Tag Archives: depression

So I Have Mental Illness…

On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publically put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.”

I began a 4-part sermon series on stress, specifically how to transform stress into happiness. I’ve learned quite a bit about stress management and transformation through my battles with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. So to offer some ethos and pathos to the subject matter, i.e. Yes, your pastor really does know what he’s talking about and can personally relate to you!, I mentioned to my congregation a disease I have which has been with me through most of my adult life. It’s been my number-one health concern.
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There have been several times that depression took me to the depths of suicidal ideation. Several years ago I was even admitted for a week at an inpatient mental health care hospital for debilitating depression and suicidal intentions. Antidepressants to keep my brain chemistry at good, balanced levels have been a regular part of my wellbeing.

Presently, I’m doing really well. I treat depression with a daily morning dose of antidepressants. I watch for the signs and triggers that pull me down into depression— things like extra stress. I surround myself with plenty of accountability from people like my wife and a handful of close friends. And when life throws a vicious curveball or my brain chemistry somehow gets out of whack, I bring my doctor and therapist into my support network, too.

I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me.  It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.

That is especially true in the church. In the church, much shame surrounds mental illness.

I’ve often called depression a disease of double shame. There’s the inward shame of worthlessness, hopelessness, apathy, emptiness and nothingness. Then there’s the outward shame, the things explicitly said or subtly  implied that depression is a result of spiritual and moral failure: “Just give it to God in prayer and you’ll feel better.” “True believers always have joy.” “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” “Depression is a separation from God.” “Just be grateful. Just keep your chin up. Trust God.”— implications that I can’t do or haven’t already done those things.

It’s time to come to grips with the truth that mental illness of any kind is not spiritual or moral failure. It doesn’t indicate innate character, moral, spiritual or emotional flaws any more grievous than anyone else’s. It is, quite simply, bad brain chemistry brought on sometimes situationally, most often as a chronic condition, or both.

So how can faith communities and any other forms of human community care for people with mental illness and their loved ones? Several key things come to mind (no pun intended):

1) Put aside your assumptions. Listen and learn. Misinformation has created the stereotypical perceptions we commonly use to frame mental illness. Throw those out, and offer the gift of deep listening and a willingness to learn. What’s it like? What does it mean and not mean? How do we cope and live? Let us, we who have mental illness and our loved ones, show you our world and how we struggle.

2) Abandon judgmentalism. (See #1.) In addition, avoid finger pointing and fault finding.

3) Be a companion on the journey. Attempting to give advice, thinking that the right words will make it better, or coming with any attitude that you’re “here to help” only makes things worse. Think of it as coming alongside as a friend. Deeply listen. Listen to understand. Give us space when needed. Show compassion in simple, practical ways. But remember: we’re not your problem to fix. Only God can do that through a whole network of supportive care. And you may be blessed to be one of those people.

4) Be an advocate. Look out for people with mental illness. When you can, speak up to protect our dignity and correct misperceptions. Help others to understand what mental illness is and isn’t.

The healing balm for mental illness is the persistent, gentle light of understanding love, quality medical care, time and space. I know this full well. I’m here today because of it.

And I can also say that we who have mental illness can live happy, productive, deeply spiritual lives. I’ve learned a lot about light and darkness, life and death, pain and healing, salvation and redemption through my ups and downs with mental illness. Those are lessons I would never give back, and for which I am deeply grateful. These are gifts that can richly bless the world, too. That’s my hope.

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Robin, You Are Never Alone

Robin WilliamsI was at band rehearsal last night when I got a text message from a friend saying that Robin Williams was dead. It about took my breath away. In fact, a few of my band mates had to chide me to get focused on our rehearsal. One of them said, “Jeesh, it’s like you know him or something.”

Strangely enough, I feel like I did. How? It’s not that I knew him as a whole person. Of course not. But somewhere inside me, I knew how he died, even before reading about it. It was depression-related suicide. I knew it because I’ve been there before, far too close to the edge.

Like so many other people of my generation, we were raised with Robin Williams- Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, and all those great movies he made. In my childhood home, Robin Williams was staple entertainment… well, at least the cleaner stuff he did. As I grew up, he never ceased to entertain me and later my children… again, sticking to the cleaner stuff.

I also knew about his struggles with depression and addiction, often devilishly dark conjoined twins. The part of me that knew Robin Williams knew that side of him all too well. I’ve never been addicted to any kind of substance or alcohol, but I do come from a family of addicts who struggle with depression. Through genes and upbringing, you could say I inherited my fair share of depression and addictive personality.

Depression is double shame. First there’s depression. It’s a painful, shame-induced inwardly turned anger, hopelessness, crushing low self-esteem, and soul weariness. Add to the shame of depression the shameful social stigma of depression and other illnesses of the mind, and you’ve got the double shame of depression.

It’s no wonder then that a good number of people who suffer depression are also suicidal. When you feel completely isolated from yourself, from God, and from others, why bother going on? When you live utterly alone under the smothering void of depression, what’s left?

Or so we think.

The healing balm of depression is presence- the presence of others and God through others. I keep thinking about Robin Williams. Had he allowed someone to simply be with him, even without saying a word– and actually for those suffering depression, that is preferable– he would still be alive today. Or if someone had noticed his condition and insisted on being with him, even against all of his angry protests or empty apathetic gazes, he might still be here.

I know that’s true because I’ve lived it. Three years ago after donating my left kidney, I suffered a deep depression. Coupled with the enormous physiological changes my body had gone through, I kept suffering from chronic feelings of inadequacy, being a burden and bother to my loved ones and church, feeling helpless and trapped, and more. All of that plunged me into a depression, so bad that I seriously contemplated suicide. I first justified why everyone would be better off without me. I began to say my quiet goodbyes to my wife and kids, and then I began to research ways of dying.

I’m here today because my wife Blairlee noticed a grave shift in my behavior and insisted on knowing what was going on. I said that nothing was wrong (a lie, but easier than talking about the truth). She gently pushed more. And then I spilled it all out. We decided that I would more openly communicate how I was feeling, especially if I had thoughts of hurting myself. Shortly afterwards I underwent a long round of medication and therapy.

I share these things because I’m not alone. So many other people suffer from depression and suicidal ideation, but we never talk about it. It’s a hidden disease. I could have cancer, a heart condition, diabetes, or any other disease of the body, and openly talk about it. But the moment I mention depression, I’m looked at differently as a broken, weak, unstable, even immoral person who obviously can’t manage his life properly.

Here are several facts about depression:

  • It does not indicate character, moral, or spiritual defects.
  • Depression does not indicate weakness. In fact, some of history’s strongest people suffered from depression. I’m in good company with the likes of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Depression is a medical condition to be treated like any other medical condition– therapy, medication, and self-care.
  • Depression does not have to define who a person is, but it can bring about the opportunity for tremendous growth, healing, and strengthening.

I truly hope that Robin Williams’ death will shed some more light on the reality of depression while sweeping away untruths and misconceptions. Robin, you are finally not alone. There are many of us who suffer like you did, and we will choose to live on together in hope, healing, and in God’s love and light. Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you.

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End of the Summer Update: Music, Depression, and New Focus

It’s been a while since I last ventured into the blogosphere, over four months in fact. In the world of blogging, a four month absence is often the equivalent of  a four year absence anywhere else and thus a quick recipe for irrelevancy. (Keeping a blog is much like “feeding the beast” as a friend of mine once put it.) But life happens in seasons, and some seasons nurture more fruitful conditions for blogging than others, at least in my life. It just happened that this past life season, which loosely corresponded with summer, was one that demanded me to unplug from social networking. I needed that. If I hadn’t, you would have eventually demanded it, I’m sure!
As the title suggests, it was a painful but grace-filled summer. Music. A clinical depression. Hopes for new focus.

A Musical Renaissance
Almost two years ago, the band I played with during my college years got together for a reunion show, and that deeply satisfying experience reawakened the “playing bug” in me. I sing and play a variety of instruments, but my love for playing the bass and singing in a band took on a whole new life. Eight months after that, I started playing in a rock trio that has played a handful of times.

But then in the late spring of this year, it occurred to me that I have had an unspoken yet desperate need to do more things outside of church life. Any pastor will tell you that ministry can be all-encompassing and smothering unless there are invigorating activities we can enjoy that have nothing whatsoever to do with church. Given  my lifelong passion for music, that translated into playing in a band that could gig out.

So, I sold some things I had to get a better bass amplifier and then began thinking about my bass. I have had a bass guitar I bought from a guy I knew when I first started seriously playing. It’s the equivalent of a Ford Fiesta in the bass world– nothing fancy or special, but a good, reliable instrument. I bought it for next to nothing and made some modifications that made it even better.

But then a neighbor of mine lent me his Fender Jazz bass. I had always heard of the Fender Jazz and knew of many prominent bass players who have sworn lifelong allegiances to them, but I had never tried one. Well let me tell you, after adjusting my neighbor’s Fender Jazz a little bit and putting it through its paces, I fell hopelessly in love with it. I would have thought Leo Fender himself had personally designed the shape, tone, and feel of that bass exclusively for me. I won’t inundate you with all the frilly details because it would bore 95% of you non-bassists, but let me just say, it was like the experience of meeting someone and realizing you’ve found your soul mate. (Blech! Sorry, only a musician would not gag over that last sentence.)
After months of research and playing several models, I discovered the one– a Geddy Lee Fender Jazz. So I talked it over with Blairlee, sold a few more things and went out to get my treasure! With a great amp and a killer bass guitar, it was time to get out there and do some more playing. Through Craigslist and a musician’s website, I advertised myself and contacted prospective bands. To my surprise, I got bombarded by the number of bands looking for a bassist, especially one who can sing.

Stepping into established bands was an entirely different musical experience for me. I had a hand in conceiving every other band I’ve played in. So, conveniently, there was never anything I had to prove. This time, however, I had to step into existing bands and audition. Fewer words will curdle the blood of a musician more than audition. (You’re too loud is a close second.) Indeed, auditioning was a nerve-racking  prospect, but it was good, hard medicine. Being forced to work extra hard in practice and preparation for an audition notched up my professionalism quite a bit. And it more than paid off. Thankfully, every band I auditioned for offered me a job!

As of now, I’m playing in a trio that plays classic and modern rock and in a second band, a foursome, that plays harder modern rock. Once in a while I get calls to step in and play in other projects, too. I have been blessed to find and play alongside band mates who are solid musicians and decent family guys who love music as much as I do.

That itch to get out and play is getting plentifully scratched…

A Clinical Depression
Most of you probably know that on January 26 of this year God gave me the incredible opportunity to donate my left kidney to a woman from my congregation. It’s almost impossible to put into words how powerful an experience this has been for me. But I had also taken for granted how physically and mentally challenging it was, too. From the time I began the tests and evaluations to become a donor until a week after surgery, I lost about 70 lbs. The weight loss combined with the rigors of major surgery, the loss of an organ, and recovery, put my body through taxing, heavy changes.

All of that physical trauma infused into the demanding life of pastoral ministry that requires nothing less than my absolute best, even when I’m fully healthy, created the perfect storm for a personal melt down.
Well, the perfect storm found me. It took the shape of a clinical depression. I have suffered depression only once before during a time in which my personal circumstances were far worse than now. This depression, however, made that one seem like a skip through Candy Land. I went through some very dark weeks. And I’m not yet at a place where I would have the heart to elaborate on them now.

I am just so thankful to have been continually surrounded by such a patiently loving wife, family, and church family who have been more than able to nurse me through the worst of it. They did not give up on me, even when I had gotten to the point of wanting to give up on myself. Through their encouragement, I took the necessary steps of getting diagnosed and receiving medication which I’m still taking today. About two months ago I started getting some therapy, too.

Working through depression has reminded me again how inept we are at understanding and relating to people who struggle with any kind of mental condition, whether it be dementia, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or depression. They are medical conditions that are diagnosed and treated just like any other part of the body. And yet, the rampantly running misunderstandings and ill-formed attitudes people hold about conditions and illnesses of the mind are mind-boggling (no pun intended) given the age of information in which we live and the number of people who struggle with conditions like depression, dementia, and ADHD.

By its very nature depression is isolating enough, let alone the additional barriers of isolation created by fear, shame, and ignorance. But it is what it is. Thankfully, I have had an understanding web of people to support and hold me accountable.

At the same time, I have found depression to be a gift. Far from a being a demon to cast out so that I can “get back to normal”, depression can lead to healing, growth, and clarity through the hurts and difficulties that might have been lingering just below the surface far down enough that I could conveniently ignore them. Depression strips away this veneer. It completely exposes those old open wounds. With its awful, deafening silence in the rawest parts of my soul, depression insists I do the hard work of healing, discernment, growth, and change. That takes time. It also requires firm intention. But I’m getting there, one day at a time with the help of this shadowy gift.

Renewed Focus
As gratifying and agonizing as this summer has been, there are still some budding seeds of hope. I can’t think of too many other things as hopeful as a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Somewhere in the thick of this year’s happenings and in the time leading up to it, I began to lose my focus, my purpose and indeed myself. In order to keep the masses happy and my home at peace, I had fallen headlong into the trap of giving so much away to satisfy the needs and demands of others that my life became enslaved to the tyranny of the phone, the clock, and the constant barrage of “I need you to do _____.”
The phone will always ring. The clock will keep ticking. I’ll always be needed, but now I’m beginning to rediscover a truth I have known but forgotten. That is, God has given me unique gifts, strengths, abilities, and talents, and it is time for me to intentionally operate solely out of these things. That will be my gift to the world around me.

There will always be things I can’t do or don’t do well. There will always be things that despite my best efforts will drive my wife and kids crazy. But I don’t have to be nearly as burdened by all this when I’m living from the fountain of my personal strengths and gifts, realistically aware of my liabilities, yes, but not worrying about that so much. As for growth, why not grow where I’m already strong instead of trying to grow where I know I’m weak only to find myself frustrated time and time again?

Part of the renewed focus means writing, writing, and more writing, discovering and probing in ways that get myself and others to think and grow while laying new paths for more authentic, sincere spirituality through a vital connection with Jesus Christ. The blog will undoubtedly be a part of that and far less neglected than it has been of late.

In the meantime, I want you to know how much I appreciate our exchange of ideas and the ways you enhance my thinking and writing by your comments and conversation. Let’s keep at it together…

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Filed under Bodily Health, Grief and Healing, Music, Spiritual Growth and Practice