In the early summer of 2013, Russ Ramsey contracted a blood-borne bacterium, which required open-heart surgery. Since then, he has been writing about that season. This post explores the subject of depression from a person who was writing about it in real time. What follows is a shortened version of his original post, which can be found here.
I am depressed.
My doctors told me this might happen—a detail my wife recently reminded me of when she saw the dark clouds rolling in. She has seen this in me before; we both have. Still, even though being depressed is nothing new, this particular depression—because it is mine now—feels new. It always does.
My prior experience with this dark night of the soul tells me that, when unchecked, it has a tendency to become something untamable. And no matter how many times I’ve walked down this road, I still struggle to see it for what it is.
When a child hears a tapping on his bedroom window at night, until he turns on the light to see that it is only a branch blowing in the wind, it might as well be the knuckles of a dragon come to carry him off to its lair where his bones will be licked clean.
I know from experience that when I leave the voices in the dark unnamed, they become monsters. Tap. Tap. Tap. They try to persuade me to climb into their bubbling cauldron of my own volition. So in an effort to overcome the darkness, I am going to turn on the light the only way I know how: I am going to describe what I see and hear and feel, and then I am going to look into what winds are blowing that cause the tapping that has me so troubled.
This is what my depression feels like. This is my monster.
My depression feels like anxiety. Worry and fear are never far from me. When I am alone, my thoughts gravitate toward my burdens. When I lay down to sleep, my mind drifts to unresolved fears I cannot seem to shake. I worry—not about my present health, but about my future. Am I supposed to return to the life I knew before this affliction hit? Can I? The world I know—my friends, my work, and my family—moves on while I sit in my recliner watching TV. The thought of climbing back into life feels overwhelming.
My depression also feels like grief over these seemingly wasted days. I lament that I spent my fortieth birthday and eighteenth anniversary in a hospital bed. It is the sort of sorrow I experience when I feel forgotten, which is a very unique sort of pain.
My depression feels like apathy. I do not care about things that once stirred me deeply. My desire to pastor people is all but gone. I don’t want to listen to people’s struggles—not because I don’t think theirs compare to mine, but because right now I honestly just don’t care. This disinterest scares me. Will my passion or empathy ever return? There are times when I cannot imagine they will, and that is a terrifying thought, which leads to another voice in the dark—futility.
Finally, my depression feels like futility. I cannot work. I cannot lift heavy objects. I cannot do anything that requires endurance or focus. I feel like I’m wasting precious days—and, as Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I cannot concentrate. I can’t hold a thought. I feel cooped up, deprived of sun and motion and warmth. I’m told exercise is great for keeping the depression at bay, but my best attempts at doing anything active reveal just how weakened I have become. This makes me irritable. My emotions are all over the map. Some days I cry easily.
Other days I feel little if anything at all. This inability to reign myself in leads me to hopeless thinking.
So there they are—anxiety, grief, apathy, and futility. Anxiety raises questions about my future, grief casts a shadow over my past, and apathy and futility drape a fog over me in the present. These are my voices in the dark. This is the four-headed monster tapping on the window during the black night of my soul. He whispers his accusations into my ear, beckoning me to surrender hope.
“You’re letting people down. You’re selfish. You’ve lost your spark.”
No wonder I feel so lost.
There is no reasoning with the monster. Like the devil, he laces his lies with gilded threads of truth.
The truth is I am not yet recovered. I do depend on others to care for me. I wrestle with apathy, and sometimes it pins me to the mat. I have lost my spark. In my weakened state, this is where I am right now. This is all true.
In seasons like this, the straight truth is my best help. One truth my doctor told me early on was that this depression would probably find me after I had been home for a few weeks. And here it is, like a train pulling into the station right on time.
This depression snuck up on me. It could easily have gone undetected because I am progressing nicely in almost every other health-related area. My scars are healing and my pain is decreasing. My heart sounds strong through the stethoscope. My murmur is gone. But my mind and emotions are not recovering at the same pace as my body.
That simple fact is very difficult to observe. And since post-op depression doesn’t usually show itself until after the patient has returned home from the hospital, it can be difficult for family and friends, as well as the patients themselves, to understand what is happening.
Depression, when veiled by the good news of physical progress, hides beneath the skin out of earshot of the stethoscope, tapping on the window of my mind where only I can hear. It doesn’t take much for me to feel alone and afraid in the dark. But when I turn on the light, here is what I see. On one hand, my depression is common enough that my doctor told me to watch for it. There are a number of factors that contribute to it—some are named, others are more mysterious. My body has been medicated, taken apart, reassembled, broken, and put back together.
But on the other hand, depression is not new to me. It resides like a pox in my heart—dormant throughout much of my life, but able to be awakened nonetheless. And this reality is one I know I will live with long after my prescriptions run out and my body returns to normal and I go back to the routines of daily life.
Knowing my own tendency toward melancholy makes me regard this particular season of depression as a sort of a gift. This time around I feel like the monster is in a cage, like an old silverback gorilla at the zoo. I can observe him without too much fear.
This is a gift because I need to know this beast. I need to study his movements, watch what he responds to, and learn what calms him down because I know that unless the Lord chooses to remove this thorn from my side, I will continue to battle with seasons of depression. The time is coming when the monster and I will live together in the wild. He will lurk in the shadows and I will train my senses to anticipate his ambush before he pounces.
But there will come nights, no doubt, when I will hear the tapping and my soul will be gripped with fear. By the grace of God, I will use what I learn from this season of depression to feel my way around the room to the light, find the courage to flip the switch, and expose my depression under the light of truth.