I had grown to love this resident. A chaplain at a senior community, I saw him at least once a week and he made me laugh. In his mid 90s, he had started to fail only in the last two months. I was informed over the weekend that his hours were numbered. I ran to his bedside Monday morning and held his arm with both of my hands as I prayed that God hold him in light and in peace.
A stream of tears cascaded down my face as I finished the prayer. They continued for a good 20 minutes.
People walked back and forth in the hallway, some noticing that I was crying. Suddenly I panicked. Do they think I’m unstable? Insecurities of this sort might plague any professional, but my fears were compounded by the fact that I have a history of depression, and I have shared that openly here. So I strategized a move to the other side of the resident’s bed, my back against the hallway traffic, where no one could see my display of emotion.
Such is the culture we have created today. Hooray that we no longer have to whisper the words depression and anxiety to one another. It is no longer interesting gossip to divulge who is seeing a therapist because everyone has a shrink. But is it just me, or has the room to hold grief and sadness and all the so-called “negative emotions” shrunk dramatically? Vent sessions are often followed by a directive to seek counseling and start a course of antidepressants. Wet eyes are quickly categorized as a psychiatric symptom deserving of immediate treatment.
According to a 2013 Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors survey, 24.5 percent of college students are taking psychotropic medications.
There are many theories being thrown out to answer the question why. Given the significant traction I’ve made in my own mental health from proper nutrition and time in nature, I’d put poor food quality and a surge of screen time at the top of the list. Other contributors might include social pressure, a breakdown of family life, environmental toxins, and navigating a more complicated world that is not always gentle on the psyche.
But could a piece of it also be that we are told today that we shouldn’t struggle?
I fit perfectly into that statistic. I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, when I started my first antidepressant. My life was far from stable. My mom had just remarried and I was getting used to a Brady Bunch situation at home – seven kids within four years of each other living in one house during breaks and the summer. My father had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition and we weren’t sure how much time he had with us. Plus I had recently quit drinking – yes, before I was legal — on a college campus where getting drunk was the preferred activity.
After a few months of listening to my woes, my college counselor told me to read Colette Dowling’s book You Mean I Don’t Have to Feel This Way and said to me, “You’re not supposed to cope through life.” She recommended a course of psychotropic medication to help me start living a little.
I adored this woman. I felt supported, nurtured, even loved by her. In her office we peeled away some of the layers of my hurt and made progress towards healing. As a chaplain now, I realize she was trained to see distress and act accordingly. She may have been right to urge me to start a course of meds. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t. I could have dropped out of college, causing an interruption in my life that may have required a more severe intervention down the road. For the record, I understand that medication can often provide the ground needed in order for a person to do the hard work required to get better, and that sometimes it can be life-saving.
But I can’t help but wonder if I hadn’t been buoyed by the water wings of medication I would have learned to be a stronger swimmer back then, pushing through that difficult period in a way that would have empowered me to meet more challenges in the future with less trepidation. Maybe without the numbing effects of the meds, I would have done an even deeper dive into the underlying reasons for my depression – including digestive problems and childhood issues — and emerged as a more resilient person, not feeling like I needed a biochemical fix every time I lose my center.
My counselor’s concern, “You’re not supposed to cope through life,” came back to me as I was recently sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. Across from the reception desk stood a life-sized poster, an advertisement for some red-light therapy used to treat chronic pain, that featured a woman in her sixties flashing a grin that you might find on a gal that has just consumed a V8. Filling in the empty white space of the advertisement read these five words: “Life begins where pain ends.”
Everything about the ad made me uncomfortable: the cheesy grin, the photoshopped hair, but especially the slogan. Nowhere in the four gospels or in the Lives of the Saints had I ever come across that message. On the contrary, I believe there is purpose to our pain and that suffering can be redemptive. For me, the passion narratives preach a message of hope more than anything else. The point isn’t to eradicate pain, but to transform it.
My faith allows me to see that I can be fully alive even though I am in pain — in some senses, even more so because I am in pain. As Stuart Long, diagnosed with a rare progressive muscle disorder, said in the biographical drama film, “Father Stu,” “We shouldn’t pray for an easy life, but the strength to endure a difficult one. Because the experience of suffering is the fullest expression of God’s love. It is a chance to be closer to Christ.”
There is certainly a place for medication, but let’s keep in mind that irritants help produce pearls and diamonds are formed under pressure. Just like with butterflies, I believe sometimes struggle is needed for enough blood to flow into our wings so that we can emerge from the chrysalis of our former selves to fly into a new world with the confidence that we are so much stronger than we ever gave ourselves credit for. Based on my four decades of living with episodic depression, I’d swap the ad slogan with Vivian Greene’s mantra: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”
Maybe that conviction is why I am having such a difficult time with the trend to treat emotions that I find to be perfectly human. I want to be able to cry in public without having to explain myself or worry that the treatment police is coming after me.
Last week I consoled a friend who is beginning to have memory problems and feels as if part of herself is disintegrating. A gifted musician, she feels handcuffed by her disabilities and doesn’t know how to proceed in life with her limitations. Embarrassed by her tears, she kept apologizing to me.
“I’m weepy,” she said. “I’m sorry. I will try to do better.”
“Please don’t,” I responded. “Please don’t try to do better.”
The next day I left a note with a poem by Ann Weems called “Jesus Wept.” I wrote in the card, “Maybe it’s because I’m a crier too, but I see tears as a way that intelligent and sensitive people process the distance between the way we wish things were and how they are. One day the distance won’t be so dramatic and there will be less tears. For now, let them fall.”
Let them fall.
Image by MaxPixel.net.