I'M NOT AS MUCH ME WITHOUT YOU

The title is poetic, culled from a friend who occasionally says such things. It's got me musing a bit today, particularly in light of the way this week has gone for me.

These things are easier to type than they are to say. Why is that? Why do people in our culture, especially this little Lutheran corner of our culture, have such a need to keep things private? To keep what's going on in their lives to themselves? To refuse to share them with anyone?

But I'm stalling. Here goes. I have a disease. An illness. That sounds bad enough; now I'll tell you I have a mental illness. And now all sorts of fears and worries crop up. The stigma around mental illness is palpable, even though there's no good reason for it. People with mental illnesses are no different than people with physical illnesses; they're just less visible.

I have depression. I've mentioned it before in the short life of this blog, but I still have trouble saying it. I have severe, chronic, constant depression. I've had it for at least seventeen years, though the more I dig into the origins of this ailment, the more I suspect I had some part of it long before that. But, to be clear, there is no time over the last seventeen years that I have not been depressed. There are times when it has been lesser, and times when it has been greater, but it has always been there.

Let's be clear. Depression is not "feeling bad" once in a while. It's not sadness, either; that's something different. Andrew Solomon, in The Noonday Demon, describes it beautifully. It's as if there is a tree, growing strong and tall, and a vine comes and wraps itself around the tree, cutting off nourishment, strangling the life out of it right at the roots. This is what depression is.

But as I say, an illness like this is still an illness, just one that's less visible. It's that less-visible bit that makes it most insidious. Because instead of being able to point to the wound or contusion or incision site, there's nothing to show for it. It is soul crushing, crippling, and yet it looks, to all the world, like everything is fine. And so, when it starts to affect your life, when you suddenly are unable to accomplish things or complete tasks, it looks to everyone else like you are merely being irresponsible. When, really, you are sick.

Just at this moment, my depression is being well-managed through a fistful of medications and frequent talk therapy sessions. So I'm not feeling the worst of the depression right now. (That's perhaps part of the reason I can talk about it now.) Instead, it makes itself known through a host of medication side effects. The worst two are strange, uncomfortable muscle movements and sensations, and extreme insomnia. And of course, when I've not had enough sleep, the muscle sensations are worse, and then they keep me up at night, and the cycle zips around like a snowball out of control.

And so I sit awake at the kitchen table at 3:00 a.m. wondering why my legs won't stop twitching, and the message it all gives me is that, no, I may not be really depressed right now, but underneath it all, the depression is still there, it won't go away. This is my life now.

(That probably sounds miserable. I don't mean it to sound quite so miserable. I'm just a little short on sleep, so I'm probably laying it on too thick.)

There comes a moment when you look at suffering, whether it's your own or someone else's, enormous or minuscule, and ask, "Why, God, must this be?" It's an age old question, and a large portion of the Bible is dedicated to wrestling with the answer. It's also a question that, in one form or another, I hear from a lot of teenagers in Confirmation class.

When it comes up, I usually let the youth process it a little bit. Wrestle with the problem themselves. Whenever they've finally had enough of that, and demand to know what the "correct" answer is, I usually inform them that there is no right answer. We simply don't know. Bad things happen to good people all the time. The world is full of suffering.

The ancient world said that God eventually made the scales balance, that ultimately good will come to those who are good, and bad to those who are bad. Medieval Christians rejected this sort of karmic explanation, and pointed to original sin as the root of all suffering. The Reformation celebrated a God who gives grace freely to those who don't deserve it. And I usually point all the way back to Genesis 50:20, when Joseph forgives his brothers, saying, "What you intended for evil, God intended for good."

And the reality is, that's not good enough. I need a better explanation. We all do.

I wonder if the beginning of the explanation doesn't go a little bit like this: I have this debilitating disease, and I can't manage it by myself. I need a doctor to handle my medication. I need a therapist to talk with me. I need friends who can listen and support me. I need family to love me without end. If I were by myself, I would succumb to this illness and become completely incapable of anything. But because of the people in my life, most days, I triumph over it.

God created the human and placed him in the garden, and then said, "It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner." We were made to live with one another. We were made to be together. Just as God is not God without the relationship of the Trinity, we are not human without the relationship of one another.

Could the purpose of suffering be to force us together? Think how much suffering would be alleviated if people just loved one another. Or even simply if we were willing to open up to one another and lay our suffering out for others to see. It's not a complete answer, but maybe it's a start.

Or to put it another way, I'm not as much me without you.