Having a mental illness can lead a person to learn a lot about mental illness. Call it self-absorption, self-realization, self-understanding or simply naval-gazing: I spend a great deal of time thinking about my purposes here on earth – and how poorly I fulfill those purposes.
My therapist would say that I need to recognize that in those thoughts, that is my “depression talking.” Perhaps so. Depression and anxiety can take on lives of their own and manifest unique personalities. Whoever is speaking these words in my head and heart, the voice seems loud and clear.
“Mike, you’re not as good a husband and friend as your wife deserves. Your four kids, your sons-in-law, your grandsons all deserve a better dad and Pops than you have given them. You’re not doing a good job fulfilling your roles as a son or brother or friend. You could do your job much better. You should provide financially for your family better than you do. You should have more energy and drive to do things around the house. You should phone your sisters more often, visit your dad more often, keep in closer touch with friends. Your writing could be more consistent, more insightful, more faithful. What you have to say helps no one.”
Heck, when “depression’s voice in my head” gets really serious and blunt, it pulls out the most damaging accusation: “Mike, you should do a better job at loving God and appreciating all He has given you.”
Take it all together and I fail when it comes to my purpose. As the kids used to say about certain things that fall far short of expectations: “Epic fail!”
As I said, my therapist has advised me to recognize the lies in the words of that foreign voice. The first clue is the use of that word should. “Never say should,” she says. When I take a deep breath and find the strength to talk back to the depression, I realize that and fight back. Other times, whether right or wrong, that sensible advice doesn’t matter to someone with depression and other mental illnesses. These thoughts are not logical. I recognize that. But they are real.
Thanks to Donna, a few close friends and my therapist, I can pull out a figurative spotlight, look at those thoughts a little more closely and probe to find they aren’t entirely accurate if true at all. So the work I have to do is to take each one and find ways to prove them wrong. I have to take each one and turn it around, restate it more realistically, perhaps, and positively.
Take, for example, my concerns about not being a good dad.
This one in particular plagues me most days. All my children and sons-in-law range in age from 25 to 30. They have taken turns living with us, as many adult children do these days, and we all get along very well. We see each other fairly often, text now and then, but I don’t talk with them every day or even every other day. I miss their laughter, their stories, their energy. I miss their presence. My mind jumps immediately to wondering if they aren’t calling because they don’t want to talk with me, that it is because of something I have done wrong.
I worry that perhaps I didn’t spend enough time with them when they were younger. I worry that I didn’t impress upon them adequately on what it takes to be a stable, happy person. I worry about everything.
And then I talk with them and am amazed at how wonderful they are. Once again, most of my concerns seem to come from the misguided mind of my depression.
Amid my worries, though, one that nags me most doggedly involves their faith. I know that each of them is in a questioning phase, a searching mode. They aren’t sure if they believe all of the things we exposed to them as they grew from children to young adults. I know they don’t attend church regularly; I’m not sure about their prayer lives or spiritual walks right now.
How could I not worry, right?
I am then reminded of something I heard a few years ago from Michael John Poirier, a Catholic singer-songwriter. He said that our families are like leaves on a tree. When autumn begins, a few leaves will change colors initially, with the rest of the leaves still green and growing. Those first colored leaves don’t worry about the green ones; they know that ultimately, all the leaves on the tree will turn a beautiful red or yellow or orange or gold. So, too, are the people in our families. Some of us might advance in our faith walk at a quicker pace than the others – not just our children, but that might include our parents and siblings and friends as well. We need to have faith that God will win them over in His time, not ours.
I take heart in that metaphor. And I take heart in these words from St. Paul.
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? … No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
One of my purposes in life is to be the best father I can be to my four children. I need to find confidence in knowing that for all the love I have for them – and it is immeasurable – God loves them more and will not let them permanently be separated from His love.
So in this case, I can look my depression in the eyes and say, “You are lying to me. Now please leave me alone.”