For the month of August, I am looking back on the summers of my life, attempting to find some patterns within them to explain why it seems that my depression tends to get worse during the summer. I’m also looking at each summer to find some insight or reflection that can speak to who I am today.
It’s funny — I usually think of the summer of 2016 as a particularly bad time in my life. And by the end of that summer, it certainly was. But looking back, it started off remarkably good. I had just created this blog in April, so I was enjoying writing all sorts of things here. I was writing some serious things, some silly things, just trying to figure out what I wanted to use it for. In May, I wrote the first of my “Snapshots of My Depression” series, posts that tell stories from my past in which my depression became particularly visible in one way or another. I found that these posts were well-read and well-received, and that felt very affirming to me. A lot of people told me I was brave for sharing them, and I had a hard time understanding that. It didn’t feel brave to me — it’s part of my life, and what purpose would it serve to hide it?
My wife and I took a cruise to Bermuda in June, and had a wonderful time. I blogged several times from the cruise. I was having a great time, my relationship with my wife was strong, and my writing was enabling me to connect with people in a new way, and I felt like I was accomplishing something. My mood was in pretty good shape for the first half of the summer.
But it didn’t stay that way. Everything changed the day of the meeting. A group within my congregation was trying to encourage the whole congregation to consider becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation, that is, one which explicitly welcomes people of any sexual orientation or gender identity. As pastor, I was trying to support this group, yet be separate from them. If this were to happen, it had to be grassroots from the people, not from me. This meeting was a Q & A that the group planned, for anyone in the congregation who had questions or concerns about the process. It was my intention to be at the meeting, but let the planning group lead it. I would be there to answer any question that was about my role; otherwise, I intended to keep quiet. That intention didn’t last. Emotions at this meeting very quickly turned hot. Many who attended were against the whole idea, and they made that clear. Voices were raised. Rash words were spoken. There were sneers and tears. And I was not able to keep myself quiet. I raised my voice; I spoke rash words; I said things I regret, and I said other things in ways I regret. And I left that meeting feeling terrible. Not so much about the way other people acted, but about the way I acted. I took it all so personally, and I attacked myself for my behavior for the next days, and weeks, and months: “I should have known better.” “I’m a terrible pastor.” “They need somebody better than me.” “I am ruining this church.”
Throughout the month of August, my journals show someone in despair over the guilt he feels. I felt like I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing. I took a week of vacation, and drove south to scout out locations to see the solar eclipse I knew was coming next year. During that solo trip, I went over and over again thoughts of leaving the congregation, or leaving the ministry entirely, or perhaps even leaving it all, and ending my life. I just couldn’t see any way out from where I was. I felt stuck and lost. I had an experience on the trip that symbolized that for me. When I was ready to head home, I decided to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway instead of the interstates. It’s a very scenic route that more or less parallels I-81, but is much slower. I found driving on it to be lovely and thoughtful — driving on the top of the ridge, not too far from the Appalachian Trail. But the speed limit is nothing like 65, and I wasn’t making very good time. When night fell, and I was still on the Parkway, I started to get freaked out. I drove past a parking lot, and there were a bunch of teenagers there that didn’t seem up to much good, yelling and whooping. And it was dark on the Parkway. Not much traffic, and sometimes a great distance to the next exit. I felt like I’d better get off and find a hotel for the night. The next exit, though, was about twenty miles away, and I was stuck, clutcing the steering wheel, driving through thick darkness, mirages of fear forming all around me. Once I reached the exit, the town it led to felt just as creepy, like something out of a bad 80s horror movie. There was a motel there, but I just did not like the feeling I was getting from it, or from the town. I was almost out of gas, and I was exhausted, but I kept driving 15 more miles, away from the Parkway, until I found a major chain hotel not far from I-81. I stayed there for the night, and I journaled about whether to retrace my last 15 miles in the morning to continue into Virginia on the Parkway, or just bail from that plan and drive home the quick way. As nice and lovely as the Parkway had been at first, it had soured on me quick after sundown. I felt betrayed, and stuck. And I wasn’t going back. Not a bad metaphor for how I felt about my role as pastor at that point.
After I returned, I remember sitting in the chancel at church, while singing hymns, imagining that this might be my last season there. I remember having this vivid image of someone approaching me right there, and beating the pulp out of me. It felt right, somehow.
In the beginning of September, I dreamed of an owl. Owls symbolize hope to me, and wisdom. New beginnings and possibilities. But that was the end of the summer.
In the summer of 2016, my mood changed significantly because of a traumatic experience I had. I’m not saying the meeting at church was the trauma — it was uncomfortable and regrettable, but I don’t think anyone there would describe it as traumatic. However, my inner critic, whom I’d later name “The Dark Voice,” was able to take the raw materials from that meeting and turn it into a trauma. He wouldn’t let go of that meeting, and just continued to attack me with it over and over. Of course, that all led to my medical leave in the beginning of 2017, which bore so much emotional fruit it almost made it all worth it. But if I’m going to take a lesson for myself from the summer of ’16, it would probably be this: There is always another choice. There is always a way out. You just need to have patience, and the opportunity will present itself.