I think I can say, without much parsing, that this is the least funny thing that has ever happened to me. I’m the girl, I like to lead with a joke. I like to make you laugh when bad things happen to me. I don’t want you standing there making that pursed lip face and thinking about how sad I am, I want you feeling almost guilty about how humorous you find my discomfort. I mean, at least then one of us is happy.
That being said, jokes about depression fall a little flat. I can’t explain it to you the way I might a tragedy. Usually tragedies end up with me crying somewhere inappropriate or with some kind of freak disaster that wasn’t funny at the time, but has a real sense of irony to it. This mess, though, just doesn’t have a punch line. I can’t simplify it to a witty anecdote for you.
It’s just that I thought the winter was over. I mean that as a metaphor, of course, but I also mean it in the truest, most literal sense that you can imagine. I really, truly thought that this winter was going to be a mild one. Last winter was just a cluster of snow and ice and all that jazz, and then this year it was 80 in January. I kind of thought that the groundhog was cutting me a break, finally (but he bit the mayor’s ear this year, and dear God that’s exactly what it’s been like. Here, let me whisper to you about spring…SUCKER! I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU FELL FOR THAT!)
I thought a lot of things. And what ended up happening, for want of a cutesy or wry way of saying it, was that I came to a point where the probability of anything improving seemed low. That’s the heart of this thing, for me. You come to a point where your brain isn’t getting high off of the little good things anymore, and your threshold for the good keeps climbing while your experience of it plummets. This is a recipe for not wanting to do much because you can’t see how any of it will ever make a dent in the stupor.
Misery, like Hilary says, is a muse. This isn’t like that. This is the opposite of that.
At approximately this time, the small ministry at the church that was keeping me, however loosely, in contact with others slammed a door in my face. It wasn’t personal at first. It was a consolidation of life stages (in which my best friend and I were suddenly a mismatch). The brutal, horrible irony was that the people who would have opened a door for me were focusing their energy on a day when I worked. It sounds so simple now, but it was a catastrophe. There was nowhere for me to be, then. There was no group that opened the doors. I asked and was ignored, I asked and wasn’t male enough, married enough, or collegiate enough. The people I knew gradually reformed around themselves, and tried not to feel guilty when I mentioned that the transition was kind of wrecking me. And I wept in Panera with a pastor and his wife. I drove around the city for an hour because I couldn’t figure out a way to explain to my parents that I suddenly had nowhere to be. It was irony that the girl who was only ever snide about church things had to confront just how much they had been keeping me afloat. And I know it wasn’t personal, but it sure did feel that way.
You can imagine that I responded to this with grace and understanding (heavy, dark sarcasm).
This is the bottom for an unspeakably extroverted Christian with a twisty water slide past of emotional instability. This moment where no one in the church will meet your eyes is a special kind of strange. Combined with a general blasé that seemed to have crept up through bare feet like the tapeworms my mom always warned me about (You wear shoes, you wear socks, it’s not that complicated. Why are you the only one who doesn’t get this, Jen?) and I was a paragon of blech.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and account for how much of this came from mistakes or sin or biology or whatever. I’m not. If you want that, go talk to someone else.
But, in the middle of all of this, I started to do this massively unhealthy, toxic, awful thing. I started to just give myself whatever I felt like I wanted. I thought of it as ‘self-care’, but the truth is that I was being hopelessly reckless. I was living so much in the mundane moment that I would drink caffeine in an effort to make myself happy, know that it would knock my heartbeat off kilter for hours and send me into a sweaty, clammy panic attack. I would watch hours of Netflix thinking that I was treating myself only to find that the nights before tests were becoming these insurmountable awful things. I was trying to do what felt right, and I was repeatedly screwing myself over.
I told myself that I was worth it, and that I deserved to be happy, and that I needed to just look out for myself for a bit. Slowly, but surely, the Jennifer who fell in love with the Jesus of the inner city was choked out. The Jennifer who spent a week’s budget on Easter candy without hesitation was trying to find new places to cram all the things I bought on a whim and promptly did not use. The Jennifer who used to talk about her job with that teary-eyed excitement was bemoaning an extra day of work because ‘it’s not fair’. To say it in one ugly word, I was selfish. But the self I was feeding was not the person that I wanted to be.
It happened kind of all at once. We met up after church, and I was almost hesitant because every other ministry had failed so spectacularly. I was hesitant because it was just four girls who were probably going to let me down. I was hesitant because, in a lot of ways, it was nice to be able to blame the whole unpleasantness on the church for neglecting me. That was certainly easier. But we met up, and we talked about our lives. It was innocuous, except that I was already crying. I was trying to explain why I was so miserable. I was trying to figure out why God felt so distant.
And then they asked what would make me happy. And I saw a swarm of little faces in my brain. I saw a string of the people I used to pray for, the ones I used to come in early and work unpaid hours to see. I saw Charles, tricking me out of my pocket change. And then I just cried.
Really, they were good sports. They listened to me try to describe the way I used to be passionate. They pretended to believe that I had ever not been a total mess. And a thought drifted into my head.
“I don’t want to gain the whole world and lose my soul”. I wish I could say that it appeared there in any phrasing other than the TobyMac song, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t lie to you. But that is what happened.
I started giving myself whatever I wanted. I started believing that I needed to be happy before anything else. I wanted to be whole again before I picked my cross back up. I forgot about the tradition of believers before me who staggered around in broken bodies and broken hearts. Somehow I thought that depression meant never having to sacrifice anything. I thought self-indulgence would make it better. And I very nearly lost the person that I was, in theory, working to protect.
I’m not going to stand here and tell you that it’s all better. Because it isn’t. There are way too many days that I’m just in a daze. There are way too many days that I’m crying like there’s a hole somewhere. But I’m trying not to fall for the lie that I need to indulge to make it better.
I may always be a little crooked. That won’t mean that God has failed me. It won’t mean that I can’t be worth something. It won’t mean that I don’t have something to give away. It will just mean that I have to take care not to listen to the part of me that wants to be pitied and catered to.
What I don’t want, what I refuse to accept, is to overcome depression only to find that I have sold out my passion to do so. I don’t want to be free from depression and chained to materialism. I don’t want to start believing that depression is the most important thing about me. I don’t want to wake up in five years and realize that I don’t have any relationships that aren’t self-serving. I don’t want to lock my heart in bulletproof glass and keep it clean from fingerprints. I don’t want to come out of the cave and away from the shadows only to fall in love with my own reflection.
I want the real things. Even if they are sometimes too real, even if they sometimes render me ghost-like in comparison. I want the abundant parts. The abundant sadness, the abundant joy, the abundant worry, the abundant hope. I don’t want to worship anything else that I made in my basement.
And I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but that’s my confession. That’s the place I find myself in, as a Christian trying to make sense of an honestly difficult part of my story. I don’t know of a way to make it funny or easy to understand. I don’t have advice to give others in this battle. I don’t have a treatise for the church on how they failed me, or saved me, or what they can do in the future. And I’m sorry about that. I’m a little at a loss, honestly.
I just thought that the winter would be over by now. But there’s a ton of snow outside, and I’m kind of just trapped at home for now. I’m listening to James Taylor on Spotify and wondering if it’s over yet. Because this isn’t easy.
The call of Christ doesn’t tend to be easy. But I’m all in, regardless.
Let’s do this. Again.