Hospitalised for depression. Faith helped me remember how to live.

When the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral and I were conspiring about when I might speak, I think he mentioned Feb. 3 as a possibility.

A sermon by me on that date would have been considerably less interesting because I was, at that point, hospitalized for depression.

Or maybe it would have been more interesting, though less coherent.

Like nearly one in 10 Americans — and like many of you — I live with this insidious, chronic disease.

Depression is a malfunction in the instrument we use to determine reality.

The brain experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it. So the lack of serotonin, in the mind’s alchemy, becomes something like, “Everybody hates me.”

Over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.

I would encourage anyone with this malady to keep a journal.

At the bottom of my recent depression, I did a plus and minus, a pro and con, of me. Of being myself.

The plus side, as you’d imagine, was short.

The minus side included the most frightful cliches: “You are a burden to your friends.” “You have no future.” “No one would miss you.”

The scary thing is that these things felt completely true when I wrote them. At that moment, realism seemed to require hopelessness.

But then you reach your breaking point — and do not break.

With patience and the right medicine, the fog in your brain begins to thin.

If you are lucky, as I was, you encounter doctors and nurses who know parts of your mind better than you do.

There are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you, and acquaintances who become friends.

You meet other patients, from entirely different backgrounds, who share your symptoms, creating a community of the wounded.

And you learn of the valor they show in lonely rooms.

Over time, you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.

I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression. But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that — when I’m in my right mind — I choose hope.

That phrase — “in my right mind” — is harsh. No one would use it in a clinical setting. But it fits my experience exactly.

  • In my right mind — when I am rested and fed, medicated and caffeinated — I know that I was living within a dismal lie.
  • In my right mind, I know I have friends who will not forsake me.
  • In my right mind, I know that chemistry need not be destiny.
  • In my right mind, I know that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

I think this medical condition works as a metaphor for the human condition.

All of us — whatever our natural serotonin level — look around us and see plenty of reason for doubt, anger and sadness.

A child dies, a woman is abused, a schoolyard becomes a killing field, a typhoon sweeps away the innocent.

If we knew or felt the whole of human suffering, we would drown in despair.

By all objective evidence, we are arrogant animals, headed for the extinction that is the way of all things.

We imagine that we are like gods, and still drop dead like flies on the windowsill.

The answer to the temptation of nihilism is not an argument — though philosophy can clear away a lot of intellectual foolishness. Continue reading

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