a gray numbness

I’ve been living under gray skies, though I cannot remember for how long. Weeks? Months? Longer? My sense of time is distorted as days and weeks bleed together, a bland landscape laid out before me. My life lacks rhythm and every day feels the same. My alarm is set for 4:45, but I am often awake long before that. I lay in the dark, wondering if sleep will find me again, but knowing that it probably won’t. I spend time at my desk reading, journaling, and sometimes praying–if I can find the words. I shower only because I must. I still go to work every day and I am still good at my job. It’s been about four years since I missed work, but then it was because of unrelenting anxiety. I come home, praying that we do not have anything scheduled because I have to psych myself up even for those things I “enjoy.” I would rather watch re-runs of Derry Girls.

I have had a number of acquaintances reach out lately, wanting to connect. Although I am grateful for them, I am often exhausted by the thought. Responding, even by text, takes considerable effort and I put it off as long as I can, but I am too much of a people pleaser to ignore messages indefinitely. I have a small group of friends with whom I intentionally spend time and who have been good for my soul; any more feels overwhelming.

I am rarely sad. People who have never lived through a depressive episode often assume that depression is a really deep sadness; however, although sadness may be a cardinal feature of depression, it is not a required symptom. For many people like me, anhedonia–a loss of the ability to enjoy what was previously enjoyed–is the principal symptom. Although I still enjoy certain things, my general emotional tone is bland. I have often said that one of the first cues for my depression is a loss of interest in reading.

Depression can also include a variety of other symptoms–guilt, shame, worthlessness, self-criticism, concentration difficulties, thoughts of self-harm, changes in sleep (mine is decreased) and appetite (mine is increased), and a loss of sex drive, to name a few. You see, depression is not a unidimensional construct. Although there are commonalities, how I experience depression differs from how my friends experience it.

I am in the process of switching medications. Last week, Heather asked me, “Do you think it’s time to adjust your meds?” Unhesitatingly, I said, “Yes.” My sertraline isn’t cutting it anymore. I have also been re-listening to the audiobook, An Undivided Life, by Parker Palmer for the umpteenth time. Palmer is one of my favorite authors and his ability to talk about depression from the inside is a welcome friend. On Sunday, after my friends Mike and Josh provided space to talk about my depression, I sent them a quote from Palmer who said “There is no fix here; there is maintaining presence and bearing witness.” My small group of friends hold this space for me.

Most of us don’t know how to deal with depressed people. Their misery makes us uncomfortable, so we are quick to offer suggestions. “Have you tried_______?” Many words have filled in this blank: exercise, prayer, meditation, going to church, going outside, drinking enough water, reading the Bible, eating better, sleeping more, sleeping less. Undoubtedly, these are good things to do, but too often, because suffering makes us uncomfortable, we bypass another’s pain to offer helpful solutions. (It has often been said that Job’s friends did their best work in the first week when they simply sat with Job rather than trying to find solutions). In fact, this tendency is so common in certain religious circles that there is a term for it–spiritual bypassing.

Why did I write this? Because for me, writing is one of the most therapeutic things I can do. To share my experience and have another say “me too” has been helpful to me. As a neuropsychologist, I know that I am not alone in my experience, but sometimes, I also need to bring my own darkness into the light.

dark corners

As darkness presses in
filling the corners of our minds
we long for your light, O God.
Frantically, we cry out,
“Where are you?”

Do not let the Great Sadness overwhelm us.
Remind us of your enduring goodness.
Reveal your tender mercy.

Help us to understand
that there is neither form nor beauty
without both light and shadow.

Open our eyes
to see your presence
even in these dark places.

There is nowhere we can go
that you have not already gone.
There is no darkness
where your light does not shine brighter still.


Write 31 days, day 7
Writing prompt: Hope

The gray clouds of depression first overshadowed my life several years ago. Though I could not give a precise date, I can tell you the circumstance that led to the realization that I needed some help. We were trying to sell our home and had some decisions to make. My wife asked what I wanted to do, and I just kept saying “I don’t know” and then I began to cry. She asked what was wrong, and I honestly could not tell her. She recognized something was amiss with me before I did. She asked if I was depressed, and I honestly wasn’t sure. I’m a psychologist, and I wasn’t sure. I knew I didn’t enjoy reading anymore. I felt numb. I had difficulty concentrating. But I wasn’t really sad, which is what people so commonly associate with depression. Believe it or not, sadness isn’t a requirement for depression.

In fact, what many people don’t realize is that depression can have nearly as many presentations as there are people who experience it. For some, sadness predominates and for others, a marked loss of interest. Some people sleep more and others sleep less. Some eat more and some eat less. Depression may include feelings of guilt, shame, punishment feelings, stomach aches, anxiety, headache, low energy, an unwillingness to get out of bed, a loss of interest in sex, not wanting to shower, feeling numb, or feeling disconnected just to name a few.

What does all of this have to do with today’s writing prompt, hope? Here’s the thing: depressed people may also feel hopeless and hopelessness is the greatest predictor of suicidal thinking. It seems that we can deal with sadness and we can deal with a loss of motivation, but when one truly perceive that there is no hope, what’s the point of going on? The horizon is all black and there is no sign of light. The future is all pain and there is no expectation of relief.

So often, well-meaning Christians desire to help. They say things like “well, have you prayed about it?” or “I’ll pray for you.” I have spoken with believers who view depression as a sign of sin because “Christians would never get depressed. They have too much to look forward to.” Any discussion of antidepressant medications is taboo because that is believed to be a sure sign of a lack of faith.

I have to ask, is the gospel that we are providing people truly a message of hope? If we fail to listen and hear someone’s deep pain, we are not. Not until we can sit with another person in his pain can we truly offer hope. Ezekiel 13:10 reads “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace and because, when the people build a wall, they smear it with whitewash.” My friend Larry calls these people “wall whitewashers.” They tend to pretend everything is good and right when in truth, there is pain.

True compassion does not cover over another’s pain or pretend it does not exist. True compassion acknowledges the reality of the pain and hopelessness and sits with another in the midst of it.

For reflection:
What has been your experience with depression, either within yourself or with another? How have you made sense of it?