Kamikaze at my Back

Aug 11, 2010 |George Halitzka

Oppressive gray meets divine torrent.  

I'm standing on a frighteningly skinny log four feet above a stream, and there's a good chance I'm about to take an unscheduled swim. A punishing wind is pushing me from behind, stronger than I've felt in my life. It's enough to make me dance at jogging speed across this fallen tree, searching for footing to stay out of the drink.

Suddenly, my balance starts to go. I reach out my hands; grasp air — as a last resort, hurdle the last few feet of the ditch onto shifting sand — catch my balance — made it!

And here I am! Lake Erie's beach, at the end of the stream. My favorite place in the world. In summer, I bask in the sun and wade in gentle waves as my thoughts soar with gulls. It's hard to think black thoughts surrounded by shimmering blue.

But today, on a stormy April afternoon when spray flings itself ten feet in the air, nothing is gentle. The sky is turning blacker and I'm hiking up my coat collar against the gusts and the windblown sand stings like needles. I walk the length of the beach, squinting my eyes against the fury; staring into the whitecaps rolling to the horizon.

I dare peace to find me. I look for a shaft of light through the clouds. I try to turn my thoughts towards spring and sunshine. But there is nothing except grayness over the surface of the deep.

I ask myself, Why did I even visit the lake? Why blow across the sand alone like a discarded shopping bag?

Because the storm fits my thoughts perfectly, I reflect bitterly. In fact, it seems to fit my whole life.

In Control

Maybe it started my freshman year in college, when I was the class vice president taking 18 credits and working 20 hours a week while I performed in two plays and studied mostly after midnight. Maybe it was when I realized that underneath the busyness, I was afraid no God was there to hear me pray. Maybe that's when I should have seen the black clouds stretching to the horizon. Of course, I was too busy to look at the sky.

I learned early that being "good" was not good enough. In high school, I lay awake at night worrying I might get a "C" on my report card. I started looking at college brochures in 10th grade; took extra courses to finish at the head of my class. After all, if you didn't control your own destiny, no one would. I had to be the Best of the Best.

But somewhere during college, the black clouds rolled in. I knew I was in trouble the night I called off work because I was bawling for no apparent reason. Later, when I didn't cry anymore and stopped feeling everything instead, I longed even for tears. But it couldn't be real depression. That was for weaklings who had time to gaze at their navels.

After college graduation, I spent miserable months clawing my way back from the thing devouring me that I wouldn't admit had a name. Then as soon as I was feeling better, I climbed resolutely back on the treadmill and accepted an internship working insane hours in a strange city. Surely the next success was the one that would make it all worthwhile! I had to be the Best of the Best.

Most people are afraid of losing control of their lives. Me: I was terrified.

Never Again

It's four months before my walk on the beach, and I should be loving this New Year's Eve party. But instead, I feel like crying without a reason — just like that night in college when I couldn't drag myself to work. That's why I'm terrified.

I spend the whole party running around making sure everybody has a good time; refilling the food and watching people talk at candlelit tables. Staying busy is the only way to dodge real conversations.

What happened? My anxiety is mounting as the days of emotional grayness pile up. The storm found me in college, but I knew why. This can't happen again. I refuse to let it.

So I plaster on a smiling face and sit down to meaningless chatter, but not for long. Dark thoughts rush back to consciousness; I run upstairs to check the CD player for the third time.

I just had probably the best year of my life. I feel like I belong somewhere for the first time — ever. Why is this happening? I will the storm to leave; squeeze the tears from my eyes and whisper a prayer. The emptiness is overwhelming.

Why, God? Why, just when life is finally good? I don't have the strength to do this again. As midnight arrives, our whole group worships and prays to welcome the new year, but my heart is cold. God is obviously not listening to me.

I keep the growing storm to myself for another week. Finally, one morning I sit down at the dining room table across from Mom, and begin to pour out my misery.

Pure Fear

"George, I'm so sorry." With a tender smile, Mom tries to help me feel better; reminds me depression is a skeleton in our family's closet. "Your sister's bipolar (manic-depressive), but she does fine on medication," she says gently. "Sometimes even your Mom gets 'down' in the winter." She watches my chin quiver. "I'm sorry, George. I know you and God can get through this."

We turn to more cheerful topics, but keep coming back to my darkness like a magnet. Finally she tells a family story I've never heard. A close relative in Mom's generation — let's call him "Uncle Henry" — once got so paranoid he landed in the Psych Ward. "Isn't it comforting to know things aren't that bad?" Mom says with a rueful smile.

Inside my turbulent and tormented thoughts, a horrible transition takes place. It's not rational, but my hands shake and my skin turns clammy as a new idea flares up. What if I am as bad as Uncle Henry? What if the Loony Bin is where you wind up when this depression stuff gets bad?

I press Mom for details. She tells me one day, Uncle Henry decided the police were out to get him — though he hadn't gotten so much as a speeding ticket. He holed up inside the house and begged his wife to hide him whenever he heard a siren go by. His knife, which had never been used to gut anything but fish, was thrown in the river for fear it would incriminate him. He quit work so the cops couldn't find him there. A broken and terrified man hid in his own home until his wife finally took him to the hospital.

Mom wonders why I'm suddenly curious about family history. But she doesn't realize a bomb has just detonated in my chest.

What if I end up paranoid? I panic. Mental illness runs in families, and it sounds like Uncle Henry was psychotic — schizophrenic. Sometimes I think God speaks to me in my head. Does that mean I'm crazy?

Hours later, I lie awake in my bed, mind still working overtime. I don't have time to go to the hospital; pick up a lifelong illness and stigma. What if I actually started hearing voices? Isn't that what schizophrenia does? How could I ever be the Best of the Best? I have to get back in control. I plead with God to take it away.

A few days later, my new counselor assures me I don't show any signs of paranoia — just depression and anxiety. She does suggest I visit a psychiatrist, and he prescribes an antidepressant. But the gray clouds won't leave. Months of misery follow while I oscillate between black despair and overwhelming fear.

Did I say feeling nothing is the worst part of depression? Perhaps not. Right now, I would give a great deal to feel "nothing."

Anointing Oil

Pastor Rick is teaching from James 5; the part about anointing the sick with oil. At the end of his sermon, he invites any sick people in the church to come forward for prayer with the elders.

Now, I'm normally a cynic when it comes to modern-day miracles. Healing was a miraculous sign given to the 1st century church, my Bible college-trained mind insists. God has given us doctors today. Miracles like that don't happen anymore.

But Rick tells some pretty convincing stories about cures he's seen with his own eyes. He invites anyone who is — frankly — seeking a miracle to come to the altar.

God doesn't heal like that anymore, argues my mind.

What have you got to lose? plead my tortured emotions.

A moment later, I'm telling Rick about the history of mental illness in my family, and asking him to pray for healing from depression. Rick dabs oil on my forehead and speaks to God. His final words are, "God's will be done."

No! I almost cry aloud, I don't want God's will, I want to be whole! Lord, I came for healing —

"God's will be done." The words resound in my head. Giving into this madness that seems to be overtaking me would be worse than death.

God, if I stop fighting, I could lose control completely — be locked in some psych ward. That cannot be your will!

Even as I walk out to my car, it's clear God has not performed a miracle. Instead, the clouds actually seem darker. So a few months later, I find myself on the beach, blowing in the wind and still asking the God who calms storms to tame the fierce emotions within me.

Is this the best the "Great Physician" can do? I spit at the vacant heavens. "God's will be done," huh? Not if you plan to tear my life apart.

On the Beach

Every thought matches the low-hanging gray clouds as I watch wave after wave pound the sand. The ongoing silence of God is deafening. I finally give up and turn around; set my face towards the stream. But then I discover it's quite impossible to go back the way I came.

When I face into the wind, I'm quickly sandblasted into submission. The breeze is so strong it's transformed the sand into a million fiery darts; stinging my eyes, blowing the firmament from under my feet, and making forward progress impossible.

But when I turn my back, I'm blown along the beach, faster than I could normally walk — spurred on by the icy blasts that would be my destroyer.

Suddenly, a word flashes through my mind: Kamikaze.

In the American lexicon, a kamikaze is a misguided suicide bomber. But in Japan, it's a sign of hope. Mongol Hordes twice tried to invade the island. Both times, huge armadas were demolished by typhoons that arrived at precisely the right moment — the original kamikazes. For the 13th century Mongols, the Divine Wind was a destroyer; to the Japanese, salvation. It all depended on whether you were trying to fight the hurricane — or surrender to its power.

Surrender ... giving in to the storm that overwhelms me ... I try to banish the thought. It returns with the force of a typhoon.

How can I surrender, God? I plead. How can I let go of everything good in my life?

"God's will be done." What if somehow, letting mental illness overtake me is God's will?

Impossible! That is not the action of a loving God! He is a healer....

"God's will be done."

He loves me more than I love myself, one side of my mind insists. I knew he saw purpose in my life the day I was tempted to end it; that's all that stayed my hand. If he allows me to descend into madness ... could it somehow be a sign of his love?

That is not love! argues the other side of my mind. It's cruelty.

Then how could a typhoon bring deliverance to a nation? How could a punishing wind push me forward instead of destroying me? Couldn't the wild mercy of an untame God be served when I lose everything — even my mind?

"God's will be done."

The kamikaze still buffets from behind, driving me down the beach and towards a decision. With tears washing my cheeks, I finally surrender my sanity. If you want to take everything, God, I pray through gritted teeth, it's yours. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

No ray of sun comes through the clouds to strike the surface of an angry lake. However, it's interesting that once I climb the hill at the end of the beach, the kamikaze fades to a whisper. By the time I walk home, it's nothing but a friendly breeze.

Why?

The Book of Job is the most maddening of stories. Every time I read it, I get frustrated with God.

This man had everything — until the Lord took it all away. Then Job asked a reasonable question; one word that might it all worthwhile. WHY? It's a word I've shouted at the silent heavens a thousand times.

But God refused to answer Job. Or me.

Instead, in the midst of a storm — a kamikaze — he denied Job even had the right to ask the question. "Who made you?" demanded God. "Did you start the world spinning? Did you set the waves in motion?" Job was silenced; humbled.

I only wish I were that wise. Or sometimes I think — that foolish. How could God not answer the man whose life symbolized suffering for the whole world? How could patient suffering be met with a reward of silence?

Sure, afterwards the Lord gave Job more than he had in the first place — more kids; more flocks; more gold. But what about the lives of his children he never got back? The months of agony and disease? Couldn't Love Himself find a better way to teach surrender? There was no answer for Job except blind trust; bowing a blinded knee. I have never been very good at that.

Perhaps Job's real answer had to wait for several thousand years.

One night in a garden, the Son begged his Father to spare Him agony and death. After all, it was certainly not compassionate to allow an innocent to die. Crucifixion was not the loving response. There was no conceivable reason why Jesus didn't call on a legion of angels; no reason why God made Him surrender to his fate — except, perhaps, me. And you.

So I wonder if God has a purpose in depression that eludes my grasp. I wonder if, somehow, He will use my anxiety to bring someone redemption. And I wonder, if once God gives me not twice what I had before like Job, but infinite wealth beyond description, if from heaven I will care why He let me wade through the darkness.

Perhaps He will try to explain. I imagine He'll find me one day when I've been in paradise for millennia, and these painful 90 years on earth don't matter anymore. Perhaps He'll say, "George, you're finally ready. I can tell you now why I allowed the kamikaze in your life. Do you want to know?"

Maybe I'll only smile and shake my head. Because I think maybe I won't care anymore.

Meanwhile, the kamikaze continues to blow. God's grace has kept me from serious mental illness, but when anxiety weighs me down or I have a depressed week and I fear drowning in enormous waves, God still asks, "George, how large is your faith? How great is My Lordship?" Like the Divine Wind on the beach, it is impossible to fight. The only way through is to let the Spirit blow where He will.

And then perhaps someday, I'll have an answer to the "Why" question. Perhaps on the other side of eternity, when I see God face to face. Perhaps someday He'll respond ... if I still want to know.

* * *

Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling with depression or mood disorders and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.

Copyright 2007 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.

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