How do you identify your “passion”?

It’s no secret that I was, for a long time, feeling very lost in life. Unlike many people I know, I didn’t have an obvious passion or hobby, or something that’s enthralled me since childhood. This became a particularly huge source of distress during depressive episodes. If no one checked on me, I’d be confined to my bed for more than half the day, tormented by thoughts about being “useless”, “pathetic”, and “less than human” for not being driven.

Many people and many articles (like these) lead us to believe that our passion ought to be something in which we can lose ourselves, or something that allows us to forget everything else. And the appeal of distraction is particularly pertinent for those of us who are suffering. What helps me forget about my crippling insecurities? What helps me forget about all the craziness and pain in the world?

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But I don’t want that. And I don’t think anyone should. I am seeking something that, contrary to helping me forget the world, would help me understand my place in this world. Not something that blinds me to the suffering in this world, but something that allows me to understand suffering and play a part in healing it.

It becomes apparent that this becomes so much more than a search for a hobby. We are on a quest for Truth.

I don’t want to be protected from the anxiety of mortal existence, I want to understand and overcome it. I absolutely hate being told not to question things too much, not to think too much. Most people who say that are entirely well-meaning. They are worried that these thoughts would lead me down an abyss of hopelessness. But they’re assuming that these questions would lead me to a dark and terrifying place — perhaps the realization that everything is ultimately futile and meaningless.

But I believe that Truth is found where God is — and because the God I know is good, in Him I will find truths that are good and beautiful. Slowly, but surely, I’ve been grasping more and more of this in my journey of faith.

In some ways, I’m thankful for my depression. While it’s no fun being tormented by negative thoughts and emotions 24/7, being depressed forces me to beg for answers to questions that really matter. Why am I suffering? Why is there suffering? Is life even worth living? Why am I alive? What does this all mean? As J. David Franks puts it poetically (in the foreword to The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty and Fr. John Cihak): “…some are dragged entirely into the vortex of the world’s pain. To be depressed is to be a wound open to the stinging air of reality…The depressed stand on the marches of the world, where the waters of chaos threaten to overwhelm the bright little circle of life we enjoy.”

Unable to run away from pain, I had to (and am continuing to) seek to understand its meaning and purpose. And you don’t have to be depressed to seek as well.

Related post: Who do you live for?

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Conversations with a psychiatrist and a priest

Owing to my stubbornness as well as circumstances beyond my control, I didn’t get to speak with a psychiatrist till yesterday. We a had a long conversation about what I’ve been struggling with this year, and also the previous year. She was alarmed that each of these cycles seems to last approximately eight months, and concluded that my “major depressive disorder” seems to be “recurrent” and “severe”. Having heard the same thing from various sources (general physicians, psychotherapists, priests, etc.), and also being in a much clearer state of mind, I can safely say I accept the diagnosis. We both agreed that though I’ve been feeling remarkably better lately, it would be a good idea to stay on my medication, as well as start talking to a therapist regularly. I know I could definitely use extra help processing everything that’s happened internally, as well as learn how to cope better the next time round.

Today, I got to talk to a priest whom I very much trust and respect. He has seen me in various seasons — fresh in the throes of depression, in post-recovery ecstasy, in a jaded resignation to the seeming futility of life — and he remarked that this was the “best” he’s ever seen me! We talked about how this might be a cross I’ll have to carry for the rest of this lifetime. How do I feel about that? Frankly, I’m quite okay with it. Though I know it’s easy to say this when I’m no longer in the depths of depression (just a few weeks ago, I was wailing about how I did not choose this life and that it was unfair of God to create me when I didn’t want to be created). My prayer is that at some point, I’ll be able to carry this cross not kicking and screaming, but with the hope, humility, and love with which our Lord Jesus carried His. Lord, grant me the grace to keep walking with You.

Magic words to tell everyone around you

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I heard these magic words on February 13, 2013: “Karen, don’t let the fact that others may go through harder things allow you to make light of your pain. It’s never ‘just’ anything when it comes to hardship. You have just as much a right to the compassion and empathy of your brothers and sisters in Christ as anyone else with problems. Really, no matter what one is going through there’s always someone worse off, you can’t let that invalidate your suffering.”

Some context: For a few weeks, I’d been noticing signs of a depression relapse and was trying to come to terms with it all. My new friend, D, sent a Facebook message asking how I’d been lately. Now, our friendship had begun on rather interesting note. At a large Christmas gathering of Christian students at UChicago, D publicly shared, for the first time, about having struggled with severe depression for 7 years (and counting). That night, we talked for a really long time, exchanging stories of depression and faith.  So when I received his Facebook message, I felt I could tell him about the recent onset of mild depression. But I also added, “I almost feel ashamed cus I know that what I go through is really small compared to your depression.”

That was when he told me the magic words that would stick with me as mild depression turned into full-blown clinical depression, as I crawled toward recovery 8 months later, and as I began talking to others struggling with various issues (mental or otherwise).

Almost every person who’s opened up to me, at some point expresses shame about asking for help because there are many out there who are worse off. And I’d tell them about what D told me, that I care about them and what they’re going through. Period. We don’t allocate compassion based on relative magnitudes of suffering. God’s infinite love means infinite compassion. There is more than enough to go around.

At the well

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

More than words

Most of the content on this blog has been rather heavy, but here’s a casual recording Ben and I made last night. Ben is a good old high school friend who’s visiting from Boston U (where he’s majoring in Vocal Performance). He’s as incredibly talented as his soul is incredibly warm and compassionate.

This is one of my favorite songs of all time, and though it was probably written as any other secular love song (but more awesome than most), it reminds me a lot of a Christian’s walk with God. It almost sounds like a dialogue between man and God.

Saying I love you \ Is not the words I want to hear from you \ It’s not that I want to \ Not to say, but if you only knew \ How easy it would be to show me how you feel \ More than words is all you have to do to make it real \ Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me \ ‘Cause I’d already know

Think how we’re called to be doers, not just hearers, of the Word (James 1:22-25). How Christ calls us to love another if we’re truly his followers (John 13:34-35). In Isaiah 58 God declares separates false, superficial worship from true worship, that is to break the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free.

And the second verse gets me really emotional, as it brings me back to the lowest point of my depression, of hopeless surrender, where I’d given up laying claim to all the things of this world, realizing that all I really needed was to know, for certain, that God really loved me as the Bible says he does.

Now that I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand \ All you have to do is close your eyes \ And just reach out your hands and touch me \ Hold me close don’t ever let me go \ More than words is all I ever needed you to show \ Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me \ ‘Cause I’d already know

And he answered my cries spoke into the darkness to give me hope I couldn’t refuse. In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye.” (Deuteronomy 32:10)

(Oops, was this a “heavy” post too?)

The occupational hazards of supporting a depressed friend/loved one

I have been with the same man for over 27 years. He has always been supportive of my depressive episodes. I only found out recently, that he was keeping a bunch of stuff inside. He was frustrated with me, and didn’t understand. Even though he reads my blog, I have given him articles to read, and I have described the illness to him until I feel I can’t talk about it anymore. He still doesn’t understand … That doesn’t mean he isn’t loving, supportive, helpful, and patient. He is all of these things and more — he will just never understand that depression doesn’t go away simply by taking a walk, being with other people, healthy eating, exercising, or thinking it away.

The above reads like words snatched right out of my own mouth (minus the part about being married for 27 years). I don’t know if it’s becoming some sort of an obsession/hobby, but lately I’ve been spending a fair bit of time talking to people who are suffering or have suffered from depression and other mental illnesses (thank you, internet!). You get an instant window into the life of a complete stranger, even if it’s a 55-year-old in a different continent. It’s instant solidarity. When I describe my last tussle with depression as “being trapped in a vortex of mind games, self-loathing, and lies that form your new reality,” they get it.  But the common understanding extends beyond the complexity of one’s suffering; you also understand how depression (or other forms of mental illness) complicates your relationships with the people who love you, in a way no other circumstance does.

It’s been almost 3 months since I’ve been freed from my last (and worst) cycle of depression. During this time I’ve begun to cherish life more than ever before, and to be more convinced of God’s love for me, as an individual, more than ever before — two things that have led me to become passionately pro-life (more on this another time). As I recount my incredible journey, I tend to focus mostly on the ways I’ve been unshackled. As I praise God, I tend to focus mostly on the miraculous way he sustained and delivered me. But I have forgotten the unsung heroes: my family and my closest friends.

You tend not to see them as “heroes” because they didn’t technically do anything to rescue you from depression. But though they couldn’t and didn’t calm the storm, they waited it out with you. And this wait was in no way passive. They continued to be your friend when you couldn’t be a friend, to love you when you loved neither yourself nor them. The storm was you.

It takes a huge toll. Time, emotional energy, spiritual vigor. All your conversations are peppered with “You don’t understand.” They try to understand but they can’t, and they beat themselves up for it. They push and talk you into going for counselling and taking your meds when you’ve given up. They lose much of the time they had to themselves, because to leave you to your self-torment would be cruel. Their schedules and lives in general begin to revolve around you. And not the you who were a ball of sunshine, but an unfeeling black hole that vacuums up all their attempts to cheer you up and restore your hope in life.

And no matter how much they love you, they’re still human beings with physical and emotional limits, so at some point you do become a burden to them. Except they can’t ever admit it or show it in your presence. Over time, in their exhausted state, your negative thoughts and outlook on life become harder and harder to combat, and seep into their consciousness.

And who’s to know how long the storm was going to last? Not even a counsellor or a psychiatrist can. Are we talking a month? A year? Years..?

goodsamaritan2That’s but a glimpse of what my loved ones did and endured for me. I did get better, and am now happy to be back in the game, renewed and with a sharper vision for this lifetime. These people may not have healed me, but if not for their fierce loyalty I might not have hung on long enough to be healed. More than I thank them for their joyful service and companionship, I thank them for continuing to support and serve me when it involved much sacrifice and self denial.

 

And that makes me praise the God who taught and modelled this very kind of sacrificial love.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

This post is dedicated to Grace, Dora, Felicia, Joe, Eamon, Pastor Joshua, Papa & Mama, and everyone who supported me through prayer.

“Made for joy, …

“Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we settle for vengeance.” –N.T. Wright

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remember not to settle for filthy rags, or even second best. Brothers and sisters who don’t already know Christ, there is immeasurably more than we ask or think.

“I am in revolt…

“I am in revolt against the age-old lie that the majority is always right! I tell you now that the majority is always wrong. Was the majority right when they stood by while Jesus was crucified? Was the majority right when they refused to believe that the earth moved around the sun and let Galileo be driven to his knees like a dog? It takes 50 years for the majority to be right. The majority is never right until it does right.”

–Dr. Stockmann (An Enemy of The People by Henrik Ibsen)