“Yes,” he answered unhesitatingly. “God has sent you a rose. I’m praying you discover you are the beautiful rose in his garden.”
She was shocked into hearing him, into actually glimpsing herself as beautiful, beloved and chosen. Despite herself, her mind and will cracked open to the possibility that her identity was not “failure,” “despair” or “unlovable,” but “beautiful . . . loved.”
This was not the story depression had been telling her for so long. “You are God’s beautiful one” wasn’t a line in the well-worn refrain buzzing round her head like a cloud of gnats. Those lines were more like: “You messed up again,” “You don’t have what it takes,” “We told you it would never work,” “You don’t belong,” “Just accept you aren’t worth much.” With assistance, she’d come to recognize that refrain, and it didn’t have the stranglehold on her it used to. Today, for the first time, she heard in the depths of her being this other song, strange, compelling, unbelievable. “You are beautiful.” “You are mine.”
Which was true? How could she tell?
If she was suffering from depression, she was one of a huge group. Statistics Canada reports over 11 per cent of adults identify symptoms meeting the medical criteria for depression. Three million plus. So chances are good we, or a co-worker, friend, family member, fellow volunteer or squash partner, bear this burden. Once we understand the depth of affliction depression wreaks, we might sense the depth of courage, hope and faith in the hearts of people who cope with depression — theirs or someone else’s.
We don’t, as a society, cope with it particularly well. We simultaneously dismiss it and rely on it.
On one hand, we expect depressed people to keep functioning and stop talking about it, medicate the symptoms away and hide the pain. Equating healing with functioning, we’re satisfied to stop there. On the other hand, the more time and energy depression sucks out of people, the less time, energy and creativity they have for anything else. One of the things depression does is trick you into feeling isolated.
At a dark time of year, when “depression” is the word, the church gives as medication the experience of communion of saints. November begins with the feast of All Saints, since the seventh century in western tradition. The saints are flesh-and-blood, human as you and I, who have come to full communion with God, overcoming the barriers that separate humans. Therefore they’re also the witnesses who tell us, by their lives and deaths, the story Christ tells: that isolation is an illusion, love is stronger than pain and even stronger than death. They expose the lies depression tells.
The saints, and our communion with them, are strong medicine. Psychology, psychiatry and medicine have much to assist people; we need them in the battle against depression. But ultimately they can’t bring true healing. Healing, in Christian terms, isn’t getting fixed so you can function. Healing means being renewed and strengthened in your inner self, the “new self in Christ,” and restored to communion with others.
Depression kills. And it scares us into allowing it to hide. An alarmed parent bringing a suicidal adult offspring to emergency was told to go home and get better: the offspring wasn’t suicidal enough to be admitted. Neither offspring nor parent went away feeling like God’s beloved planted in his garden.
We’re not blaming people for not getting better from depression. Christ came, and still people are sick, in body and in mind; still they die. Depression kills, it afflicts; it doesn’t condemn — though we may condemn people for suffering from it, including ourselves. God is compassion and mercy; why then does God allow our dear one to struggle so long and valiantly with the anguish, despite the heroic efforts of many? To take his own life? We’ve tasted and know the power of God’s love made flesh in Christ. We’ve glimpsed our dear one in joy, in the divine light that shines beyond the grave. Still, the pain. Still, the struggle here on earth.
Immediately after All Saints we celebrate All Souls, knowing some of us are “on the way” but not fully arrived, even after death. It’s still necessary to pray for each other, living and dead.
The Lord of heaven and earth, who drew us from non-being into being, speaks the name of each of us. Suffering and death cannot contain love. It’s the other way around: love contains suffering and death.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com