Of Sheep and Sadness

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I posted last year about an extended visit to Mt. Saviour Monastery—but there’s one story I left out of that narrative. The monastery is also a functioning sheep farm and so I spent a lot of my days wandering around and looking at the sheep. It was shortly after lambing season and so there were plenty of adorable, adolescent-y looking sheep milling about. One, however, had gotten separated from his mother and was bleating, miserably, over and over and over again. And suddenly I thought, “That sheep is me,” and nearly burst into tears. These moments weren’t atypical for me—moments of deep, devouring sadness that seemed tied to old wounds that were still gaping—but I did then what I’ve been doing for several years running: I put it away. Part of this was out of fear, since I didn’t know whether going into that kind of sadness would ever allow me to come out the other side of it, and part of it was practical, since I knew that with this type of thing “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” and I had a degree to complete.

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Flash forward to last weekend, when I visited the monastery again as part of a Lenten retreat program. I was sitting in the chapel during noonday prayers and I was thinking to myself how much more engaged I’d been with the service the last time I was there. And then I thought about how much more I’d been engaged with my dissertation work a month or so earlier versus how engaged I am with it now. And then I tried to think of anything that could happen that I’d really care about: nope, zilch. And then I thought about how tired I’d been lately, how much mundane daily tasks felt Herculean, and how—if I turned off the TV and my smartphone and just sat—I felt like I was floating on top of a profound loneliness. And so I realized what should have been blindingly obvious (at least to someone like myself, the child of a therapist and the taker of innumerable psychological diagnostic tests): I was depressed. Not can’t get out of bed depressed. Not making suicide plans depressed. But depressed enough that daily life had turned into a struggle and my own body seemed exhausted by the strain. Unsurprisingly, this is what happens when you file away nasty feelings until a “better time” to work through them. Eventually, they’ll assert their rights. 

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The inconvenience of having to finally slog through them now is certainly still there, but the fear seems to have gone away. At least, it went away enough that I was able to sit down and write a contract with myself (yes, it’s silly, but it was the only way I’d ever follow up) that I’d call the health center, get a referral, and then actually make an appointment with a local therapist. All of which I’ve done, with the first appointment scheduled for next week. As suspected, owning up to all of this has started to impair the functionality I’d bought at the price of a lot of emotional repression. I’ve yet to burst out in tears during a tutoring session or coffee with a committee member, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up happening. The dissertation is attended to when I feel able, but it’s not going to be lightning-fast progress (especially if last night’s 13-hour sleep is any indication!) but it will be there when I get back. And, as one friend of mine who’s faced her own bouts with depression helpfully told me: “It’s just a dissertation.” And what I ultimately had to admit to myself at the monastery was that I couldn’t take care of other people or of other commitments until I finally stepped back and took care of myself. Until, like the bleating lamb, I could finally give a voice to my distress.

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Broken Wholeness

The Incredulity of Thomas—Caravaggio

Before my conversion to Catholicism (and before a rather lengthy agnostic walkabout), I was born and raised an Evangelical Protestant. There’s a lot of good things to be said for Evangelicalism: it’s pragmatic, it strives to speak to the world in a language it will understand, and it proclaims a message of hope. However, those very strengths were precisely what made it seem untenable to me from my early adolescence onward: the pragmatic eagerness to “fix things” felt like a refusal to treat my struggles as anything but a problem to be fixed, its desire for relevance felt like a refusal to engage with the deeper, messier questions that no one in the mainstream culture nor in the church seemed willing to ask, and its hope felt more like a coercive demand (you will feel loved by God!) than like an authentic possibility to be considered. [I should also note upfront that my experiences of Evangelicalism shouldn’t stand in for the whole movement. This is my story, but it should not take the place of the stories of others.]

Once I left for college, I basically left Christianity behind me. I’d always insistently asked the hard, uncomfortable questions—the questions that weren’t “allowed.” I’d always been accused of being both too depressed and too depressing. So I went to what felt like a safe place for that kind of dark and rigorous inquiry: literature and philosophy. If you couldn’t think about death, about suffering, about the experience of meaninglessness, in either pop culture or in the mega-church, you could talk about it— you had to talk about it—when you were talking about Shakespeare or Sartre, about Kafka or Kierkegaard. I still love literature and philosophy to this day because both have the remarkable ability to cut through the comfortable numbness of our days and make us look, however briefly, at the wounds—individual and social, personal and existential—that we’ve kept bandaged and out of mind.

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