Sometimes, I have to take my therapist’s words with a grain of salt or filter them through a Catholic lens. More often, I discover that my lifelong spiritual failings are actually emotional wounds. And as they heal, it becomes easier to follow Christ.
This morning, I dropped off the high school kids and was slowly working my way around the building to get back on the road. I was headed to my therapy appointment next, so I mused as I coasted, plotting out what to say about the past week.
To my delight, I realized that I had mostly good things to report. Maybe it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but on the inside, I’m doing really well. A year ago, I reminded myself, I would have done unhealthy and useless such-and-such, but now I’m more likely to do sensible and productive thus-and-so. A year ago, I would have been all bogged down in nonsense X, but now I’m working my way steadily through manageable plan Z. Why! I marvelled in my head, I’m even getting better at that mindfulness stuff!
“BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPP-GGGNNNNNAAAAAAAAA-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh,” said the van.
A horrible, scraping, flapping, grinding sound from the front end, the kind of sound that makes your heart drop right out of your chest.
My initial diagnosis was that the engine had broken into two halves which were angrily trying to crush each other into rubble. Or possibly the transmission had fused and was fixing to explode. Not a healthy sound. I pulled over as quickly as I could, parked, and dragged myself out of my seat, cold with dread, preparing my eyeballs to find that the front end had spontaneously crumpled itself into a smoking, oily ruin.
I . . . had hit a pylon.
A big old fluorescent orange traffic pylon, about three feet high, and it was wedged under the front bumper, and was dragging on the pavement. That’s it. I have no idea where it came from because, duh, I didn’t see it. I was too busy thinking about how good I was at mindfulness.
I tried to pull the pylon it out, but it was pretty stuck. So I got back in the van, backed up a bit, got out, and yanked it out. I sheepishly threw it into the passenger seat, drove around front of the building, punched on the hazards, tossed the pylon out onto the grass, and got the hell out of there before anyone recognized me.
(Because no one recognizes the dented white 15-passenger van with the peeling blue racing stripes and the raggedy pro-life bumper stickers on it, no sir. Completely anonymous. No one will harass my kids about it, definitely not.)
Yeah. So. Mindfulness! I’m ever so good at it, on the inside.
I wasn’t really wrong. It has been a very productive year. I have lots of hope and even some confidence about the future, I feel at peace most of the time, and I have much more interior freedom than I’ve ever had.
Therapy has been literally a game-changer for me. So much of my life has been taken up with all-consuming mental and emotional games that I didn’t really want to play, but which I didn’t know how to quit. I knew I wasn’t happy, and I knew I was making other people unhappy, but I was afraid that getting healthier would mean losing my identity. I wasn’t crazy about my personality, but, well, it was me. It was what I had, all I knew. Even if the ground I was travelling was unpleasant and rocky, I didn’t really fancy jumping off a cliff into the blind mist.
Well, it hasn’t been like that. I’m still myself. I’m more myself than I used to be. The mental illness of lifelong anxiety and depression were not, are not the real me. I’m closer now to being the real me than I used to be. I still have ups and downs, and I still have plenty of work to do. I don’t always act the way I want to; but at least I feel like I have a choice in how I respond to the world.I’m not on any drugs, because I don’t need them right now. It’s been a very good year.
Does it seem this way from the outside, to people who know me and live with me? I have no idea. For all I know, the rest of the world still sees me driving around like an idiot with an orange pylon wedged under my bumper, and it’s only by good luck that it is just a pylon, and not a puppy dog or a crossing guard. I hope that my work with therapy has made life easier or better for people who have to live and work with me, but I am not sure.
Either way, it’s been worth it.
I’m telling you in case you need the encouragement to make that phone call (or several phone calls). Get a good therapist, be honest, do the work, be persistent, and your ride through life will get a lot smoother in the best possible way. You’ll still be in the driver’s seat, and even if you do have to drive off a cliff at some point, you won’t be in free fall forever, I promise. If you stick with it, you will still be yourself. More yourself.
On the inside, anyway. On the outside? Just keep an eye open for crossing guards, I guess. But you can do it! And it will be worth it.
A note about the photo: I am not saying that I would have hit this chick with my van on purpose, but I am saying that if I did hit her, it definitely would have been on purpose. That’s the magic of mindfulness!
Resolved: Jeffrey Imm is a moron, and so is anyone who wants to sanitize the power out of comedy.
Imm’s complaint is that Mel Brooks’ The Producers makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust. As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”
It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes — especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.
Imm, in his own flaky fashion, is onto something. It’s not that those topics aren’t funny.
It’s that Mel Brooks isn’t funny.
This aggression will not stand, man.
I agree that Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his love and devotion for his targets (including in High Anxiety —inexcusably missing from Shaidle’s list of Brooks hits) are the heart and soul of his funniest movies. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love.
Excuse me while I get a bit emotional about this, but this is why Mel Brooks is so great: he’s an optimist, and his exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.
Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.
Brooks always counters anti-Producers critics (no, Imm isn’t the first) by pointing out the obvious: that he was making fun of Hitler.
But what’s brave about that? Hitler managed to look pretty stupid without much help, and when it mattered, neither The Great Dictator nor (the far superior) That Nazty Nuisance accomplished sweet eff-all.
Well, he wasn’t just “making fun of Hitler” (and I don’t believe that Brooks considered himself “brave” for making The Producers, anyway). At the risk of overanalyzing humor, which is the worst thing that anyone can do ever, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler. He subsumes him.
This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win. People gotta do what they gotta do, and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn.
I don’t mean to crap things up by getting too analytical, but it’s hard to ignore: we’reall producers, and the worst mistake we can make is not to realize what kind of show we’re putting on. In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what saves us from succumbing to them.
An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (they’re “world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.
The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else: The audience is full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.
They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader looks the Nazis straight in the eye, and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on her chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.
And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.
The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!
Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. Too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. Part of the reason for that is because, of all things, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie — we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband — but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and things getting worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.
So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.
So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.
Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, and I was going to make it out of that dark room. I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. That’s what kind of movies he makes.
PIC bug in jar
There’s a lot of bad information about depression, suicide, and faith swirling around the internet this week. Here are a few things I know:
No, depression and mental illness don’t necessarily take away your free will, turning you into a helpless victim who wings straight to Heaven if you commit suicide.
No, you can’t just pray away the sadness, will yourself to be joyful, or do this one weird trick that will earn you emotional stability and peace.
The truth lies, as is so often the case, lies somewhere in the middle of all these extreme bad ideas.
Many people who are severely depressed are suffering from some combination of spiritual and physical ailments.
Many people who are severely depressed are dealing with some things that are out of their control and some things that are within their control.
Many people who are severely depressed need sacrificial love and patience from friends and family, and also some kind of hard work and self-knowledge in order to make it through the dark times.
And many people who are severely depressed need both faith and reason to help them through. This is not a new idea! Here is a passage from Sirach:
9 My son, when you are sick do not be negligent,
but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.
10 Give up your faults and direct your hands aright,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
11 Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice, and a memorial portion of fine flour,
and pour oil on your offering, as much as you can afford.[e]
12 And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him;
let him not leave you, for there is need of him.
13 There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians,[f]
14 for they too will pray to the Lord
that he should grant them success in diagnosis[g]
and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.
15 He who sins before his Maker,
may he fall into the care[h] of a physician.
And here is a post from John Herreid, writing as a guest on my sister’s husband Bill Herreid’s newish blog,Life, Liberty and Absolute Crap:
Please read it, and please forward it to anyone who could benefit from hearing an honest account by a faithful Catholic who suffers but has gotten help.
John’s experience of depression is different from my own. I haven’t been fascinated with death ever, that I can recall. But I have had the experience where it physically hurt to draw a breath, to move, to get out of bed. I would hear people talking about feeling better, and that was not what I wanted. I just wanted to die, so that I would not feel anything anymore. There was no experience of anything but pain, ever. I could see the world, the people who loved me, the things I used to enjoy, and it was as if I moved around behind a dome bulletproof glass. Nothing could touch me, and I couldn’t do anything but feel paralysis and suffocation. I couldn’t say anything true, feel anything genuine, express anything worthwhile. The only thing I knew was that I had to live, and I didn’t know why I deserved that.
So. If someone is telling you to see a doctor, see a doctor. Ask someone to help you make that phone call. Even if the first treatment you try, whether it’s drugs or therapy or something else, doesn’t work, try something. Name the lie that you can fix yourself by trying hard to be a better person. You need help, and God wants you to get help.
The modern Church understands that depression and other psychological disturbances that might lead a person to suicide are true illnesses, which can significantly mitigate both a person’s understanding and free will.
Moreover, even if a person’s death seems quick, with no time to repent before the end, we have no way of knowing what happens between their soul and a merciful God, who wants to bring all of His children home to Himself.
Michael J. Lichens contributes a guest post to The Catholic Gentleman: Black Dog Days: How to Deal With Depression. It’s sympathetic but not squishy, practical, realistic, and humble. Great read for anyone who is suffering through depression. An excerpt:
Prayer is very hard when you are depressed. I, for one, have nagging doubts when I go through my black dog days. God seems silent and I wonder where He is and what He’s doing. All the same, I do pray, and peace eventually comes. In one case, it took me two years of praying, but peace did come. Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul lasted several years, but she endured. You can find strength in the same faith.
If you are praying and meditating and the words do not come, then sit in silence. Find an icon or an adoration chapel and utter the words, “You are God, I am not. Please help.” If nothing else, your mind will slow down and will shift its focus to God, who sustains all life and is the source of our strength.
I know this is hard, and sometimes you will want to give up. If you can do nothing else, try to take comfort in knowing that Christ didn’t die and rise again just to leave you alone. Find the saints who did suffer from grief and depression and ask them for help. They, more than any other, are eager to come to your aid.
Read the rest here.