The Spirit of Depression

“It’s a spirit,” she said. “Depression is a spirit and it fills your head with lies. I rebuke those lies right now and send them straight back to hell where they came from, and I bind that spirit in the name of Jesus.”

She did that when she was serious about doing battle for the people she cared about – bound things in Jesus’ name. There was nothing greater that she could invoke, and she was the kind of woman who would invoke whatever was at her disposal to keep her loved ones safe. I always wondered if Jesus would know that she was binding it in his name if she didn’t say his name out loud. I pictured him in Heaven, or all around us, or wherever Jesus spends his time. He would be poised for action. Or maybe he bound things on his own with no direction from his followers, and maybe the speaking it out loud was simply a matter of a ritual. Did we have to stand in the gap for each other? Did it make a difference that my mother stood in a metaphorical doorway with Jesus behind her, telling the Spirit of Depression to leave me the fuck alone? Whether it made a difference on a spiritual level is difficult to know. On a psychological one, however, it meant everything. It signified rest for me.

On this day, my mom was perched on the edge of my bed, her cool palm on my puffy face. My curly hair was matted to my temples, twisted around me. My eyes were on fire. I sniffed. I didn’t want to be alive and she knew it. Maybe I didn’t even want to have ever been born. She knew that, too. She knew it and she accepted it as the way I felt in every cell of my body. My quiet, broken admission was not the tantrum of an overly emotional teenager. Prone to paroxysm though I had been most of my life, dramatic to the core, there was no drama in this moment or in the myriad similar moments that came before it and would inevitably come after it. I was twenty-one years old and I was finally coming to truly name what my mother had known about me for perhaps my whole life, a truth that had been increasingly solidified since my adolescence. I am a chemically imbalanced human being. Additionally, from my mom’s perspective, I was a Child of God under perpetual attack by the Spirit of Depression. I can never know the hours of her life that were devoted to praying me out of the pit that I fell into with alarming frequency. I have to believe that to at least some degree her devotion to my well being was instrumental in keeping me from tumbling further into the abyss any number of times.

My reality is that I am neurotic. I am mentally unstable. I am imbalanced. I am prone to panic and anxiety and mood swings and omnipresent anguish. And if you believe in the spiritual realm of things the way my mother did, my reality is also that I carry with me at all times a frothing gargoyle, the spiritual embodiment of my torment.

Sometimes the beast hangs back and gives me some space to breathe and lets me be overcome with joy at the simple beauty of life. In those moments, it allows me to revel in my accomplishments and to love myself and to be proud of the person I have become. It gives me a chance to pour my energy into relationships and to hand over to another person all the unfettered love that my tiny temporal human heart can muster. It lets me throw my head back and laugh all the way from the bottom of my rib cage.

Other times, though, it stands on my shoulders and I have to carry it around, its weight a distraction and a drain. Each step I take when the beast rests on my shoulders is debilitating, and I am quickly and easily worn down. My every instinct is to keep going, no matter how tired I become. I cannot imagine what it is like for inaction to be an option that I legitimately consider, and one of my most ominous fears is reaching a point where I can imagine inaction, where I do stop fighting. So many people in the mental health system, such a large percentage of the homeless population, are those who stopped fighting. I refuse to believe that they never fought at all; they must have at some point, no matter how feeble their efforts may have been. It is our most base impulse to combat what we perceive to be a threat. The variation comes in the strength we manage to sustain throughout a never-ending and toilsome war. Some of us ultimately run out of energy and we lie down and give up because it is all we have left. Others of us keep fighting and clinging to a tattered sense of meaning in life and the world, a hope that there will be some break in the clouds sometime soon, however brief.

Every now and again that spirit throws me to the ground and puts its knees in my chest, pinning my arms, screaming at the top of its lungs reminders of my ineptitude and worthlessness. It croons about the vast meaninglessness of this life and about the sweet stillness that would be waiting for me if I just gave in and stopped fighting. In these moments I draw the curtains, I shut off my cell phone, I turn on music to drown out my wailing. In these moments, my soul tries to unfold outside my body and I moan on the floor and I curse the savior from whom my mother sought my safety. I sputter and choke and I sob and sob and sob. Despondent, I spend hours bawling, engulfed in the febrile flame of despair, idealizing the tranquility that my demon promises me if I just loosen my grip on this life ever so slightly. I make mental lists of what I might need to do to get my affairs in order, I strategize the best way to avoid imposing on anyone I care deeply about the acute trauma of finding my broken body. In these moments, I am both alive and dead. A dear friend explained it beautifully a couple of months ago as she expressed her own relationship with this spirit. “You dip your toes in one world,” she said, “then step back and walk in the other”. You very deliberately turn your back on the promising light of serenity that shines just a short journey away, choosing to fight for your life for just for another day, another hour, another minute, sometimes just one more second.

Few people know this side of me exists, fewer still have been exposed to it on any real level. Even my own sisters had never been exposed to this desperate, shattered layer of me until earlier this year when, lubricated by too many birthday drinks, I nose-dived into a sinkhole that I had been gingerly stepping around for months. They were terrified, uncertain how to respond. A friend asked, “Is she like this often? Does this happen when she drinks?” They shook their heads. This is not a version of their little sister they know intimately. It is not a facet of myself that anyone should know intimately. This incident was during the last weeks of my mother’s life and though she was frail and barely alive herself, she chose to come stay with me that night. I was out of my mind with too much whiskey, and a gargantuan melancholy that had escaped the box where I normally kept it, and I was unaware of anything that was going on around me. At my mother’s behest, my oldest sister left post-it notes around my bed advising me that mom was just in the other room. This request was less about bringing me solace and more about grabbing me around the waist just before I stepped fully off that ledge. Her line of thinking was that perhaps I would be less inclined to harm myself if I knew she was just in the other room. She was not pushy; she was simply here.

In my experience, the severely depressed are not moved by attempts to comfort them. They are impervious to platitudes about the meaning of life and how they should want to live and how they have so much going for them and wouldn’t it be just awful to do that to their loved ones? My mother’s understanding of the spirit of depression and bipolar disorder and anxiety and panic is unmatched. She was more emotionally intelligent than some counselors I have seen. Recently I battled that spirit fully on my own and barely emerged. The weight of grief and the stress of my job and the uncertainty of several aspects of my life right now are colossal on top of my gargoyle, whose weight is already crushing. As I writhed in my bed and considered the possibility of giving up on this life, I ached for my mother in the way you might expect. I yearned for both the comfort that can be garnered only through maternal care and also for the sensibilities she had about this kind of darkness.

After I had emerged from the tempest and as I lay there depleted, using my one remaining sliver of energy to stoke the dim ember that was a desire to live, I thought she must have been with me. I wondered if maybe Jesus doesn’t do the binding of spirits all by himself, but perhaps he employs the assistance of the people who love us. Maybe my mom is watching me all the time, or maybe she is set up with alerts of some kind, and maybe she is always poised and ready to fight for me, for my sisters, for her grandchildren. A new and different morsel of hope came into being in those moments as I pondered doing battle against the ugly spirits of this life without my mother just a phone call away. It is a vision of my mom standing in the doorway to the room where I lay, a room filled to the ceiling with sadness and doubt and dejection and fear. She is small but scrappy, and the thought of her barricading the door to give me time to compose myself and round up the scattered shards of my will to keep going with this life is enough to make me hope beyond hope that I will somehow always find the tenacity to persevere.

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