Tag Archives: depression

race depression

I have depression.
I am young and black.

These two basic truths of my existence do not directly correlate, nor did the latter clearly cause the former. Yet the statements ought not be separated. I am depressed. To the extent that depression ever has a ‘cause,’ mine is both chemical and situational.

Long have  questions and thoughts about race consumed me—and, for nearly as long, I have wished I could stop caring. During my childhood small books on Rosa Parks, SNCC, and the March on Washington littered my room.

Even as I came of age in mostly white external spaces, from school to church to friend circles, questions of race—of supremacy and history and inequality—did not let me alone. In high school I grappled with black voices across the political spectrum, trying to find my way without a guide. I read books from Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Shelby Steele, feeling pulled to the left but willing to entertain anyone who would at least discuss race openly.

After a history teacher first pointed me to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, one sentence brought me, night after night, to tears.

How does it feel to be a problem?

I felt like a problem because I had what my parents called “an obsession with race.”
I felt like a problem because depression had twice nearly killed me.

I was black, depressed, and race-conscious. And few people wanted to talk about any of it.

Even among well-meaning friends, bringing up depression often stops conversations short. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and mentally search for the perfect words. Those of us who suffer learn to speak of it sparingly, and to frame it carefully when it does come up. We share our pain and end up consoling our friends.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Those who battle depression also fight stigma, of course. We combat feel-good messages of positivity. Just feel better. Think happy thoughts. Think about your past successes.

These suggestions sound ludicrous to us, but we try them anyway—and then feel disgust with ourselves that they didn’t work. Something must be wrong with us, and not with the suggestion.

Those feelings of shame create a culture of silence. Depression becomes our burden to bear twice over. We feel it, alone, before dueling the ensuing shame.

That feeling—that people are okay with knowing that you have depression, as long as you don’t talk about it—mirrors some of what blackness has meant in the post-civil rights era.
It’s okay that I have blackness, as long as I don’t talk about it, or “act black” in any way.

We know the lines:
“If you want racism to end, stop talking about it.”
“I don’t see race.”
“Nobody brings up race except you.”
“Stop bringing race into this.”

Which brings us to Ferguson, Mike Brown, and battling injustices many people can’t, or won’t, see.

Most of what’s transpired in Ferguson, Missouri since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown on August 9th has been utterly predictable, from the slandering of his character to the justification of his murder, to the disproportional focus on the looting by a relative handful.

47 percent of white Americans believe race received “too much attention” during the heat of the Ferguson situation (Pew). 37 percent agreed that Brown’s death raised important issues about race. Those of us who took to the streets to protest yet another black death at the hands of police were told to “wait for the facts.”

Don’t make it about race. 

Had Mike Brown been white, he could have acted exactly as he did, store theft, jaywalking and all—and he would almost certainly be alive today. That may not be provable; however, while the Aurora theatre shooter was taken into custody, John Crawford III held a toy gun and was killed in a Wal-Mart.

We speak up and get told we are race-baiters, or opportunists looking for attention. We want to keep racism alive so we can have jobs and get on TV.

Those comments sound a lot like what some say about those who dare speak of their depression. “Attention seeking.” “Wanting the spotlight.” “Not to be taken seriously.”

How does it feel to be a problem?

Talking about being black makes people uncomfortable.
Why do you bring up race so much?

Talking about depression makes people uncomfortable.
Just don’t focus on it, and you’ll feel better.

Talking about inequality makes people uncomfortable.
Stop bringing race into everything.

I once wished I could ignore it. But I will not—and we cannot—any longer be shamed into silence. Rarely does ignoring any issue actually make it go away. Audre Lorde told us her silences had not protected her, and that ours will not protect us.

And so rather than opt for silence, I choose to speak. I choose to speak my truth. My truth is this:
I am depressed. I am depressed because of chemical imbalances in my brain. Medicine and therapy have provided some relief. Friends and ritual have also helped. I am depressed. I likely always will be, to some extent.

I am depressed also because, despite us having a black president and a black attorney general, and despite living in a society where I can play ultimate frisbee with white people and high five white strangers at football games and work at a white church and have lots of white friends, black lives still matter less in America.

I am depressed because I watched many of my friends go blissfully about their lives, seemingly unconcerned as police pointed guns and deployed tear gas against their unarmed fellow citizens.

I am depressed because black men have devalued the moving, vital leadership of black women going back to Sojourner Truth, who said in the mid 19th century, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

I am depressed because black editor Thomas Fortune’s 1883 words still ring with truth today: “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.”

I am depressed because those who speak up are labeled as The Problem, while the issue they strive to solve goes unchallenged and often unseen.

Shame is powerful. Depression makes us intimately familiar with shame, with doubt, and with fear. Supremacy, though it no longer requires supremacists to operate, teaches us the same lesson.

Depression and supremacy aren’t satisfied with our shame. They want our silence. And as much as it hurts–as often as we’re told, verbally or otherwise, to shut up, as many times as we curl up and cry or bury our faces in our pillows–we have to keep going.

Audre Lorde said, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

At rallies and protests and forums around the country, we are fighting doubt and finding truth—in her voice, and in ours.

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Lincoln’s Melancholy: A Sermon

I delivered this sermon at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church, where I serve as the Director of Faith Formation.

Lincoln’s Melancholy

Sixteen months ago life, it seemed, was good. I was in my second year at divinity school, my time as Ministerial Intern at First Parish in Cambridge was in full swing, and I had it all figured out.

Graduate from Harvard Divinity School, do well, get a ministry job at a sweet church, do well, travel coast to coast preaching our faith’s message of radical love and justice, become known nationally as a great leader in Unitarian Universalism, turn thirty.
I’m not really kidding, sadly.

Sixteen months ago, if you had told me I would be here working at Prairie UU, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Yet here I am. And thank goodness. Well, for me. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t!

In 2005, historian Joshua Wolf Shenk published Lincoln’s Melancholy. It was, and is, a groundbreaking book not merely because it introduced to a wider audience Lincoln’s struggle with what we now call depression, but because its thesis is that Lincoln’s depression fueled his greatness. Shenk suggests a reframing of depression towards something more than an illness to get over, but something that can, if we go through it, lead us to great things.

I bring to you Shenk’s account of Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression because it resonates with me personally, and because, whether the term ‘depression’ is something near or far from your experience, Lincoln’s difficulties with self-inflicted pressure, expectation management, and search for vocation are painful realities many of us navigate.

One of the most detrimental thoughts one can have in one’s depression is some variation of this: “I have a good life. I shouldn’t feel this way.” Similarly, friends and family alike, trying to be helpful, can list off sixteen good things about your life—to which we might reply, “Yes, that’s great, but how does that help us get out of bed?”

Here, I want to make a distinction that is key to the rest of our exploration of depression. There are two phrases—the dark night of the body, and the dark night of the soul, that speak to distinct manifestations of depression. Some depressions are chemical, having little to do with circumstance. Other depressions and times of deep sadness relate more to “the dark night of the soul,” or discontent with one’s present reality. Many, of course, have elements of both. It should also be said that depression is a tough thing to talk about, and is even tougher to analyze. As with any sermon from a UU pulpit, all I can do, or would ever want to do, is speak my own truth.

To continue, Shenk argues that Lincoln’s talent and ambition, combined with genetics, teamed up to bring him down in a series of what we’d call “severe depressive episodes” in his early thirties. Shenk writes: “The very irony of Lincoln’s situation…is that the very successes that could prop him up also exerted an equally powerful force that could tear him down.” And for a time, it did tear him down. Sufferers of depression such as Lincoln wonder if their moods will ever lift.

Psychologist Lauren Slater continues the point: “These fears are fifty percent of what it is to be melancholy. If you were to be really, really depressed but knew that it would end in five days, it wouldn’t be depression.”

So it isn’t just that things are bad, but also that it feels like there’s no way out.

So it was as I waded further into my second year at Harvard Divinity. Somewhere along the way last year, I began caring more about the perception others held of me and less about actually doing good work, or of actually serving others. I cared more about seeming great and less about being great. I got involved in every committee, every school activity, and just lost my way.

I took on more and more responsibilities. Of course, the more I took on—student government, preaching opportunities, leadership positions—the less well I did any one thing. I lost all perspective.

The things (aside from economic and academic privilege in my upbringing) that got me to Harvard—healthy friendships, listening to my inner voice, and family bonds—fell by the wayside in favor of a desire to feel important and successful. I let down my friends, mistreated those closest to me, and rarely spoke with my family.

Obsessed with success, I failed.

I realized my life was crumbling, and depression took over. I fought and fought to hold on to the life I had, but to quote from The Replacements, the harder I fought, the deeper I sank.

I looked up and it was August 2013. No longer on the ministry track, no longer a Harvard student (with no Masters), and no longer in Cambridge, I’d seemingly lost everything. I had no job and little hope things would improve.

I couldn’t get past seeing myself as a failure. So many people rooted for me and helped me, yet there I was, Ivy League dropout, lying on the couch, hopeless and pathetic.

William Stafford wrote, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” It is with these words that spiritual leader Parker Palmer begins his book Let Your Life Speak. I really think half of my religious friends—or the ones who knew how down I was—recommended this book to me. We talk a lot about Parker Palmer here at Prairie.

Parker Palmer helped me understand part of why I was so down: what I had been doing at Harvard was not my life. Palmer believes that the self seeks wholeness, and that to try and live the life others think we should lead is a recipe for deep sadness and profound despair.

“True self,” he writes, “when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.”

Lincoln, in that “most miserable man living” 1841 letter, said, “I must die or be better, it appears to me.” He wondered if he would make it. Eventually, he emerged, and turned to the question of how he would live. It is this question that haunts many of us. How will we live these lives of ours?

Depression and melancholy aren’t easy things to talk about. It’s kinda hard to give a fiery, passionate sermon about deep sadness.

But I have to say, Prairie, that I do feel fired up about this topic, that I do feel passionate about these hidden struggles, that welcoming them can actually inform the work we do here.

I think there are three main lessons we can take from Lincoln’s journey. The first is, as my mom advised concerning my preaching: “Tell more jokes.” Lincoln joked all the time. It became a healthy deflection of his sadness.

The second is that Lincoln didn’t go it alone. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, there were weeks where Lincoln’s friends went everywhere with him for his own safety—from himself. His friends kept an eye on him, wrote to him, and let him know, again and again: “Abe, you are not alone.”

The third lesson—and this is where I want to spend the remainder of our time together—is that Lincoln’s depression helped him be a great president and, more importantly, a courageous and empathetic human being. I’m not saying that you need to go through real struggle to be either. But the depth of Lincoln’s sorrow afforded him extraordinary gifts of bravery and understanding.

On December 23, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln took the time to write a letter to a young woman whose father had died. The letter is filled, not with empty condolences, but with real empathy. Lincoln understood her sorrow because had been there. He wrote: “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You ca not now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

The first time I read that letter—and our middle and high schoolers are reading it in full in religious education today—I cried. The second time I read it, I cried again. In the heart of one of our country’s ugliest hours, Lincoln took a minute to truly be with someone who felt sorrow would never leave her. That’s power. That’s leadership.

And it is this message I want to leave you with today. I’m still getting to know all of you, and you’re just getting to know me. One thing people have said some is that I have a lot of energy—that I have a lot of passion for this job. And it’s true. But there’s a reason. I have a little energy because I want, in my own imperfect ways, to help make our children and youth’s lives a little better. When I was a kid I struggled with depression. I struggled with depression as a teenager, and depression knocked me out of Harvard.

But no longer do I run away from my past. No longer do I run away from my struggles. And I want to encourage you to do the same. It isn’t depression for everyone. For some, it’s the grief of losing a love one. It’s divorce. It’s physical ailment. It’s kids who frustrate us, or parents we still battle. Sometimes it’s several things all at once.

Lincoln’s example tells us that yes, getting better matters, of course, but that in a way, we ought not think of struggle as something to get over. Instead we can carry a piece of hardship with us, so we are reminded that we can use our experience to help others. Our struggles, whatever they have been, can help us in our work.

In August 2013, as I lay there feeling miserable and hopeless on my dad’s couch in Houston, Lincoln’s words from that letter reached out and found me. “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

Lincoln didn’t run from his pain—it fueled him. And my pain fueled me to apply for this job, drive to Denver, get it, and my pain fuels me now as I work with our young people and all of you.

So friends, I urge you: don’t run from the sadness. Don’t run from the grief. Don’t run from the frustration, the despair. These, too, are a necessary part of the battle, for the time will come when you can use them, when they will fuel your work—fuel our combined work as Unitarian Universalists.

That is why I believe so strongly in the power of religious community, of having a place and space full of people who say, “You don’t have to be better right now. I am with you.” And so don’t run from your struggle, whatever it is. Pack it up and take it with you. Lincoln’s words to Fanny in the letter reminded me of that Harriet Tubman refrain, what she would tell the slaves she helped free on the Underground Railroad: “Keep going.”

We can remind each other of that.

If life is good right now, keep going.

If stress is taking over, keep going.

If raising a child or three children or five has you overwhelmed, keep going.

If it feels like love has left you, keep going.

If love has found you, keep going.

If grief has taken you, keep going.

If joy is coursing through you, keep going. I

f you are lonely, keep going.

If you wish you could ever, just once, feel lonely, keep going.

If your body is in pain, keep going. If your body has never felt this good, keep going.

If you need someone, keep going. If you are in demand, keep going.

Keep going, friends.

Keep going.

Let your struggles be your fuel.

Amen.

Reflections on ‘Getting Better’

“I’m so glad you’re better.”

A year ago I found myself in the midst of a severe depression. It wasn’t until September 2013, about seven months ago, that I showed signs of improvement. It took leaving graduate school, moving two time zones away, and incredible gestures of friendship and empathy to get me to this point.

Emotionally, where am I now? I’m “better.” That’s what I tell people—because it’s true.
Sort of.

In the last couple months, I’ve reconnected with old friends in person, by phone, through Facebook, and in other ways. I went back to the east coast in early February to see people. I was pretty public about my depression (not that I could have hid it anyway—I’ve got a pretty bad poker face) and people wanted to know, understandably, whether things were better for me out west.
Better—there’s that word again.

Depression, at least in my experience, isn’t like a sprained ankle. Generally speaking, things have improved a great deal. A year ago I barely functioned. Eight months ago my deepest desire was to disappear. Two days ago I went to a Denver Nuggets game and laughed and cheered with my best friend.

But am I “better”? It depends on the day. Last week I spent three days barely able to get out of bed. Shame of past ‘failures’—grad school troubles, falling short of my best in friendships and other relationships, not being the family member I know I can be—sent me on a rapid spiral downward.

The spiral felt worse because of how often I’ve said that I’m “better.” That inner dialogue went something like this:

How much have people done for you? You have this job you like with fun people and this week you can’t even get everything done. People go out of their way to help you and you still fail. You have so many gifts and you screw them up, time and time again.

You’re a failure. These five months in Denver were a fluke. You’re going back to the person you really are—and that person is useless.
Just give up.

The Harry Potter book scene that stuck most with me seemed, at first glance, to be a throwaway. Harry and his classmates learn about the Imperius curse, a spell that allows the caster to control the recipient’s mind and body. A person under the Imperius curse will do whatever the caster wants—unless she/he learns to throw off the spell.
The first time Harry experiences the spell, in the classroom, he feels that blissful urge to submit—but his mind has other ideas:

“And then he heard [the] voice, echoing in some chamber of his brain: Jump onto the desk . . . jump onto the desk…

Harry bent his knees obediently, preparing to spring.

Jump onto the desk…  

Why, though? Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain.

Stupid thing to do, really, said the voice.

Jump onto the desk…

No, I don’t think I will, thanks, said the other voice, a little more firmly . . . no, I don’t really want to . ..

Jump!  NOW!

The next thing Harry felt was considerable pain. He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping—the result was that he’d smashed headlong into the desk, knocking it over.

“He had both jumped and tried to prevent himself from jumping.” 

That feeling of conflict, of inner turmoil—that’s what it feels like to battle depression, and that’s what it feels like to stand up to that hateful inner dialogue.

I’m not sure I will ever defeat depression. Some days the inner voice seems to come out on top. Even now, with a job I enjoy in a city I love, despair still has its day, or its hour, or its week.

But as long as I keep going, I stay in the fight. Getting out of bed is a win, however small. Brushing my teeth is a win. Reading that email I’m terrified to open is a win.

Fighting off that voice means experiencing considerable pain—but as long as I’m fighting, it means I’m feeling, and I’m living. Last week was rough. This week has been great. Both weeks are part of this long, grueling process.

Mostly I want to give myself permission, and give anyone reading this permission (or the permission to give yourself permission) to have days that don’t feel like better. Have moments and hours and weeks that don’t feel like better. As I continue this struggle through depression and grief, I am coming to learn that getting better means the presence,and not the absence, of pain.

Keep battling that voice, even if you knock some desks over. Keep hurting and keep struggling. Know that I’m right there with you, getting better—thanks to the bad days, and the good ones.