Thursday, June 21, 2007

Darkest before Dawn

After I spoke at the G.K. Chesterton conference last Friday, I was touched that several people came up to thank me for my frankness in discussing the cyclical depression that plagued me from my late teens until I received my faith at age 31.

My depression was what's known as unipolar. I would go from static periods of relative normalcy to black holes of despair and back, with no manic highs. In fact, I was quite jealous of manic-depressives; at least they got to run around public streets in their underwear and do other exciting things. All I got to do during my mood swings was lock the door and put on a CD of Beethoven's late quartets or harpsichordist Seymour Hayden's recording of the Goldberg Variations. (Other great I Hate Myself and Want to Die recordings are Big Star's Third, Phil Ochs' Rehearsals for Retirement, Nico's Chelsea Girl, and the Bee Gees' Cucumber Castle.)

In my conference talk, I described the darkness that I went through, including how I went through a baker's dozen therapists until I found one with whom I clicked, and then was prescribed various medications. My psychiatrist switched my antidepressants several times because my depression was so virulent. It resisted the mood elevators as though they were hostile invaders. Which, I suppose, in a sense, they were.

While I benefited from the stabilizing effects of lithium (which is a buffer but not an upper), the antidepressants were more like helium. They lifted me up without giving me any emotional foundation to fall back on. When the boost that I got from starting a new antidepressant wore off, I was left like Wile E. Coyote after he's inadvertently walked off a cliff; I'd suddenly realize I was standing on thin air, and the only way to go was straight down.

I told the Chesterton crowd about the healing I received upon receiving faith:* Within six months of my conversion to Christianity in October 1999, I was able to go off the antidepressants entirely. My psychiatric diagnosis changed from "Major Depression" to ... wait for it ... "Major Depression in Remission."

A "remission" for nearly eight years and counting, thank God.

In my talk, which is available on CD from the American Chesterton Society's Web site, I described how Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday let into my darkness some cracks of light that, over time, prepared me to receive healing.

Starting from the book's first chapter, Chesterton contrasts false rebellion — which is nihilism — with true rebellion. The true kind is the rebellion of truth and beauty against the forces of chaos and destruction.

"The most poetical thing in the world," Chesterton writes through the voice of the book's hero, "is not being sick."

I told the conferencegoers what it meant to me to discover the poetry of not being sick. It was a personal odyssey that required me to give up some of the behaviors that my "do your own thing" therapist had told me would assuage my depression, but which in fact had made it worse. (In my book The Thrill of the Chaste, I describe this vicious cycle, where "single women feel lonely because they are not loved, so they have casual sex with men who do not love them.")

What struck me most deeply about The Man Who Was Thursday, I said, and what I tried to put across in my own book, was Chesterton's gratitude for the seemingly insignificant aspects of daily life. Reflecting upon how he had led me to a greater appreciation of the gift of existence, I quoted a line that I remembered from Jewish worship, Psalm 72:18: "Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, Who only does wondrous things!"

*Sorry to say I've yet to detail this in my autobiographical "Wuz" series (see drop-down menu at left), though I will continue the series someday. In the meantime, the CD of my talk has the story.