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.