A strange realisation dawned upon me this week, there was no sudden lightening bolt, no conscious decision, but I woke on Monday with a real desire to pray and to read the Scriptures. Not only that, but also a desire to take my life back into my hands and offer it to God once more, this includes aspects of diet and exercise which have been sadly lacking for ( if I am to be honest) the last few years.
Is it strange for someone in full-time Christian work, someone who has been a committed Christian for the last 25 years to wake with a desire to read and to pray? Is it strange to want to make sure that you are both fit and healthy? Normally of course the answer to those questions would be no, but for me, and I suspect for many like me who have experienced or are experiencing clinical depression, this desire, is nothing short of a miracle.
Along with this desire comes a fragile hope, slim as a gossamer cord, that for a while this desire will remain, and the return to the pit of despair will be a long way off. I dare not say that it will never return, for that is not the nature of clinical depression.
For now though I rejoice in the sense that I am climbing out of a deep pit, a pit I plunged into in December 2007, a pit which had been creeping up on me for months before that. The pit is not something you can fight with, but neither is it something to be passively accepted. When I found myself sitting at my desk with tears streaming down my face unable to go and take the service that I was planned to take I knew without doubt that I had arrived in the depths of the pit.
In the days and months following I took myself off to the Doctors, and accepted my need for medication, I was signed off work for almost two months ( and am aware that some folk need longer), and during this time I rested. Part of the reason for my descent into this particular pit was the fact that I had pushed myself very hard to keep going following Christopher's surgery in 2005. I had not properly dealt with the impact that it had, had upon me. It would be easy to say that I was too busy caring for him, and although there is some truth in that, I should have rested more than I did. I was hiding from the fall-out.
The last few years have been marked by a series of ups and downs, times of slim hope and times of real despair, but underlying all of this has been a dullness of heart and mind, rescued only by a grim desire to cling on to a God who at time seemed remote at best.
Where prayer was possible it was often best voiced in absolute reality, my friend Mike introduced me to Nicola Slee's book, Praying like a Woman. This prayer in particular has been hurled heavenwards by me on many an occasion;
Rage ricochets off the empty cloister walls,
anger erupts at the altar.
The silence palls.
My serene piety falters and crumbles.
My lips mouth the prayers
but my heart lurches and stumbles
on the edge of this gaping pit
into which my cries have fallen.
I will storm this silence
not with praise but with venom.
I will blast this emptiness
not with patience but with anger.
My mantra is not "mercy"
but a cacophony of curses
hurled headlong at your distance,
spat in the face of your absence.
I am sick of your silence,
I have had my fill of you hiddenness,
I am faint with the worry of waiting
on your word which never comes.
Have you not seen my pain?
Have you not heard
the anguish of my heart?
How can you stand far off
and watch me writhing and straining for you
with my bleary, tear-filled eyes,
crying for you with my dry and weary throat?
Why do you gloat from afar?
Will you not come?
Will you not show yourself?
Some folk would argue that it is not right to pray like this, I say, go read the Psalms, there is plenty of reality and anguish there. Some would say that God always hears us and answers us, and never turns away from us, look at Abraham on Mount Moriah, look again at Jesus in Gethsemane, and on the cross....
Sometimes it seems we are tested beyond our limits, and the only thing we can do is hold on ... Why have you forsaken me ?Answer me! These are valid cries from the pit of despair...
Today my prayers are less anguished, but no less real, I am more aware of my own frailties, and more sure of the love and constancy of God. I am less sure that I have my faith all sewn up neatly, I have more questions and am ready to admit that I do not know and cannot know the fullness of the depths and mysteries of God.
My descent into the pit of despair seemed sudden, though I suspect that I had ignored the gradual climb down that I was embarking upon. The ascent has been and is slower, and has contained dips and troughs along the way.
I cannot say that the pit is behind me forever, but this I know, there are real treasures to be mined in the darkness, and we may be unaware that we are gathering them for the mining takes place through a struggle for survival. The treasures are real nonetheless. I say we, because the one thing that has really helped me along the way has been the company of others who are trusted to plunge into the depths carrying their faith down with them. These good folk have encouraged me and helped me when my heart and words failed.
I hope that these words might help someone else, for some depression is a fact of life, it is sometimes under control ( often managed by a low dose of anti-depressants) and sometimes it overwhelms us and forces us to look for help. Depression is not the result of sin ( although I admit it could be), nor is it a punishment, often it is stress related, often it is quite simply an aspect of some personality types, and more often still an combination of all of these things.
What helps most on our journey through the pit is probably personal, these things have helped me:
1. Friends who understand.
2. Music, all different kinds.
3. Exercise, especially intentional walking.
4. Art and Icons, something to gaze upon outside of myself.
5. My family ( providing distractions to my navel gazing tendencies).
6. Worship, the temptation not to go is great, but it always helped.
What has not helped:
1. Comfort eating/ drinking
2. Shutting myself away ( I say this as a natural extrovert)
3.Feeling guilty about depression, listening to the voices that tell me this is not a valid place for a Christian to be!
I leave you with this, for when all else failed Bach came to my rescue!