"You don't go back with suffering, you go through.
You've seen the kind of pain life can bring, and it is easy to let it crush you; easy to let it take away every reason to get up in the morning. The real art of life is to see all of that, to feel it and not to stuff it (down), not to avoid it or numb yourself or self-medicate or just work harder. You let yourself feel it all, and then you make room for it, so that you now contain the summation of all your experiences. You make room within yourself for the immensities of the universe, and when you do that--and it may take a while--you will transcend that experience, and include it.
You will not leave it behind; it will be an integrated part of you. You will not be longing to go back to the way things were because you have gone through it to the other side. You are limping, but you are limping because you have experienced the divine."
-Rob Bell, from Episode 10 of RobCast
There is a time when I would have heard these ideas and found them loosey-goosey, too zen and abstract for my taste. I would have preferred language that was more explicitly Christian and I certainly would have resisted the idea that we must open ourselves into pain, lean into it, even, in order to become well again. That was before depression, before the pain that kept me huddled in pajamas all day, hiding from the world and convinced my life was over, a hopeless dead-end.
When I turned twenty-four, everything was falling apart and I didn't know why, because I thought I should be happy--newly married to a man with the cutest dimple, working a full-time job with a five-minute commute and plenty of time to read blogs and plan my wedding in between tasks, time on the weekend to binge watch Game of Thrones and Arrested Development and take walks and make homemade pizza. But I found myself miserable and sad at some level deeper than I could express, a bone-deep kind of despair.
So my twenty-three-year-old husband and I made a wild guess about what might help and planned for me to leave that job (my God, we were so young and scared). At the time, I blamed the majority of my pain on a boring office job and we wondered if a change of scenery would help my heavy heart--so we planned for me to give notice without having something else lined up and thought I could take a short breather while looking for something I liked just a little better. I started interviewing a month later and had no idea how long that road of job hunting and rejection would be, how it would reinforce my fears of never being good enough.
Two years later, I know it was this choice to leave my job and the subsequent year of unemployment that really allowed me to make space for my pain. This is bittersweet to write out to myself, because I was miserable and sad and felt God was against me in my job hunt, closing doors over and over after so many promising leads. I thought new employment would alleviate my pain, but I know now that I needed to let everything in my life truly fall apart in order to break the surface of my overwhelming pain and breathe again. I needed to stop self-medicating. My old methods of bearing the pain, of staying too busy and rushing through responsibilities and seeking soothing by excelling in an academic setting--those things finally stopped working for me. I see it now as a sort of grace that any last vestiges of my coping mechanisms were taken from me, freeing me to stop and at last pay attention to my pain and anxiety.
Gradually, I stopped numbing the pain. I slowed down enough to actually feel how sad I was, and it was terrible. I learned about how often I battled fear and self-loathing. I peered into patterns of my people-pleasing, noticing how small and worthless I felt and how afraid I was of disappointing others. I opened myself up to the reality that I believed I needed to be perfect for people to love me, that if others saw who I really was they wouldn't like me much at all. I learned how afraid I was of not having a plan and how hard it was to bear life when everything slowed down and I just wanted to move on to the next cool, impressive thing, not be where I was.
I made room and I felt it all, and for a while I thought it might overwhelm me completely. I thought my life would only be rejection and sadness and this terrible pain that I carried around with me all day, every day.
But then, slowly, slowly, I began to discover room for other things inside of me. The pain was no longer the only sensation. There was also comfort, peace, hope, surprise, courage, delight, self-discipline, love. More than anything, what moved me toward space and healing was the patient love of those who saw me at my darkest hour and believed I still had worth and value as a human being, a specific human being with curly hair and obsessive tendencies and a sarcastic sense of humor. They saw me and loved me, and this was everything, because it showed me a glimpse of the unfailing, persistent love of the God I had talked about all my life but still found slightly intimidating, possibly harsh. I tripped and stumbled over love without condition.
And today, even with so much going for me, I still carry those experiences of depression with me. I carry them not as heavy baggage weighing me down, but as a part of me, deeply integrated, like a limp. I am not battling depression these days, but my season of depression has been incorporated as a part of who I am, forever. During the worst months, all I wanted was to go back to the way things were--with school, with Chris, with my relationships, with my choices and habits. I do not wish for this any longer.
I went through my suffering, I made it across the vast sea of my pain, and I am made new. If I limp, I limp like Jacob after a night spent wrestling with God. I made room for my pain and I have emerged on the other side, and I will do it all again someday--and it's all deeply a part of me.