[Preface: If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, I strongly suggest that you see a therapist. The way I am thinking about my own experience may or may not be helpful for you.]
I told you a few posts ago that I was struggling with depression. Fairly mild depression (dysthymia is the technical term), thank God. I’ve probably been having these symptoms for a few years now. Its hard to tell exactly how long, because there’s a fine line between having dysthymia and being a bit of a grouch with a cynical sense of humor. I also have issues with anxiety. Both of these tend to flare up a lot in relation to academic writing, and I have engaged in all sorts of less than healthy behaviors in order to cope with them (procrastination, facebook addiction, entertaining every possible excuse not to work on my papers or dissertation–often quite good excuses). This has resulted in painfully slow progress on my dissertation. But I have now reached the point in my dissertation process where this simply has to be the last year.
I resisted calling this depression for some time. This is in part because I have a certain mistrust of a medical system that sometimes treats very complex experiences as simple malfunctions of the body and brain to be solved with a pharmaceutical intervention. There is most definitely a spiritual aspect to the experiences we now call depression, to which psychiatry is fairly oblivious. I was (and remain) wary of our tendency to treat people who just–damn it!–aren’t happy as though they have something wrong with them. Also, I wanted to explore where these feelings came from and try to address them at their root, so I spent several years seeing a therapist in Chicago who employed a “non-pathologizing” method. It was a wonderful experience that is largely to thank for my transition to something resembling functional adulthood. I suppose that what changed in my new environment was not that my depression got worse or that I noticed something that I and my therapist had missed, but that depression became a useful way of thinking about what I was experiencing. So I started seeing a counselor in Madison, and after a few months, started taking anti-depressants.
We tend to treat going to therapy and taking antidepressants as though they quickly and magically solve whatever was “wrong” with someone. That’s not how it works at all. If you’re doing a more cognitive-behavioral mode of therapy, you’re working hard to rewire your brain (or is it a mind?). If you’re taking drugs, they mostly just make the symptoms milder so you can find mental and bodily practices that dissipate them, or at least let you cope with them. But it’s still work to find what those are.
And that’s where prayer comes in for me, and where even though I find the medical and psychological perspectives helpful, I have to treat this as a spiritual experience, and probably one in which God is trying to teach me something. Specifically, I am learning to love God in all things, and all things in God. I spent much of my summer in Indonesia reading Origen’s treatise on prayer. Highly recommended, though not for wholesale adoption. I have also been practicing centering prayer, a form of silent prayer in which you simply consent to God’s presence, and let God be present in a way that you may or may not be conscious of. I have also continued praying at least some of the Daily Office (I try to take Origen’s recommendation of praying aloud at least three times a day). I have come to think of prayer less as a spiritual feat and more as spiritual hygiene.
Origen says that the whole life of the saint is a prayer. Commenting on the beginning of the Lord’s prayer, he says that whatever else we may be doing, our heart should always be saying “Our Father,” with all the relations to God that entails. The daily disciple of silent and verbal prayer trains us to make our whole lives a prayer.
And if my whole life is a prayer, then the things that scare me so much, like my dissertation, are just another mode of prayer. And prayer is not scary for me (though I know it is for some people). I still experience sudden flare ups of fear or disgust, which used to paralyze me. By the grace of God and the ministrations of my doctors, I think I’ve turned the corner on this damned dissertation. My communion with God is the center of my being. Anxiety and all the other emotions that assail me are merely superficial. Ripples on the lake. Below them, the truth of who and what I am remains untouched. And the truth of what I am is communion with God. The practice I am learning is to go there when the anxiety or depression flares up, and wait for the waves to pass over. Because all they are is waves. But I have “a spring of water, gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14), “the peace of God which passes understanding” (Phil. 3:7). Writing is still a pain in the ass, but it can also be a prayer.
I’ve certainly had a few minor relapses in the last weeks. In fact, this post is pretty much an avoidance tactic. I still depend on your prayers, and on the prayers of all the saints. But I am mindful of this: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Lord, grant what you command!
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?