I have battled depression most of my adult life. For many years, I denied that I was depressed, attributing my melancholy to God testing or trying me, Satan tempting me, or God punishing me for this or that sin. My religious beliefs told me that depression was a sign of a backslidden, sinful, or rebellious life. After all, the Bible says in Isaiah 26:3:
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee [God]: because he trusteth in thee.
Psalm 43:5 states:
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.
The Apostle Paul — a First Century Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer — had this to say:
Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. (Philippians 4:11)
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)
And if these verses weren’t enough, there was always the “look at all Jesus suffered just so you could be saved and go to Heaven someday!” Compared to what Jesus went through, my depression was nothing.
I had numerous colleagues in the ministry, but talking to them about my depression was not an option. Talking to them meant admitting I was weak or “sinful.” I never considered seeking out the help of a psychiatrist or a psychologist. How could I? I had preached numerous sermons on the aforementioned verses, and on my bookshelf sat books such as Psycho-Heresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity by Wayne and Deidre Bobgan and PsychoBabble: The Failure of Modern Psychology–and the Biblical Alternative by Richard Ganz. No, I concluded that I was the problem.
I now know that having a Type A personality and being a perfectionist and a workaholic didn’t help matters. No matter how hard I worked, I never measured up. The church growth craze of the 1970s and 1980s only exacerbated my depression. The ministry was reduced to a set of numbers: attendance, souls saved, and offerings. Push, push, push. Like a crack addict seeking his latest fix, I focused on attendance increases and souls brought to Jesus to push my depression into the background. And as sure as the sun comes up in the morning, declining attendance and a lack of “God working in our midst” forced my depression to the forefront. I spent countless nights alone in the darkness of the church building praying to God, pleading that he would fill me with his Spirit and use me to bring in a large harvest of souls. In the end, no matter how hard I worked or how much I sacrificed— money, family, and health — it was never enough. Success was a temporary elixir that soothed my depression, but its effect soon wore off and I retreated for the thousandth time into the deep, dark recesses of my mind.
In 2005, two years after I left the ministry, I told Polly I needed professional psychological help. It took me another three years before I was willing to pick up the phone and make an appointment. At first, finding a “Christian” counselor was important to me. Once I found one, I then had second thoughts about people seeing me entering his office or noticing my car in the parking lot. I live in an area where everyone knows me — both as a pastor and now as an atheist. It wasn’t until I deconverted that I began calling counselors, hoping to find a non-religious, secular counselor. Fortunately, I found just the right person to help peel away the layers of my life, allowing me to finally embrace my depression and find ways of handling what Dexter the serial killer called his “dark passenger.”
Readers who have been with me since the days of blogs named Bruce Droppings, NW Ohio Skeptic, The Way Forward, and Fallen From Grace have helplessly watched me psychologically crash and burn, only to rise again out of the ashes like a Phoenix. Surprisingly, the current iteration of my blog has been active for 18 months, besting the previous longevity record by 6 months. Let’s Party!!
In recent weeks, numerous readers have written to express their concern about my health and declining level of literary output. I deeply appreciate the fact that people care and that they are discerning enough — having studied the Bruce Gerencser species — to know when I am teetering on the brink of the abyss.
I mentioned earlier today on Facebook that I feel like I have tied a knot on the rope of my life and I am desperately trying to hold on. There are days when I feel my grip slipping, leaving me to wonder if I can make it through another day. I do what I can. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
Health problems continue to drive my depression and virtually every other aspect of my life. Tuesday I attended my granddaughter’s softball game; Wednesday, my grandson’s baseball game. I shot hundreds of photographs, hoping to leave for them a reminder of a Grandfather who loved them very much. They don’t understand it as such right now, thinking that I am an annoying old man who is always taking their picture, but someday, perhaps when they have children of their own, they will be glad that I — for a few hours on a summer day long ago — endured great pain to see them play. As it stands today, I am bedfast, hoping to recuperate enough from the previous two days to attend a dirt track race with several of my sons on Saturday.
As depressives will tell you, small problems often pile up for them and turn into full-blown depressive episodes. I mean, suicide level, I can’t deal with this any longer. My counselor — who is also my friend — is keenly aware of how quickly things can pile up for me. Starting with chronic illness, unrelenting pain, loss of mobility, and decreased cognitive function, my plate is quite full before I even get out of bed — that is, if I can get out of bed.
Recent events have filled my plate as I would on Thanksgiving Day. What’s one more helping of ham, turkey, and candied sweet potatoes, right? While I find it too painful to write about many of the things that have been added to my plate, I have talked to my counselor about how overwhelmed I am with life. His advice was quite direct. He told me that I like to help people and that my family sees me as some sort of “fixer,” but now declining health is forcing me to stop taking on everyone’s problems and burdens. It’s time for me to focus on what is best for me, and not what’s best for others. I am not sure how well I can heed his advice, but I am trying.
Last year I wrote about my father-in law who — contrary to our advice — had hip surgery. Six months later he is still in the nursing home and it likely that he will be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. I have had moments when I have wanted to scream, God dammit, I warned you that this could happen, but I know nothing good would come from such an outburst. My father-in-law will never return home to the house where he lived for 40 years. It was sold today, and now the hunt is on for a suitable apartment. But I won’t be joining in the hunt.
Having been blamed for countless things thing have befallen my in-laws, I can no longer be their go-to person when problems arise. One of my sons got a taste of their blaming when he helped them get a new car. They don’t like their new car, so whose fault it that? Not theirs. My son is to blame. This storyline has been played out numerous times over the 40 years Polly and I have known each other. I took away their daughter and now she no longer believes in God or goes to church. Who’s to blame? I am. They blame me for ruining their grandchildren, infecting them with my godlessness. In their minds, if Polly had just married the right preacher boy none of this would have happened. Year after year, I have lived with their slights and insults — mainly coming from my mother-in-law — and being told that I wasn’t good enough for their daughter or that I was “different.” Several weeks ago my mother-in-law — unsolicited — took it upon herself to give a running report to my two youngest children about my past sins. Why? I have no idea.
When hearing of my latest attempt to assist them — selling their house and helping them find an apartment — my counselor advised me to stop doing so. You have too much on your plate, he told me, to have to also deal with their problems. Besides, they are your wife’s parents, not yours. If they are going to blame someone, let them blame her! I took his advice, decoupling myself from their train wreck. I still want what is best for them, but I can no longer be the target of their blame when things don’t go as planned.
I have written all this to say that I must continue to find ways to “lighten my load.” My health will never be as good as it is today, and someday I will likely be unable to leave my home. In the interest of improving the quality of what life I have left, I must identify the unnecessary things that are weighing me down and cast them aside. This is not easy for me to do. Giving in has never been my strong suit. I hate to let go of things (and people) who have been very much a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I am in the process of identifying what matters to me and how best to spend my time doing these things. As things stand today, writing and photography are number one and two on the list. I have sold my library and woodworking tools, knowing that I will never enjoy these things again. I still collect Library of America books, but I do so because I want to leave them for my grandchildren — several of whom are ravenous readers. I am left with my writing and my cameras. How long I can continue to productively write and shoot photographs is unknown. For now, I am holding on to the knot at the end of the rope.
It goes without saying that above everything I could ever do or own, I deeply love my wife, children, and grandchildren (and yes, my daughters-in-law and son-in-law too). As illness and pain whittle down my life, I am learning that what matters most is love and family. The praise of congregants and the approbation of fellow clergy are but distant memories. I would trade all of them for one day without pain. We silly humans so often focus on things that don’t matter. Age brings perspective, and what really matters — at least to me — fits on a small Post-it note. And even now, I continue to mark through things on my list. I suspect that when death claims me for its own, my list will contain a handful of names and the words “they loved me until the end.”