“I am walking home, I keep telling myself,” writes Jeffery Smith in Where the Roots Reach for Water. “I live on east Third Street in Missoula, Montana and I am walking home and by the time I get there this will be gone.”
Smith feels his depression returning and wants to deny it. He wants to keep walking, one foot in front of the other, and yet there is no denying that “Mr. Shoulder” has come back and there is no telling how long he will stay or what kind of havoc he will wreak.
Mr. Shoulder is the voice of depression — speaking doom about everything Smith does. “It knows precisely how to undo you,” Smith writes. “Whether it was born in your genes or through some horror in your childhood it seems it has grown up with you. It is a garment hewn precisely to fit by some unearthly tailor.”
Smith is one of about 50 million Americans suffering from depression. Some statistics suggest that as many as one in five people will suffer a depressive episode at least once in their lives. Of those who experience a serious bout with depression, about 50 percent go on to experience another later on.
When the book opens, Smith is a clinical social worker responsible for ensuring that his depressed and psychotic clients take their medications. But the same medications he must enforce ultimately fail him. He discovers that he is one of the vast minority of the depressed population who is unresponsive to antidepressants.
The crisis causes him to embark on a fascinating journey as he explores the way that depression has been understood throughout different times and cultures. Unlike other books which focus on biological aspects of the illness, Smith’s book probes the spiritual and ecological dimensions it — asking questions like: how does landscape affect depression? Are transplants more likely to experience situational depression because the geography in their new region doesn’t match that of their childhoods? While the book is by no means scientific, it is certainly thought-provoking.
Beyond a Single Story
According to Smith, one of most troubling trends in our society is the ways in which we simplify depression. Christians are as guilty of this as the rest of society. Sometimes we assume that depression can always be overcome through prayer — that good Christians don’t suffer from depression.
But this idea is not necessarily Scriptural — Paul struggled with an unnamed thorn in his flesh. No amount of prayer would remove it. He was forced to integrate the reality of living with an open wound into his life and his ministry. Perhaps part of his passion was fueled by this struggle.
For some Christians, it is necessary to take medications in order to survive depression. There is no shame in this. But sometimes restoring that balance is just a prelude to more hard work. As one Boundless reader wrote about taking antidepressants, “They’ve gotten me to the point where I’m able to start working on my heart and not just trying to survive.”
The Task of Integration
Smith’s research causes him to see that his experiences with depression may be ultimately valuable, if unpleasant. As he works with his therapist, Anita, he comes to believe that his struggles can be an agent for change. Anita introduces Smith to the ancient Christian concept of the “Dark Night of the Soul” — the idea held by many saints that our souls encounter darkness on the path to purification.
Anita also helps Smith to see that the depression is bigger than he is, and that he can chose to spend the rest of his life struggling against it, or he can learn from it and integrate that wisdom into his life. “The best place to start is to figure out what it wants from you, what role it wants in your life,” she tells him.
This was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book — the idea that we can ultimately learn from our struggles by integrating them into our lives. The Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen believed that our wounds can be a source of healing for others. Not only do they help us to become compassionate, but they humble us. As we work toward healing in our own lives, we can help bring healing to others.
For Smith, part of integration involved accepting the fact that depressive episodes might come and go for the rest of his life. In the same way that an alcoholic must come to terms with the unhealthy way in which their body responds to alcohol, so too, a person who is prone to depression can prepare themselves for the possibility of another bout later on.
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this book is that Smith (after losing a job and a girlfriend) ultimately becomes realistic. He realizes that he may not ever be able to work a typical 40-hour week, although he can lead a productive life. He marries a woman who is able to be primary breadwinner, and he works from home writing, cooking, cleaning and gardening. Both he and his wife thrive. Although their solution is obviously not workable for all, his realism is refreshing.
He’s not the only person who has struggled with depression and found a way to a productive, if unconventional life. Historically, many of the people who made the greatest contributions to society struggled with depression or bipolar disorder, including Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Emily Dickenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Winston Churchill. Two of our nation’s most influential presidents also suffered from mental illness — Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Depression and Faith
In one of the most surprising turns of the book, Smith comes to faith. His adult perceptions of Christianity, however, are a stumbling block. Although he was raised in a Christian family, as an adult he comes to believe in Marx’s idea that religion is an “Opiate of the Masses” and a crutch for the weak, wrought with rules to reduce life’s ambiguities.
His experiences with Christianity force him to abandon some of his perceptions. “As far as I could tell, faith — the encounter with mystery — was no opiate,” he wrote. “It was no substitute for my antidepressants. Faith requires the utmost in moment-to-moment consciousness, a willingness to exercise imagination and to displace the self and its desire for instant gratification and sure bets.”
Although his faith ultimately became part of his healing, the road to wholeness is arduous. Healing often doesn’t come in a package we prayed for. The distance between what we pray for and how life often unfolds reminds me of a quote from the book Children’s Letter’s to God, in which a child laments, “Thanks for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.”
Many people struggle with chronic illness — mental or physical — for much of their lives. Smith never presumes to answer the why question. But gratitude does help him to shift his focus away from his own pain to the face of a loving God, even when he wants to curse and moan.
“Thank you.” I try to remember to repeat those words instead … when I am falling into this kind of fit. The self is the least of it, and thank you for that. I am still here and thank you for that. The right response is Thank you.
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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 2006 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.