Let me preface this sermon by saying that I am a priest, not a doctor, that not only am I not qualified to discuss clinical depression, I have never been tested, much less diagnosed. If you are looking for a little guidance in such matters, the best I can offer you here is a glimmer of an idea.
But depression is not restricted to the clinical. On non-clinical depression I am qualified to speak:
My final sermon of 2018 mentioned my plans to attend the Kentucky Bike Rally; I never made it. I was, thanks in part to forgetting that Pennsylvania roads are perpetually under construction, a day behind schedule at the end of the first day. On the second day, the radar and weather informed me that there would be rain on every day but one, and I decided that this would suck. Also apparent was that I had miscalculated travel time and would return home just in time to be late for work.
So I camped out another day, then, after riding Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, spent the rest of my vacation exploring Civil War historical sites. Wound up in Gettysburg for a few days.
It was a nice vacation. Good roads, sunny weather, pleasant landscape, nice people. Very relaxing.
Except that it wasn’t the vacation I had planned.
All the way home, the sensation of failure chewed at the stem of my brain. It got worse when I couldn’t keep my bandanna on. It got worse when I couldn’t even find a working gas pump when I got back home. I’d share pictures, but the old cell phone I use as a camera bounced out of the saddlebag a few days later, along with the fancy lapel microphone my brother had given me as a birthday present. After that I had a gig with the band I drum for. That was a nice day; did pretty well, enjoyed the company and the other bands, got fed…and discovered after I got offstage that I was an hour and a half late for work, while being 40 minutes away from work. Missed two turns in the dark, showed up two and a half hours late to discover that I had ruined a long-planned, rare evening out for my friends and co-workers who had to cover for me until I got there.
The very next day, I was still so shaken that I left work without finishing. Got a concerned text from my friend and boss. That night, my mother shook in fear when I walked in the door, because her dementia had progressed to the point where she had forgotten who I was.
All of this, in the space of four days.
Don’t tell me that I don’t know what depression is.
If you wind up curled up in a ball on your bedroom floor, not eating because you think you don’t deserve food, you’re depressed. Don’t let anyone try to make you feel worse about it; the sort of people who insist that you don’t feel anything because somebody else feels worse, or because your reasons are “wrong,” or “not good,” are simply externalizing their own insecurities. Listening to them will not help you, or them.
Everybody gets depressed. The magnitude is irrelevant. It still needs to be dealt with.
And that last sentence is why it is a good thing that all of this happened.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. It is a logical impossibility to be happy to be depressed (although I understand Irish singer Morrissey comes close), but I am actually glad that I went through this.
I’ve been depressed before, but here on this end of my life, I have the advantage of a lot more practice at introspection. I was able to realize a few things, learn some more.
As I lay there on the floor, an earlier sermon came to mind: I had the power to pull out of this state.
But I continued to lay there on the floor. I had no desire to use that power.
And that’s when I realized that depression is an affliction of the will. All the things you can do, become all the things you don’t want to do. All that is left is the desire to curl up in a ball.
Why is that?
In answering that question, I realized that I had been making a cardinal, if common, mistake.
You see, what I’ve described was a shitty four days. Those four days were on top of everything else on my mind: my mother’s worsening condition, some interpersonal problems, a nagging feeling that my current socioeconomic position isn’t what it should be, and so on.
The mistake was bottling it all up.
Nobody wants to be depressed, most people don’t want to spill their problems onto others, and so we just cork these bad feelings out of the way. And to an extent that’s fine: we still have to function in society and at work, we still have duties and obligations, so sometimes you can’t let yourself act on your down-ness.
But people, if you keep stuffing feelings into that bottle without ever letting anything out…eventually that bottle will break.
Let me tell you, that makes one hell of a mess.
People, bad things happen. Feel bad about them.
Sometimes…you don’t got this.
It’s OK to not got this, sometimes.
I mean, consider a patch of oil or sand on the road; sometimes no amount of skill or experience is going to keep the shiny side up, and if you go sailing over the handlebars, since you ain’t no bird, there’s no shame when you hit the ground.
Acceptance of this is the first step to picking your bike back up.
The bad feelings, the down-ness, this is how the body helps the mind and the spirit. Feeling is an integral part of how we cope. We are designed to feel. Put it off if you must, but feel it as soon as you can, don’t fight it. Don’t think that it’s “wrong.” Feel it, learn from it. Feel as much as you need…but only that much.
Fast forward about six months. Mom in a medical facility because of a fall, now forgetting Dad and I even more because we’re less of a presence, and Dad hands me the little slip of paper showing what she had for dinner the day before, and that is my only connection with my sainted Irish mother at that moment in time.
I could tell that I needed to be very, very sad about this indeed.
For reasons of my own, I waited until Dad left the house, and then I just crumpled, clutching that little slip of paper like a teddy bear.
I wept with the elemental force of a very small child. I cried so hard that the carpet was actually damp when I finished. I used the word “mommy” and meant it for the first time in 38 years. By not fighting the feeling, it was able to do its job.
And after about five minutes, I could tell that I was done crying.
As a child, I would have forced myself to go on, as we all did, trying to cling to the good feeling of catharsis. Some adults do the same. Most people think that sadness has a set, proper length. It does not. There does come a point where depression, like everything else, stops being healthy. Nobody can tell you exactly when that point is reached in a situation, except yourself. Being able to tell when you’ve done enough requires total honesty with oneself, which can be insanely difficult, but that’s OK because honesty is the greatest of virtues. The Ancient Egyptians based their whole civilization on it.
So after five minutes, the tears trickled to a stop. I stood up, a bit surprised that it had not taken longer. After that…
Would you believe that I had a party to go to?
Would you believe that I went?
I considered declining last minute with an apology, not being in a festive mood, but as I looked through my wardrobe, I spotted my Mister Spock T-shirt. The party had a “Star Wars” theme.
When I started laughing, with genuine amusement, at the cosmic appropriateness of me wearing a Star Trek shirt to a Star Wars party, I knew I was going to be OK.
And if that was the case, there was no point in pretending otherwise.
Feeling the down-ness is only the first step. Not clinging to it is only the second. Allowing yourself to feel better afterward is but the third step, and it too is important; don’t neglect it, don’t feel bad about feeling better. Survivor’s guilt helps no-one. I needed to dive into the sadness, and so I did, and I also needed to dive back into more positive situations. That’s also part of the healing process, getting out and absorbing good vibrations to balance yourself back out. Again, nobody can tell you when to do so; just be honest with yourself.
Now, I was still a little bummed, but that’s natural in a bummer situation. I’ve taken what I’ve learned and tried to use it since, to maintain a healthier self. Sometimes I have to wait to feel bad, and sometimes I have to feel bad in the background, and I have broken down crying once or twice about this situation with Mom, because now I know better than to leave a bottle of bad feelings corked and looming on a shelf in my mind all the time.
That’s like leaving a bottle of bad gasoline sitting on top of your gas tank while you’re riding. Pour it in and get some mileage out of it. Sub-par performance is preferable to a gasoline spill on a hot engine, yes?
And I do know that sometimes you need to make a strategic withdrawal and get off the bike for a few days. We’ve all been there, but I encourage you to get back on. Get out there and ride; live. Trust yourself to deal with bad spots.
The only way to guarantee that you’ll never lay your bike down is to never ride it.
That isn’t nearly as much fun.
That is the truth.
And the Truth rides a motorcycle.