What do the following people have in common?
Art Buchwald (humorist)
Winston Churchill (politician)
Dick Clark (American Bandstand)
Denton Cooley (cardiologist))
Kitty Dukakis (wife of presidential
James Farmer civil rights activist) candidate)
Jules Feiffer (satirist)
John Kenneth Galbraith (economist)
Joan Rivers (comedienne)
Rod Steiger (actor)
William Styron (writer)
Mike Wallace (TV's 60 Minutes)
They all suffer from depression, not
the down-in-the-dumps feeling which we all have at one time or
another, but what one author calls On the Edge of Darkness
and another Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.
Today's scripture reading is the story of a person with depression. It comes out of the historical narrative of ancient Israel, a time of transition from the kingship of Saul to that of David. After initial successes, King Saul began to suffer from what used to be called melancholy and today is called depression. (The story was written at a time when all things affecting nature or human life were attributed to God.)
The Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord was terrifying him. "It's an evil spirit from God that's frightening you," Saul's officials told him. "Your majesty, let us go and look for someone who is good at playing the harp. He can play for you whenever the evil spirit from God bothers you, and you'll feel better."
"All right," Saul answered. "Find me someone who is good at playing the harp and bring him here."
A man named Jesse who lives in Bethlehem has a son who can play the harp." one official said. "He's a brave warrior, he's good-looking, he can speak well, and the Lord is with him."
Saul sent a message to Jesse: "Tell your son David to leave your sheep and come here to me."
Jesse loaded a donkey with bread and a goatskin full of wine, then he told David to take the donkey and a young goat to Saul. David went to Saul and started working for him. Saul liked him so much that he put David in charge of carrying his weapons. Not long after this, Saul sent another message to Jesse: "I really like David. Please let him stay with me."
Whenever the evil spirit from God bothered Saul, David would play his harp. Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away.
I Samuel 16:1423 [CEV]
Getting out of bed in the morning an act of courage? Ridiculous, you might say, except in the rarest of circumstances.
Courage, real courage, takes place on the battlefield. Real courage is holding to principles and convictions in the face of the raging mob. Real courage is overcoming handicaps and by sheer will power affirming life. Real courage fills our history books and the Sunday supplements, individuals accomplishing extraordinary things against all odds. Examples such as these define courage for us.
That same process happens in the church as we define what it means to be a Christian. I call it the `Albert Schweitzer Syndrome.'
Albert Schweitzer for several decades was the poster child for faithful and courageous Christian living. He held three doctorates, yet spent his later life founding and working in a jungle hospital in west Africa. He had a doctorate in pipe organ and was the person who, in this century, resurrected Johann Sebastian Bach from obscurity; he had a doctorate in theology and wrote a book, The Search for the Historical Jesus, that set the theological agenda for the twentieth century; and he was a doctor of medicine who, in addition to establishing a hospital in West Africa, developed a philosophical outlook which he called "Reverence for Life."
A truly amazing, and courageous, person.
Defining courage by the exceptional acts of bravery on the battlefield, facing the mob on behalf of principles, or defeating paralysis to accomplish great things means that very few of can ever be called brave. It means that our own nondramatically heroic lives are diminished and discounted.
However, we do find, at times, ordinary people showing amazing courage. A talk show had guests who had, on the spur of the moment, done very courageous things which lead to irreparable personal physical damage.1 What was so noticeable about those on the program was that not one had any regrets about their helping out, and when asked why they stopped to help, they said, "What else could I have done."
I have no doubt that there is far more heroism around us than of which we are aware. But, today, I want to focus on another kind of heroism the heroism of the chronically depressed and then I want to redefine heroism.
To talk about depression, I need to rely on the testimony of others. For, although I do get down in the dumps at times, I have not been chronically depressed as others describe it.
My early response to depression was quite typical. I would tell the person to snap out of it, take a walk, take up a new interest, etc. all of the things I use that are useful when being down in the dumps.
I think a turning point came in my life when I asked Ezra Young, the interim minister prior to my coming to this church, to describe for me what a migraine headache was like. I've had headaches and I assumed that a migraine was what I had, but with greater intensity. He took several minutes to describe the blinding, excruciating, debilitating pain, and how, for him, it moves from place to place in the brain. After that description, I realized that a migraine was not a higher degree headache but was a whole different experience. The description was, for me, frightening.
But I did learn, however imperfectly, to ask people who suffer from a variety of ailments or are involved in different situations, to describe their situation to me, rather than imposing my meaning on their suffering.
Chronically depressed people have a difficult time describing their depression. But, some of the attempts are found in the following books.
Cronkite, Kathy. On the Edge of Darkness: Conversations About Conquering Depression.
Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir off Madness.
Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America.
The writer William Styron, author of The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) which received the Pulitzer Prize for 1967 and Sophie's Choice (1979), become depressed at the age of 60, and wrote a thin book about his experience: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. In it he describes the months he spent in a severe depression. He mentions that most depressed people " are laid low in the morning, with such malefic effect that they are unable to get out off bed."2 If you have ever known a depressed person, you know that for some people getting up in the morning is an act of courage.
Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self, to the mediating intellect as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although, the gloom, "the blues" which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle for everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form. But at the time of which I write I had descended far past those familiar, manageable doldrums.3
A lot of the literature available concerning depression is, as I say, breezily optimistic, spreading assurances that nearly all depressive states will be stabilized or reversed if only the suitable antidepressant can be found.4
That the word "indescribable" should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless suffers from this ancient affliction would have been able to sufficiently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.5
Depression, most people know, used to be termed "melancholia," but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness, Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness8 of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.6
I would lobby for a truly arresting designation: "brainstorm."
What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It maybe more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon he sick brain by then inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs their cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.7
Part of an unpublished paper written by a person who, at one time, was a college president, and now as a result of severe depression, is unable to complete teaching a freshman English course.
We depressed individuals are just that, individuals, consigned to darkness without clues about how to cope.
In my experience there are five components to almost all depressions. Three of these are relatively familiar:
Our energy is radically reduced. We feel flaccid. This means, among other things, that we lack self starting qualities.
Our enthusiasm is also radically reduced. We lack interest in others, whether family, friends or colleagues, and in those activities, personal and vocational, which were the day-to-day agendas of our lives.
Our hope is gone. Actually, we are
profoundly pessimistic. This is often referred to as darkness
or emptiness or a kind of death in life.
The relative lack of these three resources
is a wicked combination. Any one of them would cause withdrawal.
All three amount to a paralysis, spiritual as well as physical,
which means we are without the will to get going. We literally
lack the capacity to save ourselves. And there is more. All depressed
people I have known share a sense of dread. Almost all the time
it feels that the worst hasn't yet happened. Bad as it is, more
is coming down, and soon. We don't know what it will be. The dread
is undifferentiated. We do, however know it's coming. This means
we try to hide, which is futile, except to withdraw even deeper
within our already spiritually shriveled selves.
Finally, we depressed people are contemptuous of ourselves. This goes way beyond guilt. We are ashamed. We believe we are obnoxious, ugly, repugnant. These feeling can become very ripe, so that self loathing is not the slightest exaggeration. I, for example, have sometimes felt I was so bad that I emitted an awful odor.
In summary, then, these five factors: major losses of energy, enthusiasm and hope, plus dread and self contempt are the stuff of depression.
Naturally, in a particular case some of these are worse than others. For me self loathing is the worst. But all are present, more or less, in each case of depression. Who, then, can deny it's a heavy load or, for God's sake, blame those who bend and then break down? Indeed, I don't mind that old-fashioned word at all. Depression is a breakdown.
We depressed people suffer more than is necessary because so many others trivialize depression by assuming it is ordinary. After all, they say, we all have bad days; we all get the blues. But depression is worse than the blues by an order of magnitude. This is why so many depressed people are put down when others try to cheer us up. At best, these cheerful words reveal a disconnect, a failure to understand the stuff of depression. At worst, the cheerful words are received by us as accusations which feed our self contempt.
At the service for Claire, I said I believed depression was a spiritual affliction: our lives had lost meaning. This was perilous. No one really knows how dark it is for someone else, or what bravely is required to go on living, or how it feels when one's spiritual resources are used up.
For Winston Churchill, depression was a "black dog" that tormented him throughout his life. His wife said that after the failure of the Dardanelles Expedition in 1915, he "was filled with such a black depression that I felt he would never recover."
Kathy Cronkite, daughter of Walter Cronkite. wrote about herself:
I didn't need a failure as large as the Dardanelles Expedition. For me, tenth grade was bad enough. I don't know about the black dog back then, but he was there, crouching in the shadows. I missed classes because I would break down crying on the back stairs and be unable to stop. I cut myself with razor blades, not in an attempt to die, but in an effort to release some of the emotional pain by focusing it in physical pain. I withdrew from my friends. I took drugs in an effort to feel okay at least some of the time.
Cronkite, p. 5.
The source of depression are manifold in theory.8
Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic school maintains that depression
is caused by anger toward others that is unconsciously turned
Depression runs in families.
Some severe forms of depression result from abnormal chemical
activity within the brain. Research shows that some episodes
of depressive illnesses are related to an improper balance of
Depression is caused by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
People become depressed because of a preponderance of negative
thinking about themselves.
Depression is caused by not finding meaning or by a loss of meaning
in living: Why am I here? What should I do with my life? What
have I accomplished?
An individual member of a family will feel and act out the emotions
of the whole family. That person is the "designated patient."
Religious. Depression is caused by a religious value crisis: self-contempt and guilt
There are people whose depression is in their very muscles and bones every hour. I stand amazed at the courage of such individuals.
One such individual is an artist with depression and multiple sclerosis who is just entering into her thirties and who lives independently. A fall might occur at any time sending her crashing to the floor, far from help. Getting up in the morning, walking to the kitchen, making a meal, and cleaning the dishes are courageous acts of defiance which she intends to continue to the last possible moment." She wrote:
I live, because what else is there
to do? Is that courage? Others may look at me, holding sixty-seven
inches of body upright, propped up by a cane, each step a separate
move, with a separate thought, and call that courage. To me,
it's just being alive.
Contact with, and consideration of, the depressed teach me what it means to be alive. Not the Albert Schweitzers and the Medal of Honor winners, but ordinary people living ordinary lives in an extraordinary way, but from such individuals, I have learned much about courage.
The Prophet Isaiah wrote some words which are appropriate here.
Those who wait upon the Lord
shall mount up with wings as eagles
they shall run and not be weary
they shall walk and not faint.
There are those times when we soar in our enthusiasm for life. There are those times when we are steady and faithful. There are those times when just getting out of bed in the morning is an act of courage.
1 One woman stopped when flagged down on a road and picked up a woman who was incoherently talking about someone out to rape her. She let the woman in, drove off and then was forced off the road by another driver. The woman she picked up took off as the other driver shot her three times, paralyzing her, and then took off after the other woman. The paralyzed woman eventually identified and testified against the other driver. In another story, a man on the freeway noticed an accident on the other side of the road and one driver beating up the other. He made a u-turn and went to help out. The driver doing the beating stopped, went to his car, got out a gun and shot both the other driver and the person helping. When another man stopped to help, an off-duty sheriff's deputy, he was shot and killed. The killer was identified, convicted and sent to prison by the person making the u-turn.
2 William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, p. 11.
3 Styron, p. 7.
4 Styron, p. 13.
5 Styron, pp. 16-17.
6 Styron, p. 37.
7 Styron, p. 50.
8 Richard Dayringer, Dealing with Depression: Five Pastoral Interventions, pp. 9-10.
Braiker, Harriet B. Getting Up When You're Feeling Down: A Woman's Guide to Overcoming and Preventing Depression. Putnam's, New York, 1988 [ISBN 0-399-13383-6] [Cor 616.852 Bra]
Cronkite, Kathy. On the Edge of Darkness: Conversations About Conquering Depression. Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York, 1994. [ISBN 385314264 [Per]
Dawson, Gerrit Scott, "Baking Bread in the Dark and Other Acts of Courage." Weavings, XII/3, May/June 1997, pp. 3643. [StM]
Dayringer, Richard. Dealing with Depression: Five Pastoral Interventions. Haworth Press, 1995 [ISBN 15600249331] [StM RC 537.D39]
Klein, Donald F. and Wender, Paul H. Understanding Depression: A Complete Guide to its Diagnosis & Treatment. Oxford, New York,, 1993 [ISBN 0195072790] [StM RC 537.K543]
Kramer, Peter D. Listening to Prozac. Penguin, New York, 1993 [ISBN 0 14 01.59400 1 (pbk.)] [Cor 616.85 Kra]
Silverstein, Herman. Teenage Depression. Franklin Watts, New York, 1990. [ISBN 00-531-15183-2 [ISBN 00-531-100960-7] [Cor 616.8522 Sil]
Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir off Madness. Random, New York, 1990 [ISBN 0-394-58888-6] [Cor 616.852 Sty]
Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America. Riverhead Books, New York, 1994, 1995  [Per]
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