“How have you managed your life so far?”
About three months ago, this reflection on containers led me to an action I never would have expected. For years I have struggled with chronic mild depression. A few times it has become what you could call clinical depression, but most of the time what I experience does not fit into that category. Except for a very brief period during grad school when the condition was at its worst, I had never been put on medication by a doctor. I just figured that this was a personal weakness—that is, a predisposition toward weariness and dark emotions. Many artists must deal with this; some people theorize that artistic work lends itself to melancholy.
In response to specific situations over the years, including some major losses, I have spent a good bit of time in a therapist’s office. So over the years I’ve acquired some very good tools for dealing with reality. My therapist—along with other people who know me well—would say that I’m a positive and forward-moving person, someone who has developed wisdom along with gracious competence in using my gifts.
So when, while thinking about containers, I realized that one of my primary containers was actually depression, I had to explore this further. And I saw with clarity that my primary container was not depression but anxiety; the depression was simply my way of dealing with the anxiety. The anxiety would become overwhelming; I would shut down emotionally and become exhausted.
And I had to ask, Why am I still struggling with this? I live my life pretty well: my primary relationships are healthy; I’ve dealt with my losses and allowed myself to grieve; I operate out of a spiritual center, a belief system and faith that have developed and deepened over the years; and I’m one of those fortunate people who is able to use her gifts in her livelihood—my work as writer and editor is fulfilling.
Yet, in spite of all this, there was apparently an undercurrent of anxiety that kept pushing me into shutdown. I would go about my days in such a way as to stay reasonably organized, and I was not afraid to fail. So why was this powerful anxiety still present?
Sometimes the revelation we receive from God is not at all what we would expect. The revelation to me this time was simply, This is not your fault. Something else was going on, something not accessible through yet another method of prayer or a better way of planning my day.
I went to a psychiatrist, a man I’ve known for years and whom I trust. I explained the situation, and he said that what I was saying made perfect sense to him. So he wrote a prescription for a medication that should target the anxiety as well as the depression. I walked out of his office knowing that I’d done the right thing. At age fifty-one, and after forty years of following Jesus and living by faith, it was probably safe to assume that if I couldn’t make this anxiety abate through all the ways of coping I’d learned, then it probably was not related directly to behavior or attitude.
Sure enough, the medicine worked—and is still working, thank you, God. I suspect that this anxiety developed when I suffered from hyperthyroid at age seven. Several years on a drug that ended up causing serious multiple problems didn’t help. The prolonged state of nervousness might have been enabled by a decade or more of what I now believe was too high a dose of synthetic thyroid (the protocol for thyroid issues has changed over the years). Or, who knows, perhaps this is one of those conditions you’re just born with. Whatever the case, anxiety became so deeply engrained in my way of being that most of the time I was not even aware of it. Only in recent years have I understood how high-strung I’ve been, particularly in my growing-up and young-adult years. I managed to mask the anxiety with depression as I got older. When you live with something that long, it just seems to be a part of you, not a condition that might be treatable.
I decided to write about this because there is still some stigma attached to getting help in the area of mental health. Religious people are especially averse to considering that interior habits may not be moral problems after all but might have some physiological cause. We’d like to think that if we just prayed more (or better), things would improve. Or perhaps we need to be more rigorous about confessing sin or meditating on Scripture. Prayer, confession, and learning the Bible are good activities—and are crucial to our growth as whole people. But God planted within this marvelous universe the kind of knowledge that enables a psychiatrist to listen for awhile and then prescribe a chemical compound—that actually makes a positive difference.
I grew up around people who believed in faith-healing; in fact, some members of my family consider that I’m alive today thanks to the prayers of several churches during a period when the doctors were confounded and my body had already begun to come apart. I believe that miracles happen. Sometimes a gathering of prayers releases power that restores us. And sometimes a capsule releases its substance into a body, and a whole realm of anxiety simply dissipates.
Another important thing to remember is that sometimes what we need for personal restoration is not more self-blame, self-help, or the repetition of religious practices such as confession or meditation. Sometimes what we need is to seek other specific, tangible help. After all, every good gift—in whatever form—is from the God who loves us. So during this Lenten season, I hope that all who read this will allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the wounded places and shine holy light upon whatever will be the best source of help and healing.