16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 02/05/2006
There's walking depression, a chronic condition like walking pneumonia- you feel terrible but you have no acute signs.
I've suffered from walking depression all my life. I think a lot of people do. You know the famous personality-type description? Some people look at life as a half full glass of water, other look at it as half empty? Well, people like me who suffer form walking depression belong in the half empty category.
I never feel enthusiastic about anything. I have very little faith in positive outcomes. I don't believe in myself, I don't trust anyone. I live my life… in a fog. I stumble around unable to get very motivated because I'm afraid of what I might run into. Actually, I don't even think I'm afraid of accidents, I just feel too flat to really do anything exciting.
Walking depression lives in your bones. It makes your bones feel like tubes of water- heavy and unstable. I'm always asking myself it it's worth standing up. I'm never sure I have the internal structure to get me through a task. It takes so much effort.
The Journey (excerpt), by Lillian Smith
"Into the Wilderness", by Sarah York, excerpted from Listening for Our Song, edited by Margaret Beard
Wilderness is a part of every person's soul-journey, and part of our journey together as human beings who seek to live in community. Time in the wilderness is always a time of struggle. It is also a time of transformation and renewal. In traditional terms, it is a time of purification. The journey into wilderness reminds us that we are alone and not alone. We are neither where we have been nor where we are going. There is danger and possibility, risk and promise. In the wilderness, the spirit may descend like a dove and lift us on its wings of hope, then drive us into the depths of despair; it may affirm us with a gift of grace, then challenge us to change. In the stories and rituals of Eastern as well as Western religions, a journey into the wilderness represents a time when we both pursue and resist the Holy.
We may choose to enter the wilderness like the people of Yahweh, to escape bondage, or, like Henry David Thoreau, to "live deliberately". Or we may, like Jesus, be driven there without much choice. Once there, even our markers of time and space collapse, for this wilderness is not in space or time, but is the boundless territory of the soul.
I can remember a time in college when just getting out of bed in the morning seemed a monumental task. That semester I had enrolled in an innovative program where I was in a University Without Walls. That basically means you pay lots of money to teach yourself something. My planned curriculum was to compare teaching methodologies- open classrooms and more traditional classroom teaching in elementary schools. I was working as a teacher's aide in an open classroom three days a week but the other days I was supposed to be researching the topic. But I had difficulty even getting out of bed.
It was January in Boston. Bleak and cold. There was snow left on the ground from the last big storm. It was the grimy kind of leftover snow that isn't picturesque, but is depressing to look at. The kind of snow that is mixed with sand and grit. I remember that feeling of having this sand always stuck to my boots so when I came into my dorm room, the linoleum floor always felt gritty and dirty. I never felt quite clean that winter.
I had a boyfriend who he had already graduated from college and he lived and worked in Boston. I didn't get to see him much during the week. We were having difficulties. I always seemed to be calling him. He always seemed to not be home. I felt abandoned and clingy.
I remember one night when I was working late in the library. That night I just felt so alone and so bad. I wanted so badly to be with someone. I was so depressed about things. I felt like what I was doing was a waste of time. I felt like my boyfriend didn't really love me. I felt totally alone and so worthless. That night I tried calling him on the library phone but there was no answer. This was before the time of cell phones. I called and called but there was no answer. I decided I just had to see him that night. So I bundled myself up, trudged down to the bus stop, and rode the subway into Boston, late on the last train in. When I got to his apartment building, I stood ringing and ringing his doorbell. No answer. His windows were dark. Someone let me into the locked building but I didn't have a key to his apartment. The trains were no longer running. I remember sitting on the floor against his door in the foyer of that dark and dreary Boston brownstone for hours, alternately crying and falling asleep. I finally realized that my boyfriend wasn't coming home that night. I finally got a taxi back to my dorm at 3 in the morning.
Now when I look back on that time, I realize I was suffering from depression. It lasted about six months until I finally worked out some of the problems I was having. But at the time, I had no idea where to turn to get help. I guess I knew that there was a counseling center, but I guess I didn't understand that counseling could have really helped me. I didn't feel I could tell my parents what was going on, because I was afraid they would worry. And I figured that I could figure it out on my own. Luckily, I did have a spiritual practice. I was a practicing Buddhist. It was the practice of meditating daily that helped me climb out of that dark hole.
The readings that we heard today describe how others have experienced depression. The "chasms" opening up under our feet that we didn't expect, Lillian Smith so poignantly describes. That feeling of walking depression with bones that feel like tubes of heavy water. The enormous effort it takes to get through a task. Like swimming through heavy air.
And Sarah York tells the story of depression as the wilderness of our soul. Depression is a wilderness. A wilderness where we are lost, often feeling completely alone. We feel that we'll never find ourselves again. And sometimes we don't even have the energy to care.
More people today have learned that depression is a disease. While some people don't subscribe to this, such as Tom Cruise who believes that women who have post-partum depression should just get over it, most people understand that depression is a disease with both genetic and environmental causes. Many of us have genetic histories filled with people who have indicators of this disease. In my family, it is the history of alcoholism that makes it clear to me that I am at risk for depression. For alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases caused by depression. As we now know, people self medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol due to an overwhelming experience of depression in their lives.
In addition to genetic factors, environmental factors are also possible causes for depression.
In the winter time, when there is less light available, people tend to be affected by something called "Seasonal Affective Disorder" when our chemical composition is altered by the lack of light available to us. People who have been treated with special lights have found this to help them get through the difficult dark times of the winter.
Some of us, while we may not suffer from serious depression may find winter a more difficult time for us. I think the dark and cold times in our climate can affect all of us in small ways making it harder for us to feel upbeat and positive about our lives.
Environmental factors, such as a difficult family situation or experiencing significant loss in your life, can also trigger depression in individuals. And this is especially true for people with the genetic tendency toward depression.
When we're going through a difficult time, it's important to evaluate whether we are just having the midwinter blues, or whether we're seriously depressed and need to consider seeking professional help. The symptoms for a serious depression might look like this: you might have difficulty with sleeping- either you can't get to sleep or you can't get out of bed and you sleep a lot, you might have a change in your eating habits- either you've lost your appetite or you have gained significant weight, you have feelings of worthlessness, you have no energy and don't seem to care about anything. Or in some cases, you may have physical symptoms such as a prolonged stomach ache that doesn't go away. And of course, there is the feeling of sadness or anxiety most of the time. When you are experiencing four or more of these symptoms, that's the time when it would be a good idea to check it out with someone. Call your regular doctor and talk it over with him/her or get an appointment with a psychotherapist. If you'd like a referral to someone, or you're not sure whether you are having a serious depression, I'd be happy to talk to you to help sort it out.
There are a lot of people who believe that taking psycho-pharmacy medications to relieve depression is an important component to getting better. I know that there are many people in this room who would tell me that they might not be alive today if it weren't for the medications that help them to function well in the world.
And there are people who are adamantly opposed to taking drugs for depression and who believe that counseling or natural health remedies are safer options.
I personally believe that both medication when prescribed by a psychiatrist or pharmacologist and counseling from a professional are both important components for serious depression. Sometimes, a person may only need medication temporarily to get through a difficult time and can then deal with the depression on their own, with help from a counselor.
But depression whether it's a serious disease or whether we are just feeling a little blue for a while is telling us something about ourselves. As Sarah York says, we are entering the "boundless territory of the soul" as we struggle with the wilderness of depression. The struggle is where we can learn about ourselves and how to care for ourselves better.
Sometimes people are taught in childhood to hide their true feelings. We are often told as children to "look on the bright side" of things. We are told to find the silver lining in the clouds. And these are not bad skills to learn. However, the feelings we are having about something, like the feeling of sadness at a loss, or the feeling of inadequacy at not finding ourselves perfect in some way- these feelings are valid and important. Feelings of loss and worthlessness should not be covered up by putting on a "polite face". We are taught to show a "nice face" to the world, to cover up our disappointment or our sadness, or our anger to show the world a pretty face - one that is acceptable to others.
Often our depression comes from repressed feelings we have had throughout our life that we were not allowed to express. And when these feelings that we have pushed down, squeezed down for so long come to the surface, it's scary. It's scary to all of sudden have feelings about something and you may not know what the feelings are coming from. They may be feelings that we did not allow ourselves to feel at an earlier time but which have pushed themselves to the surface in our lives and it's time for us to recognize them and start dealing with them.
So, the depression we may be feeling now is telling us something. It may be telling us about something in our lives right now that is making us feel badly. Or it may be reminding us about a bad feeling we had earlier and we have a situation now that is bringing it back. But we need to know what it is we're feeling in order to start sorting out what is something we need to deal with now and what are feelings left over from the past. Often talking with a counselor can help you start to identify where your feelings of depression are coming from. Or if there are environmental or physical reasons for your depression.
Many women experience depression during times of hormonal change such as during or after pregnancy or as a part of pre-menopausal symptoms. Due to the immense changes going on in our bodies during this time, hormones are fluctuating greatly. These fluctuations can certainly account for a chemically induced depression.
There are ways to deal with depression that are part of planning for a healthy lifestyle. Certainly eating right, exercising, and taking care of your body is always part of a prescription for feeling better about ourselves. For me walking a few times a week is necessary both for exercise and as a part of my meditation. If I don't walk during a week when there's bad weather, I can start to feel grumpy and out of sorts. Walking allows my mind to flow and follow what's going on with my spirit.
Talking with someone about how you're feeling is always a good idea. That could mean just having lunch with a friend. But with serious depression, it's important to find a good therapist. Someone you can feel comfortable with. Sometimes people need to keep a daily journal that allows them to let the feelings within them flow out. Reading back over a journal helps us see where our spirits are wandering. It helps us to see the ebbs and flows of our spirit as we deal with the despair and the possibilities for healing.
Reaching out to someone when you are in need is probably the most difficult part and most rewarding part of your journey back to your own recovery. Being able to admit to someone that you need some help is hard for most of us. But it is the way to begin to admit to ourselves that we need to find our way out of the darkness, back to the light.
Unraveling the threads of your life in your journey through your depression can often lead to some valuable insights as to where you want to go next. One woman in writing about her depression said, "It was through my depression that I learned to define my own strength and voice. By bearing the pain of my depression I learned how much strength of character I had. If I could bear the pain of depression, I could cope with the challenges of life. My depression has also brought clarity to my life. It has taught me spirituality, a sense of awe and humbleness. Through the humbleness I have learned to love and accept other people. Love and acceptance have taught me not to be afraid." (Amanda, from Salt Lake City, from You Are Not Alone, Julia Thorne, p.87.
Times of depression are a time of wandering in the darkness, looking for the light, just as this time of year reminds us with its bleak wintry outlook some days followed by cheerful sunny days.
February 1st marks the pagan celebration of Imbolc which is a fertility festival, marking the time when the ice and snow are beginning to melt, when the lambs are beginning to be born, and the cold winter that has had us in its grip begins to loosen up. The significance of the holiday for ancient people was that they could see that spring was coming and that they could somehow get through the rest of the winter. The hope for our awakening from our dark, difficult days is peeking through the window, showing the possibility of the sun's warming rays.
As Sarah York tells us in her meditation, "Time in the wilderness is always a time of struggle. It is also a time of transformation and renewal." During the times of winter in our lives, we hunker down, pulling inward. We pull in our fears and our anxiety. We examine them, we touch them, we tell stories about them. We are like the cave people in ancient times who huddled together for warmth during the winter months. And like bears, hibernating to reserve their strength during a time when food is not plentiful, we begin to awaken again as the sun's light starts to penetrate our outer shells.
We end with an Imbolc prayer, honoring the bride Brigid, a symbol of the hope of renewed life, new growth that we can see as a possibility with the coming of spring.