The Valley of the Shadow of Death

depressionYesterday I talked about all that was going right for me and my relationship with God as I headed out of high school and into college. With the immensity of the challenges to my faith that I faced in my senior year of high school, one might think that a Christian college as good as Biola might mean clear sailing. Not necessarily true, as my freshman year at Biola proved.

It was a good year over all, but academically of course a college curriculum is a significant “stepping up” from a high school curriculum. Biola requires all Bachelor’s students to complete a minor in Bible as well as whatever major they choose. Your first year finds you with a heavy load of Bible classes, and also some general classes like Intro to Communication, as well as the usual nonsense like P.E.

On top of that, you are getting used (to the first time in your life) to living on your own. Well, sort of. In a dorm with hundreds of other guys. Learning to tolerate the quirks of your roommate. Etc.

Ken-DaughtersI was fortunate in the roommate department that first year. A friend of my from my church youth group, Ken Daughters, was also starting his freshman year. Ken has a brilliant and highly committed mind. But he’s not no-nonsense, either. There were plenty of shenanigans that first year, including him being “kidnapped” by the entire wrestling squad and tied (in nothing but his underwear) to a tree in front of the women’s dorms while a female accomplice to the wrestlers pulled the fire alarm.

Dr. Daughters is now back at Biola as development director, but for many years he was president at Emmaus Bible College and Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Despite the vast gulf between our respective intellects, we have remained fast friends over the years and I so appreciate his many positive contributions to my life.

best-friendsThat freshman year, I also met a man whom I have counted as a close friend over the years, John Veale. John and I put together a ragtag mimeographed publication for freshmen called “The Thirteenth Grader Review” which I think still has some renown in some corners of the university. Later we served together on the student council and had many other exploits, which are continuing to this day. Darlene and I even introduced him to a woman who later became his wife, Kerry, who was my assistant editor at The Chimes, Biola’s student newspaper, later on. More than once I’ve turned to John for advice, counsel and help when I have been in need, and he is as true as a friend can be.

Spiraling down into darkness

But, one’s freshman year is always full of challenging adjustments. Near the end of the second semester, after burning the candle at both ends trying to study for final exams, I became quite sleep deprived and got very sick with the flu. Then suddenly, the school year was over. It was summer break and I returned home with no plan as to how to occupy my time until school started again in the fall.

My parents gave me chores to do around the house, but I was physically exhausted and even as I attempted to readjust to the new reality I was suddenly assaulted by a severe depression which I’m sure to this day was the result of some sort of chemical imbalance created by my extreme lack of sleep and work-life balance and falling ill those last few weeks of school. I plunged into a blackness I had never before known possible, and it was absolutely terrifying.

I know it sounds dramatic to title this blog, “The valley of the shadow of death,” and I don’t really think I seriously considered suicide during my bout with depression, but as a result of this experience I can certainly identify with and understand those who do. I had had no experience with depression previously, and I was afraid to talk much about it, but I did try to reach out and seek the help of the two people closest to me: my girlfriend, Darlene, and my mom. Both listened well, asked good questions, and were sympathetic,  but of course neither trained as counselors nor empathetic as they had neither of them experienced anything like what I was going through. I felt completely and utterly alone.

For some reason there’s one particular moment during this brutal summer which stands out in my mind with terrifying clarity: One morning I was heading home from some sort of errand or visit with a friend, I don’t remember which, but I do recall where I was, heading north toward home on Mountain Avenue in Upland, and crossing the signal light at Foothill Boulevard. The light was green as I entered the intersection, and remained green throughout. As I drove into the intersection (probably doing 35mph, as I should), everything was fine. But by the time I drove out of the north side of that intersection, in the space of a scant second, a suffocating blackness of despair had fully descended upon me. A moment later, I could not even envision what hope might feel like. I can’t really describe the terrifying power of that moment, but I still remember it almost as a taste or a sensation which was the thing of nightmares. (This is why I am so sure this was some sort of chemical imbalance.)

I drove home in despair. I had no real reason to be depressed; yet I found myself in a dungeon of despair. These moods would come suddenly, last for hours, and depart slowly. I was beside myself with fear and anxiety, and had no idea what to do.

But as I prayed for help, somehow I felt a change of venue was in order. I don’t normally recommend “withdrawing” to people in depression, but one sense that’s sort of what I did. Well, I didn’t really withdraw, per se, but I did change venue. I talked to one of my friends in student government at school, who said they needed help with a project related to putting together some sort of student directory or publication. I decided to move back near campus for the summer so I could work on this. I found a kind family in Whittier who was looking for a housesitter for the summer, and agreed to have me take care of their place in exchange for the privilege of staying there rent-free. It was a nice house and felt like a good place to just recuperate quietly, which I did.

I rested up, and worked when I felt like it, and ate what I felt like I was hungry for (which was mostly watermelon … I love a good watermelon … and bean with bacon soup). I got some mild exercise, saved some money and continued to return home to Upland on weekends, as was my custom, to see Darlene and connect with friends at our church youth group.

One thing I couldn’t do, for some reason, was study the Bible. Which sounds completely weird to me now, as I feel like it’s such an important part of my life. But I think with all those Bible classes, opening the Bible somehow just felt “academic.” I needed a break! I still could pray, and I asked the Lord for His forgiveness for the way I felt. And I walked away from this thinking He completely understood and was willing to keep the lines of communication open while I healed.

After about two months of this, my mood began to pick up and the times of depression grew less intense and further between. Suddenly I grew hungry for God’s Word. One day I opened it up, and began reading, and I couldn’t stop. I devoured it for hours at a time. I was like a starving man at a banquet. It no longer felt “merely academic.”

By the time my sophomore year started (and Darlene started as a student at Biola with it, much to my delight), I would have to say I was mostly healed from this difficult and dark time. (It felt like I was in depression forever, but compared to what many people experience, I realize it was mercifully brief.) I could still taste the taste of it, remember how awful it was, but without having to live it. I felt free. Naturally there was some degree of fear as to whether it might fall back upon me at any time, but I was convinced it was a chemical depression and so I tried very hard from that point on to avoid the kind of lifestyle excesses that had occurred right before its onset. And I must say, to this day, while I’ve had my small moments of doubt or anxiety or bad moods, thank God I’ve never experienced again anything like what happened that summer between my freshman and sophomore years.

Empathy

One of the beautiful things this season of my life has done has created in me an empathy (not just a sympathy) for others who are struggling with depression. I have a close friend who struggles with depression periodically that can be many months in duration. In him it manifests as a sense of spiritual condemnation. He asks himself, “How could God possibly love and forgive me? Surely I am bound for hell.” That’s how he feels when he’s in the depths of depression, even though he is well-grounded in Scripture and can express quite clearly and logically that God has forgiven him in Christ Jesus, put his sins away through the blood of Christ as far as the east is from the west, buried them in the deepest sea, etc. He knows logically that God is a good Father who loves him tenderly and unconditionally, yet his emotions tell him otherwise, leaving him in frequent turmoil.

My depression did not manifest itself in that way (serious doubt), though I think it could have easily gone that direction had I been more introspective, as I think my friend is. I suggested he ought to do what I did not, consult a doctor given the possibility of a physical / chemical cause for his depression. Which he did, and the doctor has placed him on mild antidepressants, which seem to help him some. His most recent episode has lasted for at least 6 months, but thankfully his trajectory seems to be good and he seems to be a little better every week.

Because I am familiar with the pain of what he is feeling, I know that I need to listen and not judge. I try to suggest any angles that occur to me that he may or may not have thought of. But most importantly, beyond the time he and I spend together processing how he is doing, I pray for him. I am motivated to do so because I empathize with his pain, even though it’s been 40 years since I myself experienced that.

Balance

I think this episode in my life also taught me the importance of balance. As Darlene will attest, my personality is very all-or-nothing. If I am excited about a task or project, I can throw myself into that without much regard for the need to keep my life in balance, as my freshman year proved. So, now I am more likely to stop first and focus on my life as a holistic thing. Am I getting sufficient sleep, rest, and exercise? Am I eating well and staying healthy? Most importantly, am I spending the time I need to spend to stay connected to the Vine? Work is important and sometimes you really do have to give your all to the mission. But you also have to stay healthy!

In my last professional role this proved very important. I was on a team with four 20-somethings, some of whom apparently had no idea what work-life balance is, or how to achieve it. They were very committed, very smart, and very hard-working. I found myself taking on the task of reminding them of the importance of staying balanced physically, mentally, and spiritually, and am hopeful my message got through and I made a positive impact on their young lives.

Well, tomorrow I plan to take a step back and share how I got started in my writing career, which actually occurred prior to my freshman year of college. (I’ll do my best as I follow this blog to keep things in more-or-less chronological order … but no promises!)

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