The other side of despair

May 11th, 2018
by Chris

As some reading this will already be aware, in 1996-7 I suffered a set of what, for me, were traumatic events, which resulted in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know that was the case for several years (I was first diagnosed in 2003), though a friend who had been a soldier actually suggested to my wife that might be the case in 1997 – but neither of us took that entirely seriously, as, to us, PTSD was something which happened to the military and people involved in disasters involving loss of life or very serious injuries.

PTSD tends to come with depression and anxiety “on the side”, and my depression, certainly, deepened over the following years. As for anxiety, the events had made my profession extremely scary for me, and I tried to carry on with it (and so fulfil my perceived duty as breadwinner for the family) despite being, basically, terrified. As I now know, untreated PTSD tends to get worse. I made things worse by trying to self-medicate with alcohol (I know, medicating depression and anxiety with a depressant drug which is addictive and so causes anxiety when you stop taking it is, not to put too fine a term on it, mad – but in at least one sense of the term, I was already mad…)

As it turned out, I “snapped out of” the depths of the depression in 2013, and have functioned at least tolerably since then. OK, I still have diagnoses of chronic depression and chronic anxiety, but have medication which lets me function somewhat normally, albeit with restrictions (I can get, perhaps, four to six really productive hours out of a day if that involves human interaction, rather more if it’s solitary activity).

I’ve written about the depression on a number of occasions – in one post I wrote “I think we’re inclined to confuse depression with an emotional state – I certainly used to, and there’s a voice at the back of my head which still tells me that it is, with the corollary that ‘you can and should control your emotions’. Actually, depression isn’t controllable like that. You can’t ‘think your way out of it’; it isn’t a matter of controlling the impulse to look on the black side of everything. No, I think depression isn’t an emotion, it’s where emotions go to die.” The thing is, people in the grip of really deep depression don’t – can’t – feel emotions (or at least positive ones). For several years prior to 2013, if I attempted to consult my emotions (“What do I feel about this?”) the only answer which came back is “It’s all WRONG”.

That post was written after the depression lifted somewhat – I probably couldn’t have written it during the depths of the thing itself.

Another piece I wrote talked about the phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which appears in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. At the bottom of depression, that cry of apparent despair spoke to me as God incarnate knowing what it was like to be desperate (de- meaning without, and spero meaning “to hope” – so desperation and despair are both forms of hoplessness).  Not only was there no hope, there was no love, affection, happiness or any of those emotions, and therefore there was no way to choose one option over another – I was unable to summon the emotion “I would prefer this to that”, whether it was a choice in a Chinese takeaway (after about half an hour gazing blankly at the huge menu, I effectively flipped a coin) or whether to walk under a bus. And, of course, I had lost the sense of the presence of God (the foresakenness), because faith without emotion can’t exist – indeed, faith as in the original scriptural sense is best rendered as “love and trust”, and both those have at least an element of emotion.

I not infrequently would recite to  myself “be still, and know that I am with you”, which is actually a slight mangling of “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) – but surely, to know that He is God demands that he is with you? Jesus, of course, represents the epitome of “God with us”. That, and other, generally more authentic,  biblical phrases were the key to surviving the depression. I had no way of making choices between options on the basis of my own preference, but I had rules, many of them Biblical ones, and reassurances that, even if I could not experience that presence, God was still with me.

Indeed, if we go back to Jesus’ cry on the cross, it is actually the first line of Psalm 22, and one can suspect that in the mostly oral culture of first century Israel, many listeners would have recalled the rest of the psalm. Yes, it goes on to say “I am poured out like water,  and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax;  it has melted within me.  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,  and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;  you lay me in the dust of death.” as well as the better known “a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet”, which still conveys extreme emotional distress (or, in my words, “It’s all WRONG”…

…but it goes on to affirm that God is near “But thou, O Lord, be not far off” and “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” I see there an echo of what I was doing for several years – the situation seemed hopeless, I could not summon hope, but I could summon an ultimately hopeful scripture.

In fact, the scripture I made most use of was the next psalm in the book, probably the best known of them all. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. Is “the valley of the shadow of death” exaggeration? No, because depression is definitely a life-threatening illness; many depressives eventually kill themselves, and my other regular refrain was “just for today I will not kill myself”.

And, if you insert “gospel” for “rod” and “psalm” for staff, they did comfort me – I am still here to write this, and give thanks for that fact.

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