Six Months in Bondage

As a sophomore at Northwestern, I took a writing class called Autobiographical Writing. We had to read “Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner. We wrote three essays on whatever personal story we wanted to share. I wrote one essay on how dating mishaps seemed to define my life. My opening line was, “Most people could not tell you the exact moment they fucked up their lives.” I swore to be edgy. Professor Hougen made me get permission from my peer editors first. Hougen also didn’t think I used enough similes. So I circled all of them – three per paragraph, on average – and brought it back to her to be re-graded. She gave me the same grade. Another essay was about growing up without a father. My peer editor said my opening paragraph was the best thing she’d read in college. It went without saying that the rest of the essay didn’t live up to it. I don’t remember what the third one was about.

People say that hindsight is 20/20. As a superficial aphorism, I couldn’t agree less. I don’t think we are much better at teasing out the foundations and factors and motivations driving our behavior when we reflect on them than we are when we do it in real time. But the closure that comes with retrospection lends an undeserved confidence to that analysis. Our belief in our self-understanding swells up like a knee sprain. On the other hand, though, I do think the patterns in our life become easier to see when they are laid out behind us. If we squint hard enough it becomes possible to make out distinct shapes from the chromatic blur. Whether we are glimpsing reality or just another play of shadow puppets is a difficult question to answer; it is telling, however, that I have been writing variations of the same essays for the last ten years.

Another essay I have written several times has been about struggling with depression. This is a paragraph from one I wrote in 2007. The swearing, again, tells you how seriously I wanted to be taken.

Perhaps the hardest thing about depression is the knowledge that when you are depressed, your perceptions about life and living are the most accurate they’ve ever been. You see things suddenly for how fucked up and shitty they really are…. The depressed are afflicted with an honest view of things, and it sometimes makes them want to die.

I don’t remember what combination of stressors stirred together to mix that cocktail. It seems important that I wrote that as the weather was turning cold and snow was starting to fall. I can remember typing those words on my grimy white MacBook, looking out over the pond behind the student center, watching the intramural volleyball players plow accidental rivulets in the snow on their way back from Erickson.

It would be six years before I was filled up with that sort of depression again. (Although I don’t like that image. Depression is less a filling up than a letting out. Think of a slow leak on a tire. But it is hard to convey magnitudes in that way.) And once again, I don’t remember my stressors. I just remember that the weather was turning cold and snow was threatening to fall. I was lying on a couch at a friend’s house, my cheek pressed against the leather cushion. “Only Hope” by Switchfoot came on Pandora; it was the first time I’d heard it in years. As I made out the line, “When it feels like my dreams are so far sing to me of the plans that You have for me over again,” I became aware of warm water pooling around my cheekbone.

In church last Sunday that I realized I’ve lived in bondage these last six months. Pastor Steve teased next week’s message, quoting the verse he’ll be preaching on: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” It is one thing to call yourself free, it is another to take off your shackles. Perhaps it is beyond me break free on my own, but the chains holding me to the millstone aren’t depression. They are pride and shame. Pride, that I should be good enough and strong enough on my own. That I can beat this alone. That I am my own salvation. Shame that I am not, that I need help and support and encouragement and love. Shame that I have to ask for it.  In that same essay, I wrote, “Depression makes you turn from the mountain and wonder why the landscape is so flat.” Turn your head.

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3 thoughts on “Six Months in Bondage

  1. Thanks for having the courage to write openly about your struggles with depression. It’s been fairly easy for me to share my struggles with my support group because I know they’ll understand. But sharing with people who might not understand–like my family–is a terrifying prospect.

    • I’ve found that talking about it helps remove some of the stigma. When I’m quiet, it starts to seem an unbeatable monster. Each time I share, it shrinks smaller.
      Saying anything like that to family is a dicy proposition, though. It often comes across as a condemnation. “You failed me as a parent, or as a sibling.” I’m glad you have a support group to whom you can share those feelings. I hope you continue to do so.

  2. Pingback: Signs and Wonders | The Dying Away

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