“You need help.”
Gene Lowry was on the phone. My preaching professor from seminary. And now my friend. We were good friends, but we didn’t talk like that. I didn’t think so, anyway.
When I was in high school, I would often stay home because I was “tired.” Numerous times my mother dragged me to the doctor to get a blood test for mono. Dr. Holdcraft was a member of my father’s church and thought the world of my father. As I sat on the paper covering on the exam table, he slapped me on the back.
“How’s Sue today? You’re tired? Ahhh, well.” He’d look in my mouth with a tongue depressor, look in my ears, squeeze my arm encouragingly, all the while asking about the family, lauding my father and winking at me.
“Well, I don’t think anything’s wrong, but we’ll check your blood anyway, just to be sure. It’s good to see ya!” and he’d pat me on the shoulder, ushering me out of the office, telling my Mom to please say hello to Rollo for him.
No one asked me the questions you might hear now. Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself? Have you lost interest in activities you used to enjoy? Are you uninterested in being with people? Do you ever feel helpless? Hopeless?
Dad was a deep believer in counseling as the cure-all for everything, so from the time I was in middle school, he tried to push me into counseling. He’d done the same for my two oldest brothers. They tried some, including primal scream therapy. Mark used to suddenly stand in the middle of the house and let one rip with no warning. It didn’t seem to help.
But I figured I was depressed. I just wanted someone else to suggest it.
However, after 1984, I think what might have been something that might have gotten better eventually, took deep root in my heart and soul.
Sandie died. She was a light in my life, who reflected so much love and grace onto me. She was like an angel that entered my life at a key moment. She made me laugh. She read my ridiculously long letters and answered them eventually. She hugged me a lot, played with my hair. She saw me, when most of the time I felt like if I just closed my eyes, no one would know I was there. There was a deep, emotional, life-giving connection. It was unusual. It was a peak on the lifeline of my life.
And then she disappeared. Gone. There was no comfort. It was the first time that I would have begun answering all those questions in the affirmative. Yes, in fact, I did think about turning my steering wheel sharply to the right when I went over the bridge. Yes, in fact, I hoped that I would not wake up most days. Yes, I thought of hurting myself, but knew deep down I’d never do it. Yes, I lost all interest in activities I once enjoyed. Yes, I slept a lot.
The grief took root in what was already fertile soil for depression, and entwined itself throughout my insides. It became a part of my personality. I was the one who Lost That Friend. Over the years, I learned to live with the darkness. I wrote a lot of poetry. I answered the call to ministry, and did a lot of things that I would not have dreamed of having the courage to do. I preached, I led worship, I moved across the country, I married a wonderful man, I had a child. My life was good, but underneath was always that anxiety that it would all disappear in a moment. I smiled, I laughed. I wasn’t fake– but I could hide the terror. I could counsel others, encourage and inspire others, and I believed everything I said and did. I wouldn’t preach anything I didn’t believe. But the darkness was never far away, and it always threatened everything that made me happy.
“I think you need help,” Gene said on the phone. I got defensive. What? I laughed– which is what my mother has always done when confronted with things too close to the heart.
Then I got serious. I tried to explain, I can’t do counseling. I was counseled all my life. I was picked apart, splayed open like a frog on a mat, the subject of lifelong analysis at the mercy of my father’s probing mind. NO.
I’d been at a retreat at Kirkridge, near the Delaware Water Gap. A retreat led by Flora Slosson Wuellner, a writer of books my mother collected over the years on guided imagery and prayer. It was soothing, like a weighted blanket. The retreat house was deep in the woods, and I had a therapeutic time just walking the woods, walking the labyrinth, rowing a boat in a small pond. Praying. Journaling. Stacking rocks in the middle of a cathedral of trees.
Wuellner also spoke of 9/11 which had occurred about six weeks before. She guided us in meditations. In one meditation, I saw Christ, guiding me along the seashore (one of my favorite places in the world). As the wave washed ashore, it left behind a mess. Broken pieces. Images of what was hurting me, draining my spirit. Images of pain. Brokenness.
Christ said to me, “Let’s clean this up together.”
I was floating in a ethereal state of peace and calm, during which I wrote Gene and Sarah a letter. When I found myself in a holy place, I always wanted to share it with someone I loved. I thought it was positive.
“Peggy,” Gene sounded so serious, “you need help. I can’t help you, I’m much too far away. I want you to go talk to someone.”
I began to cry, trying to explain why I couldn’t. He said he didn’t see my reasoning. Finally, he said, “I have to go. Think about it, please.” He paused.
“We love you.”
After we hung up, I sat on the floor in the kitchen with my knees up to my chin, thinking that I must be in trouble if Gene said that.
The next day I consulted the list of counselors that my insurance would cover in the area. One was a female, one was a male. My history with male counselors, including my father, was a bit nightmarish. I made an appointment with the female for the following day.
I didn’t know the name. She was a nun, a pastoral counselor in Pittston, PA. I was nervous, but I kept thinking of Gene; “we love you.” Ok.
I sat in the waiting room of Sister Maureen’s office, flipping through magazines, nervously fidgeting. What if this was a disaster? I didn’t have the energy to try again if this failed. I was so tired.
I heard a door open, and looked up to see Maureen descending the stairs. Oh my God. She smiled as she made her way down the stairs, and I immediately recognized her as the pastoral counselor who’d led our clergy session just two days after 9/11. She’d filled the room with calm, a kind of maternal care and peace. When we’d left that day, I told Larry, “Boy, if I ever went back into counseling, I would go to her!” He agreed she was effective.
And here she was. As we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I had a surge of hope, a quiet reassurance that this was significant.
Within the hour, she stated quite confidently that she believed I was deeply depressed, and not only that, that I was chronically depressed; meaning that she felt this was a condition that may not be temporary.
I felt instant relief. Someone saw it. Someone named it. So many times over the years I’d been told to “get over it.” My own father had said to me about a month after Sandie’s death, “clearly you’ve never gotten over her death,” as if it was an accusation, something at which I failed. My parents had sometimes intimated I was just lazy. I needed to get out more. What would I possibly have to be depressed about?
I would eventually start on some meds for the depression, prescribed by a psychiatrist that Maureen sent me to. I was actually grateful for the diagnosis. Not that I could now settle into it and be a sad Sally, but that someone believed me. That there was a reason I felt the way I did. Chemicals in my brain working against me. After I’d been on the meds for a while, I told someone it felt like I could start each day on the ground floor instead of starting in the basement and having to work my way up to just the first floor. I felt hope for the first time that I could be better. That even though this was something I would continue to struggle with for the rest of my life, I could also get treatment and therefore live a fuller life.
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t just being dramatic.
Maureen and I were in a counseling relationship for 4 1/2 years. It was the most helpful relationship I’d been in, she was the first one to truly be helpful, and I’d been to countless counselors over the years. After all, that was my father’s answer to everything. But this time it truly helped.
Over the years since, as I’ve learned more and more about both sides of my family, it seems like a no-brainer. There is a lot of depression and mental illness on both sides of my family; most of it untreated. My brothers and I have had different paths to healing, but I truly believe that at least three of us have broken the pattern and started new stories. That’s not to say that none of us still struggle with it, or that no one in the next generation wrestle with it. It is, after all, in our blood, our DNA. But those of us willing to admit it, name it, I believe, are finding help and hope instead of simply denying its presence.
I still miss Sandie. There are times that I miss her as if she died yesterday. It was a unique relationship in my life, an enormous gift of grace and life and love. I’ve lost many friends to cancer since her death, and every one always brought her back to mind. But none has affected me has deeply as her death. It was like losing a parent. She was the central most important person in my life. I think if she had never died, the depression would have manifested itself some other way, as I believe the “chemicals” were always there, as I remember from high school. But her death was what ignited it, deepened it, called it to the front.
It is something that you can learn to live with, like any chronic illness. Sometimes it made me a better pastor, sometimes it fed my creativity and allowed me to be a comfort to those who lost loved ones, especially suddenly. But it’s no longer a bottomless pit. It no longer controls me.
I will always cherish Maureen as the one who named my demon, brought it out into the light to show me it didn’t have to be so scary and dreaded. That we could face it together and make it less threatening. She was yet another angel from God.