The Size of Sorrow


(original photo taken by Jenna Foster)

I wrote this poem three days after asking my doctor to put me back on medication for depression. Again. The words came pouring out of me that Friday morning, after I read some psalms and tried to pray. The kids were at school and John was at the gym while I sat crying in a recliner by the window. I’ve had many sad mornings in the last ten months, but I’m looking forward to a different kind of Fall this year. I still get worried, anxious, and tearful from time to time, but yesterday I realized some differences in the me-from-last-Fall and the me-from-now.

Back then I was just mad. Like all the time. I feel so sorry for my family members and the kids in my preschool class when I think about how bad it was back then. I lost my temper at least three times a day. I’d snap at people for minor infractions and yell at them for bigger ones. I’d  slam cabinet doors in anger, or reach up under my hair and yank it really hard right at the scalp. (Thankfully I never manged to pull any of it out.) Other times I’d hit a wall, or kick at one of our pets, or bite down on one of my knuckles until tears formed in my eyes. Once I got mad enough to have a good cry I felt better, but most of the time I would settle for being pissy–just angry enough to remain completely miserable.

In November, the anger began to turn into sadness and lethargy. I signed up for an exercise class to try and boost my mood and energy, but by the end of class I was spent, so depleted I couldn’t stay for the cool down. The few times I tried, a deep sorrow welled up in me, and by the time I got to my car, I was weeping. I’ve been known to get a little teary when I’m completely relaxed, but this was more intense than usual. Something was wrong, and I knew it. I tried to talk myself out of it for a couple of weeks, waiting to bounce back from my “bad mood,” but nothing changed, and I soon lost the motivation to fight it off.

One day my husband came home and found me crying and I couldn’t explain why. He sat with me at our kitchen table as I covered my face with my hands and sobbed. He listened as I told him that I had no reason to feel so sad. “It’s not logical,” I said. “I know that–I keep telling myself that–but I can’t figure out how to turn it off.”

John hugged me while I cried, and although I was thankful for his comfort, I felt really embarrassed. When he went back to work, he sent me a text with a quote from a book he’d been rereading. It was the perfect response from someone in his position, someone who’s never suffered this kind of episode. Here’s what it said: 

“He went wordless, and wordless he sat beside her. He knew the size of her sorrow.” ~ from Book of the Dun Cow, by Walt Wangerin, Jr. 

It was a few more days before I called my doctor. It was so hard to work up the courage to tell a total stranger that I needed help. I got so desperate that I texted a friend and asked her to do it for me. She probably would have, too, but she was taking care of small children and didn’t see the text until several hours later. I remember laying in bed with my phone in my hand, feeling crushed by shame. It took all the strength I had to push against that weight and dial the number, but I knew I had to do it. There was no other way for me to get free.

Once I started taking medicine, I began sleeping better. I’d forgotten what deep sleep was like and how it felt to have a rested mind in the morning. Long term sleep deprivation has serious side effects, but most people don’t notice because it happens so gradually. The next thing I noticed was that I was becoming less irritable. I kept finding myself blowing out a sigh rather than clenching my jaw in rage. And it was so nice to be able to take that deep breath, to be able to think for a second, before immediately reacting to whatever stimulus was in front of me. It was so nice to not feel supreme annoyance at every little thing that didn’t go my way, to begin seeing things I liked again, rather than obsessing about the things I didn’t.

After several weeks I felt like the sadness was dissipating. I still cried a lot, but my tears began to feel more like a faucet that turned off and on, rather than a river I couldn’t see the end of. I started smiling more and laughing louder and liking the person I saw when I looked in the mirror. I also felt less anxious about writing. Where before I had to clean my whole house, make a cup of tea, light a candle, and pray before I got started; now I could just sit down and start working. I’m not as worried about getting every word right the first time. I know that I’ll come back to it and make things better the second time. And I have plenty of time. There’s not this insane pressure to become famous before everyone forgets about me. I can just do the writing I want to do, and tell the stories I want to tell. Whatever is supposed to happen with those stories will happen. Well, I don’t believe that all the time, but it’s much easier than it used to be.

And that’s the biggest change I can see–the ability to see things in a different light. To know that this moment is not the only one there is. I can see more clearly all the moments that came before, and I trust more fully in all the moments yet to come. Because inside each one of those moments is an opportunity to be my best self, rather than a cancerous tumor of fear.

The root of this shift in perspective, I believe, is less shame about my feelings. Initially my medicine helped with that, but now what helps the most is talking with other people (counselors and friends) who have lots of big feelings like me. Shame is the killer weapon of depression, the thing that keeps us from telling anyone all the crazy things we’re feeling, for fear they won’t want to be our friends anymore. It makes our thoughts sound something like this:

If people really know how desperate I feel, they’ll think it’s all my fault. They’ll tell me to stop being so narcissistic and pray more. They’ll tell me about all the other people they know who have real problems, who don’t go around whining about their feelings all the time. They’ll tell me to just get over it, to cheer up, to move on, and a thousand other things that’ll make me hate myself more than I already do.

Because that’s what depression is, hating yourself. On a really bad day last year I tried to read Psalm 139 out loud to myself, but I couldn’t do it. The words would not come out of my mouth. Nothing came out but sobs, and the revelation that I didn’t believe a single word on the page. This was not humility. It was self hatred, and it was not from God. He did not want me to feel condemned, but I did, and no amount of prayer or truth could knock it out of me.

This is the kind of mental illness that makes people finally pull that shaky trigger, or walk out into the middle of the ocean, or cut off their own ears. It’s a disease we don’t fully understand, but it’s a disease nonetheless. And we’ve got to start treating it that way. We’ve got to be able to talk about it, and encourage each other to get real help.

So here I am writing about it. If you’re struggling, please tell someone. I know there are people who say the wrong things, who don’t truly understand, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. Find someone you trust and be as honest as you can stand. Fumble through the awkward darkness until someone can help you find the light switch. Do not keep crying alone in your bleak corner. You are wonderfully made, in the image of a God who does not hate himself, who doesn’t want you to hate yourself either. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Even if you don’t believe it.

The things you think, feel, and believe when you’re depressed are simply not true. No matter how much they feel like it. They are symptoms of an unwell mind, and the first step in treating those symptoms is not obsessing over what caused it. Whether it’s a tendency you were born with, a chemical imbalance, a spiritual funk, or the stress of hard times in your life, the first step in treatment is opening up.

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