Saturday, November 21, 2015

Depression (mild)

I’ve had to fill out medical forms a couple of times recently (once for a sleep assessment). The forms asked me to check any conditions for which I’ve been diagnosed, and that meant, among other things, checking “depression.” But I wrote in “mild” after the word, because it was many years ago—and the only evidence the doctor had that I was struggling with depression was that I told him I was. I tried (in succession) several antidepressants he prescribed, usually taking very small doses because I’m hypersensitive to just about all medications. Some seemed to help for a while, but eventually I decided that each of the “cures” was worse than the disease. Each left me feeling strange, out of sorts, in some cases a bit emotionally dry or dead.

So the doctor suggested that I try non-chemical treatment: meditation, increased exercise, better sleep and diet. He recommended a book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, which I read and tried to apply. With the help of mindfulness, exercise, and other things—especially prayer and scripture reading—and with some improvement in circumstances or in my ability to deal with them, I felt my general emotional health moved up a notch or two. It occurs to me that another thing that helped was trying to get my focus a bit more off myself and turning my focus more to others, especially to loving and serving my wife as much as I could.

I don’t think I ever suffered from the serious kind of depression I’ve seen others struggle with. Even at my worst, I was still functioning pretty well and often had good stretches. And even now I have occasional bad days—but usually I have no more than a bad day or two at a time. Often those bad days can be attributed to sleep deprivation or other identifiable causes. Usually I can shake the condition within hours or a day at most. And I experience lots of satisfaction and many moments of joy.

Earlier today, though, I had an unusually bad stretch of what I would call genuine depression. Luckily it lasted only a couple of hours. I started to become aware of it when I started thinking about “what I should do with my life” and had a strong sense of “I really don’t know.” Intellectually, of course, I could list all sorts of things that are important to me. But I didn’t feel emotionally connected, and I felt temporarily lost, as if I didn’t have a clear sense of direction for moving forward and as if everything I thought of seemed emptied of value and life.

It was about midday (on a Saturday—which for good or ill can seem, more than most days, like a kind of open or empty space). Despite the time of day, I felt like I wanted to rest, even sleep, and I curled up on the floor under a blanket. I let my mind drift, and it made some progress toward harmony (but only part way toward sleep). And I wondered why I was feeling the way I was.

It was cold. Something like winter is on its way. And maybe my body wasn’t handling the temperature drop very well. (Hoping to remedy that, I had turned the temperature up before lying down.) Maybe it was something hormonal. Maybe it was the result of my frequent lack of sleep—though the night before had been a reasonably good night. And maybe it was the effect of the sleeping pill I’ve been trying out, again with a very small dose.

I felt a bit better after getting up; and even better after a bit of yoga and exercise and then a shower. But I knew, for several reasons, that something better was yet to come.

First of all, I often do my exercise/yoga while listening to a talk. This time I listened to parts of a couple of talks that helped awaken hope and expand perspective. (More on that in a moment.) Also, I knew that getting out of the house would help—and I was getting ready to do that. I would get a dose of sunshine and activity. My wife and I were attending (separately) two funerals today. She was already at the funeral of the 54-year-old dentist we have known for many years, a wonderful young man named Eric Vogel who once dated my wife’s younger sister and who had spent much of his too-short life combining dentistry and compassionate service. He is a warm, wise man who succumbed last Sunday to the cancer he has been suffering from for five years.

I would soon be attending the funeral of Mary Jensen, a woman in her 90s who (along with her husband De Lamar) has spent a long, adventurous, and profoundly meaningful life doing good and valuable things. The Jensens have known the Blairs (my wife’s family) for many years. Our own little family—Margaret and I and our children—spent six months with the Jensens in the United Kingdom helping, along with another couple, run BYU’s Study Abroad program there. We loved the Jensens and spent many hours talking and traveling with them. I remember especially that they taught us a card game (I think this was in Edinburgh), a game I found exceptionally entertaining. But I think the entertainment came largely from being with them.

Memorabilia at Mary Jensen's funeral

I anticipated that the funeral would lift my spirits. I don’t know what it’s like for others, but among Latter-day Saints, funerals are often celebrations and are usually events of exceptional spiritual tenderness and illumination. I felt that I needed all of that, especially today.

I can trace a few of today’s minor landmarks on my way toward feeling greater joy. I remember glancing at a copy of the blue-bound Book of Mormon I had been reading from earlier in the day and feeling gratitude for it. I’ve started it again from the beginning (for the 30 or 35th time?) and have felt the power and goodness of each chapter. It also strikes me (from a rational point of view) as interesting that these first few chapters, which were part of the book that was translated last, are among the most powerful. If the book is a fabrication, this part would have had to be put together quickly on the fly to make up for the lost 116 pages that had been translated earlier. But if the book’s own account (along with that of Joseph Smith) is accepted, it was long anticipated that this part of the book would serve a special purpose and would be intentionally reserved for matters of special spiritual power and value. Interestingly enough, they’re not only that (in my judgment) but also among the chapters with the richest evidence of Semitic origins, including stylistic devices, place and personal names, and geographic correspondences that have only recently been corroborated. Without thinking all of this through at the time, I nevertheless felt a wave of gratitude for the existence of the book and what it had offered me this morning when I read from it.

As I did my exercising, I listened to parts of two talks from the most recent LDS General Conference. Both were from the Saturday evening session, one I had been less touched by when I first heard it (mainly because of tiredness) but that I’m finding especially inspiring now that I listen to it again. Today I listened to the last part of a talk by Henry B. Eyring that recounts, among other things, experiences of his great-grandfather (also named Henry), who joined the LDS Church in March of 1855 and was sent as a missionary to the Cherokee Nation in October of the same year. Three years later, he was made president of the mission (he wrote: “It was quite unexpected to me to be called to that responsible office but as it was the will of the brethren I cheerfully accepted, feeling at the same time my great weakness and lack of experience”). A year after that, wondering how long he should stay, he wrote to Church headquarters, and not hearing back, he decided to “[call] upon the Lord in prayer, asking him to reveal to me his mind and will in regard to my remaining longer or going up to Zion.” In response, he dreamed that he returned, met with Brigham Young, told him he had “come of my own accord, but if there is anything wrong in this, I am willing to return and finish my mission.” In this dream, President Young responded: “You have stayed long enough, it is all right.” (All of this, by the way, comes from original letters, journals, and reminiscences dating back to the 1800s.)

In his journal Henry wrote, “Having had dreams before which were literally fulfilled I had faith to believe, that this also would be and consequently commenced at once to prepare for a start.” After arriving in Salt Lake City (walking most of the way), Henry met with Brigham Young and told him, “I have come without being sent for, if I have done wrong, I am willing to return and finish my mission.” President Young responded, “It is all right, we have been looking for you.” Henry later recorded, “Thus my dream was literally fulfilled.”

My own response—exercising while listening to this—was “It’s nice to know that spiritual things are real.”

I then listened to the first part of a talk by President Thomas S. Monson and felt, much more strongly than when I had first heard it, that what he presented was absolutely genuine prophetic guidance: simple, clear, direct, essential. As always, it was offered in President Monson’s genial, upbeat voice, but it was a pointed explanation of why a loving God gives us specific direction.

After showering and dressing, I headed to Mary Jensen’s funeral. At the gathering before the funeral I was able to talk with her husband briefly and tell him of our love. I asked how he was doing. He said he was doing all right now but anticipated it would get harder. I promised we would keep in touch. I know he is being buoyed up now, but in a few weeks the loss will hit him much harder.

Evidences of a life well lived

There’s so much of the funeral that would be worth recording, but I’ll save that for another day. For now, I’ll note a few things that especially affected me. All five of Mary’s children spoke, and a foster daughter from Peru gave the opening prayer, partly in English, partly in Spanish. There were two beautiful musical numbers, with professional quality strings and piano (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “O Divine Redeemer”). The children gave a vivid, entertaining, inspiring portrait of their mother and of their life as a family, including travel around the world.

What struck me most toward the end, though, were some questions and reminders that connected with my earlier feelings of temporary meaninglessness and directionlessness. The youngest daughter (who is now a middle aged adult) asked, “What do we treasure? What is of most worth?” As I searched for an answer to those questions, what occurred to me was, first of all, service and relationships, and then learning. It’s all part of a package, though: learning to love, learning what’s important, learning how things work, and choosing to serve—but all ultimately with the aim of forming and sustaining relationships.

The Jensens' bishop, a biologist by profession, spoke about patterns and especially a pattern involving relationships. He suggested that relationships are at the foundation of the great struggle between good and evil: God seeks to strengthen and seal relationships; the Adversary seeks to destroy them. He reflected on the experiences of Alma the Younger, who was engaged in destroying relationships, including relationships between people and their Savior, and who after being stopped by an angel, revealed his extreme isolation by expressing his desire to be “banished” or “extinct.” But then, after turning to Christ for redemption and healing, he longed to be in the presence of God—to be restored to intimate relationship. And he went on to serve as a restorer of relationships himself as he did missionary work. Mary Jensen (the bishop said) had become a “fountain of righteousness,” engaged in a pattern that began with testimony, then joining in a relationship of trust and love with her husband, the two of them then sharing that love with others, in their family and throughout the world. He noted that he and Mary’s husband had given her a blessing a week ago and that, with the veil very thin, they were privileged to see what awaited Mary beyond the veil: glorious relationships and the continuing good she would be engaged in.

The final speaker was the new stake president—my young brother-in-law Jim Blair—and his brief but powerful remarks reminded me again that this kid I first knew as a teenager has become a great and good man. After noting the friendship between the Jensens and the Blairs, he shared two thoughts. First: Those who spent time with Mary Jensen felt better as a result, and wanted to be better and knew they could be better. He compared the feeling to what the disciples on the road to Emmaus felt after speaking with the Savior: “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?”

His second thought was for Mary’s husband, De Lamar. This has been a celebration of a woman who lived about as well as she could, who was (as the bishop said) a “fountain of righteousness.” His promise to De Lamar was based on Ephesians 2:14: “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.” The Savior, President Blair said, has made you one: the two of you (he testified) will be together, and your family will be bound together because of the covenants you have made.

Jim Blair (brother-in-law, new stake president, really good guy)

I was emotionally and spiritually tenderized and nurtured during the funeral and left it feeling alive and well. But I also pondered my weaknesses (my laziness and selfishness especially) and my desire and need to serve and love, and following those feelings, stopped at someone’s home to say hello and tell them I hoped I would see them at church tomorrow. (It was the family of a girl I baptized and confirmed a member of the Church a week ago.)

When I arrived home, I was happy to greet my beloved wife, who is spending much of the day grading papers. She told me that Eric Vogel’s funeral was probably the most powerful and inspiring she has ever attended. I gave her a brief report of Mary Jensen’s funeral. She’ll give me a fuller report of Eric’s tomorrow.

I don’t feel perfect. It’s still cold. I too have papers to grade and don’t especially feel like doing the grading. But life is good. There is great reason for hope and happiness. And (as I pondered earlier in the day) there must be a reason things are sometimes hard. It must be true, it must necessarily be the case, that we have to experience the bitter—and the cold and lonely and desolate—to know and appreciate the sweet, warm sense of meaning and belonging.

1 comment:

Anna B said...

What a wonderful post -- and very much addressing things I've been thinking about. Thank you!