Thomas L. McDonald always impresses me. He is a bright and sharp writer who has a way to cut through some of the less helpful things out there and get to the heart of what it is to be a Catholic whose mind often features “Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” pits and mountains. In a way, he captures both the darkness and the strange, hidden graces that comes with being a man of depression and faith.
His latest musings on depression are especially interesting. In “The Cold Reboot of the Soul,” he begins by explaining what depression is not and delves into one the better short explanations I’ve ever read,
Depression isn’t sadness. It’s not even in the same emotional class. Depression is like a vice on your brain. It can sometimes squeeze so tightly that the sufferer hallucinates. It’s like mental suffocation. And it comes on for no reason, even in the midst of happiness.
He does mention that drugs help, which is indeed my experience. I am, after years of avoiding them, back on medication and the difference is something impressive. Not everyone has positive experiences of medication, and I certainly had a rather negative reaction to one form of medication and swore off of them for years. However, like all forms of therapy, just one form is not a cure but should act as a full mosaic in treatment. Like exercise, proper diet, seeing a therapist regularly, and finding fulfilling hobbies, medication is a long-haul process that will not bring relief overnight. Rather, it corrects one particular short-coming in the body to give the mind a floor for how deep the depression can sink. But it does still sink. Oh boy, does it ever!
I have written on this subject quite a bit, I still feel uncomfortable telling people about this in person. Most folks, in their tender hearts, want to help and fix it and, well, this is a lifetime condition. There is no “fixing” it and thus they either feel like I’m not even trying or they assume I have abandoned hope because their usual treatments for sadness (which, remember is distinct from depression) are not necessarily going to work on me. It’s not their fault, but often times I will tell people about my periods of absolute melancholy where my mind seems to refuse to listen to my demands to open up to the light and then I end up having to comfort them. Believe me, it’s even worse when I confess to the bark of the black dog telling me to end it all. I can still remember having to give one friend a hug and assuring them I had no real plans, but that was a lie. However, the guilt of it, even if it’s nothing either party did wrong, is sometimes one more stress I don’t need.
So, I respect Tom, Dawn Eden, and host of other great writers who are willing to be honest about their afflictions of the mind and to, ultimately, provide hope to all of us. There is hope that we are not alone. And in our little fellowship, we find hope that the God who raised the dead and brought light to the world can illuminate us enough to keep going.
Tom offers one particular idea that I think is exploring. In thinking upon his depression and all the problems it brings, he suggests there might be a better way to think about depression, which I quote at length:
As Christians, we need to think differently. Perhaps that pit is not despair, which after all is a sin. Perhaps it’s not even a pit. Perhaps it’s an invitation, a blank slate, a clean white sheet of paper.
When a computer starts to malfunction, what do you do?
You turn it off.
When you power it all the way down and then restart it, it’s called a cold reboot. A cold reboot interrupts the power and clears the memory leaks that may be causing a system to run poorly. Most everyday computer problems can be solved by simply restarting the system a couple of times.
Perhaps depression functions like a cold reboot of the soul. What does depression feel like? Paradoxically, it’s both a weight and an emptiness. Paradox is sometimes a cue that we’re dealing with the transcendent.
For a Christian, every weight is a cross.
For a Christian, every emptiness is a desert.
The cross is our participation in the divine work of Christ. The desert is the place where we empty ourselves so we may be filled with the Spirit.
In America, where the prosperity gospel vexes us all, we sometimes think that ill fortune and things like mental illness can’t be part of our Christian life. They are though, because Christ did not rise from the dead to make us rich, content suburbanites. He came that the dead may live again and that we may find Easter joy even on Good Friday. God has entered the world and united Himself to it so deeply, that we can think of it as a merging. Not only that, but we find in Him our total reason for being, but we must be willing to participate in both Good Friday and Easter.
Depression is not a curse, though it often feels that way. It is a cross and a desert that is, in many ways, a way of participating in the life of Christ. It will feel heavy, burdensome, and no doubt our prayers will be for this cross to pass us up, just for a little while. Still, it can be an invitation to delve deeply into uniting ourselves with our Christ. As Ven Francis Libermann once wrote,“I never cross a bridge without the thought of throwing myself over the parapet, to put an end to these afflictions. But the sight of my Jesus sustains me and gives me patience.”
This, then, is a Cross that calls us to a fuller participation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this makes it easier. However, if Tom is right, then at least it gives us a purpose and a meaning to our pain. I can say this from experience: There is no pain like that which is suffered without a reason. While I anticipate I will learn and grow from my depression all my life, perhaps there is also a way to turn it towards the light.
All of you, my friends and comrades in these afflictions of the mind, will remain in our prayers. Please leave me a comment to tell me your thoughts or use the “About Me” header above to contact me.
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground.
When the man comes around.
-Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around
Yesterday would have been Johnny Cash’s 83rd birthday. In years past, when I was thin enough to fit into it (thanks food binges and booze!) I would wear my black suit on that day and find a bar to toast the man. This was especially effective at the Waterloo in Louisville, CO which is a giant memorial to The Man in Black.
To say the least, the man has had a rather large impact on my life. Of course, I heard him in childhood due to my dad’s love of all things music. That passion for his music grew and became something of my own during my high school punk/rock phase where I was seeking anyone that could exhibit the raw emotions and the spare lyrics that I found in The Sex Pistols and Dillinger Escape Plan. Of course, as someone who grew up Evangelical but always struggled with doubt, he was many times a reminder of the “beauty, ever ancient and ever new” that I was always seeking but not finding.
Thanks to a Cash marathon for his birthday, as well as a Twitter conversation with Dawn Eden, I have decided to call this A Johnny Cash Lent. Stay with me, this will make sense if a bit.
Since our last Easter, which marked my tenth anniversary as a confirmed Catholic, a lot has happened. I grew in my job as an editor, published two well-received articles on depression, and lost a friend and mentor. Despite that a lot was going well in my life, I had to face some challenges within my own soul and confront some uncomfortable demons. I entered the Church with confidence and exuberance, but by my tenth anniversary I found many of my prayers were a rant at God while also trying to remember to praise Him. In prior years, I drowned these thoughts and voices in booze, sensuality, and everything that goes with it. This year, I found writing, prayer, and contemplation was far healthier but also quite a bit more difficult. If I’ve learned anything in my 30’s it’s that the slow death of self-medication is far easier than trying to wrestle with your own demons in the hope that life is worth living.
While my life, compared to Johnny Cash and many others, has been incredibly easy, his music has meant a lot to me. In his lyrics I found an Old Testament man strumming the steel strings of a guitar, singing once about how “God’s Gonna Cut you Down” while also begging “Lead me Father, with the staff of life/Give me the strength for a song” and it was all from the same man who knew well both the disappointment of his own life as well as what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Cash grew up listening to and signing the songs from his mother’s hymnal. In fact, one of the reasons why he left Sun Records was because of Sam Phillips reluctance to let him record Gospel. He was publicly a Christian who wrote moving words about Jesus and his own struggle to grow closer to Him. When asked about his faith Cash would say, “The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.” However, he was also not shy about the complications of faith and life. In one interview he said:
“I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all. But my faith in God has always been a solid rock that I’ve stood on, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that. I guess maybe I took advantage of that.”
In Johnny Cash one can find faith, but it was complicated. Even in his infamous amphetamine habit, he saw that he was trying to escape something. “I used them to escape and they worked pretty well when I was younger,” he admitted in the same interview. “But they devastated me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That third one, spiritually, is the one that hurts so much—separation from God.” Even in his benders, he knew that he couldn’t escape and only in Christ was he to find that solid rock he’d been searching for. Though he was not even looking for God, he saw that God was still looking for him, “There was no line of communication. But that came back. He came back. And I came back.”
As I said, Cash’s faith was complicated. However, isn’t it always? Aren’t we all a lot like the young Augustine, praying daily make me chaste, Lord, but not yet! As Christians, especially confirmed Catholic with the Sacraments, we know that Grace is always there and available to us and that God hears our cries, but how often have taken advantage of that time we think we have?
If I could go back eleven years ago and talk to my younger self I’d give a lot of advice; “See a therapist, don’t stop taking your medication, and try to go for a walk once-in-a-while.” However, I think I’d more likely tell my young, idiot self, the wisdom of The Man in Black, “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil.”
Lent is a time where we join Christ in the desert and ultimately prepare ourselves to remember his death and resurrection. We also take this time to remember our own sins and where we have fallen short. It can be hard, dangerous and exhausting. Like Christ, we’ll be tempted and many of us will fall like we have oh so many times before. That is the real challenge of Lent: to come face-to-face with yourself and to be able to turn that face to light of Christ. To live for God is going to take real courage, but grace is sufficient to give us the strength to stand when life exhausts every ounce of energy we had.
This Lent, let’s be more like Johnny Cash! Let’s admit our faults and our shortcomings but do it with the confidence that they are not what defines us. Rather, let those challenges give us a tender heart to stand up for the weak and displaced and be a symbol of God’s mercy. Let this Lent be the time where you’re not shy about your faith but also willing to meet everyone where they are and offer the love and friendship this world so terribly needs.
As Good Friday approaches you may don black and I hope you can sing, along with Johnny, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Nota Bene: Of course nobody can write a post about Cash without mentioning “Hurt.” I appreciate an old artist who is aware of his mortality and especially enjoyed the “Hurt” music video because he strikes me as doing what I imagine every writer wants to do: write his own ending, and make it sound like the Book of Ecclesiastes