time—taking Ryan’s suggestion seriously.

But seeing a doctor? “You know, honey,” he said, “that might not be a bad idea.”

(The way I feel now about that week is this: Wheels of deliverance were finally in motion.)

So I scheduled an appointment with my family doctor, and this is how I framed it to myself: I’m going to get some health advice. It’s the only way I could make myself go through with it. I felt so afraid. What if she would ask me if I’d ever considered suicide? What if she’d ask me if I had a plan? No, no. That’s ridiculous. I’m listening to fears. I’ll just go see her like a rational adult, and get some health advice.

You already know what she asked me. “How bad is it in your worst times?”

“Well… in my worst times I have to make myself stop thinking about ending my own life.”

“How would you do it?”

That was the most awkward doctor visit of my life. I spoke with irritation laced in my voice. I pushed back on her. I got red-faced and resentful—something I never, ever do with a non-family member.

But I told her.

She pushed me really hard that day, though I assured her repeatedly I wasn’t going to carry out my plan. She asked me if I’d thought of what I’d do with my children. Would I leave them provided for, or what? She asked me if I’d ever gone out and bought supplies. NO, I replied firmly. I’m not going to do it! (Besides, we already had the supplies at home. I knew exactly where they were.)

She made me go on medication. Made is perhaps too strong, but she really pushed. And she told my husband to keep a close eye on me.

The rest of that day, I was so angry I could hardly think straight. Angry about the medication, yes. She was supposed to tell me to eat more broccoli and oranges, for heaven’s sake! Angry that she took me seriously, when I wanted her to laugh it off—”Well, who doesn’t come up with a little exit plan now and then?” Angry most of all at the doctor herself, for forcing me to say what I didn’t want to say. For goading me into betraying my secret. I wasn’t going to do it, but now I couldn’t. There was no doubt in my mind. Once I had told my plan, I could no longer go out by that route. And I was furious.

The medication kind of threw me for a loop. It was the right dose, and worked extremely well for me in the long run, but at first it throws you into a fog—six weeks to feel the full effect. One week later I was sober when I went back to the doctor for a checkup. Sober, and beginning to feel the first twinges of fear.

At some point I had spent a lot of time thinking about this plan.

I had considered and laid aside a lot of options, until I found what felt like the perfect way out. I knew where I would do it. I knew what I needed. I knew how long it would take. I knew what I would do with the children.

But I wasn’t going to do it.

I felt not a twinge of fear. I felt no inhibition, save one: it was forbidden. I wanted so badly to go to Jesus. That’s how I thought of it, like going home. But He said it was no-no, and this made me angry. It looked so easy, so welcome.

It was weeks, maybe months, before I began to really process what I felt and what had happened. We all knew that I needed to get better before I could think it all through.

I met with my mentor regularly—once a month. And I headed into the most difficult summer of my life. We moved three times in eight months. We had two family weddings and a week-long trip to Oregon. We made tough decisions about my oldest son’s schooling. We fought and fought my second son and his issues. We faced intense personal struggle in relationships. But we hung in there, and I did not go under.

Incredibly, I stabilized…

*****

I want to thank each of you for your kindness this far in listening and responding to me. I feel Jesus in your grace. You have made it easier than I thought to tell my story, after all. I still have two questions I want to explore with you: “What took me to that place of darkness?” and “What brought me out?”

Déjà vu

I am in the middle of a story about my experience with seasonal depression. Begin at the beginning right here.

*****

Spring came, and I felt fine. Life moved on. Life was good. But I encountered some really low times, and they got worse. Seemed like each January I bottomed out, though there was always a legitimate “reason”—either I was pregnant (hence emotional), or I’d just had a baby (hence fatigued), or we were facing some difficult things at work or church…

One evening in January 2009, I sat writing in my journal and got a strong sense of déjà vu. I think I’ve written this before… I paged back, and back, and back–and found I had written some nearly identical entries exactly one year before: January 2008. For the first time, I asked myself Could this be seasonal depression?

I took stock and realized—Um. This year there is absolutely nothing “wrong” with my life. We’re healthy. I’m not pregnant. My baby is two years old. We have no major stresses. But I am writing blackness, just like last year.

Black is really the word, though I want to be sensitive to anyone who considers it racially loaded. I do not; and I can’t find another word that comes close.

Usually in the fall, I could feel a frightening slide into frustration and futility. Several years in a row, I hit extremely low points right at Christmas. (Uh-huh. There’s a reason I’d skip the month of December if I could… Association is a powerful deterrent.) January and February would be dark, and in March I’d suddenly feel like I was waking up. The robins would return. Spring would scent the air. I’d think Where have I been, these last three months?

Well, I’d been immersed in every dark emotion at once… fear, anger, hatred, despair. I cried. I slept. I prayed to die. I also experienced physical symptoms, though I didn’t know why. I became weak, shaky, exhausted. I dropped things a lot—I mean physical things.

Once I took part in a small cooking demonstration for my church ladies. Doing my show there in front of everyone, I dropped a sharp knife right down by my feet. Embarrassed, I picked it up… only to immediately drop it again. They began chuckling at me, not unkindly. Did she just drop that again? And I dropped it the third time. Numb with shame and panic, I furtively retrieved it, set it safely on the countertop. What is happening to me?

I walked so close to the limit of what I could handle. I learned to spend time in the evenings doing nothing, just sitting. My small son Aarick invented a new imaginary friend, with an imaginary mother whom he named Always-Tired.

I was afraid to go out with people, especially crowds. I felt I was wearing my exhaustion like a garment; like people would take one look at me and say Oh my word, honey! What’s wrong?!

Once we discovered that my symptoms were seasonally affected, we took some steps to cope. If you’re dealing exclusively with SAD, they are excellent helps:

1. A natural-spectrum lamp

  • Sometimes it’s called a “happy light” or a “sun lamp.” You can order one here, instructions included. The bulb is made to produce additional rays, simulating the sun’s spectrum of natural light. Basically you sit with your lamp for 20-30 minutes a day, reading or working on a project. When I ordered this one and began using it, I could tell a measurable difference within half a week.

2. Supplements

  • Vitamin D is what I took, in large doses. Ask a doctor if you are unsure how much is healthy. These capsules pack an astonishing 1250% daily value.
  • Others have recommended St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, and/or 5-HTP. I have not tried these myself, but have heard good things of each. (Caution is needed when combining them with some types of medication.)

3. Getting outside whenever possible

  • You may have to force yourself to do so, but the fresh air, light, and exercise will prove themselves invaluable.

Using these helps, I felt strengthened and fortified. Though expecting our third child, I had one whole winter of equilibrium (minus a February week of darkness). I was so relieved. This is the answer. I can beat it. But heading into winter two years ago, I made some big mistakes…

Bleak midwinter

I am in the middle of a story about my experience with seasonal depression. Begin at the beginning right here.

*****

Nine years ago, I looked out my window and thought, I had no idea there was so much gray in the world. Born and raised on the northern edge of Minnesota, I was the last person in the world to be afraid of winter snow. But every day? Every single day, with constant, oppressive cloud cover? Here was something strange.

Newly-wed and deeply in love, I thanked Jesus for the good life He’d given me. But I was lonely.

My house required little care. My husband left each day for work, taking our only vehicle with him. Stranded in an unfamiliar community with a total of zero family members, zero close friends, and precious few people I knew at all, I paced my living room and watched the snow fall.

I developed what I called “cabin fever” that first winter: a restless loneliness, a desperate yearning for the sight of something (anything!) green.

Growing up, I lived for winter, and I’ll tell you why. Every year of my life but one, my family traveled to Maranatha Bible School, a place I loved, a place I grew and thrived and came alive, a place I belonged. I hated my teenage home of Plain City, Ohio. Winter brought an explosion of brilliance and color, and when I returned home after two months, spring was in full swing.

Only once before in my life had I lived out a whole winter in one place.

Now I was in Guys Mills! the region in which my doctor claims the US government once positioned a top-secret base during wartime, because it was always hidden from satellite images by the heavy cloud cover. I don’t know if that is true. I do know that when the sun comes out from behind the clouds, we all run outside with our hands up, thinking the Lord is returning or something.

It’s one of the worst possible places to live if you have SAD, or are about to have SAD, and the journey was just beginning…