Tuesday, March 01, 2005

No Depression and the J Word

I wrote my first Death poem when I was nine years old. My wife Kate finds this strange, and wonders why I wasn’t out doing what other nine-year-old boys were doing --- running around, playing, wearing superhero capes and the like. I was doing those things, too (at least to the extent that chubby little dwarf legs can be said to “run”), but then I’d come home and write Death poems.

The end of one of them went like this:

And when on my grave they’ve placed the flowers before me
And two days later they’ve wilted away and curled
Don’t let them weep and wail and mourn about me
Don’t let them say that I have the changed the world
Just let them say that the world is a little better
Because I was there.

What an insufferable little snot.

But Kate is probably right. It’s probably not normal for nine-year-old kids to write Death poems. Or to read an article called “I Am Joe’s Spleen” in a Reader’s Digest Magazine and become absolutely, irrevocably convinced that my own spleen was not working properly, and that I was destined to die tragically young. Or to write “after the nuclear holocaust” short stories on the playground while other kids were playing marbles and dodge ball.

So the evidence would seem to suggest that maybe I’ve been depressed most of my life. After a certain point I just figured that it was normal for me, and I vowed to get on with my life as best I could. Then I talked to my doctor about it a few years back.

“What makes you think you’re depressed?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “But I cry every morning on my drive in to work.”

“Is your job upsetting you?”

“No, not at all. I like my job.”

“Then what is it? How’s it going with your family? Any traumas that have occurred in your life recently?”

“No, the family’s doing well. No real traumas, either. All I know is that I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and the sadness. I’m driving in to work and the sun is coming up, and the snow is shining like a billion diamonds, and I’ve already lived half my life, probably more than half my life, and I’m thinking, you know, what have I done to deserve this beauty that is laid out before me, and I just start crying.”

He gave me an uncomprehending stare, but he whipped out his prescription pad faster than you can say “Welbutrin.”

Which bring us to, well, Welbutrin. For the uninitiated, Welbutrin is a little purple pill with a smiley face on it. It doesn’t make you happy. It makes you Not Sad. Some days I’m thankful for it, and some days I see it as a curse. Forget all the romantic nonsense about depressed people being able to experience the world deeply. Depression sucks. It’s seeing the world through black-colored lenses. It’s about missing big parts of the Christian experience because one’s human brain is wired in such a way that the parts of normal life that ought to bring fulfillment and contentment do not, and the parts that are difficult or traumatic are magnified and become all-consuming.

And it plays havoc with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I can run down the checklist the apostle Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of Galatians. Love? Check. Good stuff. Don’t always do it well, but I’m all about love. Peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, self-control. All great stuff. I don’t always see evidence of them in my life, but I’m always encouraged when I do. And there’s one I left out. For anyone who suffers from depression it is almost incomprehensible. It’s the dreaded J word. Joy. Wow, it’s even hard to type.

For someone who writes “after the nuclear holocaust” short stories for grins, Joy makes about as much sense as asking someone to flap their arms and fly to the moon. Joy is watching the televangelist’s wife on TV, singing her solo with her beehive hairdo, beaming like she’s on Ecstasy, as fake and phoney as can be. Joy is those crazy Christian loonies who won’t admit it when they’re really sick, like when they have cancer, because that would be a negative confession, and so they walk around smiling and claiming the victory as they rot away from the inside, nutty as fruitcakes.

But there it is, in the Bible. It’s apparently a good thing, something to be sought after and diligently prayed for. Damn. It would be easier if it were optional, if that was a smorgasbord list from which we could pick and choose. The extroverts can have the J fruit if they want it. So what the hell are you supposed to do with this Joy stuff, Mr. Death?

I don’t always know. Whatever it means, I’m not going to do the beatific beaming, and I’m not going to deny reality. If God can accept the low-key, subdued, introverted version of Joy, then I’m willing to give it a shot. I think that maybe occasionally I catch some fleeting glimpses. Sometimes I encounter God during worship, and I’m surrounded by a family I love, and who love me, and by brothers and sisters who are willing to be real with one another, warts and all, and who love one another sacrificially. It dawns on me, not to go overboard here, that this is pretty good. I still don’t know if I would call it Joy. But words like “thankful” and “blessed” come to mind. Maybe for now they’ll have to do.

In the meantime, I carry songs around in my head in the same way that some people carry rosary beads in their pocket. I pull them out and play them in my head whenever I need to, and as a naturally depressed person I need to fairly frequently. The one I’ve been pulling out lately is an old Carter Family hymn. A.P. Carter, the man who wrote it, was a mean old cuss, but he wrote some great songs, and this is the chorus of one of them:

I'm going where there's no depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there

That’s a better poem than I ever wrote. He probably wrote poems about death when he was nine-years-old, too. He died before nuclear weapons were a reality, and that’s probably a good thing.


John McCollum said...

I love this essay.

You and I were a lot alike as kids.

That should probably scare the shit out of both of us.

jlee said...

i am glad you wrote this.
i haven't struggled with depression all my life, but after i have a baby- look out!
i understand a lot of what you say.
i think it good that you tell it like it is....there are more people struggling with this oddity of the human emotional landscape than we are able to understand....esp christians.
keep it comin!
jamie d.

Anonymous said...

This is Amanda Anderson by the way.
Does Welbutrin really have a smiley face on it? That's hilarious :).
This really blessed me, just recently depression has reared it's head out of nowhere in my life, and as a newlywed couple, I think it's been hard on Andy. I just told Andy last night, even though I may not be happy every day, you bring Joy into my life. I guess I've always felt that joy wasn't walking around with a big happy grin on your face, but more of a state of being content and when it comes down to it realizing how good things are. Thank you for sharing all of your thoughts and person on here, it was extremely encouraging.
I think writing would be very cathartic for me (that is definitaly spelled wrong), I haven't written in a long time. I don't think I have the guts to share it with the world though, I'll stay anonymous for awhile :).
Thanks again, I will be seeing you soon. When are we doing dinner?
Amanda Anderson

Andy Whitman said...

John, that's definitely scary. Fortunately, I've never eaten a tarantula, though.

Jamie, I understand and sympathize. Post-partum depression is very real and very powerful, and I'm surprised that it isn't discussed more in Christian circles. It needs to be. Kate went through major post-partum depression after both our kids were born, and it was scary. It was like waking up and discovering that you're married to a totally different person. And of course, it was even worse for her. Aside from the major hormonal changes taking place, there's the very real joy and terror of being largely responsible for a helpless little human life. I wish our culture was more open about these things. At least we can try to address them openly and honestly in the church. I hope.

Scott, I don't know if you're familiar with Dr. Larry Crabb, but he's written a lot about these issues from a Christian perspective. His book "Inside Out" was very helpful for me (and was the basis for the Gospel of Wholeness class at the Vineyard). If you'd like to read it, let me know, and I'll be happy to bring our copy to church.