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.


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