September 26, 2017

Classic iMonk: The Boat in the Backyard

A note from Chaplain Mike:
We will be running some posts from the iMonk archives that deal with the subject of depression. This classic post that Michael Spencer wrote in 2004 tells the intimate story of a father’s depression and a boy who finally understands.

When I was twelve years old, my father bought a small aluminum boat, just enough for two people to use for fishing in the local lakes. He put it in our backyard. It had a tiny motor that sat in our shed. He bought the boat so we could go fishing together, father and son. It was his dream, a father’s dream that I can now relate to as I share ball games and movies with my own son.

The boat never took us fishing. In fact, it never got in the water. It remains there in the back yard, photographed by my memory, waiting for a fishing trip that would never happen. In my tendency to personify objects in my world, I picture that boat as eager and expectant, then confused, and eventually depressed. Its purpose- its joy?- was not to be fulfilled.

At age twelve, I was about as interested in my father’s dream of fishing together as the fish were in getting hooked, cleaned and fried. I resisted my father’s overtures with a quiet, but persistent force. I was always busy. There was always something else to do. I wasn’t interested in being outside. My friends wanted me to play. Mostly, I wasn’t interested because my dad was interested, and I was at war with my dad. Not a physical battle, but a back and forth emotional war that had been going on as long as I could remember, and now that my dad wanted something from me, I was in a position to frustrate him. I felt the power, and I used it to disappoint his dream.

My father had never been like other fathers I knew. By the time I was a teenager, he was unable to work, but before that he’d done all sorts of things: worked as a flunky at car lots, made tools at a tool and die company, made change at a car wash, ran errands at local automobile race tracks, worked in the oil fields, rented boats at a lake, janitored. While he was unable to work, he was able to get out and do things he liked to do: fish, hunt squirrels, pick up pecans, hunt arrowheads, go to ball games and races.

My father was a collection of contradictions and mysteries. He was deeply and genuinely religious, but the entire time I knew my dad, I can never remember him in church more than a handful of times. He was divorced (I never knew why), and his chosen church- the Southern Baptists- ranked divorce just above treason and murder on the sin scale, so it was easy to not be present. He loved the Bible, and despised most church people as hypocrites.

He was from the woods and mountains of eastern Kentucky, but all my life we lived in cities, and he hated the city. We lived in Kentucky, and he wanted to live in Wisconsin. He was sociable and funny, the life of any gathering of family or friends, but he feared and loathed almost any other kind of gathering. He loved baseball, but wouldn’t let me join Little League. He had an eighth grade education, and was determined I would graduate from college. He wanted me to be a dentist, and never once took me to one.

He was afraid of everything. The weather terrified him to the point of hysteria. Government paperwork terrorized him. Travel was so frightening to him that I never went on a school trip if he had any say in it. Fear dominated my father’s life like no one I’ve ever met, then or now. As real as it was in my childhood experiences with dad, I couldn’t help but sense it hadn’t always been this way. I knew enough about his life to know he’d once been as wild and fearless as other boys, but somewhere along the way, something else entered the picture, changing my father from a man like other men into someone assualted, subdued and captured.

I would always compare my dad to other fathers or to my uncles, and something wasn’t right. He was older than anyone else’s dad. They ran businesses, took their boys to Little League, built tree houses and worked at factories. I understood my friend’s dads. I understood the men at church. I didn’t understand my father. He was unlike them all, different, unpredictable, like he was broken far under the surface.

It made me angry that my father was like this. Sometimes I was embarrassed. Sometimes I was humiliated. Mostly, I was just ticked off, and thought about running away, or at least spending all my time hiding somewhere he couldn’t find me. Over the years, I know I was ashamed that dad was my father, and I acted it out to him and to others. Being asked about my father by anyone else was an excuse to lie or change the subject.

Dad wasn’t without good qualities. He was very funny, warm and sociable to his friends and neighbors. He loved those who were close to him. He loved his grown children, and their children. He was broken-hearted he saw them so seldom. He had a generous and encouraging side, but it seemed to never appear for long before vanishing under the other, darker side. My father knew trees like a botanist. He was sober and dependable as a friend and a helper. He was a great partner for watching classic tv shows. He could make people feel at ease, and he was very smart. I’m convinced he knew a million dirty jokes. Though he wasn’t much of a reader, he could sing, calculate and “cypher.” He could teach squirrels to climb up his pants and eat out of his pocket.

Once dad told me about all the books he read as a young man. Zane Grey. Tarzan. There wasn’t a book in the house now. He helped start a church in Wisconsin. He worked in factories and on airplane engines. At one time, he was a skilled tool maker making great money. What had happened? How did that normal man disappear, and this person take his place?

When I was thirteen, I came home from school and was sitting on the front porch, waiting for dad to return home and let me in. He drove an old, green, 1954 Chevrolet on his daily outings. Before much time had passed, I saw the old car come up the road. But then a funny thing happened. The car drove right past the house, and dad never looked at me. Not a wave, not a glance. He drove on to the end of the block, and turned right. Heading toward the hospital.

The boat in the backyard didn’t know it at the time, but its fate was sealed.

Health problems were always part of dad’s life. He complained of dizziness and chest pains to the point I wearied of what I thought, stupidly, was just whining for attention. I, of course, was never privy to just what was going on, and I wonder how much he understood his own problems. Now our family was going to become dominated by health concerns, hospitalizations, medical bills and medications. Dad was having the first of two heart attacks that would render him helpless against the onslaught of depression.

I’ve often wondered how dad’s heart problems would have been treated today. It was the late sixties, and dad stayed in the hospital for a couple of weeks. There was no surgery, as one might expect today. No miracle drugs. I would visit him in ICU, and he was glad to see me, of course. I was afraid he might die, and felt guilty that I’d wished that many, many times. He came home, and soon was sitting in a chair in the front room. He had survived a major heart attack. We were all happy. Right?

Dad grew stronger, but something bigger than the heart attack took over. Something worse than all his previous helath problems. He wouldn’t leave the house. He wouldn’t leave the chair. He sat in the chair with his hand over his face. He wept. Mom would plead with him, but to no avail. It didn’t stop. It wasn’t a bad day. It was like a living grief, a stuck record, an endless punishment. It lasted for weeks, months and then, years. Depression overwhelmed my father.

I didn’t understand. And no one could explain what was happening in a way a teenage boy could understand, though they tried, I’m sure.

Soon my dad’s oldest son, a doctor, came down to try and help. It was the first time I heard the word “depression.” I’d heard my parents always talk about “nervous breakdowns,” which I couldn’t find in any science book. But I had no idea what “depression” meant, other than the fact that dad was depressed, and it was clearly awful. I’d never seen or heard of depression. No one else had a depressed parent. Why did I?

At some point, dad went to the hospital. The psych ward in Louisville General. (He may have gone several times. I’m unsure.) Dad’s absence was always a good thing. Mom would take me out to restaurants, something dad wouldn’t ever do. We would be happy, and feel guilty about it. There was no dark, mysterious “depression” controlling our family. I didn’t have to keep my friends out of the house. Still, I didn’t understand. I did hope my dad would come back better. Doctors and hospitals made people better. I didn’t understand how elusive an opponent depression can be, resisting and defeating every effort to cure it.

I would see the boat in the backyard every day, and I began to feel badly about how I had responded to my dad’s attempts to be a regular father and son. I mowed around it, and wished it could go in the water, and that dad could teach me to use the motor. A day at the lake with my father really would be a nice way to spend some time after all.

Dad returned from the hospital, and while things may have gotten better, it wasn’t for long. Dad was still depressed. His thoughts, feelings and behaviors were the same. He talked about his stay in the hospital in hellish terms. He looked terrorized by his stay. I still remember his descriptions of the other patients. Apparently, in the days before today’s cushy psychiatric facilities, my father was part of a ward of people we would call “insane.” He received electric shock treatments. I’ve learned far too much about those. I hope they helped, because I’m afraid to think what they did if they didn’t.

Now we entered into years that were almost unbearably bad most of the time. Dad would be depressed, or he would be angry or just lost. He projected his anger out at everyone: his doctor, his children, his family, God, city people, Republicans, the neighbors. There was never any predicting what direction my father’s depression would go, only that we would certainly be the recepients of his anger.

Because I was naively analytic and stupidly verbal as a young man, I tried to convince my father everything was his fault, and could be easily fixed. It didn’t help that I became a professing Christian at age 15, and became even more aware that my father was not in church, but was sitting home cursing out the world. We argued constantly, over everything that teens and parents argue about, and then about a hundred things that were uniquely issues dad and I cooked up to fight over. Poor mom. I cannot describe the vehemence of these arguments. Surely I pushed dad to the brink of more heart problems many times, but I couldn’t see it at the time. Mom would beg us to stop. We would just get tired and quit.

I was bitterly angry that my father had ruined his part in my life and had turned our home into a horror story. First, by just being old and contrary. Then by refusing to let me be a normal kid. Then by falling apart and becoming a depressed invalid.

And then, there was one break in the darkness. I began preaching at age sixteen. Even as a young man, I remember coming home and telling dad I was “called” to be a preacher. He was moved. I couldn’t appreciate then how much he had prayed for me, and how he lived hoping my life would be useful to God in ways his had never been. All I knew was there was finally some tenderness between us. Some definable love and forgiveness.

The fighting did not stop. My understanding of depression did not increase. But Dad, slowly, began to go out again, drinking coffee with other men. On a few occasions, dad even came to hear me preach. In all my life, I believe my father heard me preach five times. Once he drove me to a small church where I was supplying, and on the way back, gently tried to tell me my sermon wasn’t very good, which I suspected, but didn’t want to acknowledge. He began to show me kindness, and by God’s grace alone, I started to receive it.

A gentleness began to enter our lives as I started to realize my father was a sick person. He’d said this many, many times, and I didn’t accept it, because it was too complicated and I was too afraid of something that couldn’t be fixed as easily as a flat tire. But as I got older, it made more and more sense. I started to notice my father in new ways, and to listen to him more closely. I could see that my father didn’t want to be this way. He was covered in a darkness that clung to him like a wet blanket. He fought against it, but couldn’t toss it away. It had, inexplicably, become part of him. He would have to live with it.

I had to live with it as well. I had to accept who my father was, and how depression had made him, and me, what we were. In my Christian journey, I was frequently confronted with my duty and need to forgive others as God had forgiven me. I never contemplated this truth without thinking of my father, and how I had denied him forgiveness for this thing that had taken so much of our family’s joy away. I needed to forgive him, because he wasn’t responsible for depression. I needed to forgive the depression more than my father. I needed to forgive myself for how I had reacted to this unwelcome visitor.

It’s funny how God works. I took a job at a local grocery store, and how I spent the money I earned became a major war zone with dad. My first paycheck turned into new clothes, and dad- who had lived through the Great Depression- was outraged that I hadn’t put all the money in the bank or paid for the family groceries. But later, I spent a good bit of my paycheck on a citizen’s band radio for my 65 Chevy. I cannot describe my father’s reaction, but it was explosive.

So it is divinely ironic that within a few weeks, my father began buying CB radios. He was fascinated by the hobby. Soon we had a base station in the house, radios in all the cars and were joining CB clubs in the area. My father loved the ability of radio users to make small talk with one another anonymously. What medications, hospitals and therapy couldn’t do, CB radio did. My father came out of his depression by talking on the CB radio. My father became “Two Bits,” and Two Bits wasn’t depressed.

Dad and I loved this hobby. I could talk to him from wherever I was, and it was actually an honor to be the son of the now famous “Two Bits.” As my interest in the hobby waned, dad’s interest increased. In the years to come, he would buy bigger and bigger radios, making friends with people all over the area, the nation and even the world. Radio brought him a magnificent amount of joy.

Dad sold the boat. We didn’t speak of the lost dreams of years ago or the bitterness that had passed. I tried to never think of those days, but I cannot help but think of them more and more as the years go on. I want my children to know about that boat. I cannot touch it, but I can feel its presence and its loss. It is real, because the love my father had for me in that boat is real.

After I married, and became a man, dad and I became friends again. We stopped fighting and enjoyed one another. He was proud of me. He helped me, and listened to me. He loved my wife and our kids. Depression never vanished, and dad’s basic personality never changed. We accepted that this was the life we had shared. Depression had taken away more than I could ever calculate, but I was determined to not spend any more time staring into the void.

Depression is now a reality I face every day in my ministry with students. I know all about it. I have my own thoughts and theories about its origins and power. I believe in the mystery of its genetic and biochemical origins. I also believe we contribute to it by our own thoughts, choices and actions. It is complex, resisting simple treatments in some cases, surrendering to the mildest of medications in others.

We were not so fortunate. Depression invaded our lives when it was a monster of unknown origin or power. I now recognize that dad was depressed before his heart attack, but succumbed to a powerful depression in its aftermath. He did not understand depression, and the chemical miracles were not available or effective.

I believe that our world is a fallen and ruined world, not so much in nature, where the glory of God shines through, but in human beings, whose brokenness takes thousands of different forms and reveals the tragedy of the wreckage that began in Eden and continues in our lives. In this ruined world, depression is a result of sin. Sin as it wrecked our minds, chemistries and emotions. Sin as our thoughts became attracted to darkness rather than light. Sin as we cower in fear rather than trust a trustworthy God who we cannot see thorugh the darkness, and from whom we run away when we do glimpse him. I am so glad that this God doesn’t count on us to find him, but has found us all along, and never lets us go. As the scripture says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?…even the darkness is as light to you.”

Nothing I believe about depression makes depressed persons into “sinners” on some special level. Like all of us, they are broken. Like all of us, God gives grace that we can accept or reject. Like all of us, they are loved by God and have the possibility of hope, and even healing. Like all of us, they are gathered together in the wounds of Christ, and raised in his resurrection.

I have compassion for my depressed friends. In my own struggle with depression, I’ve benefited from the lessons of my father’s life. There are moments when I have found myself in the chair, hands over my face, weeping. I’ve gotten up, and decided to live. For myself, my wife, my kids, and my father. I will not go into the same night if I can help it.

I believe that fathers are put in this world to write life, goodness and wisdom into the hearts of their children. The best fathers have written boldly, deeply and legibly; they have written lessons that last a lifetime. Other fathers write painful or erring lessons, putting into their children not a path to love and joy, but a downhill slide to emptiness and desperation.

My father left many empty places in my life where he should have written his own unique imprint and example. I am acutely aware of these empty, fatherless places, and the legacy I have inherited because of them. It was my father’s depression, and his fearful, unpredictable actions and inactions, that left me with an abiding sense that I do not belong or deserve to belong in the society of normal, happy people. It was that depression that left me doubting my masculinity, and afraid to do a hundred things that boys and men ought to do to know who they really are in the world. Today, when you see me helping to coach our school baseball team, make no mistake about it: I am out there making up for those days my dad wouldn’t take me to join Little League.

It was my father’s depression that left me with vacant places where unconditional acceptance and fatherly delight ought to be. It was his fear of death that infected my mind from the time I was small, so that every suddenly ringing phone or unexpected noise can terrify me. In the place of the imprint of the father, I have written many stupid and evil legacies of my own. In my worst moments, I see my father’s depression and darkness in myself. I was so certain that I was doomed to live in illness and depression, sin’s false promises of joy looked convincingly attractive. In my own despairing, angry and confused words, I’ve heard the echo of my father’s cries.

The imprint of an earthly father is a treasure. Thankfully, the imprint of the heavenly father is a gift of grace that comes to the fatherless and the empty. Where my father did not and could not affect my heart, because depression wouldn’t allow it, God, and his manifold gifts of love have penetrated into the empty places and brought life, love and hope. In a hundred different ways, experiences and relationships, God has been a father to me in those places that my father left vacant.

I also know what my father would have done if he had not been depressed, and what I would do if I had the opportunity to do it all again. Of course, those times are past, and realities are real. Still, it comforts me greatly to know what could been and should have been. My father was not evil, but sick. Our home was not cursed, but coping with an illness that none of us really understood. The boat may have never seen the water, but the love represented in that boat is as real as ever, and more precious with time.

I know life will hold experiences where depression will inevitably return and demand its place in my life and family. I intend to resist, but I will also be realistic. There is no outrunning our fallenness, and no ultimate healing of our brokeness until heaven. There will be depressing days and seasons, but I am determined that the lessons of my father’s life will not be wasted. I believe he is waiting for me, cheering me on in the darkest of times. He made it home, and we will as well.

In fact, I am fairly certain that heaven contains a lake, where my father is waiting for me in a small boat. And I will not miss that afternoon of fishing. I promise.

Comments

  1. Michael’s personal, heart-revealing stories never fail to move me. I read this before and cried and did so again. Just his one statement of, “It was my father’s depression, and his fearful, unpredictable actions and inactions, that left me with an abiding sense that I do not belong or deserve to belong in the society of normal, happy people” can likely describe so many millions of people.

    We are so fortunate to have been able to read Michael’s writings for these years and so very fortunate that he saw the wisdom in putting his thoughts in book form. Thank you, Michael!

  2. I’ve been reading this blog for almost a year, but never came across this post. After reading the post, I feel like I know Michael so much better. So moving.

    Strangly, the more people share about their personal experiences, the more they reveal elements that are common to the experience of many individuals. As JoanieD mentioned, this statement (along with others) resonates with many people: “It was my father’s [or mother’s for some] depression, and his [or her] fearful, unpredictable actions and inactions, that left me with an abiding sense that I do not belong or deserve to belong in the society of normal, happy people.

  3. What can I say? This is beautiful.

  4. I was deeply moved by this post. Thanks, Michael, for writing it, and thank you, Mike, for reposting it.
    I was particularly struck with the clarity and honesty with which you (Michael) are able and willing to examine your own family experiences and relationships and the part these things have played in molding who you are. Too often, I think the painful experiences and emotional wounds we recieve from family and other close relationships evolve into this invisible, incomprehensible force that drives our actions and feelings — sometimes in very negative, destructive directions, and in ways we don’t always understand or can’t seem to control. I know this force has been and still is at work in my life, and I have seen it at work in the lives of just about everyone I’ve ever known. But I take great hope in the reality that our Heavenly Father looks on our internal struggles with mercy and understanding — even to the point of coming and dwelling within us and standing beside us while we do battle with our own thoughts and emotions.

  5. I realize this post may not be popular and frankly, I care little for the sensitivities of others right now.

    Time and time again, I have witnessed young boys crushed by fathers who were unstable or just absent. I have witnessed mothers were either forced to or, in so many cases, eagerly stepped up to take over the family. I see men today wrestling with alcoholism, depression and an utter lack of clarity in their lives. I see them constantly seeking out mothers and women for that clarity. They known they’re male, but they known that being masculine is the ghost of something dead.

    I am enraged at the way Christianity treats men. It amazes me that no one seems to make the connection that if our fathers on earth are a mess, we will not relate to our Father in Heaven in any meaningful way. Churches are surrendering to feminist ideas and refusing to acknowledge the plague of the “mama boy” syndrome. In fact, for all their talk of Complimentarian ideas, evangelical churches and families function in amazingly Egalitarian ways.

    My own father is a mystery to me. He got my mom pregnant and then skipped town. I still don’t who he is as he was never put on the birth certificate, and I don’t care. And my mom adopted me as a single mother and did not marry until I was six, which ensured that I never connected with her husband. So when I pray to my Father in Heaven and read about the man Jesus Christ, it is hard to relate. I can relate to Mother Mary easier than to Father God. And I continue to drift away from my faith. It is a woman’s Christianity now and I am not a woman.

    People can get all out of shape about the “feminization” of the church issue, but I believe that fatherhood and men, as well as the masculine example and intent of scripture, have been pushed aside for more convenient and comfortable ideas. A mother in heaven and a woman savior might be more appropriate for a world of emerging overgrown infants and the women who rule over them and have to take care of them.

    “My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them.” – Isaiah 3:12 ESV.

    • MWPeak: I am sorry for your experience. I am going to let your comment stand as another expression of grief over a father-son relationship, but it is borderline inappropriate because it takes us down rabbit trails with regard to issues we don’t need to explore at this point. This is not about the church, complementarianism vs. egalitarianism, the feminization of the church, or anything like that. It’s about how depression affects important relationships in our lives.

      So, please be aware that I will not allow this comment thread to go in directions not immediately pertinent to the topic at hand.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I notice we’re getting a lot of “feminization of the church” tangents in any thread dealing with relationships; you’ve had to step in at least twice to nudge the thread back on-topic. You might want to dedicate a posting/thread specifically to that subject before it makes more hijack attempts.

    • Thank you, Mike, for your patience and understanding. I do apologize for the rabbit trails, issues and anger. This has been an issue near to my heart for over 20 years. Perhaps that is God’s providence.

      • MWPeak,

        I want to let you know that God is able to heal the damage done by a father. I am a woman who was sexually abused by my father who was very active in our church, looked up to as a leader. So I have had many years of mistrust of God the Father. But thankfully, by honest expression to God of my anger at my earthly father and of God (feeling abandoned by him), by giving all the bitterness, hatred and anger to God, so much healing has taken place. I still struggle with issues of mistrust or distrust of God, but have experienced some freedom from the chains of the past. I was just determined that I wasn’t going to let what my earthly father did to me control me anymore. That is just giving too much power to him. There is hope. Just hang in there. Keep the lines of communication open with God. You might be surprised what can happen.

  6. Oh Chaplain Mike, I want to weep after reading this post. I myself was blessed with a wonderful father, and I have not seen depression wreck havoc in my family. However, I am now struggling to be a friend and counselor to a young marriage that is on the rocks because of depression and our fallenness. They married quickly, he seemed normal, but three years into it he is unable to pull himself together to work or be motivated to do anything. He is silent, withdrawn, usually unwilling even to fight. She is sometimes furious, every week she threatens to leave, she doesn’t want life to always be like this and yet it appears sometimes that that if she stays with him this may be her perpetual struggle. It will never be the marriage that she dreams.

    I know how to mourn with her. I know how to encourage her to persevere because luckily she doesn’t have to go on in her own strength alone. However, I don’t know how to counsel her to deal with her husband. What would you say to this woman?

    • Kacie,

      Has your friend’s husband seen a doctor about medication. For a depression that long, it sounds like medication might help.

      I would suggest that.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Might be a problem (covered on the mental illness threads on this blog) if Kacie’s friend’s husband is involved with a church that views such things as Not Really Saved, Not Spiritual Enough, Secret Sin in Your Life, or even Demon Possession. Both Internet Monk and Christian Monist have tackled that “Christians are Always Happy Clappy Victorious or It’s Your Fault” attitude and how it hurts those suffering from organic depression or mental illness.

        One of the most tragic comments on the subject (don’t remember which thread or even which blog) was about a husband with such a problem involved in such a church. The comment ended “He’s had to self-medicate with alcohol. Heavily.”

        • The church is okay with counseling, meds, etc, though they emphasize the need to be in community – which he also is. Nothing is a magic cure.

        • It’s not the husband’s sin that is causing his depression. The problem is that the wife isn’t submissive enough . An nice extra burden for a woman who is already carrying a heavy load. I am glad she has a friend.

          • Sorry, I had a comment in brackets that said heavy sarcasm but the fomatting erased it. Just in case anyone thinks that was a serious comment.

          • Is it really outside the bounds of imagination that your friend really might NOT be submissive enough?

            Threatening to leave every week is a pretty harsh way to “help” your marriage, and from way out here in the bleachers, it sounds like an emphatic failure to love, honor, and support the guy she married in sickness and in health – and not submitting yourself to your marriage vows has to be some kind of sin, right?

      • Yes, and does take meds, though he struggles to be motivated and disciplined to even take meds daily.

    • I would recommend the book “Love Must Be Tough” by James Dobson, as well as some thought and consideration towards I Tim. 5:8. She has some hard choices to make.

    • Not too long ago I went through a period of inactivity, apathy, and emotional funk kind of like what you describe about your friend’s husband. It followed right on the heels of a big career failure and the sudden death of my father. I basically took a year-long vacation from life. I felt no motivation to do anything, emotionally I was totally numbed out, and I fled from anything vaguely resembing stress like it was the plague. Strangely, it was like my ability to deal with stress had completely evaporated and all the ambitions that had once driven me had vanished into thin air.
      Fortunately, I had some money saved back, and I’m not married, nor do I have children — so my depression or whatever it was didn’t do a lot of damage to others or put me out on the street.
      While I’m still dealing with some lingering stuff, what finally brought me back to the land of the living was a highly frustrating experience where I tried to help an old friend who was sunk a lot deeper into depression than I was. He sort of provided me with a mirror in which I could see how I would end up if I didn’t snap out of it. He also helped me to focus on someone else besides myself, which was part of my problem.
      As far as advice, I’m hesitant to give any. Maybe this guy needs professional help and medication. Maybe I do too — but, to be honest, I’m far too proud and viciously independent to go that route. Even if there is a chemical issue, I’m guessing that your friend’s husband is also suffering from a maimed sense of self-worth and a serous lack of hope — and it might be helpful to pinpoint what exactly caused that damage. Your friend might try some experiments in subtle encouragement, though nothing he would recognize as pity or condescension. Maybe, a momentary sense of accomplishment would jump start him. Maybe he needs a strong male friendship — someone who’s willing to invest the time and put some peer pressure on him venture out of his self-imposed isolation and inactivity. But your friend needs to understand that it is highly unlikely that she is going to be able to wake him up with complaints or threats. He’ll most likely just wall himself up tighter just to keep out the noise. And I think you need to be very careful how deeply you involve yourself in this situation. Use some wisdom and listen to the Spirit. Mostly, just pray and make yourself available if they need you.

  7. My father was bipolar, so it was often like having two fathers and never knowing which would show up. I can certainly relate.

    While I understand my father better now and certainly have no lingering resentment, I do understand how troubled relationships with earthly fathers can influence our view of God as Heavenly Father. In my case, trusting the consistency of God’s love. Consistency was not a word that came to mind when thinking about my earthly father.

    I don’t know if anyone will find this helpful, but this thought has helped me.

    When I think about God, these three views immediately come to mind:
    God as Creator
    God as Mystery
    God as Heavenly Father

    I find that contemplating God as Creator most quickly gets me past the issues of consistency that might come to mind when thinking about God as Father.

    I know that I am not worthy of God’s love. And yet God loves me with an unchanging love that I can trust. I find it easier to understand that it is safe to trust God wholeheartedly and without hesitation when I think of God as Creator. In God as Creator I can see an unchanging love for all creation.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Thanks for sharing this. I have not had a bipolar person in my family but worked with the pastor of another denomination who suffered from this. His swings were far apart, time wise, and went from the highest heights to the lowest depths When he was “up” he could accomplish more in the community and church than any person I’ve ever known. When he was down his family, church, and community suffered terrible pain. He was eventually forced to leave the church and was in a terrible situation in many ways.

      I like what you shared about your views of God that helped you.

  8. “The Boat in the Backyard” really touched my heart…I grew up as an only child with a father who had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, several chronic physical problems, and a lot of anger problems. He was pretty much unaware (until I was an adult) that he had any mental or behavioral problems and spent my entire chirldhood controlling me and my mom and forcing us to walk on eggshells to keep him comfortable. He was obsessed with anything that sounded, looked, smelled, seemed, tasted, felt “bad” and would have fits and make us do something to constantly change his environment. I could not have friends over hardly because the sound of loud laughter or feet running up stairs would infuriate him. If I got a scuff mark on the wall he would have a fit and make my mom scrub it and re-paint the area, while he stood and supervised.

    Now I am grown and married and over the last 10 years my dad and mom and me have all made significant efforts to repair out little family – and we have come a long way – it is a lot easier not living in the same house, and when we do spend time together we try to be tolerant of each others idiosynchrasies and some we can actually have a good time laughing about. I know a lot of this change is directly related to the fact that about two years ago I gave my life to Jesus Christ and have been going to church faithfully ever since. I have really prayed about my family and about myself (to be forgiving and compassionate). Although my parents are not believers in Jesus, they have noticed unbelievable changes in me (for the BETTER) that they cannot deny.

    Although i am so grateful to God for repairing my relationships with my family, I do have to agree a little bit with that one dude who said it can be difficult to have a relationship with a Father when you never had one with a father, but God has been so gracious with all my emotions and fears and every day he reveals himself to me more and more and I cant help but love him more and more.

    thanks sorry i rambled on so long

  9. I come from that camp that says depression is sin. Humbly, if I may add; I do think it is.

    I have read of Spurgeons battle with it – I find it intriguing that he dealt so well with what crippled him so much. How did he ? He understood the absolute soveriegnty of God.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      So simple.
      So Christianese.
      So sure.
      So glib.
      I hope you never find yourself on the inside of deep depression looking out.

    • I suppose high blood pressure is also a sin. I suppose that all illnesses are actually sins, and that the more God-like we are, the longer we live. This explains why some children die in childhood, doesn’t it? They were more evil and sinful than the other kids. Thanks for the insights.

    • I can only pray that you find freedom from this camp. Many of the causes of depression are just as physiological or chemmically based as the causes of many other diseases, so to be consistent one would also have to conclude that many, many other diseases are also sin. Sorry, but I just can’t go there because the Scriptures don’t. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (Matt 9:1-3).

    • Christopher Lake says:

      Matthew,

      Until fairly recently, I was a convinced Reformed Baptist who was beginning preliminary training in my local church as a Biblical (nouthetic) counselor. I also grew up with a manic-depressive mother who committed suicide when I was nine years old. I have also struggled with depression at different points in my own life. I say this, therefore, with intimate knowledge of *very* different sides of the issue of depression: it is *extremely* simplistic and not very “humble” (in your words) for you, or anyone, to make the blanket statement that “depression is sin.”

      There *may be* sin as *one* part of the picture in a particular person’s depression, but that is a “may be” in particular cases, not an “always is” in every case. Look deeper into Spurgeon’s battle with depression, my brother in Christ. Because of this struggle, he was sometimes absent from the pulpit at his own church for months.

  10. Makes my heart ache. It reminds me of Michael Card’s song, “Underneath the Door”, about his own experience with his father:

    “Desperate stubby fingers pushing pictures neath the door
    And longing to be listened to, by the man that I adored
    Inside someone who needed me just as much as I did him
    Still unable to unlock the door that stayed closed inside of him”

  11. What a sad song, dumb ox. It reminds me of my relationship with my own father. So sad.

    Thanks for this heartfelt post, Michael. I feel that the church has done an incredible disservice in labeling depression a sin. That’s not to say that sin is not involved, but the problem of depression is too multi-faceted to be addressed with prayer/confession alone (although prayer is the best place to start)–just like treatment for a physical disease should not be addressed with prayer alone. You have to go to a doctor too. You have to look at your diet, your exercise, your environment, your body chemistry, etc. Multi-faceted problems require multi-faceted interventions.

    Many churches give one-dimensional Christianese answers like “just pray” and “just trust God” and “God is in control”. This makes sufferers ashamed that they can’t say a few prayers and “get over it”, and this only adds to their depression. When depression goes untreated it waxes, not wanes. And when it goes untreated, it gets passed on to the next generation, as Michael’s story tells us. (Btw, I recognize that there are many churches who don’t treat depressed people like this. Knowledge of depression seems to be expanding.)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Many churches give one-dimensional Christianese answers like “just pray” and “just trust God” and “God is in control”. This makes sufferers ashamed that they can’t say a few prayers and “get over it”, and this only adds to their depression.

      I call that “Five Fast Praise-the-LORDs Will Solve Everything”. Got it inflicted on me in my Cal Poly days — the reason I hung out with D&Ders instead of other Christians (TM).

      Ever since, I have always wanted to be there when one of these guys gets into a bind “Five Fast Praise-the-LORDs” can’t get him out of, just so I could parrot his own words right back at him.

  12. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read, either here or on any other blog. Thank you, Michael.

    I have OCD (including scrupulosity, or religious OCD), which has been reduced to the point where I hardly think about it, due to medication (which I haven’t needed for years), cognitive-behavioral therapy, and regular check-ins with my pastor (to help differentiate between actual religious obligations/beliefs and OCD-distorted ones – vital for anyone with scrupulosity). For four years after it was first diagnosed, I was in an increasingly dark depression, to the point where I experienced suicidal ideation. (I was able to recognize, however, that the thoughts came from the depression, not from my own desires. Still, they scared me.) I was at college, and there were many nights when I would just sit in my chair unable to move or think, or just sit terrified that I was “going crazy.” Other times I would lie in bed and wail myself to sleep. In such pain…it’s impossible to describe unless you’ve experienced it. A mix of pain and fear and guilt and utter terror, or just emptiness and the inability to feel or think or do anything at all.

    Interestingly enough, the guy who helped me get out of it was an atheist raised Catholic. (He was a “live-and-let-live” atheist, not one of the militant types.) I wouldn’t always trust him when he said it wasn’t my fault, which is why he encouraged me to check what he was saying with my pastor. Both were necessary. What was especially important was that both told me what I was feeling wasn’t my fault. No one can control or choose their feelings; you can only control how you respond to them. Feeling depressed wasn’t a sin. But there was still a part of me that was free to decide whether to fight it, or whether to just give up because it was too hard. The sin would have been to give up when I could freely choose to fight.

    People who are depressed or who have OCD (esp. scrupulosity) generally already feel guilty as all get-out. The worst thing one can do is load them up with more guilt. Love, unconditional love and support even when (I can see now) I was a burden on other people, is what got me through. When people suggested I was doing it on purpose or just wasn’t trying hard enough, I’d feel even more guilty and depressed, and withdraw. But when people asked how they could help, or offered to listen, or just sat with me and hugged me, I felt safe. They acknowledged that I was trying. And that acknowledgement worked wonders.

  13. I think Christians need to stop associating depression with sin or demons and develop a truly cross-centered approach to the subject. There have been more and more studies particularly concerning male middle-age depression, that it is more common than first thought. Men have many ways to mask depression, typically with very compulsive behaviors, such as overworking, risky behavior, alcoholism, pornography, etc. These compulsive behaviors create a vicious cycle of depression and guilt, spiraling ever downward. The church needs to create a climate where men can freely talk about depression. I’m afraid such efforts will be labeled as therapeutic rather than gracious.

  14. Michael may not have been affected in his adult life by crippling depression, but does anyone else see a correlation between CB radio and the Internet? Perhaps between Two Bits and the Internet Monk? This is the media that made him famous, during his years of quietly serving God in the geographic obscurity of Eastern Kentucky. He faithfully served the ministry God had brought him to, in a little community that does not even have one traffic light, while yearning to travel the country speaking in lecture halls and large auditoriums. The duality of Michael Spencer in real like and Internet Monk in cyberspace allowed him the satisfaction of both.

    • That was my first thought. The Internet works that way for me in dealing with the depressive genes I inherited.