Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Depression: Painful part of fight

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I last wrote about working through change and how I’m learning new lessons about time and patience.

Change is messy and can be painful. One result of that pain can be depression, a curse I think almost everyone faces from time to time, especially during loss or struggle. But for those who become discouraged during a prolonged effort or who are prone to focus on their own shortcomings, it can last a lifetime.

So it has been with me.

In my own eyes, I have never been good enough. Academically, good grades came fairly easily to me through high school, and I became arrogant, self-serving and inclined to do my own thing in college. Later I would kick myself over and over because my GPA ended up being less than stellar – due partly to transferring credits from a school I should never have chosen in the first place, and because in my arrogance I felt it was acceptable to get C’s and B’s as long as I was gaining “meaningful life experiences.” Some of you will get this, although Mom and Dad, if you do not, I guess I have some explaining to do.

Professionally, I usually have broadcast confidence in my skills and abilities, but inwardly I often struggled with self-doubt. When I did do well, I could not be happy unless I improved rapidly and mastered that area. Then I would push to advance to the next level.

Nothing was more frustrating and defeating than stagnation.

So I worked to advance, convincing myself that I was working to provide better for my family, which I was. Later, however, I would struggle with the realization that my family paid a high price for that, even as I sated my own appetite for relevance and elevation.

Mike Bailey, a good friend and fellow journalist, is fond of saying, “Nobody ever died wishing they had spent more time at work.” Yet, sadly, earlier in my career, I probably would have wished just that – I loved what I did, but I think I loved more what I though it gave me.

That drive nearly destroyed my marriage and robbed my oldest son of a father for most of four years.

When you make mistakes like that, mess up your priorities and hurt those closest to you, you start thinking it’s OK to beat yourself up, that you deserve it. But I already had a predilection for doing that.

Over the past 20 years or so I have grown in my faith, and that faith in God has given me hope and an optimism that has helped me persevere through the blackest of times since my failings of early adulthood, as well as those since then. That faith has buoyed me when I could not see beyond unpleasant circumstances or past my own perceived shortcomings, or those I saw in others around me.

Still, I find myself reluctant to tackle writing about this black cloud that swings like a pendulum back and forth across my life’s path. I’ve put off addressing it here for some time and for varied reasons. To be sure, part of me is concerned about causing worry for family members and friends. Another part dreads the idea of being perceived as wallowing in self-pity. I am not, although today in particular I am struggling.

But my greatest concern is how my own weakness in this area reflects on how others perceive my faith – that it might cause some to doubt whether faith in God indeed can make a difference in their own lives.

I believe it can. I do not think my own weakness should be construed as God failing me. Perhaps my writing about it will help you see more clearly who I am, but also that my faith in God doesn’t stave off or prevent troubles in my life, although it certainly helps me get through them.

I am an imperfect man, after all, whose natural inclination is to seek out his own agenda, boost his own ego, fulfill his own needs and desires at every level. Sure, there is a part in each of us that seems altruistic, but I think that, too, generally is driven by self-interest. We develop relationships – alliances, if you will – based upon a mutually beneficial give and take, whether for building community (strength in numbers and diversity), camaraderie, establishing family and leaving a legacy.

But I truly believe that as my faith, or trust, in God grows, my motivations take a noble turn, seeking the best out of love for others rather than love for self.

So this week, on the cusp of marking sevens months since my layoff, I find myself dealing more and more with feelings of desperation, frustration, hopelessness. It does not help that the tide which seems to swell larger against me becomes more difficult to endure. There is no noble feeling in all of this.

The sense of hopelessness today was palpable. I awoke this morning to mourning, wondering why it is I no longer am allowed to shave, shower, brew a mug of coffee, grab some leftovers to take with me for dinner and get into my car for the drive to work. Why am I no longer allowed to be as productive as I had been in a career I have loved, occasionally hated, for the past 27 years?

In recent months, I have put myself under increasing pressure to find work and have applied for federal job retraining assistance. Between two part-time positions (I enjoy) and my full-time job search, I frequently find myself sitting in front of my laptop for 16 hours a day, checking automated emails I receive with notifications from nearly a dozen job boards about potential employment. When those show few possibilities, I jump to the actual job boards themselves and spend hours looking through full listings, hoping I can find something that in some way will match my skills and yet pay enough to help provide for my family. And at times I join discussion threads on LinkedIn, trying to meet other journalists, talk shop, develop relationships.

In between, in recent weeks, there have been assignments or tasks from government agencies and potential employers that have added to my to-do lists.

The busy-ness and lack of apparent progress has been very discouraging, even over the course of a two-week period that saw two telephone interviews.

In the meantime, I continue to struggle with vision issues, although they may not be as serious as I had been led to believe. Still, throw into the mix the medication prednisone, a steroid my doctor prescribed a week ago to combat my eye problem, and things get emotionally dicey. Prednisone lists sleep issues and depression among its myriad potential side effects, others of which are frequently disturbing, sometimes alarming. Sleep disturbance and depression. Yeah, apparently that is just what the doctor ordered.

On Monday, I sat down at my computer about noon to begin my five hours of duty for By six, I had begun trolling the job boards, seeking out positions at which I felt I could do well, applying for another that was over my head but still within the realm of possibility. I believe I could fill that position, although I doubt the HR folks there will do more than glance over my letter and resume.

When I finally started to feel a little tired, I looked at the clock. It was nearly 4 a.m., so I headed off to bed.

Sleep issues at this juncture are inconvenient, not debilitating, however, and the doctor seemed very confident prednisone would help me. Therefore, I’m willing to suffer through that.

But aside from any enhancements due to the medication, my struggle with depression points back to my inherent selfishness. In the New Testament, Paul writes about our base human nature as an old man who lies within us after we place our faith in Jesus Christ. But that old man, the part of us that rebels against God and wants to go his own way, is constantly looking for ways to reassert himself. Typically, I find this is at its worst when I have grown complacent and comfortable. But even when you burn your finger, you reflexively pull back; when I’m hurting or stressed, the old man in me rises up, wanting to take control again and pull away, withdraw.

The old man wants all this to end, at any cost. I want it to end, too, but not at any cost.

I have found in my life that God teaches me best when I cannot understand the big picture, when I cannot see the details that extend beyond my scope of time and space. I must sort through who He is and how I need to trust in Him.

Jacob wrestled with God and was changed, becoming a better man as a result. I’ve grappled with God as well on issues in my life. Each time I see growth, and the next descent into the pit seems easier to handle. Most often, I take comfort in His word.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your
own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge
Him, and He will make straight your paths.”
– Provebs 3:5-6 (ESV)

But by its very nature, faith ultimately is trusting in something that is less palpable than, say, a descending water balloon that you know will soak you thoroughly when it strikes.

Faith says plan for what you know, trust God to guide you through the details you cannot, be willing to make changes, and trust Him to walk you through the flames.

From that comes growth and maturity in my relationship with Him. I hope it also brings greater strength of character as I mature, although some would say I’m a character enough already.

So I have, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in discussion with others, often while reading the Bible, wrestled to understand the dynamics and intricacies of my faith. That growing discernment also brings comfort, gives me a context for accepting why, if God truly loves me, life is not a bed of roses.

Sorting through difficult questions and understanding the theology of my faith – finding the holes in my thinking, seeking a truer understanding – are keys to that comfort for me. For example, exploring the inherent conflict between the all-powerful and sovereign will of God and the free will He gave to mankind. Trying to understand why a loving God allows sin to flourish in the world and yet condemns sinners because of it (the answer to that one is enmeshed in that whole free will thing, and the idea that, after all is said and done, we are accountable for the choices we make. My advice: Choose wisely).

I believe that for faith to grow, it in many ways must be more than blind trust. Sometimes it takes wrestling with God to know Him better – and I believe He welcomes that kind of earnest, honest questioning. I’m also talking about dissecting the Bible to understand what was being said at the time it was being said, the meaning it held for those who were hearing or reading it in that culture and time, and understanding how that applies to a modern world that, ultimately, aside from the bells and whistles of modern technology, is still remarkably similar.

It also means being open to new surprises, even when I think I’ve finally cracked this or that kernel of wisdom.

Remember the scripture I pointed to above from Proverbs 3? Here’s the first verse again: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”

That “do not lean on your own understanding” thing is a kernel I’m still trying to crack. Yet, even as I struggle through what’s been a dark, dark day, I find a lot of encouragement in that, and in the second part of that verse: In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”
No matter the issues I face in this life, I want straight paths. I want to do what’s right – for my God, for my family, for those around me. Knowing me, I will continue to screw things up along the way, but “love covers a multitude of sins.” That's from I Peter, 4:8.