Psalm 31:7-13, 55:1-7, 16-19, July 5, 2015
Every day when I leave the house I have two extra hearing aid batteries in my pocket. I have my asthma inhaler. I have a pill to take in case I have a migraine headache. Most days I remember to put my cell phone in my pocket. But I don’t get worried if I forget it. If I forget my inhaler or my migraine pill I do worry.
Every night before I go to bed—when I’m through operating heavy machinery for the day—I take a half tablet of this. I’ve been doing that for more than 7 years. It’s medicine that treats a disease called “depression.”
I have no problem telling people about my asthma. I pull out my hearing aids and show them to anyone who’s interested. Many of you know that chocolate is a migraine trigger for me. I am always touched when people say, “I made sure we had something you can have for dessert, Tom.” I don’t mind skipping dessert, and it’s probably good for me to, but I don’t hide that I suffer from migraines.
Revealing that I have suffered from depression is different. Even though I know depression is an illness, I’ll even make that clearer—depression is a medical condition—it’s still not something I’ve publicized until now. Even though we are better at treating clinical depression medically than we are at treating heart disease, I am only “outing” myself today. There’s a stigma to mental illness that I believe we need to face.
I have “episodic depression” which means it comes and goes. I don’t know what triggers it, and I don’t know what makes it go away. My most recent episode began in August of 2007, and ended in July 2008, when the anti-depressants I was prescribed took effect.
Before that my most recent episode had been in my second year of college. At that time I described depression as feeling like my head had been filled with a thick, thick fog. It started suddenly and lasted about a month. I will never forget the day the tide turned and I started feeling better, the day the thick fog in my head started to recede: It was a Sunday, my friend Steve, who lived across the hall from me walked into my room and looked at the clock. He said, “It’s 12:01 over here; it’s 11:58 in my room.” I replied, “Yeah, and it’s Monday here too. You just crossed the International Date Line…and you’re late for your philosophy class.” It was a completely stupid, absurd thing to say..but it mushroomed. We lived in The Humanities Residential College with 75 other liberal arts majors. In a few minutes someone had taken masking tape and run it down the middle of the hallway. Within an hour the words “International Date Line” were written in about 8 different languages, “La Ligne Internationale de la Date,” for example. For two days people walked down the hall hopping back and forth, saying “Monday…Sunday.” The next day, I started going to class again. At least, I think it was the next day, it depended on which side of the line I was on.
I don’t know whether the return of my sense of humor was a cause or result of the depression starting to recede. It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. I know I started to participate more in life. And still, that quarter I had the worst grades of my entire academic career. For months I was aware of the fog in my head, sometimes just a tiny little corner, sometimes I could feel it starting to grow.
My “treatments” such as they were, were Pepsi, decongestants and phone conversations with two trusted friends. They did a lot of listening. I also remember a conversation I had with a classmate who tried to reason with me, to talk me out of my depression. I had no patience with him. I told him, “You’re trying to reason with me and I’m unreasonable! Go away! Leave my room!” Still, I knew he meant well; his approach simply wasn’t welcome. The friends who listened were helpful just by listening. I can’t remember a single thing I said, nor a single thing they said in those long, long conversations. I remember I needed someone, and they were there on the other end of the phone.
When my most recent episode of depression hit, it didn’t pass. It lingered. Months went by. I felt it more in my stomach, I called it “nervous stomach.” Sometimes it got worse, sometimes I lost my appetite completely. I waited for the depression to go away. And I even remembered feeling like this before, when I was in second and ninth grades, but those episodes passed too. This one didn’t.
I am a strong extrovert. I found that when I was around people, when I was in crowds, even among people I didn’t know, I felt fine. It was like getting a vacation off “Depression Island.” But when I was alone I felt like I was at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. I spent hours sitting in the living room in the dark. Staring out the window, when I felt really ambitious I’d count the cars that went by. The hardest part wasn’t being sad and listless, the hard part was not being able to imagine feeling differently. The psalmist wrote
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
That’s how it felt for me, there was no escape.
Fortunately, for the psalmist, there was a glimmer of hope, because that verse ends this way
…and he will hear my voice.
I did not have the psalmist’s confidence and that was crushing.
In the middle of June 2008 I went to Louisville for a two week intensive doctoral class. I was supposed to write the plan for my doctoral project. This was to be the most grueling part of the program. For me, it was like being a bubbler in a fish tank. Every once in a while something would come to the surface, but I left those two weeks with nothing to show for my work.
And yet, those two weeks were life-changing. At one point I wrote an essay, a very rough draft for a column I hoped to write. Then I sent it off to a friend who helps me clarify ideas. He wrote back, “It reminds me of things I wrote in my pre-medicated days.” Oh, I felt like Moe after stepping on a rake. A few days later I had a conversation with a classmate whom I trusted. I think of her as the big sister I never had. I told her how long I’d been down. She asked why I had approached her with this. “Because I trust you,” I said. Then she said that her brother had suffered from depression and committed suicide years before. I didn’t know that, but it made sense, looking back, why I knew I could trust Deborah with my problem. She told me two things that really got my attention. First, she asked if I’d considered hurting myself. I hadn’t. Then she said, “I can see the pain you’re in.” For some reason, hearing the word “pain” made everything different. It wasn’t a physical pain, but I realized that it had hurt to be me for 10 months!
I called my doctor from Louisville and scheduled an appointment to address, finally, medically, my depression.
I was hesitant to do that. I had preached sermons about the fact that depression is a medical condition; that it kills people in the same way diabetes, cancer and heart disease kill people. But it was a huge step for me personally to seek a prescription. I had dropped 10 pounds since being depressed. I had spent nearly a year not being overweight! And what if I lost my edge writing, what if that the thing that fired my muse was depression—what then? Finally, I was afraid I’d lose my sense of humor, my oldest, most reliable coping mechanism, what if I stopped being funny once my brain chemistry returned to normal? I had a lot to lose, I thought…
I got in to my physician’s assistant, and received a prescription—and let me tell you, it was a win-win, I was able to use free samples for the first six months! About three weeks later I was here on a Sunday morning, getting ready for worship. The deacons were setting up the coffee and were joshing each other and me. I forget what one of them said, but I laughed at it. And my laughter was different. I said, “I’m back” And I have been back ever since. Every night I take half of one these pills before I get into bed. I don’t feel happy, giddy, euphoric, but back to me. Sometimes I have bad days. Sometimes I feel sad, but I know it’s not permanent. I know I’ll feel better again. I’m not hopeless anymore.
As I began “outing” myself as a depression sufferer I shared one of the readings for today with the Session at our last meeting. I was really surprised that their responses to the reading and my revealing my own experience of depression, gave me another insight. That is: lots of people suffer when someone is depressed. Families and friends want to support, encourage and help each other, and it can be really, really difficult. Probably everyone at that meeting that night, perhaps everyone here this morning has known a loved one who suffered from mental illness. We don’t talk about it, and that means individuals and families suffer alone.
Let me assure you: Depression is real, and it has been around forever. Did you notice these words from the first reading?
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My eye wastes away from grief,
My soul and body also.
For my life is spent in sorrow,
And my years with sighing;
My strength fails because of my misery,
And my bones waste away.
But here’s the part that I want to call special attention to:
I am…a horror to my neighbors,
An object of dread to my acquaintances;
Those who see me in the street flee from me.
Some people when they suffer from depression try to shield their loved one from their pain. The psalmist wrote
O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
Truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness.
That makes supporting them even harder, because they conceal their suffering—out of love and concern.
In talking to people who suffer from depression and people who love people who suffer from depression, I learned some things are helpful and some that are not helpful. It is not helpful to say, “Snap out of it.” or “Grow up.” It is not helpful to approach depression as a character flaw or a sign of weakness. You wouldn’t say to someone with cancer, “grow up.” And you wouldn’t tell a diabetic person to snap out of it. Regard depression as a disease, and a very, very treatable disease.
Urge people you think may be suffering from depression to seek treatment. Everyone has bad days occasionally, but when a string of bad days turns into weeks and months, it’s time to get professional, medical help. If you think you might be depressed you can talk to me. I am happy to share my experience with this illness—and it will be different from your experience, but we’ll have a common place to start talking.
Finally, know that depression can be treated. I know I am fortunate that the antidepressant I got on first worked for me in about three weeks. Other people have had to cope with difficult side effects and drugs that are not effective, but don’t give up. Which means families and friends have had to address the problems of side effects and ineffective treatment. If you’re suffering, your family and friends want you to be healthy. They want you to be “back.”
Sometimes when people are struggling, and they are reluctant to talk to a professional, or admit-- even to themselves—that they are suffering, they decide to pray and ask God to make them feel better. I remember hearing about a man who was very hard of hearing, going deaf in fact, who said that if it was God’s will, his hearing would be restored. This made everyone around him have to accommodate to his lack of hearing, because God wasn’t coming through on this man’s terms. As someone who’s worn hearing aids for more than 30 years, this approach makes me crazy. Here’s what I said to this guy, loudly, “Why don’t you pray for a set of hearing aids that will help you?” See, I’m convinced that God’s desire for each of us is that we be whole—that is healthy in body, mind and spirit. I’m also convinced that there are lots and lots of tools people, and God, can use to make and keep us healthy. I take my half pill each night right before I go to bed. A minute later I say my end of the day prayer, “Tak for I dag,” which is Danish for “Thank you for this day.” God hears prayer. And God works through the wonders of science and modern medicine. So please, if you’re hurting, know that God’s desire for you is for that pain to stop. Amen.