I posted this on my Facebook Page today:
One of the cruelest things about struggling with depression is that when you are in it, you have no idea how much goodness you may be bringing to others. I was so hurt and depressed in my 20’s, working so hard to heal, to be less afraid, to trust.
The interior work was so demanding that I didn’t have the space within myself to let in appreciation and love from others. I didn’t believe it if I heard it.
I couldn’t receive it because I couldn’t trust. Pain is such a thief.
Today, all these decades later and — if not pain-free, certainly happy, fulfilled, and open — I have the space within myself to receive. I’m still awkward and clumsy about it, and I still have major trust issues (human nature being what it is, I have good reason to still have trust issues!).
But now, having been relieved of depression and chronic anxiety for a long enough time, I see how suffering locks us into little tiny worlds in our minds. The hurt takes up so much space, we cannot see ourselves in perspective, we cannot step back or aside and understand how we fit into the larger scheme of things.
We’re like birds flying around a garage, smashing into windows and mirrors, banging against ways out that aren’t really ways out, and our own reflection. T
hank you to a FB conversation partner for prompting these reflections, for asking great questions, and for reminding me to tell you that if you’re suffering, if you’re depressed today, if you’re smashing your wings against the window, please know that my compassion is with you.
I don’t think any of those conditions are permanent. Some professionals told me that my melancholia was permanent, and they were wrong. I believe in you and your inner work. I believe in your spiritual and emotional liberation and (en)lightening of the burden that weighs you down today.
I believe that one thing you might choose to do today is settle somewhere in a safe nest and stop flapping your wings, and just listen to the voices of love and care around you. Today, maybe just rest. Part of healing and strengthening comes from resting in the nest and letting the songs of other birds cheer you. Don’t hurt your wing today, okay?
Eric S. posted this query,
PeaceBang, great post. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about depression and ministry. So much of ministry in the modern American church seems to be about having a certain type of personality, basically a consistently hyper-positive emotional state, the gleaming, always-grinning teeth, and so forth. How have you been able to reconcile this modern American expectation about “what a minister is supposed to be like” — which, historically speaking, is quite bizarre since some of the greatest spiritual leaders in history have been melancholic — with your own tendencies toward depression? Did you find that you were only able to be accepted as a professional minister in the modern American church after your depression went away and you gained the normative personality type for this profession in the current “be happy or be a social pariah” culture, or were you able to succeed in the ministry profession while still experiencing major depression?
Great question. So important. Initially, I want to say that in the 19th century, the ideal of the mainline Protestant pastor was a meek, tender, pious character, a poetic soul, and however much a social justice firebrand, a fatherly disposition. The model of church life was entirely paternalistic, and we here in New England still maintain that pastoral archetype to this day.
Today, as Eric so rightly identifies, the pastoral ideal is energetic, inspiring, charismatic, personable, articulate, eloquent and dynamic.
Of course many quiet introverts do good and successful ministries, so the issue here isn’t really about external characteristics but internal ones. Sometimes we confuse the two. The best, and scariest, question the Ministerial Fellowship Committee asked me when I went before them for fellowship was, “You’ve been an actress all your life. How do we know you’re not just playing this as another role?”
I was so glad they voiced that concern, as it was initially my own concern for myself. Was ministry just an exotic sort of identity I was trying to assume to give public validation and professional opportunity to my spiritual intensity? I knew by that point in my life that I had not only been acting on stage since early childhood, I had been acting in my life since then. Pretending strength, performing charisma, performing excellence and seeking applause and approval to salve the lonely and frightened little person who hid inside.
I had figured out all of those issues of authenticity by then (my early 30’s), but what I hadn’t figured out was how the fairly recently liberated melancholic, depressive aspect of my personality would fit into the work of ministry. I had had lots of therapeutic help and accepted my wounded healer and all that, but I knew that the honesty of my pain and depression would be neither productive nor welcome in parish ministry. I knew I didn’t want to enter ministry as a “needy bleeder” (I think you all know the kind of pastor I’m talking about!) and I didn’t want to wind up with a drug addiction of some kind (I did wind up with a shoe addiction, and I still struggle with nurturing myself with food, but…), and I didn’t want to lie and be a smiley fake, either. I don’t remember exactly how I answered the MFC but I do remember thinking, “I see why you might be worried about this, but you’re not anywhere near as worried as I am about it!”
And so, Eric and others, I did not act. I served in ministry for five years while spending time and money on lots of spiritual and psychological care. I spent a lot of my summer vacation exploring the contours of my depression, learning to honor it, finding out what it meant for my life, what lessons and gifts it might have to bring. I took my hurts to appropriate places outside of the parish. I tried various anti-depressants. I went off them. I tried others. Working under very difficult professional conditions for a congregation early on, I found myself very depressed at the end of August as I contemplated another year in the same setting. I risked voicing this to my board of trustees and they were mostly quiet and respectful (even if they weren’t sure what to say, they obviously cared about me). One woman meanly said, “Maybe you don’t want to be a minister.”
She was angry. I understand. She may have been scared. I understand. But it was a clarifying moment for me, a wake-up stab in the heart. I realized that I did very much want to be a minister, but that I didn’t want to be the minister in this particular setting any more. A big, huge, enormous light bulb went off in my head, and it lit up this message: “Honey, you may have a melancholic temperament but you can find a more positive and supportive working environment than this one.”
In other words, I stopped thinking about depression as a personal problem that I had to deal with alone and started thinking about it as a sane response to a bad situation, and to see it as a very sane societal response to insane expectations we have of ourselves and others. With a LOT of help and hard work and fighting instinct and time, I was fortunate enough to leave chronic depression behind.
Some of it may honestly be age and hormones, too. I know you’re not allowed to say that but I just did. My first bout with serious, horrible depression came during college when I went on a high-estrogen birth control pill. I share this because I think ministers need to know a lot more about the mind-body-spirit connection.
Ultimately, though, I was able to get healthy and happy when I was able to do ministry in a healthy environment! DUH, right?
Ministry settings are our partners in faith formation, health, and happiness. It is not just the minister’s job to find well-being, happiness and “self-care” entirely on their own in the vain hope that they can achieve those things within toxic work environments. Not even Jesus was that much of a miracle worker.
When I was called to a congregation that offered a positive, healthy working environment, generous compensation and time off, supportive lay leadership, talented and fun staff, and the ordinary, usual, expected challenges of parish ministry, I began to achieve lasting wellness. I don’t even consider myself to be a melancholic any more. I don’t sweat my regularly scheduled summertime bout of the blues, as it comes and goes so gently nowadays that it leaves no scars. For me, dream work, silence, reading, prayer and meditation were the drugs I needed to overcome depression. Anxiety attacks stopped when I ended relationships with dishonest and abusive people. Panic attacks ceased when I learned to spend time attending to my –what to call it — psychic gifts. That sounds ridiculous, like you should start calling me Miss Cleo. Let’s call it mystical intuition? Spidey sense? Whatever you call it, when I learned to attend to and ACT ON my Spidey sense, my mental health got …healthy!
I think a lot of depressed people are mystical intuitives trying to function in a culture that doesn’t respect that modality at all. I thank God every day, throughout the day, to have a job that honors it. I am still learning what it really means and how to better respect it myself. The evangelical church calls my Spidey sense “prophecy” and sometimes I wish my own tradition had language for it. We’re think of ourselves as rationalists, so we don’t.
But most of all, my periods of depression became less and less frequent and finally went away entirely because none of my lay people ever expected me to function as a minister in working conditions they themselves would have never tolerated. This is just me. But I’m telling you that there was a long, long period of my life during which I had the label of “clinically depressed” and I no longer have any reason to identify with that label or that diagnosis. I do have to be vigilant about anxiety because I am high-strung and my fight-or-flight response is still haywire due to years of adrenalin flooding. Good old cortisol has done its damage. But I’m getting better at managing my nerves, too and I expect that to heal over time.
I do not recommend that anyone with clinical depression enter seminary. I do not encourage anyone with chronic mental health issues to subject themselves to the intensity of life as an ordained minister. I am frankly too protective of our communities of faith to do so, as this is no work for a profoundly fragile soul. This is not to stigmatize or dismiss the gifts and calling of the chronically depressed or the “mentally ill” (whatever that means, as obviously there is no clear definition of “normal,” either!). There are multiple ways to live our ministerial vocation, and parish ministry is just one.
That said, know thyself. After all, I am a person who entered the ministry while battling the angel of depression. I did not see it as an angel back then, but as a cold, clinical reality. I struggled with it until it took the shape of an angel and then I wrestled a blessing out of the damned thing. The blessing was the one we are sharing right now: that I can talk about it, understand it, relate to it, write about it, and lift it up for our shared consideration in this public forum.
Now, your turn.