14 October 2017

What I feel has come and gone before

To say I’m in a better place is nothing like saying “I’m cured,” or “Look, Ma, no blues!” Rather, let’s just say I’m coping; I’m handling some things better; I’m learning how to deal. Indeed, as I write this I am fighting discouragement about a persistent, pernicious issue that surfaced and has rankled for about a week now.

Do you, like I, dig the word “pernicious”?

And yet!

Signs of health and hope . . .  in no particular order of appearance or importance.

I am much more willing to try and fail in public.

I almost never assume (for example) that when I see choristers talking or laughing, they are being critical of my directing.

Last winter I led a whole hour of a "Music Man" rehearsal in which I expected a pianist who wasn’t there—and I did not walk away mortified. (And to be fair, the reason the pianist was late was because I had not closed the communications loop. Yes, I was responsible—and I owned that—but it previously would have destroyed me to be so publicly inept in so many ways.)

For decades I have rushed out the door in the morning, only to come back for something important that I had left behind . . . and been so frustrated and angry with myself that Karen was left worrying that was my state of mind all day. (It almost never was.) Of course I still rush out without things—car keys, for example, or lunch—but the surge of self-recrimination and idiocy is now almost absent. (Now it’s just a charming absent-mindedness?)

Earlier this fall Karen overheard me making a work call from home. Later she commented on how much different I was on that call. To use her words: self-assured, non apologetic, clear and engaged. (I am a life-long telephobe.) That’s a huge change.

I have begun to think more along the lines of “what do I want to do?” rather than “what should I do?” Naturally there are things I should do that trump what I want to do, but even to think in terms of what I want to do is a new thing for me.

I am finally learning to stop comparing myself to others whose gifts I may admire more than my own. Isn’t it freeing to know that it’s OK to be different from the many impressive people in your life?

My interior monologue is now a dialogue—sometimes an argument—between me and Depression (who, it turns out, had been dominating that monologue). I much less frequently let D. speak out loud for me.

At the last church I served, many people assumed I was “Dr. King.” Yeah, it’s that kind of church. I stopped correcting people, and my pastoral colleagues couldn’t have cared less who had what degree(s). But as time went on I began to feel that in that position I wasn’t . . . enough: intelligent, eloquent, talented, sophisticated enough. That was OK until I felt that maybe according to my colleagues I also wasn’t young enough or cool enough. (Don’t overlook that word “maybe”—see what depression might have been doing to me?) So now I find myself working with traditional college students in an academic setting. God help me if the “not enoughs” of this paragraph kick back in. Actually, God helps me not really care about those measures.

God, Karen, a good therapist, and yes I suppose too a small dose of a mild anti-depressant.

And that’s all I’ll say about this.

05 October 2017

“The opposite of Depression isn’t happiness—it’s Energy”

Author’s Note My Karen is not on social media. I completely respect her privacy and try to be careful about posting items about her. But I cannot tell my story without including her role in my health. So this post tries to balance these realities. Just know that what I have often said is true (and people think I’m joking, and she doesn’t believe it): without Karen I would have long been dead in a gutter somewhere.

Context For three decades I was in full-time pastoral music ministry in two large churches with large staffs. I was involved at some level with pastoral care, including some “light-weight” counseling. In both churches there was diverse opinion about the meaning and treatment of depression. I never held the opinion that depression is first and foremost a spiritual condition and that (therefore) anti-depressants were almost never a valid option for the Christian. At the same time, I recognize that our culture rushes to medicate, seems content to dull difficult emotions, and generally avoids serious self-awareness.

Story In my teaching gig, for three years I have had the freedom to stay home on Thursdays. With no classes, I could work from home during the day. And with no church choir, spend the evening at home with Karen. So it was a natural to have my weekly therapy on Thursday mornings—the day then being truly a “mental health day!” I set things aside, took 90 minutes to drive to, sit in, and return from counseling. At supper Karen would ask me about my session.

Couple of things here. First, when Karen asked questions or helped me connect the dots I usually understood better what was stirred in counseling. Second, as she has never let me take myself too seriously (and, really, this is one of her great gifts to me), we often found something to laugh about. Energy restored, and new perspectives gained. Win-win.

At about three months into my sessions, at dinner Wednesday night, out of the blue I said to Karen, “At least  I’m not on medication.” Not that I wouldn’t go there—I was just glad it wasn’t necessary. If I had an ear ache, I’d use medicine to clear it up. If I sprained my wrist, I’d wear a splint. I had an appointment with my physician for something else on Friday, and assumed he would prescribe something for that issue as necessary. So, if the need were there, why not a drug for this thing called depression?

Fifteen minutes into my session the next morning, my therapist said, “I think we need to talk about medication.” I laughed. Not that I didn’t believe him; it was just so typical . . . that door was opened before I was asked to walk through it. Well, OK, so now there’s this conversation.

“I am not averse to considering it. I don’t think of it as defeat. It is no more stigmatizing than the diagnosis of depression. So, yes, I’ll think about it. But first, are there some steps I can take to see if it’s necessary? We’re only three months into counseling, and just getting started on some issues.”

Here is what my counselor wants to see in place before going the medication route:
·         Get physically active. (Um, OK. Cycling and walking?)
·         Have people in your life. (Like my wife? Our kids? A couple of close friends? Ministry? Students?)
·         Be involved with something outside yourself. (See two points above)
·         Maintain a spiritual connection to something or Someone greater than yourself. (And yes, we had had quite a few conversations regarding our mutual Christian faith.)
Dang! Trapped. I can’t put off this decision.

“OK, well, you’ve got me there. But I don’t want to take medication that gives me a false sense of ‘wellness’ and not deal with these issues in a real way.”

The medication option we discussed is quite simple and pretty low key. Not a mood-altering drug so much as a reliever of the heaviness—the tiredness—that colors everything I am involved with. The goal is to have the emotional energy and space to address and deal with the issues.

(Later, through the podcast “The Hilarious World ofDepression,” I heard this brilliant statement: The opposite of Depression isn’t Happiness, it’s Energy.)

So, was I willing to talk to Karen and my physician about this?

“Well, as it turns out, I have an appointment to see him tomorrow, about something completely different. So, I guess there’s no time like the present.”

Karen had the same questions and reservations that I did. Ultimately, of course, it was my decision, and in any case I hadn’t seen my doctor yet. He readily understood what was going on, we had a long helpful conversation, and I walked away with a prescription for the smallest dose of one of the mildest anti-depressants. I agreed to stay on it for a year, and was told it would take 4 – 6 weeks to take complete effect. “How will I know?” I asked. He said, in all seriousness, “Karen will let you know.”

So, there it is. It is now over 9 months on this medication. Since summer, my therapy sessions have been reduced to once per month. I have depression. But, as I recorded in my prayer journal early this year:
I do not sleep well, but You are my Rest.
I worry about many things, but You are my Comfort.
I am depressed, but You are my Joy.

Next time, how Karen (and I) know I am in a better place.  

28 September 2017

What I've got they used to call the blues

Here’s how I knew I wasn’t depressed:
·         I have never spent the day in bed because I did not have the energy or enough hope to get up.
·         I have never failed to go to work because I couldn’t bring myself to face the world.
·         I have never been suicidal, or harbored any serious thoughts about committing suicide.
·         Most people would describe me as a contented or happy person.
·         Preferring to be alone is just a function of my Introversion.
·         Self-deprecating humor is funny.
·         Loneliness is a condition caused by others not welcoming me into their circle.
·         “Joy” is different from “happiness” and I can be truly joyful even if I’m not particularly happy.

Yeah, everyone’s depression is different.

What form does my depression take?
·         Self-deprecating humor gives me the chance to beat others to the obvious conclusion that I’m really not worth much. (But, hey, maybe I can at least make them laugh!)
·         Appearing content and happy is part of the people-pleasing package. And I had better keep people pleased, or they may not keep me.
·         Sadness follows me around and can infect even the nicest moments in life.
·         Loneliness has nothing to do with Solitude, and generally makes me feel that I am on the outside of every circle.
·         You wanna talk “imposter syndrome”? My depression has convinced me that I have never done anything worth noting professionally.
·         While I weigh less now than I did in high school, I have carried around an emotional weight that feels like that old physical weight.

But I get out of bed, I show up for work, I engage with people, I accomplish some things. I’ve managed since childhood (a very satisfactory childhood, I hasten to note), but my sense of loneliness stretches back to early grade school (at least), and my abiding sadness since at least junior high school.

When I showed up a year ago for my first counseling session, I had no idea what was ahead of me. It took me a while to admit my sadness, to understand the sense of loneliness, and to accept the “big D”—depression. I’m not going to spend a lot of time navel-gazing in this space. But having decided to say anything, I have a couple more posts before I feel like I’ve said enough.

To own my depression does not mean I think my condition is the same as the wounded soldier, the abused child, the neglected spouse, etc. I am fortunate to be a high-functioning depressive. I am thankful for a kind professional therapist who is also a Christian. And I am deeply grateful for a life-long partner who is helping me sort myself clear about these things.

20 September 2017

The Hilarious World of Depression

With a nod and apologies to the excellent podcast of the same name. (Which I recommend.)

One year ago this week I met with a counselor. OK, let’s call him a therapist—that’s what he calls himself. It was early in my third year of teaching on a one-year contract. (That’s another story; don’t get me started.) Obviously in a tentative professional position, four years after leaving full-time ministry I was still “in transition,” and I had some issues I wanted to talk through with a professional. It seemed innocuous enough: I would tell him my concerns, he would give me some assignments, I would go on my way stronger and able to meet whatever was next.

I was so young and naïve.

In some 37 years of full-time work (most of that in ministry) I found that there were issues I kept bumping up against. Things I didn’t do well. Mistakes I kept making. Clues I wasn’t getting. I wanted to untangle whatever all that was so when I went looking for the next job I would have my eyes open and my best game on.

A year later, and I am still seeing the therapist, and am now in my fourth year of teaching on a one-year contract. But I have to say, “what a difference a year makes!” Am I all straightened out? Not by a long shot. There have been surprises, light-bulb moments (“aha!”), and I guess we’d call them breakthroughs. No longer weekly, we now meet monthly—I guess a sign that I’m in a better place.

It has been quite the adventure. And since many people walk around with issues they feel they can’t talk about, I thought I’d write a little about this adventure here.


There, I’ve said it. When it first came up in my sessions I thought: “OK, here we go.” I do not feel stigmatized with the diagnosis. I do not feel that the label contradicts my status as a child of God. I do not believe my depression betrays a spiritual condition (sin). What the diagnosis and therapy have done for me is the Adventure.

But before I write more, I hope that anyone who may read this will feel that they can talk to someone about their feelings. If you are depressed—or think you may be—see someone about it. If you aren’t sure, let me draw your attention again to the excellent podcast, “The Hilarious World of Depression.” Listen to a few episodes and see if anything there resonates with you. If it does, find help . . . a good friend, a pastor, a counselor, your doctor, a therapist.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Mine began looking for answers to a problem I didn’t understand. I don’t know how far along I am on that journey, but I’m glad for the loved ones who are on the journey with me.