When Depression Comes Back

For my Sojourn Ladies at Prairie Oak Community Church

I went off the anti-depressants in January. I had my reasons. There was a week in Mexico on the horizon, followed by our Epic Road Trip toward the sun.

Ever since my first diagnosis, I’ve considered my Depression linked, at least in part, to outside forces. Weather. Loneliness. Extreme circumstances. When I went back on the medication last summer, I thought that my anxiety about the coming book release was to blame. But by January, the book angst was settled. It was the depth of Minnesota winter – yes – but it would be tempered by vacations to warmer places. I thought it would be okay.

This is what the descent back into Depression looks like for me. First I get crabby. The I get weepy. I blame hormones and Age 3. I blame Caillou’s annoying voice and annoyingly patient cartoon parents. I blame Minnesota winter, which seems to sprawl each year farther and farther into the months categorically reserved for Spring. Then it gets worse, and I lose all sense of momentum and motivation, and I don’t know who to blame anymore. So I blame myself.

depression comes back

During the first week of April, my husband went out of town on business, and I slogged through the days with concrete in my veins. I hit a wall with the work on Book 2. How could I write about rebuilding my faith when I felt exactly I did five years ago during The Year of My Drinking? When I felt just as lost and just as lonely and just as far away from God?

There is a sense of defeat when you realize that your struggles are not past tense but present. Not something you’ve overcome, but patterns that you’ll have to work to overcome you’re whole life.

That week, I found myself reeling toward the edge again, self-medicating at night with wine until I’d taken down most of the bottle by myself. I’d wake up in a hangover haze with a three-year-old laying on my head and my husband at some hotel in some other state.

No matter how many times I do it, it always feels a little bit like defeat to go back on the anti-depressants. I never want to, and it always feels like a last resort to call the nurse and make that appointment.

And yet. Here’s the gift. Here’s the hope. I did it.

Where before it’s taken me weeks or months or even years to understand what was going on, this time I knew. And it only took me a few days to pick up the phone and get help.

I’m learning to recognize the signs before they spiral into regrets. I’m learning to admit it out loud, even though it feels hard to say it every single time. Depression.

This time, I told the Church Ladies instead of waiting for them to notice it, waiting for them to sense my drowning and resenting them when they didn’t. Instead I said it, and that is a kind of victory. Around our table at morning Bible study that week, they nodded and looked at me with soft eyes, and then one by one, they all told their own stories of Depression and sadness, darkness and light.

This time, I called my husband. I said, It’s not good right now. I said, I made an appointment and I’m going back on the drugs. And this time, he understood right away what that meant. This time, he opted out of the weekend church retreat that he’d planned to go on and came home.

In the sterile, fluorescence of the exam room, I cried while the doctor asked me questions. “Am I going to have to be on these damn pills for the rest of my life?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. It’s different for everyone, but it’s okay if you do.”

It’s okay if you do.

*

I know I’ve been a bit absent from this online space this month. I’ve been letting the poets say it for me. For all of us. Their language and their line breaks have made space for my own feelings of discouragement and defeat. And for grace – that “terrible oil/anointing me beloved.”

Here in the bald, exposed space of my ongoing struggle, I am learning again and again to admit that I need help. I am bent toward self-destruction, and I am waving my hands in surrender.

And this month, I am being saved again. By the pills and the poets. By Church Ladies, who send emails and slip books into my hands in the foyer before service.

I am being saved by the God who does not let me go – not this time or last time or ever…no matter how deep the darkness of my heart.

He is risen, and I am being raised too. No matter how dark it gets, Easter comes again. Every single time.

The Wall Is You: Entering Faith Through Poetry

Two years ago at the Festival of Faith and Writing I mustered up all the bravery I could and walked up to Thom Caraway at the Rock & Sling table. I was trying to be proactive and self-promote, but I felt out of my league with all of the brilliant poets and their beautiful literary magazines. Still, when I told Thom about my blog, he opened his laptop right then and typed in the address. He didn’t roll his eyes at the word “blog” or write me off as un-literary. He was kind, and his kindness buoyed me and helped me to continue to be courageous that weekend.

To this day, Thom Caraway continues to be one of my favorite people. His work at Rock & Sling is fantastic, and I love his commitment to exploring the ways faith and art intersect. You’re going to love this piece and the poem that goes with it. Welcome Thom!

wall

As the editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal that publishes work that engages faith issues, the relationship between writing and God is often at the front of my thinking. I look for poems that seek not the easy platitudes of Proverbs or Psalms quoted out of context, not that which avoids to central conflicts of faith and doubt (not that the Psalms are easy, of course, but when you take one sentence and put it on a poster or say “God has a plan,” I tend to become uninterested in a hurry). I want to publish work that is taking faith issues on in beautiful and meaningful ways. Work that isn’t certain or doesn’t have all the answers.

But in my own writing, I rarely wrestle with these issues, explicitly at least. I wasn’t a Christian when I started writing, coming to faith only in the last few years. And while it was partially through poetry that I was able to access and understand the beauty of God’s creation, those issues still stayed out of my writing. I find as much spiritual guidance in the work of Wendell Berry, B.H. Fairchild, Marilynne Robinson, and John Hodgen as I do in the Gospels. But I can’t seem to do it myself.

It’s just too big. I still feel like an infant Christian. I didn’t grow up in a church, so I don’t have decades of King James rhythms, hymns or sermons bumping around in my memories. I am not fluent in the language (I came to Addie’s blog the first time legitimately looking for ways to talk evangelical), and I feel at times a bit like an imposter to Christendom (though I often still feel this way about my poetry, as well).

But a year or so ago, my church asked a few of us writers to compose a series of responses to Psalm 23. Even I knew which one that was. That’s got all the big language. Like, all of it. “The valley of the shadow of death…” That’s heady stuff, and I was already intimidated, so of course I said sure.

The assignment was essentially ekphrastic. My poem would be a response to the tone and feel the Psalm inspired in me. I could handle that. While I see many poems that respond directly to various Scriptural passages as Rock & Sling editor, I knew that I should avoid certain pitfalls. My first draft, of course, fell into all of those pits. Through a drawn out process of revision, I started to mold it into a shape I liked. Here is the result: 

Shine, Imperishable City

When I close my eyes, I’ve seen
the shimmering city—light,
gold as the harvest,
heard the distant wash of music.
But the city was walled, black stone,
and I could not enter.

“The wall is you,” he said, “you
are the wall.” I knew that what was in the city
was not for me. I knew that inside,
my enemies ate at my table, knew
that there were no enemies, not even me.

It is no simple thing to enter the world.
First, we depart these angels
of our common love. We give up
the shadow of a thing for the thing,
the shining city, this meal and cup,
this terrible oil, anointing me beloved.

Surely, this is the kingdom.
Surely, I am black stone.
Surely, the city is for you, for me,
and the wall becomes glass
and the kingdom erupts, surely heaven
surely earth, angels and cup, world without end.

(the poem is forthcoming in The Cresset)

The poem draws in several elements that had been working in me. The first is the vision, a recurring dream I’ve had most of my life. A city I always understood as heaven, with yellow light and symphonic music emanating from inside, but the walls were too tall and thick and I could never find a way in. I’d told a friend that story one day, the day I became a believer, actually. And he said what he said. Sometimes the Spirit speaks poetry into your life, and you receive it. I’ve learned to feel blessed rather than lucky.

From there, I try to get close to some of the psalmic language, to ramp up the rhythm and build a crescendo, which includes the contrasting emotions I have about salvation. This is the “terrible oil” line. Salvation and grace are awesomely freeing but also terrifying. If you aren’t terrified by your salvation, I don’t understand you. The scope of it is beyond comprehension. ‘Humbling’ is too small a word. But it’s there, and we’re in it, and I wanted that heavenly city to erupt. That’s how I often feel about God, that He’s erupting into my world, both destructive and saving.

And while I am still looking for ways to engage my faith more explicitly through my poetry, I have faith that the Spirit will lead me there, in His time, when I’m ready. And I’ll take the fleeting glimpses in the meantime.

 

Blue shirt photoThom Caraway teaches at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he is the editor of Rock & Sling, a journal of witness. He lives with his wife and kids, several chickens, bunnies, and other animals (but not yet a goat), in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. Last fall, he was selected as Spokane’s first Poet Laureate.

Honky-Tonk Bride

Friends. I’m back from a beautiful, exhausting, whirlwind weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I feel wildly grateful to have been in the company of beautiful people and beautiful art for three full days. And I’m so tired that I could cry.

I’ll tell you more about all of it later this week, but for now, I’m so glad to continue my April Faith & Poetry project with the beautiful work of my friend Sarah Wells. I had the chance to spend some time with Sarah at the Festival and she is every bit as lovely and brilliant in real life as she is here. Please welcome her here today!

honky tonk

Poetry is the place I go to wrestle with a question I have—if I’m confused or angry or tired or in love or depressed or delighted or maybe a thought is just constant like a pebble in the bottom of my shoe, I often find myself writing a poem through it. The writing of poetry is my meditation practice; it’s the quiet place I find to be still and listen, to be still and know, or at least to be still and wonder.

It is the music of language in poetry that initially drew me to it. I was captivated by the rhythms of language the same way a keyboardist at my church can lead me into the thin places during worship until I find myself exposed and vulnerable, ready to receive. Poetry has this ability as well – a simple turn of phrase or an aptly placed line break can slice me open, lead me deeper, or slam me against the wall – and that emotional engagement can draw me into a sanctuary of praise.

Poetry’s ability to engage the imagination also serves to enliven my faith. Just as I see poetry as a vessel to carry both the natural and spiritual worlds, I think it’s also something of a defibrillator, a device to send a jolt through whatever rigid ideas I have about God and faith so that I might always be aware of the mysteries.

And that, I think, is what I appreciate most about poetry of faith: there is room for doubt alongside faith. There is room for darkness alongside light. There is room for awe alongside simplicity. There is room for uncertainty alongside facts. These are the places of complexity and reality for me in my faith, and engaging in this place of tension feels real, and good, and true, and beautiful.

Here’s a poem from Pruning Burning Bushes, which originally appeared on the blog of the literary journal Rock and Sling:

Honky-Tonk Bride 

Jesus is dancing like no one is watching
his partner. He smiles and twirls a girl
in a satiny top and high heels. The audience
raises their glasses and pitchers. The dance
floor is packed and they’re playing
his song, the one on seducing a love
gone wrong. All of the ways he’s tried
to romance her,
but she turns her head,
ignores his advances and catches other
cowboys’ stares. She is sure the world
prefers a man in a Stetson hat instead
of this wild-eyed dancer, shameless
for her. How effortlessly
he turns her,
gathers her into himself as if he loves her
wandering, as if he loves her
doubts, would save her from her
handsome predators every Wednesday,
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night
from this honky tonk to eternity.

 

SarahWells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Poems and essays by Wells have appeared in many journals, most recently Ascent, Brevity, Chautauqua, The CommonFull Grown People, The Good Men Project, The Pinch, and River Teeth. Sarah’s work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essays, “Country Boys, City Boys” and ”Those Summers, These Days” were listed as notable essays in the Best American Essays 2013 and 2012, respectively. Sarah is at work on a memoir/essay collection about the two most important men in her life, her husband and her father, with the tentative title, American Honey. She serves as the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University and Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrativehttp://sarahmwells.blogspot.com

Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life

I’m so honored to have extraordinary writer and Windhover Journal editor, Dr. Nathaniel Hansen, sharing here today. I love the way he writes about pushing toward the confusing and often deeply personal realm of faith through poetry. You guys are going to love this one. As today is the first day of the Festival of Faith and Writing, I’m hopefully hanging out with him in real life as you read this. (The internet is so weird and awesome sometimes.) Please welcome him to this space today!

Your most frequent
requests: a safe drive,
a speedy recovery,
and financial demands.
And then of course
the old standbys
“bless this” and
“bless that.”

You wonder how
those saints master
the discipline,
their communication
traveling like currents
through crackling lines
that almost spark
from sender to
receiver, back again.

You can count
on one hand
the moments prayer
blossomed organically
without wants’ weeds
crowding petals, stealing
sunlight, robbing soil
of water, of life.

Yet, you persist
with petitions
attached to phrases
abundant, overflowing,
with me, my, and I,
forgetting that one
who wants to live
must first lose one’s life.

published in The Cresset, 76.5 (2013)

I write poems about rural spaces, about weather, about the wind, about driving, and about love. Sometimes two of these subjects make it into one poem. A couple of my poems even manage to contain all of my go-to subjects. This poem was/is different.

I wrote the first draft in late August 2012 shortly after the birth of my daughter and after beginning a new job in a new state. Prior to drafting, revising, and subsequently publishing this poem, however, I rarely addressed any aspect of my faith. I can count on one hand the number of my poems that have addressed any aspect of my faith. During my grad-school stints I’d made a few attempts, but they hadn’t worked out very well.

The first draft was only three stanzas, missing the fourth stanza that appears in the published version. And that fourth stanza was a stretch for me. It was moving in the direction of pronouncement, but at the same time, the fourth stanza eventually seemed to me to be essential, an organic expression based upon the previous three stanzas.

My use of second-person was deliberate from the outset. I chose it because I felt the overt presence of the “I” would be too inwardly focused. So, yes, I’m the “you,” but maybe the reader is also the “you.” I was implicating myself. How could I call out my own tepid prayer life, a prayer live marked by solipsism?  As it has so many times before, poetry rescued me.

praying  hands

John Berryman famously stated, “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

I see “Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life” as the title of my next project, and this Lenten season, I’ve begun drafting more poems related to the subject of prayer. I’m exploring what this poem’s title and its implications might have both for me and for a wider audience.  This exploration is a challenging and uncomfortable.

For me, this poem, and the subsequent poems that it has inspired (and will inspire), is more about courage than anything else. Courage to wrestle with a subject matter littered with the refuse of clichés and easy-believism. Courage to stretch myself beyond my “regular” subject matter. Courage to face the possibility that I might be changed, formed, corrected, etc., etc., etc., by this entire pursuit.

In one new poem, “Prayer Diagnostics,” I write, “Most often, the trouble is simply starting./There are so many other things you’d rather do.” Following this initial stanza, I include a litany of activities I’d rather do than pray. I found this list, sadly, easy to create, the distractions stretching across line after line. None of these activities is inherently bad, but the poem is my attempt to list my conflicting allegiances, my competing loves, my competing objects of worship.

*

This brings me back to the first poem, to the ending with its allusion to Christ’s injunction. The poem revealed to me the fact that I need to be other-focused. I realize that’s nothing “new under the sun,” I’ve heard that idea preached more times than I can count on my fingers and toes.

But it took this poem to shock me, to acknowledge that all of this is bigger than “I.”

*

Hansen picA proud Minnesota native, Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the recently released chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014). He teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where he also serves as editor of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and directs the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. He blogs sporadically at plainswriter.wordpress.com and tweets randomly with the handle RunWriteTeach.  He is a proud aficionado of contemporary poetry, NBA basketball, small towns, progressive metal, and Yankee Candles.

 

Photo by Joel Jospeh at CreationSwap.
Used with permission