Today's Healines

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Struggling with Depression in a Season of Hope

Advent/ Christmas season is arguably my favorite time of year.  This is evidenced, as most of my friends can attest to, by my love of Christmas decorations and especially Christmas music (to which I begin listening often before Halloween.)  Advent/ Christmas is also, however, typically a difficult time for me.

As I've covered at length on this blog, I have struggled for most of my young adult life (and really back into my teenage years as well), with anxiety and depression.  The struggle ebbs and flows.  Sometimes, I do really well and can go quite a while (years even) without a serious bout of depression.  Other times, as has seemingly been the case while here in Divinity School, non-depressive states seem to be the exception to the rule.  Again, nothing new.  Just a recap.

Earlier this semester, I had one of the hardest, no I will say the hardest bout of anxiety and depression I have yet experienced.  The transition to a new semester after such a difficult first year was very tough to say the least.  Ideals that I had about how this year would "need" to go in order to be successful were not necessarily realistic, or rather, these "ideals" became so utopian and so rose-colored that anything less was in the very least, disappointing.  This lead me to "overuse" so many friends whom I cherished so dearly.  I was tiring, I was exhausting, I was selfish and I was just plain difficult to be around.  I regret this time terribly, but I am still unsure how much of my overreaction to my anxiety and depression I could control, and how much I could not.  I do feel as though it permanently altered the nature and trajectory of some of my friendships, which gives me great pain and regret.

However, this round of deep depression did eventually subside.  I have since been steadily climbing up out of the deep and dark cavern that I fell into.  I feel, though, that recently, I have begun once again to lose my grip.  I am not sure, but it feels to me like I am once again falling into depression.  And I am becoming increasingly frustrated and discouraged about my seemingly endless battle.  In short, there is a part of me that has become hopeless that I will ever be able to rid myself of this affliction in such a way as to ever be content or happy.  Especially within the context of ministry.

Ministry is a very isolated/isolating field.  This very much worries me.  If I am destined to continue to struggle with depression and anxiety for the rest of my life, how am I going to handle it in such an isolated profession that requires me to give so much of myself in the first place.  Simply put, given my deep struggles with anxiety and depression, can I be an effective minister?

Such questions and trains of thought have nothing to ease my concerns, and have in fact contributed more, I fear, to my current "state of decline" (I don't want to over-dramatize here).  But the (my perception of) loneliness within ministry causes me at times to be utterly hopeless about the future both here at Duke Divinity School and after graduation.

All of which is much more striking considering today.  Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  In many churches today, a candle was lit commemorating the occasion.  This week, the candle was the candle of "hope".  We sit and wait for the hope that Christ brings through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and eventual final coming.  As I prayed the pastoral prayer in my field education church this morning, the words "Come, Lord Jesus" had particular meaning.  When I prayed for a world where every tear is dried, I recalled some of my own tears of late.  Tears that have not flowed since earlier this semester.

I suppose I'm just not sure as to what to hope for in the here and now, though.  What does "healing" look like in this situation?

I suppose I'm writing in part because I have a lot of thoughts crowding my mind tonight, and a final exam tomorrow morning, so somehow I need these thoughts to be expressed.  I suppose I'm also writing, because I feel that I was so much of a burden on most of my friends earlier in the semester that there really is no one who would want to hear it. (I may be wrong, this is just my perception, not aided in the least by my current state-of-mind).

Or maybe I just write because I hope.  I hope that giving voice to what has been inside for a while now will bring some sense of comfort.  I hope that maybe my words might provide some sort of comfort to others who might also be struggling in this time of year.  Or, maybe, honestly, I just write because I want someone to notice the pain, but I'm too afraid to put it out there in person.  Maybe it's all of those reasons.

I suppose the reason I like Advent/Christmas season is because despite the fact that I usually struggle with depression/anxiety in this time of year, there is always a sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness, light in the midst of darkness, Emmanuel, God with us, with me.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Processing Theology- Part 3

For the past three days, I have been attempting to process in the best way I can my first year at Duke Divinity School.  I have considered the magnitude of the changes that I have made.  I have described my struggles with depression and loneliness.  I have ultimately painted a rather bleak picture of the past year of my life (again, filters and lenses and all that jazz).  Today, I think it will be most fruitful to consider the good that has happened this year, and synthesize that with the "bad", and see what conclusions (if any) I might be able to draw.

First of all, I am crazy blessed to be studying at one of the finest institutions of theological education in the entire world.  The professors under whom and the students with whom I have the privilege of studying are all incredible.  I see a ridiculous love of God and God's church that shines through the minds and hearts of these people.  And I have learned so much since I've been here.

Second, I am outrageously blessed to have the support group that I do at home.  I have wonderful parents who have always been supportive of my various career aspirations (I was a theater major at one point, and now I'm going into ministry... it can never be said that my parents forced me into a career for money).  I have incredible friends who have been there for me at every high and low throughout my life, and who inspire me to be a better person.  I am a member of a church that, in my view, gets it as close to "right" as any church I have ever witnessed on this side of the eschaton.  A not-so-small part of the reason why this transition has been hard for me, I believe, is because I have a near-perfect life at home.  One that, granted, I did not, and still do not, fully appreciate.

Third, I have made incredible friends here in North Carolina.  I know that my laments about the inability to find a "best friend" or connect "deeply" with people here may not show that.  And I know how painful that must be for my friends here to hear from me.  But make no mistake, I do have wonderful friends here (and quite a lot of them).  I do not appreciate them enough, or express to them how much they mean to me.  But again, one of my greatest fears coming into seminary (no matter how unreasonable) was that I would not make any friends.  That has obviously not been the case.  I have friends I can laugh with.  Friends I can have deep theological conversations with.  Friends I can cry with.  Ultimately, my desire for "best friendship" stems from deep-seeded insecurities and self-doubt, and not from the quality of people I call my friends.

Fourth, and yup, it's cheesy and pithy, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe it, but I worship a God and a Christ who love me both in spite of and because of my flaws.  A God who became human, dwelt among his own creation, subjected himself to ridicule, torture, and death, and who ultimately overcame death. Furthermore, I have been blessed to be called to serve God's church.  I take for granted what this means, but simply put, God has called me to be entrusted with the nurturing and tending of his people.  That is never a small deal.

I am blessed in so many other ways, but these seem to be the most important ways in which I am currently blessed.  So why the depression?  Why the loneliness?  Why the misery?  Ultimately, again, it has to do, as always it does, with my own insecurities.  Some of that is nature (I come from a family that has long struggled with self-image and confidence issues).  Some of that is nurture.  All of it leads to what I like to call a "negative narrative" that I have crafted for myself.  When I don't do well in school while others do, when I don't find "best friends" while other do, when I'm not as talented or smart as someone else, It all feeds into this narrative in my mind.  And in a place like this, where all of your vulnerabilities are exposed (whether you want them to be or not), you either rise about the narrative, or crash beneath it.  This year, more often than not, I have crashed beneath it.

How much of that is a choice?  How much of that is depression that I cannot control?  I honestly do not know.  I imagine if I did, I would not feel the way that I do, or at least I wouldn't feel it as strongly.

This is my constant struggle.  Do I pull myself up, and try to put on a happy face and be strong in the midst of pain and adversity?  Or do I allow myself to be broken and open and honest and vulnerable?  Are these things mutually exclusive?  In "playing through the pain", how much of it is true "strength", and how much of it is just a facade that I put up to try to control how people view me?  In embracing the brokenness, how much am I being open and vulnerable, and how much am I wallowing in self-indulgent self-pity?  How much of all of this is inevitable, and how much is preventable?  In what ways am I possibly sabotaging my seminary experience, and in what ways am I being broken down to be built up for a richer experience later on in seminary and in ministry?  Know in part; prophesy in part.

So I guess what I have learned in this first year of seminary is that I am not as far along as I thought I was in my growth and healing process.  I mistook scabs for scars.  I have learned that I have much less control over aspects of my life than I would like.  But have consequently developed a much deeper understanding of the adage, "let go and let God".

I am hopeful for next year.  I am also terrified.  At some point, I do have to allow myself to shed the "negative narrative".  At some point, I have to realize that that is not the way in which God views me.  This is what I can control.  I must continue to pray that God would grant me the peace, clarity and serenity to love myself in exactly the way that God loves me.  Which is to say, not more than anyone else, and not more than God, but just as I am, just as I was created, in the imago dei

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Processing Theology- Part 2

I have found it much easier to reflect on the first semester of this first year of Divinity School than I have to reflect on the second semester.  I think that the reason for that is that the second semester has offered a filtered lens through which to view the first semester.  As of yet (because second semester just ended), I have no such filter for the second semester, and by-and-large, most of the issues I've dealt with this semester are issues I'm still dealing with (forrest through the trees kind of deal).  Nevertheless, we press on ;).

I ended the first semester hopeful.  My academic performance had improved toward the end of the semester, Greek not withstanding, and I started to find my social "groove".  I was also beginning to cultivate deeper relationships.  When I returned from a very restful, if not somewhat unfulfilling, Christmas break, I felt more confident that the second semester would by altogether more uplifting and enjoyable.  I won't at this time pan that assessment as completely inaccurate, but it certainly was not fully "on-the-mark", as it were.

It took me about a month or so to really get myself back into the academic "swing" of things.  I was anxious to embrace and explore a social life that was expanding relatively rapidly (at least for me).  I cared little about my school work, and more about cultivating even deeper relationships, and hopefully finding that/those one or two friend(s) who could possibly reach the level of "best friend".

As my social circle continued to expand, I found myself quite content with life, and incredibly hopeful.  For the first time, I really felt that I belonged at Duke Divinity School and that I would be able to make it through.  Then, came my birthday.

My birthday celebration was awesome.  Dinner with close to 25 or 30 new friends, and then laser tag?  It was great.  My actual birthday was not so great.  In fact, it began a slide back into a hole of depression out of which I have really yet to climb.  In the focus on my burgeoning social life, some of my school work was neglected.  It was on my birthday when that negligence caught up with me.  I received my Greek midterm back, and did less than stellar.  I became convinced that I was probably not going to pass Greek, which was such a frustrating/ depressing realization that I immediately left school, went home, and locked myself in my bedroom until dinner that night.  Later the same week, I did even worse on an exam over the Prophets in Old Testament. Things were starting to fall apart, and I did not know if I would be able to academically survive the semester.  I began to seriously contemplate whether or not I needed to return next year.

I eventually came to the conclusion that there was still some academic hope, and that I am where I am supposed to be, but it would still take a strong push to end the semester strong.  I knew that I could not continue with the status quo, so over spring break, I finally made an appointment with a psychiatrist, and was diagnosed with ADD.  When I was prescribed medication to help, I felt supremely hopeful.  I thought that finally my social and academic lives would be strong and "easy" (well, as easy as they could be, or had been in a while.)

Indeed, I found my academic output beginning to improve; however, it was at this time when I started to become more realistic about my social situation, and the prospects for cultivating a "best friendship".  I noticed that though I had more friends than ever, I was still not connecting to any one person (or two people) both emotionally and "logistically".  By which I mean that I had connected to people on deep emotional levels, but I never really "hung out" with those people, at least exclusively.  And those with whom I would "hang out" often, I felt that I was having great trouble connecting with on a deeper emotional level.  I couldn't find anyone who kind of served the best of both worlds for me.  I also began to notice how many people here already had found that kind of relationship for themselves, which caused three-fold despair.  First, everyone else seemed to have something that I desperately wanted, but for whatever reason did not (and seemingly could not) have.  Second, because everyone else already had their "person", my list of "candidates", as it were, was very small, if not non-existent.  Third, I realized that more than likely, at this point, I could only hope to cultivate that kind of relationship with an incoming student.  Knowing how extremely difficult building deep relationships between Div. School classes is, I began to lose hope that I would ever find a "best friend" in North Carolina.  This sent my depression to a new low.

For the remainder of the semester, I found it harder and harder to be hopeful, or even happy at times.  My depression began to manifest itself in my mood and countenance.  No longer did I have the strength to hold back the overwhelming pain.  Though I understood that I am one of those people whose happiness others tend to rely on to cheer themselves up, I couldn't maintain the facade.  In some ways, this turned out to be a blessing.  People noticed that I was not myself, and more opportunities to be authentic presented themselves, allowing me to deepen some relationships.  This provided much-needed relief, and a little glimmer of hope.  But the pain still remains.  The realistic (read: cynical) side of me still knows that more than likely a "best friend" will still have to come from the first-year class next year, and there is no guarantee that will happen.  The odds of the happening are not very high.

So that was semester two.  It was difficult in many ways.  I know that I have grown from it, but I'm not completely sure specifically how.  I think I'll write a "part 3" to try to synthesize and "exegete" the year in the broad sense. 


Friday, April 20, 2012

Processing Theology- Part 1

As I stood in the parking lot of a Laquinta Inn and Suites in South Durham in early August, I watched as my parents' car rounded the corner in front of the hotel and disappeared.  It was all I could do to keep myself from collapsing to the ground right there in the parking lot and sobbing.  No, I was able to find the strength to climb the flight of stairs leading my floor, fumbling through my wallet to find the room key as quickly as possible, and walk brusquely through the hallway, open the door, and enter the hotel room.  At which point, it was over.  I collapsed on the bed and sobbed harder than I had since my dog died 3 summers before.  For the first time in my life, I was truly alone.

This is how my seminary experience began.  For the next few days following my parents' departure, I vacillated back and forth between setting up my new room and crying.  It came almost like clockwork.  Not only did I miss home, my parents, and my friends, but I was terrified.  I had never before endeavored to venture so far from home where I knew no one, and try to establish a life there.  My trepidation was so deeply rooted that for years, it kept me from seriously considering seminary knowing that I would have to venture alone to a strange new place.  And now, here I was in this reality.  What are the people in my program going to be like?  Will any of them like me?  Will I make any friends?  Will I make any good friends?  Will I crash and burn?  How could this insecure kid from Arkansas who had never really stepped outside his comfort zone be successful in such an uncomfortable place?  These questions raced usurped my brain space, as I had little else to do but ponder the magnitude of the consequences of the decision I had made to answer God's call to ministry.  Fortunately, the "aloneness" did not last for long.

In doing BriDDDge, I found friends (surprisingly) quickly.  First major fear alleviated:  I actually could make friends (yes, it sounds ridiculous, but this was a BIG concern of mine, which is to say whether or not I'd have ANY friends here).  At orientation, I felt comfortable and confident as I watched most of my fellow classmates who had not participated in BriDDDge try to timidly navigate this new social scene.  I had already established my social circles, I thought.  I was good to go.  Unfortunately, such a thought would lead to a level of complacency that could end up sabotaging my entire seminary career (more on this later).

After classes began, and the semester started to shift into full-gear, I started to doubt myself once more.  I had a tremendously difficult time grasping concepts that many of my classmates seemed to master with ease.  From Early Church History to Greek, I was struggling academically, and began to question whether that meant that I might not really be called to ministry.  On top of all of this, I was struggling to transition to graduate school from a year out of college, and I was struggling to find my place socially.  The combination of the two led to a deep depression, the likes of which I had not experienced since a very rough time in 2008. This characterized the majority of my first semester here at Duke.  So unhappy was I at one point, that when I returned home for Thanksgiving Break, I had NO desire to return.

Sure, I was passing my classes, but I wasn't mastering them like many of my friends.  And sure I had some friends to hang out with, but I didn't have anyone who was a particularly close friend.

After begrudgingly returning from Thanksgiving break, I found that my academic and social fortunes began to pick up.  Finally, I thought, things were starting to fall into place.  When I left for Christmas break, I found myself encouraged and hopeful for the semester that was to follow.  Whether or not those feelings were valid in the grand scheme of things cannot yet be known; however, if I had known then how much more challenging the spring semester would be, I may have indeed stayed in Arkansas.

So, that's the first half of my project to process my first year in Divinity School.  I've spent an hour writing, and I am honestly quite tired.  So I will cover the 2nd semester in part two.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Prayer for the End of the Semester

As my heart and mind race with the anxiety induced in response to the amount of work that I have to do over the next two weeks, I am drawn to say a prayer:

God of creation,
Lord of the Heavens and of the Earth:
Grant us peace in this time of academic turmoil.
Share with us you love, mercy, and grace that we might share it with each other in our times of strongest impatience.
Offer to us a sense of peace in the midst of great stress.
Remind us that our calling to serve you is both burden and blessing.
Help us to have faith in your supreme power and to remember that nothing that we can do, no word we could ever say, no mistake we could ever make, no bad grade we could ever earn will undo your Kingdom or your Church.
Provide to us motivation, but save us from the debilitating anxiety that is a symptom of relying on our own power and forsaking trust in yours.
For those who have peace, we thank you.
For those who struggle, we pray your mighty hand of comfort to be placed upon their hearts.
Praise you, Oh God, for inviting us to be in ministry to your church.
May we remember in our studies and in our paper-writing that the only thesis that truly matters is this:  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.