You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. – Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
One of the many aspects about mental health that I’ve learned these past two years is that it does not just affect any one particular gender, race, or ethnicity. Sure there are types of environments (home, job, socially) that subject people to depressive precursors (pressures, abuse, hostility, sickness) and it is widely accepted that some people are more genetically predisposed to certain mental health ilnesses, but mental health seems to be unbiased in race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, and income classification.
Check out the following people who are understood to have or have had major depressive disorder and/or ongoing anxiety:
- John Adams (second president of the US)
- Hans Christian Andersen (famous fairy tales writer, said to have influenced CS Lewis)
- Bon Jovi (rock singer/writer)
- Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh Steelers football player)
- Barbara Bush (First Lady of US)
- Ray Charles (Blues Singer)
- Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister)
- Ellen DeGeneres (Tv Host)
- Emily Dickinson (poet)
- Charles Dickens (writer)
- Jeong Da-bin (Korean actress)
- Michelangelo (artist)
- Isaac Newton (physicist)
- Mark Twain (writer)
- Abe Lincoln
- Vincent van Gogh
Blue collar, white collar, famous, Asian, American, British, gay, straight, married, single. It doesn’t seem to matter. No amount of money, fame, prestige or lack of, can prevent depression-anxiety. People experience depression-anxiety related to just about anything, whether clinically diagnosed or just through bouts of depression-anxiety and the affects of such are experienced in the body, physically. Depression-anxiety changes how the sufferer sees, thinks, and feels. It literally changes the way experiences and situations are received by the senses and processed by the brain.
I’ve heard it said that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. The first time I experienced depression was two years ago this past week. There’s many circumstances and losses that occurred that attributed, I am sure. I’ve experienced some terrifying things that brought me to such a state, but there has been nothing as terrifying as that single day two years ago when life as I knew it changed.
It was the morning after our house Christmas party. I did not particularly want to participate in the party the night before. My roommates were very thoughtful and kind in their gifts and words and in handling my Eeyore like demeanor. But I just wanted to be alone. I didn’t know why. A few days before was our staff Christmas party for the church I worked for. I didn’t go. I didn’t understand why. I just couldn’t do it. I felt like not many understood, which added to the difficulty. I didn’t understand either. I so wished I could have. I wished I could have explained and known then what I know now.
The night of our house Christmas party, as everyone was in bed, I laid wide awake. All night long. I felt like I couldn’t move. I had thought I had a stroke. I felt frozen all night. Terrified. And as I became more and more aware that I was slipping away, anxiety set in. And I began to shut down faster. I was in a near catatonic state. Anxiety seemed to push me further and further in. And then nightmares started. I didn’t know how to call for help, or what help there was to call. I couldn’t move, stuck in this state of terror. Lifting one finger felt like it took nearly all the energy in me. I didn’t want to be isolated, but I was because no one knew what was happening to me and there was no internal relief for me because I, too, didn’t know what was happening. No validation. This was how depression-anxiety came on for me.
I felt unable to do anything about what was happening to me. I had read nothing about this. I had never known anyone like this. This isn’t the stuff you learn in bible school or in church sermons, at least not in my sphere. I didn’t even have a name for it. I started doing less, and thinking less, and everything started to slow over time. With the onset of Christmas and all the expectations of holidays and considerable losses in my life, the suffering became too unbearable and came to a head that evening. All I heard was my internal voice whispering that I was weak and commenting that I was crazy over and over. The very vitality of my life was gone. I tried to fight it all night, but I was terrified and I was tired and I couldn’t hold on and pull out of the catatonic isolation.
And I’ve had to learn to live in this strange place and to orient in the world from this new place of understanding depression-anxiety. As one of my dear roommates says, “The struggle is REAL.”
I’m in this process of becoming real. My sharp corners are becoming rounded and I am embracing a people who aren’t perfectly kept, who don’t need to hold it together, who are wounded and hurt and find solidarity in it together. They aren’t easily broken. Somedays my eyes are sore from tears and heavy from hurt. My joints are loose and my heart aches for things I often can’t articulate. I can’t hold it together even when I’ve wanted to. Life just doesn’t work that way. Grief and depression aren’t controlled with table manners and polite conversations. It’s messy.
This past January I was at a funeral for a friend who had passed away. At the reception, I asked another friend how he was doing. Both friends were leaders in the same church. He responded, “Not well. Things are dark.” He asked me how I was and I said, “Ya. Things are really dark for me too.” We both discussed that there were varied things going in in our lives and this, this death, added more. I then asked another friend how she was doing. She went on to say this has been the darkest season of her life. She has experienced a lot of darkness and loss this year. Too many funerals and too much pain were heavying her heart. You could visibly see it on her. I hugged her and cried. Real. I wasn’t ugly there. They understood, “because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I sat at a table with a different women at this same funeral reception. I hadn’t talked to this particular woman in two years and I cried. I just couldn’t hold it in when she asked how I was, how my job/ministry was, how life was. For two hours. In a room of 300 people at a funeral. With a baby on my lap. Snot and tears dripping from my face. And this friend, she scooted in close and said she was proud of me. She said I was becoming Real.
Becoming Real. Sometimes you Become. And it takes a long time. Sometimes the vitality literally gets taken out from under you, but you Become. All the heart ache and suffering that depression-anxiety with life bring don’t seem to make you ugly when you’re Real. Because when you’re Real those that think you are ugly or crazy or not “together” enough don’t really matter. You know that true strength means showing all your weakness and knowing that God is present in those weaknesses and helping you to Become Real. He is strong. He is able. And I’m not ugly.
Often, some of the most beautiful things come from the parts that are broken, as they are becoming Real:
I Felt a Funeral in My Brain by Emily Dickinson
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading–treading–till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through–
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum–
Kept beating–beating–till I thought
My Mind was going numb–
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space–began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here–
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down–
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing–then–