Demon Days: Reflecting on a month of depression

I’ve been dealing with an onset of depression recently. It’s weird. Sometimes I feel like I talk about my depression the way people talk about colds. “I caught some depression while I was outside the other day”.  Maybe it’s more like the way people talk about allergies. “Man, my depression is really bothering me.” Sometimes I feel like I talk about my depression the way that people talk about hemorrhoids. “My depression is flaring up again!” In any case, I’ve come to terms with the fact that while I may not always have the severity of depression I once had or that I may have long stretches without it, managing it will be a lifelong process.

When I say “recently”, in retrospect, it’s been most of the month of May. I think part of the problem was that the high from getting engaged didn’t last very long. It didn’t take long for people to make something that was supposed to be about me and my family about them. And yes, the congratulations were disproportionately greater than the other stuff, but like with most things, the negativity is the stuff that sticks. I’ve also had some wrestling with my denomination going on, a conference that didn’t go as I had hoped, and more than a few reminders that I am estranged from people that I love. There are people in my life who have gone through some very hard things this month. Donald Trump is still president. His antics add a baseline level of anxiety to my life. Plus, being in a church again, I feel somewhat responsible for formulating faithful responses to his antics. It’s not an easy task. It often feels hopeless.

Oh, and did I mention the rain? May was ridiculously rainy! Rain, I remind myself regularly, is very good for the garden. It is not, however, good for the gardener who gets his life from being outside with his hands in the dirt and the sun on his face. My garden right now is mostly healthy and beautiful, but I feel like a little kid stuck inside wishing I could go out and play. 900-146739365-girl-watching-rain.jpg

My therapist has, in the past, reminded me that the seasonal stuff is real and that I need to pay attention to it. Sometimes, though, it just feels like I’m an adult and I should not need for it to be sunny for me to be happy. But alas…

The above things are what I am using to try to justify my current bout of depression. I’d actually like to believe that it is these external factors that are weighing me down. The truth is that none of these variables are particularly new or acute at the moment. Sure, maybe they hit me this month in different combinations, but it’s nothing I haven’t been dealing with since I started taking my depression seriously. No, the scary part for me is that my brain just decided that it was time to be blue. No real rhyme or reason to it, just a reset to the default setting.

Part of that default is wrestling with the demons in my head. They are the ones who have been there forever; the ones who tell me that I have fucked my life up too badly, the ones who tell me that I am unworthy of love, the ones who remind me of how hurtful I’ve been to others, the ones who tell me that I will fuck things up again (my demons love to say “fuck”… probably why I haven’t gotten rid of them). I read the New Testament stories of demon possession far differently these days. I believe in the demonic forces that steal joy and break you away from community. I believe any Messiah worth his salt would spend his days driving those forces away from the people he loved.

I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I weren’t as high functioning of a depressive as I am. I can go to meetings and turn on the charm. I can hang out with people and smile and laugh. I can do my work, and this month I think I’ve done my job at a pretty high level. I am sad incognito. I’ve written about this before, but for me, depression manifests as low energy, scattered mind, and emotional numbing. It’s the latter that I use to maintain my “professionalism”… the little that I have. I can be doing exciting things but I don’t let myself feel the high. The flip side of that, the self protection side, is that I’m keeping myself from feeling the lows. I don’t want to go wherever the lows might take me right now. Sometimes I wish it was completely debilitating. Sometimes I want to curl up and let days go by without interactions. That’s what I feel.

“But Derrick, I thought your new medication was working really well?”

My, you are attentive when I speak! It’s true. I’m having much better results with Effexor than I did with Celexa, minus the fact that I am constantly sweating. It was suggested awhile ago that I might need to up the dosage. I fought that off because I was feeling good and because I hate the adjustment period when I increase the dosage. I also sometimes get scared that I will be in a never-ending cycle of increased medication until one day nothing works. I will probably need to up my meds, but that adds to the sadness. The rest of you have to deal with Trump as the orange thing that’s running the world. For me, it’s Effexor. Lord Effexor, excuse me. There’s still a part of me that feels the stigma of needing meds.

My good friend has been writing and talking about his depression a lot as I’ve been going through this recent dark season. It has helped to reach out to him, both to let him know that he’s not alone and to take my mind off of my own malaise. Sometimes the trick to getting out of depression is getting outside of yourself. I suppose that’s why I feel best with the kids around. They don’t allow me to go too far into myself. They don’t let me take myself too seriously. And their joy is contagious. The puppy and the cat help sometimes too. Neither of them really give a shit about my emotions. The puppy loves me unconditionally. The cat loves me VERY conditionally.

It won’t be this way forever. My therapist commended me for recognizing that. She’s actually been very complimentary of how I’m handling myself this time. I’m being self aware and as mindful as I know how to be. I’m doing a good job of not following my dark thoughts down rabbit holes for long periods of time. I’ve started exercising again. I’m probably drinking a bit too much, but not alone. I’m not isolating. I’m actually probably erring on the side of being around people when I should take some more time to myself. Right now, the company feels healthier. And I’m trying to practice gratitude. I have quite a bit for which to be thankful. When I can, I spend time in my garden. I shove my hands in the dirt, prune back leaves, flick slugs off of my plants. I admire my pollinator garden full of perennials that I planted last year daily, rain or shine. The colors make me smile and I imagine summer days when the bees will be hovering around the blossoms.

And that’s how I know this won’t last. Despite everything, I have a vision for the future. I think about the future of my little church, a group of faithful, courageous, and imaginative people who I am honored to serve. I think about my kids, and how before my eyes they are becoming these funny, creative, kind, and just plain interesting people. I can’t wait to see what’s next for them. I think about wearing a wedding ring again. I think about impatiently eating the cherry tomatoes off of the vines, and making pesto from basil that I’ve grown, and figuring out what exactly you do with broccoli rabe. In my darkest days, in the depths of my depression, I would be unable to imagine a future. Now, I have to peer through a deep fog to see it, but I do see it. One day, maybe soon, the demons will be driven out and I will fortify myself against them, because I know that they will return. And we will dance this dance until the dance ends for good. I hope when that day comes I can look back and say that I didn’t let them win…

 

Self Talk: Memorial Day, 2017

Between driving between Arlington and Baltimore and Baltimore and Pittsburgh, I spend a lot of time in the car. I thought that maybe I would spend some of that time a little more “productively”, whatever that means. So here’s the first edition of what I am tentatively calling “Self talk”. Let me know what you think!

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B4wTVEIzBRDnRlZCN2ZINXRLS2c 

Feast or Famine

This week I did something that I have not done for a long time; I fasted. My colleague at Arlington Presbyterian Church is on staff at Bread for the World. Bread is Christian organization that empowers people to reach out to policy makers on behalf of the chronically hungry around the world. In anticipation of President Trump’s budget release, the organizational began a campaign called “For Such a Time As This: A Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Advocacy”. The prayer, fasting, and advocacy are all centered around what congress will do in response to Trump’s budget proposal. Bread’s executive director, David Beckmann called Mr. Trump’s budget “an assault on people living in hunger and poverty”. The proposal drastically cuts funding for both international and domestic food programs, and cuts $800 billion from safety net programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid. In prayerful solidarity with the work that Bread is doing, I joined with thousands others who fasted for three days.

Back in the day, I used to fast all the time. It was a big part of spiritual practice of the church in which I grew up. I used to take one day a week and completely swear off of food and try to make more space for prayer in my life. I was moderately successful. I think I generally did a good job of keeping my “hanger” in check and I usually was more aware of what the Spirit was doing. I also looked lustfully at doughnuts, but that’s a different story for a different time. Though fasting has deep roots in Christian tradition and is a very biblical spiritual practice, I find that few mainline protestants give it much emphasis if any at all. That’s unfortunate. My experience of fasting has been one of heightened awareness of my own body, a thing I desperately need, and of the deprivation my spirit experiences in times when I am not tending to my own spiritual health.

It also makes me incredibly aware of how centered my life is on food. My fast over last few days was simply until dinner time when I ate with my family and friends. I normally skip breakfast or have a very light one, but the last three mornings I have been jonesing for breakfast food. Lunch is usually my big meal and I have looked longingly at leftovers and with desperation at drive thrus. I’ve been overwhelmed with a desire to snack in the last few days that I rarely ever have. It’s funny how enticing things are when we are told, even by ourselves, that we can’t have them.

More interesting to me though is the reminder of how much access I have to food. I make a good salary and restaurants are all around. I have my pick of apps I can use to have food delivered to me. We almost always have leftovers from previous dinners. I live with an AMAZING cook. I live two doors down from another AMAZING cook. I have access to several really good grocery stores and this time of year, I have weekly access to Farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). We go to stores where we can buy things in bulk. We have things that have been sitting on pantry shelves because we’re not in the mood for them. And… we throw a lot of food away.

Ah, the food waste. So last year, I started a worm farm. I’ve learned a lot about my foray into vermiculture; worms die when it’s too cold, worms die when it’s too hot, the things worms like are also enjoyed by maggots, etc… All in all, once you can get past the smell, having a worm farm is a great thing. Those things that we can’t compost end up in the worm bin. Our worms are treated to half-eaten hot dogs from the kids, leftover takeout containers that have been sitting in the back of the fridge for an indeterminate amount of time, and things in the fridge have long since been identifiable. I assume the worms are pleased as they largely go about the business of eating, creating compost, and making new worms, but I still feel that twinge of first world guilt as I look at how much food goes uneaten. We have enough for a family that fluctuates between 2, 4, and 6 members, a dog, a cat, and several hundred worms. We’re among the luckiest people in the world.

If food isn’t a human right than nothing is. Hunger is a completely solvable problem. All that stands in our way is greed and violence. Many of the starving in the world live in war torn areas where attempts to access food can be dangerous and where land to grow food is easily destroyed. Many across the world lose access to family farms because the land is swept up by multinational corporations who use the land for monocultural practices. Other parts of the world are beset by famine and we have to recognize that many of those areas are experiencing the effects of climate change. Our own country is plagued by food deserts where access to healthy food is impeded by urban decay.

When I read the gospels, I see Jesus recognizing the physical hunger of his followers on an equal plane as their spiritual hunger. Jesus literally fed people. How can those who strive to be like Jesus do anything less?

Last week I visited a start up community farm that endeavors to provide free food to a food deserted urban population. I marveled at the ingenuity of the farmers and their willingness both to teach and be taught. I brought them potato plants from my own garden, a small token that I hope has an impact. I looked at their land, maybe an acre at most and wondered how many churches I know are sitting on urban land that would better serve the community as farms or gardens rather than as dilapidated buildings.

The last couple of years I have been immersing myself in the Christian Food Movement. I’m becoming friends with people whose mission it is to reconnect with God through the soil and the communal act of eating. And I see people who are dedicated to bringing healthy and delicious food to those places where access to such things is often incredibly difficult. I’m glad that there are also people who working diligently on the advocacy side of things. I know that I and my church will continue to be involved in trying to influence decision-makers, though I admit, I’m not optimistic on that front. I don’t trust our current governmental leadership to make sure that people are fed and that is why I believe that it must be the church that takes the lead on this issue. People in this country and around the world will literally starve to death if we don’t find ways to intervene. I am not okay with that, not at a time when so many of us have so much. I believe that it is time for the church to see food as its number one issue, the issue that cuts across race, gender, sexual orientation, and politics and is so often deeply connected to all of them. In my days as a pastor I would regularly invite people to come and feast at the Lord’s table. It is time to make that invitation real, tangible, and personal. It is time for the church to say to the world “Come! The table is ready!”

This is My Daughter’s World…

Earlier this week, Sophia Jade Weston turned five years old. I must confess to you that I was not in the best of places when my daughter was born. I was in the midst of what I now understand was a deep depressive episode. I was starting a new job in a part of the country in which I did not want to stay. I was eight months removed from walking away from an abusive ministry situation. I didn’t feel ready for a second kid. I barely felt like I could take care of myself. I worried that I might not be able to get over myself enough to have the same love for my daughter that I did for her older brother. It’s funny what time does.

Over these last five years, I have watched Sophia grow into a pretty incredible kid. She’s smart. She could totally be booksmart, but I worry that she’s more the clever, scheming type. She’s creative. She loves to sing and dance. She’s competitive. She’s not doing dance next year because she wants to do tae kwon do like her brother. I’ve seen her eyeing his sparring trophy since the day he won it. She wants one! She’s strong willed. She has no problem saying what it is that she wants. She’s also very sweet. She can be incredibly kind and generous. I’ve seen her be thoughtful in ways that surprise me, especially when her brother is involved. She’s cuddly. I’m always surprised when she breaks off from playing with other kids to come sit on my lap. Not because she wants anything, just because she wants to be close to me.

Over the last five years I have gone from wondering how I would live with this kid to being unable to imagine my life without her. I am deeply in love. She has me wrapped around her finger and I think she knows it. She means the world to me…

…and it is because of that, because of how much I love her and value her, that I am deeply sorry:

Sophia, one day you will read this… if blogs are still a thing in the future… and I want you to know that I’m sorry. There are so many things for which I can be sorry. Sorry that I screwed things up with your mom. Sorry that I moved far away. Sorry for events of yours that I missed. Sorry for the sick days when I didn’t get to sit with you or the nights when I couldn’t comfort you after your bad dreams. I am sorry that you got my bad eyes, even though you look amazing in glasses. I am sorry for all of those things. But I’m also sorry that you’ll grow up in a world where 1 in 3 girls has been sexually assaulted. I’m sorry that you’re growing up in a world where of more than half of that number are assaulted by someone close to them, a family member or intimate partner. I’m sorry that the color of your skin makes you even more vulnerable to violence. I’m sorry that you’re growing up in a world where men often feel entitled to women’s bodies, time, and resources. I’m sorry that you’re growing up in a world where women earn 73 cents to each dollar a man makes. I’m sorry that your strong-will may be dismissed as bitchiness. I’m sorry that your gentleness may be interpreted as weakness. I’m sorry that you’ll have to be extraordinary to be taken half as seriously as mediocre men, though I have no doubts of your ability to be extraordinary. I’m sorry that you live in a world where people will be more likely to listen to your brother even in cases when you have more expertise. I’m sorry that this world was designed to keep you docile and subservient.

My desire for you is that you change the world, and I have no doubt that you will. It’s my desire that you’d be so confident in yourself that you will be what you know yourself to be, not what the world tells you to be. It’s my desire that you will be as strong or soft as you choose to be, as creative or as practical as you choose to be, as wild or as tame as you choose to be.

I know in part what kind of woman that you will be because I know your mother. I know the kind of influence that I wanted you to have in your life and I know that Shannon will push you to be your best self as she does me. I know that your brother loves you and will teach you as much as he can, even when you don’t want to hear it. I know that you have aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents that love you tremendously and that you will be molded by that love. I know that you’ll have teachers, make friends, and adopt mentors, all of whom will pour something of themselves into you.

But, ultimately, it is your world. I know you’ll face obstacles. I know you’ll be tested. I know you’ll be challenged. And you know what? I know you’ll fail. You may fail a lot. I certainly have. But I trust that you’re the kind of person who will learn from their failures. I trust that you’ll get up every time you’re knocked down. I trust that you’ll adapt and adjust. I trust that you’ll find your voice and sing your heart out. I’m guessing your image of success may not look like mine. I’m okay with that, as long as you’re happy and remain the good person I see when I look into your eyes. I believe that you’ll grow into your name – “Sophia: Wisdom”.

And I’ll be here with you. I’ll lead and teach you as best I can. Then I’ll stand beside you whenever you want me to do so. And when it’s time, I’ll step behind and watch you take on the world. But know that I’m here. Whenever you need me. Or whenever you just want to break away from the group to be where I am.

I’ll be here.

 

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Our Mother, Who art in Heaven…

Some time ago, I was in a bit of a writing slump and I asked my patrons if they had suggestions of subjects about which I should write. I got a few responses, all good, and I’ve written on a few of them. My friend David suggested writing about the Lord’s prayer in an age of changing fatherhood. I was intrigued by that and figured I would let it cook for a bit. After some consideration, I figured I would split this in to two parts, one that I would post for Mother’s day and one for Father’s day. 

A little more in the way of preamble. I have been somewhat estranged from my family in recent months. Since my divorce, my family of origin hasn’t been an emotionally safe space for me. I don’t blame anyone for that. I’ve had to work through a lot of things and some interactions are just really hard. I write this post having not really spoken to my mother or having spent any significant time with her in a couple of years. Maybe this will lead to some healing for me… maybe for her as well…

One of the first sermons that I gave in seminary was a Mother’s Day sermon at Christ United Presbyterian Church in the Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco. I was working there as the youth pastor and summer camp director. In that sermon, I explored the idea of God as mother. A summary of the sermon was read in Japanese for the first generation folks in the congregation then I gave my sermon. In a church with a significant amount of strong matriarchs, a sermon like that goes over really well. It wasn’t just that I was speaking on the virtues of motherhood, it was that I connected those virtues with what I believe to be true about God. It was my saying to the mothers in the congregation, “I think God is a lot like you and God’s love is a lot like your love”.

I can admit now that at that point I was taking a new theology out for a test drive. One of the ongoing conversations in seminary for me was about inclusive language. It wasn’t just about using inclusive language for people (“humanity” instead of “mankind”) but it was about inclusive language for God as well. I’ll confess that I bristled the first few times that I heard God referred to as “She” or referred to as Mother/Father God. It was jarring and it felt awkward and clunky. We would rewrite songs on the fly as we played them in worship, changing “he’s” and “him’s” to “she’s” and “her’s”. It felt like a lot of extra work for what I wanted to believe was an assumption: God’s not “really” your Father. It’s just what we call Him. Why can’t everyone just chill?

But it wasn’t an assumption, not even for me. God had to that point in my faith only been ascribed masculine traits. God was King, Lord, Father, Judge. God was stern and strong. God was disciplinarian. God was seeking obedience above all else. God was proud and jealous. These things were engrained in me because of the language that I had heard forever. One of my professors stated that all of our language about God is either metaphor or idolatry and I had made an idol out of God’s masculinity. It had become an important part of my faith and understanding and I wrestled against the idea of God as anything other than Father mightily.

Then as I worked on this sermon, I forced myself to wrestle with another idea: what if God loves the way my mother loves? Growing up with an absentee father, mom was present. Growing up with an abusive stepfather, mom was safety. Mom was the one with whom I could share my random thoughts. Mom was encouraging. Mom was nurturing. Mom was the one with whom I could laugh. Mom was no pushover. I didn’t want to be on her bad side, but I didn’t fear mom like I did my stepfather. Mom’s love came in the form of lasagna and coffee cake not whips from a belt.

There’s another side to this that I can see some years later: mom was vulnerable. Mom was the one who cried and grieved. Mom was the one whose heart was broken often. Mom felt deeply and cared deeply. Mom sacrificed. Mom gave. Mom denied herself. Mom’s love was warm and inviting, not cold and demanding. Mom could be hurt and disappointed. I had the power to break mom’s heart. I still do.

God being like my mom forced my image of God to change. God’s love became more warm and welcoming. It redefined what unconditional love might mean for me. It lessened my fear of God without lessening the respect for God’s power and goodness. It made me imagine a God who might be proud of me, a God who wouldn’t abandon me, and a God who enjoyed my company.

Praying to this God is a different activity as well. The imagery of the Lord’s prayer shifts for me.

“Our mother in heaven…” – not looking down in judgment, but looking out the window making sure I don’t go too far from the house

“hallowed be your name” – don’t do anything that’s going to embarrass Her.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – her kingdom? a table spread out with all of her children gathered around it.

“Give us today our daily bread” – you will eat, but it’s not just about survival. She cares about what you like.

“And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” – there’s nothing you can do that will stop you from being Her child.

“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” – She taught you better than that!

“For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever” – there’s always a home for you. Always.

Amen.

A Second Chance…

Last week I proposed to my girlfriend, Shannon. And, to end the suspense, she said “yes”. It’s been a long road to get here. We’ve been through a lot in a short time. We both bring tremendous gifts and passions to our relationship. We also both came in with a lot of baggage. I added some additional baggage once our journey started. Through it all, Shannon has never stopped seeing the good in me. Even in moments when we were on the thinnest of ice, she has affirmed my worth and goodness. When she pushes me, it is a push to be the good man that she knows that I am, not to stop being a bad one. She has modeled grace to me at every turn, so well in fact that I have a hard time taking people seriously when their idea of “grace” doesn’t look like what I experience on a daily basis. She’s weathered my doubts and my wrong turns. She’s seen me through several major depressive episodes. She’s both cared for me and let me take care of her. Shannon is tough and strong. She’s also tender and compassionate. She loves ferociously. If she loves you, you will know it. There was a time when I would have considered the ways that she loves me to be smothering. Now I’m not sure how I would handle not having love all up in my face! She is funny and witty. We laugh a lot. She’s my favorite person with which to snuggle on the couch and watch TV… though her stamina for sloth is not nearly as high as I’d like it to be. We can talk deeply on theology, football, feminism, Star Wars, our children, and beer. I used to wonder whether it was better to have common interests or common temperaments. I think our common interests outweigh our differences of energy, me the people-loving introvert and she, the high extraverted misanthrope. My kids love her. She loves my kids. I love her kids. They love me. Our kids love each other. They have become our kids. We’ve become a family.

Getting engaged a second time is not like the first. The well wishes have a ring of “hope you can make this one work”. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt the validity of those who have expressed happiness for us over the last few days, but there is an awareness that this ain’t our first rodeo. There’s a reminder of having been through the paces. At the end of the day, my first marriage was ruined by me. It wasn’t a perfect marriage, but I was the one who made it unworkable. I was the one who crossed too many lines for us to recover. I was the one who broke the system. I have to confess that there is a part of me that is scared of breaking the system again. And there is a part of me that feels unworthy of another chance.

That fear and apprehension makes me aware of what a gift I have been given. Don’t get me wrong, I have worked for this. Therapy, couples therapy, adjusting medication… all of that has been difficult. That said, the last six months have been the happiest and healthiest of my life. The work has been paying off, enough so for me to be confident in the asking and for her to be confident in the accepting. No, the gift is having someone who looks at me everyday and communicates in action and word that I am worth fighting for. And sometimes convincing me that I need to fight for myself against my own demons. The gift is not just having someone who says they love you, but having someone who will go down into the mire to raise you up out of it. The gift is to have someone who loves me as Christ loves.

This Eastertide is a wonderful time to be thinking about second chances. Resurrection is a second chance at life. Our life of faith is a chance at new life lived abundantly for God and for others. Our faith is built on forgiveness, second chances, and life from death. It’s those things that are giving me peace right now. Right now, Shannon’s love is the primary way in which I experience God’s love, the love that renews and restores to life. I cannot be but grateful.

“You’re getting a second shot, kid. Don’t blow it!” Actually, my internal message is saying “I don’t know why she’s with you, but don’t fuck this up!” Same thing. It’s really all in the delivery, I suppose. At some point, that internal voice will begin to quiet down and we will simply live life. What I hope doesn’t go away is the gratitude that I am feeling in this moment. I have been given a second chance to be the man that I know that I can be. I have been given a second chance to be a good husband, partner, and friend. I have been given a second chance to model to our kids what a loving relationship looks like. I am humbled by this. I take the privilege very seriously. I believe I can do it right this time. I believe we can have a good life and do good things in the world. I believe that God brought us together and I’m excited to see where we’re going…

 

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