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Depression and Lightening the Load

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Updated, corrected, rewritten, expanded

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 on the cross just so you could be saved and go to Heaven someday!” Compared to what Jesus went through, my depression was nothing. (Please see I Wish Christians Would be Honest About Jesus’ Three Day Weekend.)

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. Go, go, go. Do, do, do. Much 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 the Holy 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.

depression

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 almost 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.” Late last year, I started seeing a new counselor, a woman. My first counselor and I had become friends (a common problem in long-term counseling relationships), so I knew it was time for me to see someone new.

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 repeatedly 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 seven years. I attribute the length of my success to the help I’ve received from my counselors. That said, I can’t guarantee that I might not, in the future, crash. I’ve told myself that if that happens again, I’m done blogging.

Some days, 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, especially chronic pain and bowel problems, continue to drive my depression and virtually every other aspect of my life. I can’t escape these things. All I know to do is endure.

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 episodes. My counselor is keenly aware of how quickly things can pile up for me. Starting with chronic illnesses, 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. She encourages me to focus on what is best for me, and not “fixing” the problems of others. I am not sure how well I can heed his advice, but I am trying.

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. Over the past few months, I have made a concerted to downsize and simplify my life. I sold all my photography equipment. Boy, was this hard. Even worse, I am turning my office into a pantry and a storage room. Gone will be the metal desk I’ve owned for almost forty years — a M.A.S.H. era desk. Most of my 4,000+ plus sermons were crafted on my desk. Countless couples and church members sat across from me, telling me their woes. I used this desk every day for most of my adult life — until I couldn’t. Thanks to herniated discs in my back and neck, I can no longer use the desk. Saying goodbye to my dear friend brought tears, but I knew it was the right thing to do. My oldest son will soon move my desk to his home. I wonder if I should tell him what Mom and Dad did on that desk? 🙂

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.”

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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23 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Michael Mock

    I’m glad you’ve got that counselor, Bruce. I’d second every single piece of advice given. I’m glad you’re still holding on, and I’m sorry it sucks so much.

  2. Avatar
    JR

    Bruce,
    This is a hard post to read. I am really sorry for you and what you endure.
    There will be no divine ‘well done’ at the end of your life for all you have done but I think you need to know, and I am sure I speak for everyone on this blog when I say, that your life of self sacrifice and commitment to others is an inspiration. So from a recent beneficiary of your good work on this blog – Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    carol

    I get it dear friend. I really do…I think you probably know that. <3

    Tears for you…a mix of emotions…and I see you smiling with those grand kids.

    Much love…

  4. Avatar
    Gene Stephens

    I agree with JR above that your life of self-sacrifice and commitment to others is an inspiration. I would add your commitment to seeking and sharing the truth, regardless of the consequences. You have richly earned the right to lighten your load, all the way down to what fits on your little Post-It note. One of the many commendable things about you is that the Post-It note highlights the family that loved you until the end.

    • Avatar
      Gene Stephens

      Oh dear; I just realized that the last line of my comment uses the phrase “focus on the family.” One of the worst things about my evangelical days is that I actually supported James Dobson.

      • Avatar
        Gene Stephens

        Disregard the prior comment; I was able to edit out the phrase “focus on the family.” I didn’t realize how much my evangelical days were still engrained in me.

  5. Avatar
    That Other Jean

    As a fellow chronic pain sufferer–though not as bad or unrelenting as yours–I understand some of what you feel. I’m glad the rope is holding for you, and I hope your decline, if decline there must be, is as gradual as possible. Congratulations on the things you still enjoy and the people who love you. Hang in there.

  6. Avatar
    Connie

    Hello my friend – I did wonder how your health wavered. Thank you for the update. Pain seems to be the word of the day over here too.

    There is a phrase I learned in DBT class. I’m doing the best that I can and I know I can do better. Another practice is to not ‘should’ on myself. Type A personalities have a hard time with the shoulding on themselves. Something to do with solving the worlds problems (looks innocently at the sky). 🙂

    Hanging at the end of the rope or adjusting to The New Normal? I’m thinking it’s all a matter of perspective.

    Sending love to you and yours.

  7. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Another person here who’s been concerned about you. The Depression Dragon is a harsh companion. He (or she, if that’s your gender identity) tramples about in your brain, telling lies about your worth. Every bad thing that happens in your life is fuel for the narrative. I have one of my own, though she’s sleeping at the moment.

    I’m very, very glad to read that you’re trying to let go of burdens like the negativity of your in-laws. The Depression Dragon hoards those like a Tolkien dragon hoards gold. It’s important to remember that you aren’t here to be someone else’s piñata. Life is too short and too precious.

  8. Avatar
    J.D. Matthews

    I have been going through a lot of depression lately, myself. I went public with my atheism about a year ago. I’ve faced rejection from my family, and I’ve wavered in and out of suicidal thoughts. I really hate to hear that you’re going through so much pain, too.

    I know it’s not much, but I do want to tell you that your writings here have been extremely helpful for me. I know the kind of people you’re dealing with (my in-laws live in Bryan, OH, so I end up driving through Ney when we go there) so I can really relate to what you say. I check in here everyday, and it really does help. I have noticed a few of my friends do the same. You’re still making a difference.

    If I’m ever back in the states visiting my in-laws (Odin, give me strength!) and you’re feeling up to it, I’d love to get together for a cup of coffee or a cold beer and just shoot the shit about our experiences or anything at all. In the meantime, I continue to wish you the best and strength for the days that we’re both enduring one at a time.

  9. Avatar
    Brian

    I wake each day with an appreciation for the sun (if it choses to grace these hills) and the trees out my window, the wild fields, and the sweet anticipation of morning coffee and jot of Gerenscer’s blog. I know that dark tunnel full of demons that Pastor Cessna Jet Copeland speaks of and that it ain’t at the airport! I also know that the dark is doubled by somatic aches and pain. Hang in there, dear Bruce. And every time you hear the pontifications of know-it-all genuine-for-real bona-fide Baptists, join me at any open window to howl. The howl is pure poetry compared with the munky syntax of most babbling Baptists. The world can be balanced this way, the very human howl at the windlow alongside the holy intonations of Bible-thumpers….
    As always, best wishes to you and yours…

  10. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    Bruce, I’m sorry. Just being in pain is enough to drive a person to depression. Doing less, avoiding people like your in-laws, good things. Your photography is wonderful! I’m glad you can do it, as your pictures tell such wonderful stories.

    You’ve been an inspiration to me. Reading your blog moved me from being a liberal Christian to definitely not a Christian belief, which is good. Because truth matters, and reality matters. I may still feel connected to the Divine, but it isn’t the Christian God for sure. I did tell my close friend I was no longer a Christian, thinking that our friendship was strong. I was wrong, she dropped me as a friend. And I’m not even an atheist! (Kidding.)

    I, too, have been depressed. It’s like something is broken inside. I’ve only gotten to severe depression once, after my surgery. Felt like I was in a dark, unending tunnel with no light. I snapped out of it finally, but had some “wish I were dead” feelings first.

    I hope only good things for you.

  11. Avatar
    Melody

    It can be hard to realize and admit you can’t or shouldn’t be a “fixer” anymore. When you’ve cared for people for so long but now it’s your turn to accept care. It’s almost like losing a part of your identity. In some ways I’m on that point myself too: time to look after myself first for a change. Stupid thing is: I hardly even know how to.

    I hope you’ll be able to continue to write and take photographs. Your blog has been, and is, one of my frequent stops during the week and gives me hope and laughs and arguments throughout. I admire you for continuing despite pain and depression as well as your openness about your past and problems.

    Wishing you and your family well.

  12. Avatar
    Neil

    I do empathise, Bruce. I’ve been there, to some extent, suffering from wanting, pretty much permanently, to be dead. The Good News is… certainly not Jesus; his burden was not easy to bear and trying to meet the demands of Christianity was a significant contributor to my being depressed in the first place. No, the good news is, the ‘demon’ can be tamed. Therapy, family and writing helped me significantly, slowly changing the chemical imbalance in my brain to something that made life more manageable. There can be respite and I wish it for you, Bruce.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      “The Good News… certainly not Jesus; his burden was not easy to bear and trying to meet the demands of Christianity was a significant contributor to my being depressed in the first place.”
      Ain’t that the truth. IFB Christianity is like sucking a propane blowtorch for indigestion!

  13. Avatar
    BJW

    I’m so sorry. It’s hard. So sorry you had to sell your photography equipment! I hope things are going well with your counselor.

  14. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce—First, a hug.

    Second, thanks for being who you are.

    I, too, have suffered from depression for as long as I can remember. When I was a Catholic and, later, an Evangelical Christian, I thought that it had to do with not believing, praying or studying the Bible properly. Later, I thought I could “will” myself out of it. I wish I knew otherwise, sooner than I did.

    How many times have people told you to “snap out of”’or “get over” it.?

  15. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    Bruce, I wanted to share this with you and all of our fellow depressives. It’s a YouTube channel run by Douglas Bloch, who has great practical advice about living with depression. He’s helped me a lot and I recommend him highly. He does a live chat on Sundays, too. https://youtube.com/c/DouglasBloch

  16. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I am sorry, Bruce. As someone who lives with one who suffers with depression, I see what it does to people, physically and mentally. What really matters is what you said – family and good friends. The rest is all extra. Sometimes the extra is good, and sometimes it’s a burden. I would give you a hug with your consent.

  17. Avatar
    Tammy Schoch

    I can say that I truly understand about 10% of your situation. 20 months of long Covid – ugh. There’s some similarities. I enjoy your updates. Your approach to this shit informs mine.

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Bruce Gerencser