A Time to Build Up and a Time to Break Down (Article 5)

swirly girl

I wasn’t the only one breaking down that weekend. Back home, our two sweet international homestay students had morphed from best friends to mortal enemies, and the police, a fire truck and a translator came to the house at 2 a.m. to break up their ugly, hair-pulling fight. (Clumps of long, yanked hair on the floor the next day were chilling.) Henry’s as-yet undiagnosed cyclothymia (a milder form of bipolar disorder) was rapid-cycling him from euphoria to anger every twenty minutes, to the devastation of my suicidal self. I’d been open with the Nashville leaders about my breakdown, and we had one week to decide whether or not we still wanted to move.* As we drove home from the airport, we listened to breaking news of the BP gas explosion in Louisiana — an apt metaphor for the hidden cracks and underwater poison leaking inside me. Florida felt like a bad dream, but I knew my death wish was not a dream, and it had flown home with me.

How does it feel to be clinically depressed? For those who’ve been there, no description is needed. For those who haven’t, I give you this poem.

The View from Melancholia

There are people who know nothing of despair,
cannot conceive the crushing waves that sink the soul,
cannot perceive the dark at dawn, the noon-day gloom,
the evening’s welcome tunnel into night.

Those souls without a window to the moon.

There are people who know nothing of a world
that rushes by, without the will to carry on,
who carry confidence as lightly as their names
along with others who know nothing of despair.

There are people congregating on the shore
who have yet to see the islands
of alone.

Read the poem again, and let the words do their work. Now I’m going to put on my English Teacher Hat, and walk you through the lines again.

Q. What does this poem teach about depression?

1. Depression is extremely isolating, and the depressed know they’re living in a completely different world from everyone else. We know others don’t get it when they blithely tell us to ‘cheer up’ or ‘get over it’ – or fail to notice that we’re barely functioning and are miles from our true selves. The worst comment is “I’ve never been depressed a day in my life!” If that’s even true, don’t boast about it to someone who’s in the slough of despond.

2. Depression is “crushing”, dark, and unrelenting. Mornings are often the worst times, as another hopeless day stretches before us. Noon is excruciating because the sun mocks our inner mood. Evening is more welcome; at least the darkness of night matches our inner state. But insomnia can be a grave problem for those with depression, and nights can be equally harrowing, even if we can hide for a while as others sleep.

3.”Those souls without a window to the moon” is a purposely ambiguous line. Who’s missing the window? It could be those with or without ‘melancholia’. There is a deep sense, for the afflicted, of knowing the valley, the night, the pale light of the moon, in an achingly intimate way. Or it could be that glancing at the reliable moon is enough to get ‘normal’ people through the night.

4. When you’re depressed, everyone else seems busy, purposeful, and mindlessly happy (“a world that rushes by…”).This reminds me of times I’ve been very sick and weak, and I marveled at healthy people energetically running through their days. It’s similar when you’re depressed: you can’t believe how easy and effortless life seems for those who are ‘normal’. And you can’t imagine ever feeling, or living, that way again.

5. “Without the will to carry on”: Even though you envy the vigor of the regulars, everything seems pointless through the veil of depression. Solomon’s words, “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless!” become your mantra.

6. The regulars, “who carry confidence as lightly as their names”, don’t struggle with the worthlessness and self-hatred that cripples depressives from doing anything new, original, or light. (Although I do believe that depression can eventually lead to greater creativity, this doesn’t happen in the deepest throes of it.) We also feel we’re failing to live up to our name, to who we were supposed to be; thus, we are a painful disappointment to those who’ve believed in us, and to ourselves.

7. The undepressed, those “congregating on the shore”, love to socialize, find plenty to talk about, and obviously don’t feel like we, the walking dead, do: we shun socializing, knowing we’d cast a pall on any gathering — even if we had the energy to show up.

8. But the regulars “have yet to see the islands of alone”. This means they don’t see us, on our separate islands of pain, but someday they might find themselves on their own lonely islands. At which point they too will gaze back at the shoreline, marvelling at those who know nothing of despair…

Perhaps you can find even more inside this poem than I intended. (This happens all the time in English Lit classes!) Share your own thoughts about how depression feels with the rest of us. (And don’t you already feel a bit smarter, having parsed a poem today?)

Here are a few more observations about depression.

Just as no two people are alike, no two depressions are alike, although they share common traits. Depression tends to manifest in one of two forms: ‘anxious’ and ‘vegetative’. I’m the anxious type of depressive, who struggles with restlessness, agitation, insomnia and irritability when depressed. The vegetative types are more likely to take to bed, sleep a great deal, and lack any measure of motivation or energy to get moving. Both are equally horrible.

When an anxious depressive ventures out, it might seem like a positive act, but for me it was anything but. I don't know how to fake 'happy', and talking about my true state was more than most listeners could handle. Going to parties was disastrous: I felt allergic to happy, smiling people and always wanted to leave within the first five minutes. As for going to church, I sometimes stayed home, knowing I couldn’t keep it together for the duration. The first hymn would be enough to undo me.

The right medication can work wonders. But finding the right one, at the right dose, can be a scary and harrowing experience if the first meds don't work for you. It’s worth the struggle to get yourself out of the pit and on level ground, where you can start dealing with your issues. Trying to 'fix yourself' when you're in a deep depression is impossible. The right medication can give you clarity and a measure of control over runaway emotions. At least that's my experience. I’m no professional, just a former island dweller who’s found her way to the opposite shore.

But I can still see those islands. And I brought back some priceless souvenirs.

*The church in Nashville kindly offered to send us for a week of intensive counselling in preparation for our move. But I knew that whatever needed fixing would take much longer than a week. In fact, it’s taken years. As you can probably guess, we decided against the move to Tennessee, which turned out to be a wise decision as more personal issues surfaced. More about those later…

10 replies »

  1. I’m not sure when my depression started but when I was around 15 years oldI was alreadydepressed scared lonely hopeless had no direction and lost I remember it was so hard for me to fit in to keep up with what my other friends were doing my friends were drinking using drugs and trying to meet girls like what a lot of teenagers do unfortunately for me when I would drink and use drugs all those feelings that I had would intensify and I would become extremely antisocial and often break down and cry in front of friends and strangers which would ruin all my friends fun what a vicious cycle that one on for years and years and years but God was working in all of this because it forced me at an early age to cry out to God and ask him to helpI remember as an early teen I used to stare into my eyes in the mirror and I could see the emptiness I would smile and look in my eyes and see the emptiness so I’m very familiar with a smile that ends at the eye a smile can be faked but there’s no getting around when you look into someone’s eyes if you care to truly see what’s in there it can’t be missed its only missed if you don’t wanna know what’s really in somebody’s heart in 1985 I was baptized by 1988 I was disfellowshipedit appears I could not make it in the world nor could I make it and the kingdom I have never experienced so much hopelessness depression condemnation gilt eventually I was restored but then I decided to leave the church of Christand remember the International Church of Christ taught when you leave this church you leave God an you’re on the road to hell and I believed that wholeheartedly at that time I became a hopeless depressed suicidal I wanted to give up but there was that small quiet voice in myheart I believe it was the Holy Spirit that said you can’t commit suicide don’t do it instead I moved to San Diego Californiaand plunged head first into a crystal meth amphetamine addictionbut its funny how God’s Spirit works I saw a young man reading his BibleI knew he was from the Church of ChristI could tell he was having a quiet time I introduced myself and he was a disciple from the church in San DiegoI went to the church a few times but was not ready to surrender my life back to God well as you can guess the drug addiction got worse my life spiraled out of control and I almost died in California luckily friends and family got me home that was around 1992 I’ve managed to get clean for a few years went back to the Church of Christ only to come and go get involved with crack cocaine sexual addiction and all the consequences that come with those two things which it to numerous to mention even with all the dating in the Church of Christ I was never ableto get close enough to a sister 2 let myself fall in love or let someone fall in love with me I was too scared to be hurt so here I am now at the age of 50 I was never in love before it was a christian has never been in love as a christian you can imagine all the depression loneliness shame that goes along with that when people look at you in the world and in the icoc and wonder why you’re not married and don’t have children maybe he’s gay is what they usually are thinking although I’m not if I was I would tell you so here I sit todayon the corner of my bed wondering if I should press send you know as depressing and hopeless and hard as my life has been most of it because of my own choices that I have made and consequences that I’d suffered I believe with all my heart God has been there every step of the way I’m at a point now where I feel likeI want to start all over concerning my Bible knowledge I want to forget everything I’ve learned and start anew when you are depressed and hopeless it’s veryfor me to read the Bible and believe it especially the passages that talk about God loving me those are the hardest ones to believe I wonder if ican truly start over and God will strip my mind of all lies that are in my heart and mind and fill my heart and mind up with the truth that is in the Bible please pray that he will do that for me through His Holy Spirit I am a survivor so I cannot give up I need your prayers though I don’t want to survive anymore I wanna learn to thrive in God


    • Hi Joe, Your story is very moving and very sad. I can write more to you later, but right now I just want to say a few important things\;
      1. God absolutely loves you, as much as He loves Jesus or any person who’s ever lived. Don’t let Satan lie about that to you, ever.
      2. I wonder if you’ve tried medications for depression, and if you’ve had any success with that. I also wonder if you could be someone with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. It’s very common for bipolars to be wrongly diagnosed AND treated for depression only, which only makes the bipolar (esp. the depressive side of it) much, much worse over time. This happened to my husband and it got very bad before we finally got the correct diagnosis and treatment. Just something to consider; bi-polar individuals have a lot more depression than mania, and don’t seek treatment when they’re on the high side of the cycle.
      3.Don’t limit yourself to the Church of Christ or ICOC as you look for a fellowship, unless you find one that is full of grace and compassion, not just expectations and requirements. Are you still in San Diego? Do you have to stay there? I’ve heard some great things about the Turning Point ministry in LA, the former AMS ministry that’s still ICOC but running things their own way. They do a lot of ministry with mental health/addictions recovery and sounds like God is blessing their fresh approach to helping ALL people find God’s grace and peace. If you could check it out, it might be the right place for you to get the kind of teaching, compassion and support that you need.
      I hope these are helpful suggestions for you. Please write back whenever you want to. I will pray for you, I promise.
      I’m not posting your letter unless you want me to do so, so let me know if you do.
      Hang in there and don’t let go of God!!! He is able to do all things, and His desire is to bless, never to harm us.


  2. Not sure what to say except that many people are still reading and many people are being empowered by your words! Thank you for continuing to describe your journey.


  3. Marilyn you have captured the essence of depression and made it understandable at so many levels – emotionally, spiritually, physically and cognitively. Very well written and I’m sure a huge help to all who read your blog in understanding this illness and the hope your journey “to the opposite shore” provides. Thank-you so much!! God is always there for us…your testimony is so encouraging.
    Posted by: your friend and a Registered Nurse.


    • Thanks for the professional and personal endorsement, Holly! Always appreciate your feedback and wise advice.


  4. Marilyn, I hope you looked up that Brené Brown book I read that someone recommended to you; I think you’d like her. Here is my favourite BB quote: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

    Thanks for your heart-felt and piercingly eloquent articles; I just finished reading them up to this present installment. I had never realized just how formidable was your intellect. Hi to Henry, and be well.


    • Thank you, Darrell. I do plan to get the BB book soon. I’ve always tried to be open and vulnerable, but must say that doing it online is a whole new level of transparency!
      As for your last comment, I guess I must be smarter than I appear to be — whatever that means! Thanks for your support and comments.


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