When you are sad, cry.

On the drive home this morning, I decided not to turn on the radio. I wanted to cry, instead, and I didn’t want to be distracted.

We’re fine. Thank God, we’re not dealing with floods and sinkholes and wild boars and floating fire ants, and we’re not refugees or victims of famine. I’m just sad because, among other reasons, I left my five-year-old off at kindergarten for the first time. In her excitement, she ran too fast, tripped, and scraped her knee. With a bloody cut and a hole in her tights, she suddenly lost courage, and so did I; so we clung to each other a little longer than I planned. It’s a tiny, manageable loss, this child heading off to school. But I did want to cry on the way home.

We sometimes want to erase grief immediately, to send an emergency brigade out with a firehose to wash things clean. When a mother miscarries, for instance, she may report to her doctor that she cries, feels sad, and is having a hard time sleeping. I’m not talking about months down the road; I’m talking about grieving immediately after the death of a child. Of course she feels sad. But a doctor’s response is often, “You are depressed. Let me write you a prescription so you feel better.”

Let me be clear. When grief and sorrow are debilitating, antidepressants are a godsend. If sorrow lasts too long and has too much power, it can become paralyzing depression, which roots itself deep in your psyche and separates you from living a full life. I have been on antidepressants myself, and so have some of my family members. Some people castigate mental health drugs as artificial or as a mere band-aid, but in many cases, they can truly heal and restore us to health, to our true selves.

But grief and sorrow are not in themselves pathological. They are, in fact, the only appropriate responses to death, to grief, to separation. I forget the context, but Florence King once skewered oafish do-gooders who couldn’t even wait for the blood to stop flowing before they lept in howling, “Let the healing begin!” There’s nothing healthy about trying to erase grief before it can even declare itself.

That’s why I didn’t want to be distracted by the radio this morning, even though I knew it would stave off tears. Distractions don’t heal grief; they merely chase it into hiding, where it eventually morphs into something uglier, and harder to live with than tears.

We are afraid of grief, and rightly so; but we should also be afraid of losing the ability to feel, and the ability to understand ourselves. When we chase grief away the moment it appears, we are deliberately blinding ourselves to some true part of our own lives. No good can come of that. When we don’t know ourselves, we aren’t free.

Maybe it’s easy for me to say so, while my sorrows are small. But I take my cue from the Psalms, where people with big sorrows also felt free to pour them out without reserve. They wanted the healing to begin, yes, but not before they had their say:

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
    that was inflicted on me,
that the Lord brought on me
    in the day of his fierce anger?

13 “From on high he sent fire,
    sent it down into my bones.
He spread a net for my feet
    and turned me back.
He made me desolate,
    faint all the day long.

[…]

16 “This is why I weep
    and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
    no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
    because the enemy has prevailed.”

It is good to sit with sorrow for a while. I know it’s not a new idea, and not a ground-shaking one, but maybe you need to hear it today. If you are sad, let yourself cry. If someone you love is sad, don’t try to steamroll them into healing right away. Sorrow has its place, and sorrow will have its due.

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

In honor of Mel Brooks’ 91st birthday, I’m re-posting this essay (slightly modified) from 2015. Mazel tov, Mel, and thanks for everything.

***

In 2015, one Jeffrey Imm organized an angry protest against the production of Mel Brooks’ The ProducersImm’s complaint was that the show 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.

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 funniest movies (including High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) target something he loves and admires. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love. And this is a man who is in love with life.

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.

In The Producers, Brooks isn’t just “making fun of Hitler.” At the risk of over-analyzing humor, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler; he robs him of his power. 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).

We’re all producers, and the worst mistake we can make is the one  Bialystock and Bloom made: when we don’t 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 robs them of their power.

An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the somewhat underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (“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 incompetent theater crew is trapped in a darkened auditorium 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 of the troupe looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s 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 one day was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. I was trapped, and there was too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. There are many reasons for this; but one stands out in my mind, because it’s so stupid. Out of nowhere, 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 his situation just gets 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, not a tragedy after all, 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. “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live!” made me want to live, a little bit. That’s what kind of movies he makes.

I thought Good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

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.

Read the rest of my essay for America magazine.

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

road-meditation

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.

Here’s more of what I’ve written about going to therapy and about taking an SSRI.

***

Image: “Road Meditation” by Nickolai Kashirin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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!

How Mel Brooks saved my life

producers audience

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.

Kathy Shaidle skewers Imm for his stupid protest, but then flashes her alien ID, saying:

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.

Shaidle says:

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.

Faith, reason, depression, and help

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.

Sirach 38:9-15

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:

Depressed Catholics: God Wants You to Get Help.

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.

At the Register: What does the Church teach about suicide?

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.

Read the rest at the Register. 

Great article about Catholics and depression

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.