Depression

Mental Health and Ministry

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

At the recent Regional Assembly of the Christian Church in Virginia, there was an Interest Group titled “No, I’m Not Crazy!” Affirming Those with Mental Health Issues.  It was the Interest Group I decided to attend.  Not because I thought I needed to learn how to affirm others, but because I wanted to feel affirmed.  Throughout my adult life, I have waged a battle with depression.  I know the struggle that comes with feeling thoroughly overwhelmed in mind, body and soul by what seems like nearly insurmountable sadness.  I understand what it is like to be nearly paralyzed by the weight of the darkness that engulfs someone suffering from severe depression.  My battle with this form of mental illness has been costly in my life.  I believe it was a contributing factor to the end of my first marriage.  In addition, some colleagues could not understand the depth of my depression and thought I just needed to “snap out of it.”  When I couldn’t do that, they decided I was not someone they should have in their life.  The words I heard was that “I bring them down.”  Also, at one point, I had to take a year away from ministry.  The depression had reached a point that I lost my voice to preach; my own sense of being spiritually lost made it very difficult to lead others in the journey of faith.

                After the workshop, I went up to our Regional Minister, Lee Parker, and told him I was grateful for the church’s willingness to address this important matter.  I also shared with him about my own personal battle with depression, along with a couple of articles I had written about my experience.  He called the next day, after having read the articles, and asked if I would write something for the Virginia Christian about ministry with those who have mental illness.  The question for me became, do I write about my own journey or do I give some practical advice about how to be present with others who are going through this painful experience.  I decided that sharing about my own personal struggle with depression was of primary importance because it would help to pull back the stigma and cover of secrecy that all too often accompanies mental illness.   Out of fear of being judged by others, those suffering from mental illness often try to hide their struggles which can lead to an even deeper private pain and a further sense of isolation.  In my life I have become keenly aware that if I am to overcome this illness I have to be willing to address it head on and I need the support of friends and family who are willing to walk with me.

These are a few things I have learned in my journey.  Though there will always be some people “who just don’t get it” there are others who will have an understanding and compassionate response - some of them precisely because it is their battle as well.   I need to surround myself with such people when the darkness is deep.  In my last period of a depressed state, it was the companionship of some former church members, a couple of friends from my seminary days, the presence of my children, and the tenacious love of my sister that brought light to me.  Though loneliness was a struggle during that time, I was never completely alone.  They walked with me and in their presence I felt the presence of God.  For that I am grateful.  I have also learned that with my form of depression the complex relationship between genetics and environment is not clear.  Both play a role in my illness.  So both medicines and talk therapy are vitally important in helping me maintain a sense of well-being.  In addition, one reason I am able to face my illness directly, is because I will not allow it to become the defining characteristic of who I am.  Though my depression has gripped me fiercely at times, I live an abundantly fulfilled life.  I love to laugh and spend time with my children.  I enjoy exercise and running road races.  I love the work I do as pastor.  Congregational leadership has again become life giving to me.  Reading the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness, allowed me to see that my own battle with depression does not by any means disqualify me from leadership.  In fact, for my life as a pastor, it has helped me to become a more compassionate and understanding person.   And though I lost some relationships because of my struggles, the door has opened for other relationships to begin.  Again, I am grateful.

I will not live in fear and silence when it comes to the fact that I have a form of mental illness.  As some people’s journey consists of diabetes or Crohn’s disease or cancer and they must undergo medical treatment and receive various kinds of support, so does my illness require the same. I also hope that my willingness to share openly about my situation will help to show others who have similar battles that they are not alone.  They need not fear what others might think or believe that they should not ask for help.  The journey toward wholeness and well-being is a journey all human beings are on.  It can, at times, be a difficult journey, but it is one that can lead to a full life if embraced with a courageous and honest spirit, an abiding faith and a community of support. 

 

Broken . . . but not Shattered

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Dr. Mark Pointdexter

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.  

Peace,

Dr. Mark E. Poindexter

Broken, . . . but not Shattered, Part 2: Vulnerability and Community

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we are ourselves are consoled by God.

                                                                (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

Last week, I wrote about my battle with the depression that followed the sudden and unexpected end of a twenty-four year marriage.  I shared my story with the hope of being help, in some way, to others who might be in a similar struggle.  Within a few hours of the article’s posting I was receiving Facebook messages and comments from people who had dealt with or were presently dealing with depression expressing gratitude for the honesty and sense of vulnerability the article contained.  The comment that touched me most deeply and summed up so many others was from the woman who simply wrote, “Now I know I am not alone.”

I believe that the heart of true community is a willingness for us to live as honestly as possible in relation to each other.  We can indeed celebrate one another’s strengths and successes, but it is in our willingness to share our brokenness and our weaknesses, indeed our very humanness, that loving and supportive community is formed.  In his book, "The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace," psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote;

[We need] . . . a soft individualism . . . an understanding of individualism which teaches that we cannot be truly ourselves until we are able to share freely with others the things we have in common; our weakness, our incompleteness, our imperfection, our inadequacy, our sins, our lack of wholeness and self-sufficiency.

My goal in sharing was not to look for pity, nor to try and tell anyone’s story but my own (including my former spouse who has her own story to tell), my goal was to share my brokenness with the hope of giving the opportunity for others to share as they needed to.

Our human brokenness, especially depression, can often push us into feelings of isolation.  We can believe that the only way to present ourselves to others is “happy, completely put-together and finished” (Rachel Evans, "Finding Sunday").  So, if we can’t go out into the world with a smile on our face, we stay in, cutting ourselves off from the sense of community that is vital for a full life.  The problem is life does not always allow all of us to be happy, put together and finished all the time.  Life is sometimes difficult. Life is sometimes full of pain.  Life can have losses that are virtually unbearable. 

Earlier this year, I wrote my college roommate a letter explaining to him what had happened in my life.  He called me as soon as he got the letter and in the midst of our conversation he said, “Mark, sometimes life is just so hard.”  And when life is hard we need one another’s help to make it through.  We are called to share one another’s burdens.  But for us to be able to help bear each other’s burdens we have to be willing to admit we have burdens that are weighing us down.  Rachel Evans writes, “.  .  .  to be fully engaged with the world we must be vulnerable.”

I’m not advocating that every relationship be a place that we share every detail about the brokenness of our lives. I am advocating that the church be a safe place for us with relationships to share the brokenness that truly makes us a people who follow Jesus.  In her book, "Jesus Freak," Sara Miles writes:

Jesus calls his disciples, giving us authority to heal and sending us out.  He doesn’t show us how to reliably cure a molar pregnancy.  He doesn’t show us how to make a blind man see, dry every tear, or even drive out all kinds of demons.  But he shows us how to enter into a way of life, in which the broken and sick pieces are held in love and given meaning.  In which strangers literally touch each other, and in doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone.

In the church we are not called to live in the false world where everything is alright, even when it is not.  We are called instead to live honestly.  The reason we believe in grace is because there is brokenness. The reason we speak of forgiveness is because something has happened to cause hurt.  The reason we speak of healing is because there is grief and pain and sorrow.  Our practice in the church is not to try to silence and isolate those who are experiencing difficult days but to journey through those days with them.  In that journey together we become the beloved community of Christ.  In that journey, despite the difficulties, there shall be joy found.

I am glad my sharing helped someone to realize they are not alone.  May she find the courage to share her journey with others so that someone else may find out they are not alone.  In doing that, may we step together into the beloved realm of God.