[Best of [D]mergent 2015]
Eighteen months ago, I thought things were pretty good in my life. I was in my tenth year of serving a congregation that I loved and planned to retire from. I was the moderator for the Indiana Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a member of our denomination’s General Board. I also was writing a weekly column for [D]mergent at the invitation of my friend, Derek Penwell. In addition, I was in the very beginning stages of working on a book proposal. Writing had always been a lifelong dream of mine. My two children were also both entering their senior years. My daughter in high school. My son in college. Both were doing especially well academically and socially. Like I said, I thought things were pretty good in my life.
But then, eighteen months ago, I came home from church one Sunday and my wife of twenty-four years told me she was through with our marriage. She wanted a divorce. I knew things had been what I would describe as a “little rocky” for a few weeks, but I didn’t think it was anything we couldn’t work through. That I wanted to work through. But she didn’t. There would be no attempt to restore what was broken. No effort at marital counseling. She was done. The end of my marriage eighteen months ago was sudden and unexpected and it took me into a spiral of depression that I am still working my way out of.
Though I am genetically predisposed to bouts of depression, nothing compared to the darkness I endured during the first six months after I was told the marriage was over. It was an overwhelming sense of disorientation and confusion. I could not believe what had happened. I could not grasp the reality of the situation. I kept thinking surely there would be a phone call that spoke of reconciliation, a note that promised we would try again, a knock on the door with her ready to move back into the house—moved by all the good memories and laughter we had shared over the past two and a half decades. But none of that ever happened. She was done. And it didn’t matter what I wanted or hoped for. My marriage was over and there was nothing I could do that would change that.
Totally distraught, I went to see my therapist who could see that I was in no condition to do ministry. He suggested that I take a thirty day leave of absence and wrote a letter to the church suggesting it. The church agreed to grant me that time off. The problem was after the thirty days, I was still in no condition to do ministry. I tried for a couple of weeks, but I had no energy for it. My own faith had taken a huge hit by the divorce. I was trying myself to figure out who I was now and what I believed. I wasn’t anywhere close to certain about my own faith journey, let alone helping anyone else with theirs.
Long and short of it, I resigned from the church that I loved. I resigned from being the regional moderator. I quit writing for [D]mergent. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had lost my voice for preaching, my pen for writing, and my will to lead others. I had no idea what I would do or how I would make it. In a matter of a few months, I lost my marriage and my job—which meant as a pastor I lost my primary community of faith. What I had gained was an avalanche of depression that took my energy, filled my mind with doubt and guilt, and very nearly took my life. For the first six months after the break-up of my marriage, all I could think of was what a failure I had become.
I started taking anti-depressants. I continued to see a therapist on a weekly basis. But the darkness for me was overwhelming and other kinds of treatment had to be tried as well. As the depression gripped me deeper and more fully, no matter what treatment seemed to be tried, I wondered if I was going to make it out of the hell that I had descended into.
Since, I am writing this article you know that I did make it out, at least part of the way, but before I tell you how that happened, I simply want to say that the reason I am writing this article is because I am one of the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from the mental illness known as depression. Though it does not by any means describe the totality of who I am, when I am in its fierce grip, it can be utterly consuming of who I am. It’s a battle for me. I know it is a battle others fight as well, including other ministers. By giving voice to my own struggle I hope others can learn they did not walk alone or live in fear that other’s might know they are in this specific battle of the mind.
I have heard the story several times that before he was President, Abraham Lincoln once spent six months in bed suffering from melancholia (depression). I always thought that was an excessive amount of time, but now I am more understanding of those who take to bed for a long time. It was six months after the ending of my marriage before I was beginning to feel like I was on the road back to good health. Here’s a few of the things that benefited me most.
1. I realized my depression was accompanied by a deep sense of grief and loss. I had to let myself experience that grief because the loss was real. Fortunately, I had family members and friends who were willing to grieve with me and let me talk as much as I needed to. My sister, a couple of friends from seminary, some people from the church I served all stayed in contact with me and gave me the companionship and space I needed. I had lost my primary community of faith, but I had another faith group that was undergirding me with their prayers and support.
2. My children accepted for a while a different role in my life. I had done my best to be a good parent to them, but honestly for those first six months, I had trouble being anything for anyone including a parent to my children. My son and daughter, 21 and 17 at the time, took on the role of care-givers to me. They made certain I took my medicines and went to my therapy appointments. They even drove me to the therapies that required I have someone else drive me home. It also helped that my daughter, after a year and half at a residential high school, came back home to live with me for her final semester. Her presence took away a lot of the loneliness.
3. I decided I had to move on. Though I didn’t make the decision, the decision was made to end the marriage. I had no choice but to accept the reality of that situation. It took me six months to get there, but finally I did.
After six months, I was well enough to put my relocation papers out looking for another congregation to serve. It didn’t take long before I was getting some calls and interviews. Which helped with my diminished self-esteem. And just about the time the money was going to run out, I got a call to serve a church in Virginia and I am having a blast in this congregation. I am developing a love for them like the one I had for my previous congregation. I’m not back to where I was before my life changed so drastically but I am headed back that way. I would give me about 75-80 percent on the recovery scale. I am back to writing sermons and doing pastoral calling and attending meetings. I’m back to working at the homeless shelter and helping those in need whatever way I can. I’m back to the work of a pastor.
I still have work to do. Most importantly, I’ve preached dozens of sermons in my life about the importance of forgiveness in the Christian journey, I’m still trying to discover its role in this situation. I would appreciate your prayers as I learn that lesson.
There is, of course, much more to the story than I have shared here, both to the end of the marriage and my battle with the depression that followed. But I wanted briefly to relate to anyone who might be going through their own battle with depression. The darkness can be overcome through time, hard work and the conscious decision that it won’t win. You need not be ashamed of your battle or be afraid to speak of it. Confront it as honestly as you need to and allow your friends to care for you.
Dr. Mark E. Poindexter