Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Abyss

Since I began my very public sharing of grief over the loss of Barbara, I have been mildly astonished at the number of people who have expressed admiration for what they have been kind enough to call my courage, or even heroism. There has been almost a sense of awe surrounding some of the comments that have come my way, often from people I have known my entire life. I might as well reveal the fact that my composure and poise have a source that can be explained in some detail. This is a subject that I have contemplated writing about here for quite some time, and if there will ever be an appropriate moment, this is certainly it.

The immediate prompt came from an article in The Christian Century that was shared with me by a friend. If the magazine’s copyright policy had allowed me to post a link on Facebook, I wouldn’t need to write this, since Frederick Niedner has written the best commentary I have ever read on clinical depression and its spiritual significance. The core of his argument is found in the following statements:

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that creative types—artists, poets and musicians—and those particularly sensitive to others' emotional lives are especially susceptible, although a kind of chicken-and-egg riddle may underlie this perception. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observes that the sanest individuals among us, the people most fully in touch with the reality of our mortal nature and flimsy constructs of meaning and purpose, are those whom fear and depression have reduced to states of catatonic paralysis. The rest of us who go blithely about our routines, oblivious to the fleeting quality of our arc through space and time, inhabit a fictional world, the insane realm of denial.”

Whether I am sane or not I will allow others to judge, but this cut to the quick for me. For years I was nearly maddened by this insidious disease, the open discussion of which remains one of our society’s last taboos. I am going to write here with brutal honesty in order to try to help make that taboo obsolete.

Yes, I suffered from clinical depression for more than twelve years, from my junior year in college until the age of 32. I may have had it even longer, but I became aware of it after a humiliating rejection by a girl I had fallen head over heels in love with. A kind of darkness descended over my life that is impossible to describe, since it is at once invisible and all-pervasive. I took one of the classic strategies for dealing with it—exactly the one that you would expect of a former National Merit Finalist with test scores in the stratosphere. I immersed myself in work and overachievement, earning a substantial fellowship to graduate school at Yale. Even in this Ivy League hideaway I distinguished myself, drawing attention from several faculty members who recognized in me the veritable prototype of a successful academic, complete with the Black Dog on a leash that always threatened to break out and demolish my feeble attempts at self-assertion.

In short, Yale claimed me as one of its own, having seen the pattern countless times before. I continued to throw myself into my work, renouncing romance and maintaining only a vestigial social life of any kind. And the depression grew worse, even though to all eyes I was thriving.

The crisis came during my penultimate dissertation year, when the Black Dog took up permanent residence on my upturned face and began the act of slow, sure suffocation that it knows so well. One of the pots in the kitchen of the apartment that I shared with another graduate student had been left out on the kitchen counter until it began to grow mold. I washed it carefully, but from that time forward became convinced that the mold remained and was slowly poisoning me and anybody else who had the misfortune of being a guest at our apartment. (We actually had a few.)

It was hard to imagine a mechanism, though, by which the scourge of our mold could get beyond the handful of our dinner guests, so a more subtle mechanism of transfer was needed. Within months, I had found it: the sound of my voice. It was not, after all, the chemical poisons from the mold that were fouling our guests; it was the mere act of listening to me. My voice, I imagined with pathetic grandiosity, had the real presence of a demonic power that could damn anybody who heard me to permanent separation from all hope. I was the shortcut to the Inferno. Worse, those so infected could infect others as well, giving them the power to spread the contagion. Soon, the mere act of having spoken socially to anybody else would make me effectively responsible for the eternal damnation of the entire world.

I knew, of course, that this was nonsense—and yet I didn’t, and so I spent increasingly long stretches of every day trying to argue myself rationally out of what had become a deep-seated obsession. As anybody who has tried it knows, you cannot argue your way out of an obsession, and the mere attempt to do so simply immerses you further, making the stakes even more desperate. It was after months of this ceaseless futility that I realized, quite simply, that I was going to have to kill myself. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had no choice. Life with that torment was simply unsustainable.

Volumes have been written about the overuse of anti-depressants in our culture, but I was most fortunate that at this moment my therapist realized that I was a candidate for them. This was before Prozac; I took monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which came with a host of dietary restrictions and possibly ghastly side effects. Within weeks of starting to take them, I experienced a miracle; the entire thought-complex that had imprisoned me in tighter and tighter chains for years simply lifted. Nothing in my own power could have made that happen, but a few little red pills a day had apparently done the trick.

In my newfound optimism I married, embarked on my professional career, and began to explore the previously shelved question of who I really was. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly as I could have hoped, and within a few years I had only a very part-time, temporary teaching job. It was at this point that my wife left me, performing the profoundly humiliating dumping maneuver yet again. Alone, with practically no income and even fewer prospects, I was forced to confront some long-delayed questions.

When I say forced, I mean it. Some of my passion on the subject of health insurance actually dates back to this time. With no insurance and only a minimal income, I could no longer afford the medications, so I was forced to wean myself off of them with no medical supervision whatsoever. Every time I lowered the dose, wave after wave of suppressed anger, fear and desperate sorrow surged to the surface and clawed at my consciousness. I realized that I had no choice but to finally own these emotions, albeit in small increments so that they no longer held the power of life and death over me. For the rest of that year, I doubled, then quadrupled, then exponentially expanded my emotional universe, all the while struggling through the everyday tasks that confront any newly single person trying to build a life.

Many days were so hard I really thought I would die of exhaustion or frustration—the difference wasn’t always entirely clear. Every time I picked myself up and repeated my new mantra: “If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything.” And so I did, and so I have.

It was at some point during all of this that I realized I no longer needed to ask myself whether I believed in God. I had been raised as an agnostic, for whom the existence of the deity was an open question, and the only unpardonable sin was to buy into a set of pre-made explanations. I had nevertheless flirted with Christianity in college, only to realize that our God is the God we know. Mine was a bully with a smirk, a sarcastic taunt and a maximum ability to inflict unbearable physical and emotional pain. Much of the anger that emerged during my “weaning” was directed at that God, and I told Him off repeatedly and with relish. I survived.

Contact with the genuinely divine, I found, sneaks in around you in rivulets of warmth and protection that are, to quote the title of Niedner’s article, “Barely Enough.” Nevertheless, enough they were, and by the time I met and married Barbara I had come to understand that everything I had done to recover from my depression was an expression of faith. Faith, of course, needs to have an object, and that object wasn’t me. This has remained the one ineluctable fact of existence for me ever since, and it renders theological debates more or less futile. This is what I know, and I can no other. Amazing grace how sweet the sound is the warp and fabric of my life, and I can no longer imagine it otherwise.

So on those occasions when I still have to step out into the abyss, not knowing if there is a foothold, I don’t worry so much any more. For those of you who are still with me, that is all there is to my heroism. I suppose, after all, that it is an appropriate subject of awe.


  1. "Faith, of course, needs to have an object, and that object wasn’t me."

    Well, I disagree. Barbara had faith in you. Your parents had faith in you. Your kids have faith in you. If you go back and read what you wrote, the thing that ultimately drove you through your darkness and into light was a faith in yourself.

  2. Well, we could parse terms on that for a while, Joel. As the mystics will tell you, there is the self, and then there is the Self. Having faith in the latter, which is what we're talking about, is a journey of numinous discovery: nothing less.

    1. Sorry, Robin. I'm a scientist, not a mystic. I deal in tangibles, realities, measurables, the reproducible. I call 'em like I see 'em. YMMV.

      I do hope that you'll come to see yourself as the agent of your survival and success.

    2. Well, I was raised by scientists and among scientists, so I had to find myself elsewhere. I know you're uncomfortable with that kind of talk, and I'm fine with that. As you said, YMMV.

  3. My depression developed into something severe during my sophomore year at Baylor. I started sleeping 16+ hours a day. I realized it was an issue that no longer just effected me when I almost slept through a wedding for which I was supposed to play the organ. Since then I've been on meds to help regulate it. I hear you when you refer to it as a taboo topic. Whenever I would visit my in-laws I would sleep and sleep and sleep. No one understood why I wanted or even needed to sleep that much. As a matter of fact they almost took it as an insult if it wasn't for my wife making up false excuses as to why I was so tired that weekend.

    In February, my wife left me. Definitely a tough time as I did everything I could in my power to help bring her back, but you can't make someone love you or want to be in a relationship. Those, I learned, are all personal decisions made in the relationship.

    Now that I'm on my own, I'm rediscovering myself and living honestly by not trying to spend so much time pleasing others but rather by focusing energies on developing me and allowing others to love me.

    I'm still trying to find that "object of faith" as agnosticism/atheism relentlessly pounds at my psyche. There isn't a person on this world who wants to find God more than me. Though, I refuse to construct him: I just can't honestly believe in God if he is something that I've manufactured in my mind. I feel that if you're going to create God, you might as well believe in yourself and have your own self as the object of faith. This I also refuse to do. And so, the searching continues...

    Seeing you take one step at a time helps me set one foot in front of the other.

    -Chris J.
    Corsicana, Texas

  4. I'm sorry to hear about your wife, Chris; I didn't know that. It sounds like you're going through something very much like what I went through, though. If you want to talk about it sometime, just let me know.

  5. I'm so sorry Robin. You hid this all from us in grad school and I really had no idea at all. Hugs, Jeanne

  6. Thanks, Jeanne. I didn't entirely hide it. In particular, I was glad to talk about the anti-depressants and their stunning effects. Having to explain to people why I couldn't eat cheese, bananas, avocados or quite a few other things often provided the pretext. But I understand that most of the suffering was hidden from the outside world, and that's what I'm trying to change here.