Wednesday, October 25, 2017

My Pet Demon, Part Four: Be a Tree, Not a Stump

Not a picture of a healthy relationship.

Wait. What?

That's what I remember thinking the first time I heard The Giving Tree referenced in a church service.

For those who aren't familiar with the classic picture book by Shel Silverstein, here's a quick summary: a tree loves a little boy. The little boy enjoys what he can get from the tree. Things are fine as long as the boy is little (though his primary way of demonstrating his affection for the tree is to carve a heart into its trunk, so already we're off to a questionable start). But as he gets older, the boy demands more from the tree than just its shade. He wants its apples to make money for his adventures, its branches to build himself a house, and when things fall apart, its trunk to build a boat to sail away in. Except for asking for these things from the tree, he neglects it. Finally he returns as a tired, defeated old man. The tree, now just a stump, has nothing left to give. That's fine, says the old man. I just need to sit on something. And the tree was happy.

Wait. What?

The pastor who'd read the story to us--I can't remember if it was used as a children's message or as an illustration for the sermon--went on then to allegorize the message: the tree is Jesus. The little boy who grows up to be a selfish man is us. Jesus just keeps giving and giving and giving, no matter what the cost, to the point of self-negation. That's how we should all live.

And I was still stuck on "Wait. What?"

Treating this slim book as an allegory does it a great disservice, especially when one takes the allegory to its logical limit. It's been interpreted as an allegory for friendship, for parenting (check out this excellent version from the Zits comic strip), and in countless Sunday morning messages to both children and adults, for both Jesus Christ and the life of a faithful Christian. Considering how taking the allegory to its logical conclusion means self-destruction for whoever the tree is taken to represent, that's a lesson that's unhealthy, at best.

Unless, that is, you're using the allegory as a warning.

That's my point of departure today. I've written about the ways in which the demon called depression can get its claws into a person with its vicious cycle of anxiety, loneliness, and self-criticism. In the third part of this series, I brought in the ways in which the demon can suck in the loved ones of a depressed person, inflicting them with psychic wounds of their own. In this final essay, I'm going to suggest an alternate path for those who are companions, whether by blood or choice, of depressed persons. The thesis is simply this: stick with this person you love, but don't turn let yourself become a stump.

In the throes of depression, I looked for three things from friends and partners: strength, compassion, and presence. There were times when I really couldn't find the energy to subsist. No amount of encouragement would have gotten me out of my dark place. I was spiraling down, incapable of seeing any brightness at all in my future.

One such time came in Medford, when I'd just had a meeting with the church's personnel committee that had been critical of my performance as an associate pastor. The critique was valid--I'd been neglecting my duties to concentrate on busy work--but in my already sensitive state, it triggered my victim cycle. I remember picking up my daughter Sarah, who was 2 at the time, from day care, and taking her to a fast food restaurant for dinner. Somehow I'd communicated to my wife Brenda that I was in a bad place. She'd heard something in my voice that frightened her. On her own initiative, she called my counselor and set up an emergency session with him, then drove to McDonald's where she found me with Sarah. "Go see Fred," she told me. "I've got Sarah."

I did. I drove to Fred's office and was in tears before either of us said a word. I sat on his couch and sobbed for several minutes, then finally was able to talk about what I was feeling, and more importantly, why I was feeling it.

There are times when depressed people need someone to simply take the initiative to get them the help they need. This is not the same as being the help. At my lowest points, I've needed the help of a person who is trained and experienced at unpacking a depressive cycle, compassionately but persistently drilling down to the memory that gave birth to the demon, then easing back to the present where logic can finally be broached. That personnel committee was not the unethical, incompetent principal who drove me from my first teaching career, even though it was chaired by a retired school superintendent. They had legitimate concerns I needed to address. But first I had to get the fear out of my system. Brenda could have told me that, but I wouldn't have heard her; worse, I would've lumped her in with the personnel committee as an oppressor. I needed Fred to coach me through my despair before I could attend to my professional failings.

Being strong for a depressed person does not mean stoically giving up your body and soul. Nor does it mean confronting the irrational basis of those feelings. Strength in the face of depression is in acknowledging your own inadequacy to address the needs of someone you love.

A digression: when I went into ministry, I had fantasies of being a counselor to my parishioners, having them come to me in their time of need, listening compassionately, then offering sage advice. That's why I was thrilled to take a course my second year of seminary called "Crisis Counseling"--and disappointed to find that the main focus of the course was knowing how, and to whom, to refer a person in crisis. A parish minister lacks the training, we were told, to do any kind of extended counseling. Rather, our job was to be first responders, spiritual EMTs who could slap a bandaid on a parishioner that would last long enough for him or her to get into the office of a professional therapist.

As disappointed as I was to learn that I ought not be counseling my flock unless and until I earned a degree in psychology, this was a lesson I needed, and I've applied it many times since. My primary task as the companion of a depressed person is knowing when I'm out of my depth and helping my loved one make the decision to see a professional. That's what Brenda did for me that evening in Medford.

Which brings me to compassion. Accompanying a depressed person can be incredibly frustrating. Basic chores and errands aren't done competently or in a timely fashion. Pets and children are neglected. Healthy habits are discarded. There's no enthusiasm for socializing, entertaining, or any of the things you've always loved to do together. Trying to have a conversation about what's wrong can be infuriating: address any of the reasons for the depression, and you'll either be ignored or find yourself dealing with another leak elsewhere in the dam. Ultimately, you just have to accept that it's not about any of the things your loved one says it's about. You're not dealing with a reasonable person. It's tempting to snap, to walk out, go get some air, or taking it farther, to take a break from the relationship, or even to end it.

Being compassionate at such a time can feel like a stretch. You may have a hard time feeling compassion, especially if your partner is lashing out in cruel, unthinking ways. Try to remember that, no matter what the demon may provoke your loved one to say, it's really not about you. Even if something you said or did was the trigger that brought on this demon attack, it's not about you. The person before you is suffering the long term effects of trauma that may have happened long before you met. My own depression was rooted in the itinerant childhood I endured as a Methodist minister's son, moving too often for my introverted self to make and keep friends, which then became a rootless adult lifestyle I have only in the last decade--my 50s--been able to put behind me. It was exacerbated by the combative feelings I had toward bosses, and the victimization that kicked in whenever I was reprimanded for it.

Compassion means understanding that what's going on is deep and wide, that not amount of talking (even until the wee hours of the morning) will get the demon off this person's back. I know. I hear you. I see how much you're hurting. I'm sorry you have to go through this. Words of compassion don't have to react to the negative statements your loved one is making. It's better, in fact, if they don't. Even my best therapists couldn't talk me out of my deepest depressions. The only person who could do that was me, and only after I permitted myself to feel the fear, the grief, the rejection. When a loved one responded to my depression by arguing with me or walking out on me, it just confirmed what I'd been feeling, and drove me deeper.

That brings me to the third thing I always needed from my companion on the depression journey: presence. I need to be clear about what this looks like. It's not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I'm not talking about the kind of commitment that comes with being under suicide watch in a hospital. That's for the professionals in the hospital. Partners, parents, friends don't have the capacity to make that kind of sacrifice. Your presence in the life of a depressed person has to have boundaries. Sometimes you will have to give up something you really wanted to do: if your child is in crisis and may commit self-harm if left alone, you need to be there. This is true even if you had tickets to Hamilton. With that said, your presence must not be all-consuming. Put all of yourself into being there, and all that will be left is a stump.

Presence needs to be compassionate. Being visibly angry, frustrated, or disappointed will drive your loved one deeper into the abyss. It also needs to be tangible. The thing I needed most in my times of depression was a hand on my back or shoulder as I struggled with feelings I couldn't control or understand. Since my deepest fears were of rejection, I needed to know that revealing my brokenness would not drive a companion away. The most powerful words for me at such times were simply, "I'm here." And while being physically present is far more powerful, those words over the phone still convey the fidelity of your commitment.

Implicit in all of this is a lesson that is the opposite of the Giving Tree: to be the most good to a depressed person, you cannot sacrifice yourself. Yes, you do need to give of your time, and you may have to scrap plans for an evening out or a weekend away; but if you wind up losing yourself, you are, in a way, fulfilling one of the prophecies the demon has been whispering in your loved one's ear: "Everything you touch turns to shit. Just look at what you're doing to your friend. That once beautiful giving tree is turning into a stump."

So continue to do the things that feed your soul. If you need a break, tell your loved one you're going for a walk, taking a run, getting a drink, whatever you need to recharge--and that you'll be back. Knowing there's a future that again has you in it will make the in between time easier to bear. Neglecting your needs will, over time, reduce your own effectiveness as a companion, even as it breeds resentment that may, ultimately, turn into a necessary rejection. Sacrifice too much of yourself, and you're left with no choice but the thing a depressed person fears most: walking away. Setting boundaries is essential to both of you, so do it early and often.

I could write much more on this subject, and I have. The point of this series of essays has been to share one person's perspective on depression and its impact on relationships, concluding with some ideas on how to go on loving a depressed person. Following my advice does not guarantee recovery. You may ultimately have to walk away from a loved one whose demon is too hungry for your soul, as well as your child's or lover's. This is especially true if the person you love refuses to seek professional help--but even then, I believe it's possible to continue to be strong, compassionate, and present. None of these virtues need be contingent on your child admitting himself to an outpatient program. Choose to be a beacon of compassion, remain true to your commitments, and in time, there's a good chance that loved one may ultimately take the steps necessary to tame the demon, and become whole once more.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

My Pet Demon, Part Three: Collateral Damage

I know the feeling.

It's not easy loving a person who's living with depression. In the throes of an attack by the shadow demon, depressed people become irrational, spiraling down into a bottomless pit of despair. No lifeline is long enough to haul them out, and they may even turn angrily upon those who would try to ease their minds by talking some common sense about the fears they're expressing. Sometimes it becomes apparent the depression victim just needs to be alone, but communicating that truth can be perceived as rejection, a terrifying feeling to have when you're already convinced of your own worthlessness.

Now imagine being married to that person.

I've been in relationships with people who suffered from depression, both situational and clinical, and it's no picnic. But that's not why I'm writing this today. If you've read either of the previous parts of this series, you know I've had an off-and-on relationship not just with depressed people, but with depression. And I feel the need to make some amends.

The depression I experienced was concentrated in the years between my fifteenth and fortieth birthdays. Lest you think I was always in a depressed state, I'll be more specific: my most depressed years were 1976-78, 1982, 1985-88, 1991-93, and 1999-2000. If you really know my history, you know that this timeline actually excludes the year my first marriage came apart. Bear that in mind as I continue.

Depression for me was an intellectual-emotional vortex. I would perceive myself to be victimized or rejected, which would lead to negative self-statements and a gloomy attitude which, in turn, made me far less attractive to people whose approval or affection I desired. That was followed by more feelings of rejection, making me even less interesting to be around, and so I would sink into a pit of self-fulfilling prophecies. The stimulus for these attacks could be interpersonal or professional. For example, after three different girls said "no" to my prom proposal, my self-esteem was so shattered that I didn't make any further attempts at dating until grad school. Not having a dating life, I felt lonely and unfulfilled. College friendships and parties helped salve that loneliness, but still I couldn't help wondering what was wrong with me that I was now in my 20s and had never had a girlfriend--without, ironically, putting two and two together and realizing it was my own damn fault for not taking the initiative to shop around for someone else to date, suffer through awkward dates that didn't work, and finally find someone I was truly compatible with. That's the positive, constructive approach to not having a social life. Instead, I opted for feeling helplessness and being depressed, railing against the unfairness of living in a culture where men had to do all the asking out.

Now, honestly: if you were a female friend of mine in 1982, and I unloaded this nonsense on you, would you be even remotely interested in going out with me? No, I thought not. You'd be much more likely (I hope) to do as one such friend did, and strongly encourage me to head over to the health center and find myself a counselor.

That's not what I did, though. Mostly through college and grad school, I was content with my life, especially when the group of friends I made my freshman year, and kept all the way through graduation and beyond, were together. We constituted an intimate, supportive community, one that I still miss. In grad school, mostly cut off from that community, I had to find my own way, which I did, beginning some friendships which, unfortunately, never had the time to mature: I was only in Urbana-Champaign for nine months. Had it taken me another year to earn that degree, I might well have emerged a far more confident young adult.

Instead, I plunged into the adult world still inadequately prepared both to be a teacher and to function as a bachelor. I had a disastrous year that drove me away from education and back to the academy, and started seminary at the age of 24 with still less dating experience than most 16-year-olds, still nursing the wounds of being rejected by a profession I'd spent five years of university education training for, thousands of miles from home in a hectic city that didn't speak English the same way I did.

Two months of sinking as deeply into the pit as I'd ever been finally convinced me to take that advice I'd been given three years earlier: I started counseling. Unfortunately--and this is part of the intellectual-emotional side of my demon--I wasn't being honest with either the therapist or myself about why I was there. I never mentioned the word "depression." Rather, I talked about feeling like I was never going to have a relationship. The counselor took me at my word, and began coaxing me toward dating casually, going out to a movie, a concert, dinner. He suggested I date someone a few years older than myself, with experience. I had a couple of awkward dates with fellow students, but nothing was clicking yet.

And then I stumbled into my first relationship: two weeks with a study partner who, frustrated at my cluelessness at her interest in me, made the first move.

As I said, it only lasted two weeks. But it was a breakthrough. Stung by the breakup, I moped for a week or two, then was invited to watch a movie with another fellow student. I found this woman much easier to talk to, and she seemed to feel the same way about me: our conversations got longer and longer. Finally I asked her to a movie. Then another. And then it took off.

This was my first really passionate romance. After two months, I found myself worrying about whether it could last. I certainly didn't want it to end. So I proposed.

We were both young and inexperienced in the ways of romance. We are also both seminary students. And while I was insecure and nervous about all things romantic, I had no doubts at all about my abilities as an academic. Since I was so at ease in this one area that dominated so much of the lives we were both living, I came across as confident, strong, and virile: a real catch. She accepted my proposal, and despite some rough spots, we had a very solid first six months of marriage.

And then we went on internship in rural Illinois, and the bottom fell out.

I was lonely, needy, insecure. My awkwardness in social settings was a liability. My anxiety around making phone calls and home visits really, if I was being honest with myself, disqualified me for the work of pastoral ministry. And I was honest with myself: I wrote long process notes about experiences I'd had that questioned whether what I was doing was effective or legitimate, leading my supervising minister to worry that I was psychologically unfit. The demon that had been in hiding during the first, endorphin-flushed year of our relationship burst out into the open, and I had no counselor to talk to.

Instead, I dumped it all on my young wife. Like me, she had no previous relationships save that of her parents to compare our marriage to. She did what she could to be supportive, but she was completely out of her depth, especially when I would insist on talking out my fears and frustrations until 1 and 2 in the morning. Eventually, I worked my way out of the pit, pushing the demon back into its closet where it remained, except for a few brief episodes, until our last year of seminary.

But the damage had already been done. Worse than that, patterns had been established: when the demon came back in full force, I would turn to my wife more than anyone else for support. She had issues of her own that she put off dealing with to help carry my load. Over time, she grew angry, bitter, distant; sensing the gulf growing between us, I became more anxious about our relationship, which fueled the depressive cycle I was already in. Add to that a series of traumas we experienced singly and together: a dysfunctional first year of ministry with a triangulating senior pastor who was, himself, in deep denial about his own depression; the birth trauma that nearly took our second child from us before he'd drawn his first breath, and kept him in intensive care for two weeks before we could finally bring him home, perpetually worried whether he could survive; taking in a troubled (and depressed!) teenager we were not competent to care for; my father's first heart attack; finding myself, though free of that senior pastor in a new appointment, under the scrutiny of a superintendent who made a mission out of getting me to leave the ministry; and it's no wonder I found myself wrestling with the demon day after day. One morning in January, 1993, I sat down with a new therapist and finally owned the demon for what it was: depression. That was a turning point for me. By the end of that year, I was in a much better place.

But it was too late for the marriage. I'd leaned on my wife for too long. One more trauma hit us--the death of her sister in a car accident--and it was, finally, too much for her to bear. Our last year of marriage was a steady downhill slide, until, finally, she pulled the plug the day before our eighth anniversary.

The months that followed were a time of madness for me. Oddly enough, I wasn't ever really depressed during this time. I grieved, I raged, I burned out the ears of siblings, friends, and mentors, anyone who would listen, but I was always completely in touch with my thoughts and feelings. I fought her on this decision, tried to reason with her, argued with her, tried to convince her to give our marriage another try--until the moment she told me, "I had to do it. I thought I was going to die."

That's when I stopped resisting. And it's why, despite everything that happened then and in the 23 years since, I don't blame her.

The truth is, I poured out more emotional garbage on her than anyone should have to bear. And she was only 24 when it started. We were brand new not just at marriage, but at being in any kind of relationship at all. I demanded far too much from her. And she gave it. Of course it took a toll on her, and of course that had consequences for our marriage.

It's taken me most of my life to understand this, to own my role in the failure of that marriage. I spent decades oblivious to the damage my demon did to the people around me. All I knew was that bad things were happening in my life, it made me sad, and rather than understand, people were making things worse by rejecting me in my time of need. It's a vicious cycle that I was only able to arrest when I finally realized the collateral damage being done to people I loved--and that realization came too late to save my marriage.

It's a lethal dynamic, the damage depression does to those who love one of its victims. The compassion they feel, the empathy they practice, can drag them into the vortex until they, too, find themselves saddled with demons of their own. Finding the right balance of compassion and caution is a tricky thing, especially for the young and inexperienced.

But it doesn't have to be. Relationships with depressed persons, whether they're familiar, marital, or platonic need not end in estrangement or divorce. In part four, I'll write about living alongside, but not in the clutches of, the demon of someone you love.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

My Pet Demon, Part Two


Taming a demon is hard work.

My personal demon was a depression that had begun scratching at the door of my consciousness when I was a teenager. The demon found opportunities in stressful and frightening situations, especially when they came in multiples. For instance, the anxiety of living in a big city (Dallas) for the first time, added to the uncertainty of pursuing a new career (ministry) after just one year in a first career (music education) I had spent half a decade studying for, was compounded by the self-doubt of never having had a romantic partner at the advanced age of 23. Put together, these stimuli plunged me into my first experience of what I almost immediately began calling my demon. It would be at least six years before I accepted that it was, in fact, the mental illness called depression.

Long before my first formal therapy session--sometime in the fall of 1985--I knew that my own process for dealing with these bouts of sadness would involve meditation, exercise, artistic expression, and introspective exploration. In the United Methodist ordination process, I had already been given the framework of this exploration. Candidates for the ministry spend many hours writing about what makes them tick: their families of origin, childhood experiences of religion, scriptures that speak to them in personal ways, their feelings and opinions about various doctrines of the church. They spend more time going over their responses to these writing prompts with pastors who have been trained in the spiritual formation of future colleagues. Seminary intensifies this work which, far more than any of the academically rigorous courses they may take, breaks them down to this fundamental essence.

Not coincidentally, that is also the work of a good therapist. My best therapy sessions would leave me, as I left the office, more unsettled than I had been coming in. The greatest breakthroughs often began with me speculating that it might be time for me to transition out of therapy--a feeling my better therapists took as a sign that we were getting close to the real meat of the problem, something so painful I was seeking to avoid dealing with it but considering myself healed.

I stopped seeing that first therapist early in 1986, when the new relationship that would become my first marriage had me feeling so high on endorphins that I considered myself cured. Five years of denial and unfairly leaning on my spouse for more support than she'd signed up for later, I finally returned to therapy. With this therapist, I spent the better part of a year unpacking family of origin issues. I pinned most of the blame for the depression--I was finally calling it that--on the work setting I was in. After just a year, I convinced the Bishop to move us away from that setting, but the new churches I served proved not to be the magic bullet. I went back into counseling with a third therapist, one who would see me through my first divorce.

During the first months of that divorce was the only time I ever took an anti-depressant. My perception was that it didn't work for me. In fact, looking back, I don't believe I was clinically depressed during the divorce. My physical health actually improved markedly, as I lost weight and returned to the exercise regimen I had mostly abandoned in the last years of the marriage. I worked more diligently at ministry than at any other time in that career, made my first attempts at having a dating life, overcame incredible obstacles to finally receive full ordination as an Elder of the United Methodist Church, and intentionally went to work on fashioning a new life for myself as a single father. Yes, I experienced great depths of despair, punctuated by late night sobbing sessions I sometimes feared would never end. But I was never numb. Far from it, I was so deeply in touch with my grief that it threatened to overwhelm me.

And in fact, the demon had gone back into hiding. As the months of divorce became a year, and I settled into a new appointment, then a new relationship, I found, much to my surprise, that I seemed to be demon-free.

So I got married again, far too quickly, to a woman I didn't really know. And within a month, the demon came back.

To be fair, it wasn't just her. Depression was always a situational thing for me, triggered by stressful relationships and settings that felt uncomfortably familiar. My second wife was very different from my first: she never held back her anger, which was rarely about me; I just happened to be in the way when it would flare up. What was familiar was me trying to apply band-aids to our marriage, scrabbling about for something, anything, that would make her happy. I eventually came to realize it was the classic cliche that ends so many relationships: it wasn't about me.

What was about me was my growing sense that, as I'd suspected in that year of internship in Illinois, I wasn't really called to ministry. It was, again, a confluence of situations that brought the demon roaring back into my psyche: a new appointment and a new home triggered the end of the marriage. I spent very little time sobbing and howling over this divorce. I was just too numb to grieve. In that numbness, I found myself making busy work in my office rather than going out and doing the public work that is so essential to a successful pastorate. The job fell away from me, and I just didn't care. The church worked with the conference to put me on disability, and I didn't fight it at all.

I've written a lot about how ministry and Methodism became wrong for me, so I'm not going to address that here. What's important for me to acknowledge here is that my second ex-wife and the church went to great lengths to deal fairly with me. The church bent rules to keep me on the disability roster for three years, guaranteeing me a subsistence income, health insurance, and continued pension contributions, long past the point at which I knew the demon had returned to hibernation. I went to more therapists, joined a therapy group, changed careers again (this time fully committing myself to music education), had a series of short-term relationships, changed jobs and addresses several times, and finally found the partner with whom I fully expect to spend the rest of my life. I also am in the job I expect to keep until retirement. I am happier than I have ever been.

Which is not to say that the demon has completely left me. In fact, it stirred last Monday, after a traumatic weekend dealing with a loved one's own struggles with depression. I woke up that morning and, for the first time in many years, felt reluctant to get out of bed. I observed that reluctance as I got up anyway, listened to myself sighing in the shower, noticed the lack of appetite as I forced myself to prepare my lunch and eat my breakfast. An email from my principal about a discipline issue gave the demon an opening, and I had a moment by myself in my classroom.

Satisfied, the demon ducked back into its den.

It was frightening, knowing it was still there. But there was a difference this time: I'm self-aware enough to know what's happening. I've been through this enough times, and been through enough therapy (hundreds of hours), that I can categorize what I'm feeling. The fear at the email was, I knew, based on previous experiences with unscrupulous and incompetent administrators, of whom I've had more than my share. But that's not who I work for now, and in fact, the meeting with the principal was exactly what he'd promised in the email: supportive, problem-solving, looking for ways to address particular students who are proving challenging throughout the school. The delayed stress of the weekend gradually dissipated once I'd acknowledged its residual effects. I worked out, embraced the people I love, reached out, poured myself into teaching, and overall, despite coming down with my first cold of the school year, had a great week.

There was a time when I wanted very much to banish the demon forever. There was another time when, caught up in the thrill of first love, I thought I'd done just that. Over time, I came to understand that this demon is a part of who I am. I don't know where it came from, though all that time on therapists' couches has identified some strong possibilities. I do know that without it, I would not be a whole person. Of all the reasons I said "no" to pharmaceuticals, that is the most significant. In Jungian terms, this is my shadow. For me to really enjoy the highpoints of my life, I have to also have the capacity for despair.

What's different now--in this is as medlife meditative as it can get--is what experience has taught me over the course of my 56 years: first, just because a situation feels like a previous trauma doesn't mean it is that trauma; and second, and more important, allowing myself to feel sadness and fear does not mean letting them control me.

I'm not going to say I tamed the demon. No, it's more like the story from Kazantzakis's autobiography I've heard in so many sermons of the monk who wrestled with the devil while young, until he and the devil grew old and tired of wrestling with each other. I imagine myself in retirement, sitting in a rocker on the porch of whatever small, sensible home Amy and I downsize to, sensing that the demon across the porch from me in its own rocker. We acknowledge each other's presence with a nod, find we have little left to argue about, and go back to enjoying the sounds of children playing next door, working a crossword puzzle on our smartphones, sipping a Flemish sour beer, savoring the sense of the struggle completed once and for all.

My Pet Demon, Part One


The longest relationship I ever had was with depression.

It started in my teens. I was not, for the most part, a melancholy child, though three years of middle school torment probably contributed to the darkness that set in around the time I turned fifteen. Moving from Idaho to Oregon had felt like an escape, and I loved high school. But one day, after walking home, I found myself rushing up to my bedroom, locking the door, throwing myself on my bed, and sobbing into my pillow. I didn't know where it was coming from: I was nowhere near as lonely as I'd been in middle school, I was receiving plenty of praise from my teachers, and I was already established in the leadership of my new Scout troop. Still, something inside me was not right, and the only way I could deal with it was to muffle my sobs behind a locked door, hoping no one in my family would find out how much psychic pain I was in.

The crying jags would hit me from time to time throughout my high school years. College, on the other hand, was a golden time for me: by the end of my freshman year, I had become part of a circle of friends who were as close and supportive as any non-romantic relationships I've had since. That sense of belonging seems to have chased my depression into hiding. As graduation approached, I found myself dreading my ejection into the real adult world, where I would no longer have my friends to lift my spirits.

And sure enough, within a few weeks of moving into a single room in the graduate dorm at the University of Illinois, I found myself with a roommate: depression was back. The aching empty feeling was now more specific, questioning whether I was in the right degree program and how good a musician I really was, reminding me that I was 22 years old and had never been on a date. It didn't affect my studies or my work, but there were still plenty of alone times when it haunted me. I don't recall any pillow-crying, but I do remember availing myself of the campus minister's listening ear on at least a couple of occasions.

In the year that followed, I was too busy building a life for myself to have much time for my demon--a life that fell apart after just weeks, as I lost my first teaching job. Still, I found plenty of support in the church and music communities of LaGrande. Once the money ran out, and I had resettled to an apartment in Salem, where I subbed for the rest of the school year, I again built up a fine support network at the church I'd attended throughout college. It was that support that inspired me to pursue ministry, so that just fifteen months after receiving a masters degree in music education, I was driving down to Dallas to begin studying for my second career at Perkins School of Theology.

Seminary training is, for all its academic components, primarily concerned with spiritual formation. For that to happen, everything the student brings to seminary--background, history, preferences, presuppositions--has to be broken down, then reformed into something both humbler and wiser. I arrived already in an insecure place: I had rashly abandoned my first career before it had really started, at the age of 24 had still not had a romantic relationship, and for all of my grand talk of having been called to ministry, was in deep denial about the sneaking realization that I was really there to extend my higher education for a few more years before, again, facing the scary real adult world. Add to that the insecurity that came of never having studied any of the humanities in college (a music education major is more like a cross between conservatory and highly specialized professional training, with very little room for liberal arts exploration), not to mention being abruptly immersed in a big, loud, diverse city for the first time in my life, and I was a nervous breakdown waiting to happen.

And happen it did: over the course of my first semester, I sank deep into darkness. For the first time, I began to think of depression as a demon, as I was plagued with thoughts of worthlessness, blamed myself for my loneliness, and filled pages of my journal with questions about what was wrong with me. I don't know what would've happened to me had I not been guided by an advisor to the campus counseling center where, for the first time in my life, I received regular therapy sessions in both an individual and a group setting.

I also fell in love.

There is no antidepressant in the world like the early stages of a relationship. It would be many years before I understood this is true of all relationships: the endorphins of the early stages are wonderful at exorcising depression demons. But this was my first time, and because of that, I was incapable of realizing this first experience was not unique. Three months in, I began to worry that it could not last unless I locked it in, and proposed. My girlfriend, herself a novice at romance, couldn't think of anything to say, and kissed me instead, which I took to be assent.

So were married. As long as we were in school together, the demon kept its distance. But then came internship, a year of working as student pastors in rural Illinois, and there the demon found an opening it could've driven a truck through.

My father was a pastor. I grew up in parsonages. And yet, my memories of church life are not as happy as one might expect of a preacher's kid following in his father's footsteps. Much that I had set aside or forgotten came rushing back during that year of internship, and I found myself deeply in the pit, leaning on my young wife far more than she could handle.

Things got better over the course of the year, enough so that we decided to extend the experience by enrolling in an overseas student pastorate in England. That became a two-year stint that was to remain the highlight of my career. The demon came back a few times in England, but for the most part, I was too thrilled by the adventure of being there--and old enough now to be more cocky than insecure--to feel dominated by it.

Not so once we came back for a final year in Dallas, where the experiences of living next door to a dysfunctional family (yelling and screaming frequently came through the thin wall we shared), spending every free hour working at menial jobs, and becoming a pacifist minority of one drowning in a sea of militant Republicans as the Persian Gulf War came and went pushed me toward the brink. After graduation, we had nearly two months of homeless sojourning before finally moving into our first American parsonage. And then it really hit the fan.

Rather than go into all the horrendous details of a string of hard luck that would make St. Francis feel like God had it in for him, I'll just say the demon found an opening, and exploited it with glee. By November, I was deeply depressed, to the extent that my wife was so frightened by my appearance one afternoon that she called the counselor I had just started seeing to set me up for an emergency session and ordered me to go to it. I remember being in tears the moment I sat down in his office.

The year was 1991. While I would experience glimmers of recovery, it would be two years before I really started to climb up out of depression, and many more before I would tame the feral demon that had hollowed out a lair in my soul.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Teacher Voice

You know this voice.

I used my teacher voice twice today.

It's a common experience among teachers that entire years of children have personalities that remain consistent throughout elementary school. Last year's kindergartners, for instance, were a charming bunch of cuties, and that's held true with them as first graders. This year's fourth graders, on the other hand, were challenging to work with as third graders, and while I don't have personal experience to back it up, that seems to have been true of them going all the way back to kindergarten. It's certainly true of them now, and it was, in fact, a fourth grade class that brought out my teacher voice for the second time this morning.

The first time it came out was with a second grade class. That's not quite fair: there was really just one child in the class who led me to use the voice that is like a heavy spear, projected across even the largest room, a voice that communicates both authority and restrained anger, that cannot be ignored, and has never failed to get the attention of the offending student on whom every other technique has failed. I won't use the actual name of this child, but away from school, I like to refer to him as the Destroyer.

First grade was his first experience of public school. Prior to that, he'd been home-schooled. At first, we teachers put down his defiant and disruptive behavior to attention-getting: he didn't like sharing adult attention with twenty-plus other children, so he made sure he got the lion's share of it. From day one, he was (and remains) the kind of child who cares not a whit whether the attention he receives is positive or negative. And in fact, because we equity-minded education professionals are scrupulous about meting out fair shares of praise and encouragement to every student, and urging classes to work together as learning communities, the individual troublemaker does get more attention per capita than any other child. Again, it's mostly negative, no matter how gently it's framed, but children like the Destroyer don't make any distinction about that. One on one time in the principal's office is far preferable to having to share a teacher with two dozen other children.

Over the course of his first grade year, the Destroyer was so effective at causing every music (and this was true of PE, as well) class to revolve around his antics that he had it down to a science: he got himself removed from class earlier and earlier, until finally he just went directly to the principal's office rather than the music room or gym. As much as I believe in the importance of music education to every child, I must admit I was relieved not to have this one in my room: the rest of the class could finally learn something. Toward the end of the year, the principal got tired of babysitting him, and he did seem to be maturing enough that, once he'd been reintroduced to specials, he didn't need any more attention than any other challenging first grader.

All children lose knowledge over long American summer breaks, and elementary curricula take that into account, filling much of September with review. That goes for classroom management, as well: we spend a good chunk of time the first few weeks going over expectations and reminding children of them. This year, we've also introduced a new system called PAX that has made a game of positive behavior, and it's been working well in many of my classes. It's a community-oriented system, rewarding children when they work together as a class to reduce disruptions and increase on-task time, in hopes of receiving a small reward of some silly time at the end. I've been impressed with how well this new frame of reference works with many classes I would've found difficult to deal with in previous years of my career.

I said many. It's not all of them: every class has one or two holdouts who don't quite get it, though the peer pressure with this system is far more powerful than with any other I've experience.

It may not surprise you to learn that the Destroyer wants none of it.

Today he single-handedly made it impossible for his class to get through more than the first five minutes of the music lesson. He engaged in low-grade disruptions that slowly escalated to dead-eyed defiance. Calling for help from the office is useless with this child: he wants to go there, and receive the dedicated attention of whatever adult is trying to convince him of the error of his ways. Twenty minutes into class, I finally concluded he needed to be separated from the rest of the children, and sent him to the "cool off rug" (same principle as the time out, with the added understanding that some children just need a minute to collect themselves). He made a dramatically slow crawl across the room. I chose to ignore him, doing my best to focus on the musical piece I was trying to teach the rest of the class. Once he finally got there, he tested me by sitting next to, not on, the rug. I ignored him. He folded up the rug. I continued to ignore him. He got up, took down a xylophone from the counter where I'd put it after using it to demonstrate some things to the class during the first few minutes before the Destroyer hijacked it, found the large mallet that's reserved for playing the gong, and began to pound on the xylophone.

The teacher voice came out with a single mortar shell of direction: "STOP."

The other children froze. I strode toward the back of the room where the Destroyer was sitting. Before I could reach him, he hurled the mallet at the children sitting on the other side of the room. It didn't hit any of them. I spoke a few more teacher voice words to the Destroyer (I don't remember what they were), looked at the clock, and realized there wasn't time to give him what he wanted and have him removed, thus at least salvaging a few minutes of teaching time: it was now time for the rest of the class to line up. In the hallway, I told his classroom teacher about what had happened. "It goes on all day," she said with a sigh, just before she begged me to write it up as a major referral.

I did that at lunchtime. I also emailed his parents, requesting they meet with me during conference week. I don't know that it will do any good, but somehow, I need to come up with a plan for him.

The rest of the morning did not go well. I was off my game. First graders, more second graders, even kindergartners were doing poorly. The one bright light was a third grade class that shone with a drum circle lesson. They were succeeded by a fourth grade class that evoked my teacher voice again with a tattle storm and loud, disruptive behavior that resulted in me writing three minor referrals during my lunch break. The second fourth grade class did well, and after lunch, I had a great time with two classes of fifth graders (a group that has, by all accounts, been consistently wonderful since kindergarten). 

But back to the Destroyer: sitting in the study, retreating from the mah jongg party going on downstairs, I dozed off for awhile (this year I've been coming home drained almost every day, in large part because I'm teaching seven classes back to back every morning), awaking to realize that the second grade Destroyer is a metaphor for the political nightmare this country is immersed in.

Think about it: we have a President who daily assaults us with attention-demanding tweets that are a shit salad of insults, boasts, and senseless blurts. His executive actions are prompted not by any desire to do what's right for the country, but rather by efforts to shore up his racist base, to reward loyalty, and to punish those who dare disagree with him. Yesterday, it was revealed that the secretary of state referred to him in July as a "fucking moron." Today I saw a headline that suggested he and the other two high-functioning members of the cabinet have a "suicide pact": if one of them is fired or forced to resign, the other two will quit in solidarity, leaving the White House essentially headless.

Trump has surrounded himself with lackeys and grifters, creating a kleptomaniacal swamp astronomically worse than anything that has existed at least since the Harding administration. He has elevated family members with no expertise or experience in the policy matters they now direct, appointed celebrities to manage huge departments and agencies, and handed the Department of Justice to a closet Klansman who would love nothing more than to transform the nation into a 21st century version of the Jim Crow South. Every day brings a barrage of new absurdities and outrages that would have dominated news coverage in any previous administration, but is now just par for the course. The Trump regime is wearing us down: politeness, civility, the PAX method are useless against its single-minded assault on our better angels.

It's time for Congress and the courts to use their teacher voice, to stand up straight, stare the rich Destroyer in the eye, and say "STOP." Your antics have gone too far, Mr. President. There's so much we should be doing, but can't even begin on: hurricane-wracked cities needing cleanup and rebuilding, infrastructure projects put on hold decades ago, undocumented immigrants who need to be naturalized rather than demonized, an unwieldy national health system that a bipartisan effort could make huge improvements on, a gun lobby that is well past the time when it should have been told that of course we're going to politicize this and every mass shooting from now on because it's gun politics that make them possible...

In short, we need a President. Instead, we've got a spoiled seventy-year-old rich jerk who's acting a tenth his age, whose insatiable hunger for attention cannot abide anyone or anything receiving headlines with bigger fonts than his. As long as he continues to play this monstrous game, the nation will be wearily watching as yet another scandal breaks, even worse than what came yesterday but soon to be subsumed by an even more horrifying revelation in this evening's update.

Come to think of it, Congress is never going to roll out its teacher voice. That leaves the rest of us to do it.

Altogether, now: it's a head voice, but it starts in the diaphragm. Aim it square between the miscreant's eyes. And keep it simple: diatribes in teacher voice don't redirect; they just badger. Say it with me, so assertively, firmly, and loudly that he can't ignore it:

STOP.