“— a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan sent to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” – I Corinthians 12: 7
No one knows for certain what Paul’s thorn was, but I know mine. I’ve got a handful, actually, but depression is one of the strongest, most stubborn and noticeable thorns I’m stuck with.
I’ve wrestled with it since I was a teenager. I mean real depression, mind you, not the occasional “blues”, moodiness, or sadness we all experience from time to time. Depression is to a blue mood what a migraine is to a headache, which is to say there’s no comparison. When you’ve got a headache, you can relieve yourself with a couple aspirins and a quick nap. But when a migraine mugs you, you’re out of the game for hours on end, consigned to a near comatose state of throbbing misery. Anyone can relate to a headache; only true migraine survivors can commiserate with a fellow sufferer.
So it is with depression, a point I make only because I can’t count the number of well-meaning folks who’ve advised me, in the middle of my serious bouts with the monster, to do what they do when they’re feeling a little sad: think positive; take vitamins; say a prayer. All good ideas if you’re having a bad hair day, but not helpful when you’re flattened by what I affectionately call the Dark Plunge. When that hits, telling me to think more positively is like advising someone lying on the road after a car accident to count their blessings. Thanks, and perhaps you’re right, but please be quiet, you’re not helping.
Of course, there’s a place for genuine sadness, isn’t there? And with so much in this life to grieve, who’s to say there’s anything neurotic about occasional tears and sorrow over the whole human condition, much less the human race. The news is enough to send anyone running for their meds: another shooting, more scandals, less economic hope. Then there’s your own unique list of woes, from family matters to illnesses to rejection, disappointments, setbacks. Sadness is as normal to our existence as breath, and to my thinking, refusing to recognize that is far less healthy than being emotionally affected by it.
But depression can make an appearance when all seems well, even great. My worst bout with it, for example, came back in ’94 when I was en route to a speaking engagement. I’d just finished the manuscript for my third book, my clientele was at an all-time high, I’d recently had a wonderful reception from thousands at the national Promise Keepers conference, and our newly purchased home was our new pride and joy as well. Yet while sitting in the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, the Dark Plunge came over me and, like the Wolfman making his transition, I went from joyful to hopeless within minutes. I started tearing up, moaning, and obsessing over everything I had to do and how impossible it suddenly seemed to get it all done, and how many people I was going to let down, and why on earth was I going to speak at a conference when I have nothing to say, so why don’t I just find a phone booth and call to cancel, or better yet, why don’t I just kill myself quickly and make room for someone more productive?
And, I kid you not, I calmly decided to stand up on my chair and start screaming. I resisted the urge, but I get chills to this day thinking how close I came. I sleep-walked through that conference, then flew home, staggered into my office the next morning, and laid my head on my desk sobbing loud, noisy wails.
Everyone in my life, from my wife on down, demanded I take a month off, get therapy, heal up. I was put on anti-depressants from a psychiatrist who demanded to see my daytimer (“Show me a man’s calendar and I’ll tell you about the man” he lectured) and, upon reviewing my schedule, he glared at me and said “You’re killing yourself with this routine. You want to die? Keep these hours. You want to live? Slow down.”
I burnt myself out; it’s an old, common story. Often, those of us susceptible to depression wear down doing good things but obtaining bad results, particularly in the damage we do to ourselves.
St. Paul described life with his thorn. I have mine, you, yours. I find that my thorn defies prediction, so I need to be prepared for it to flare up at any time. Regular exercise, schedule management, and daily devotions all help, but the thorn remains, sometimes pricking me, sometimes all but invisible. And darned if I don’t have to admit that it does temper me, just as Paul’s did. I’m pretty sure I’m mellower, a little humbler, more gracious with others and less judgmental, all because of my occasional dark plunges into depression. For all of that, and the grace He and my loved ones show me when I most need it, I’m grateful. I’d rather be delivered once and for all, but hey, I’m grateful.
I’ll be even more grateful when this mortal puts on immortality, never again to feel depression’s despair. May the day be soon, but meanwhile, may we all learn to value our thorns, knowing, as Paul did, that in our weakness, His strength is indeed made perfect.