A study in depression

I’m curious how many of my readers are familiar with the Latin word, verisimilitude. It is a technical term used primarily in literary criticism, but I encountered it in my theology studies. Here’s a good definition:

The sense that what one reads is “real,” or at least realistic and believable. For instance, the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude when reading a story in which a character cuts his finger, and the finger bleeds. If the character’s cut finger had produced sparks of fire rather than blood, the story would not possess verisimilitude. Note that even fantasy novels and science fiction stories that discuss impossible events can have verisimilitude if the reader is able to read them with suspended disbelief.

Note the phrase, “the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude …”. The term tells us something about the text, to be sure, but it isn’t a characteristic we can define objectively. It’s fundamentally about the reader:  his or her subjective response while reading the text.

The word verisimilitude came to mind yesterday as I was reading this text:

Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept. (1 Kings 19:4-5a)

I find this story about Elijah startling and deeply moving. I don’t have any deep theological or psychological insight to share with you. I just wanted to say, here’s a text that has verisimilitude.

Years ago, I received some training before I began to work at a crisis support centre, answering telephone calls from people in distress. The trainer was a clergyman, and he drew our attention to this passage as a textbook example of depression.

Elijah has reached the end of his rope. He can’t cope any longer. He wants nothing more than to die. He sleeps.

The story is especially remarkable if you read it in context. It comes immediately after Elijah’s triumph on Mount Carmel, where he had proven that Baal is a false god and the prophets of Baal were false prophets. It was the high point of Elijah’s career; but immediately afterward, he was plunged into a state of depression.

The sequence is true to human psychology. Whenever you have a peak experience, you can expect to feel a letdown afterward. But the word “letdown” is hardly adequate in Elijah’s case!

To be fair, I should point out that there was one intervening event. Queen Jezebel had threatened to murder Elijah:

[King] Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life. (1 Kings 19:1-3a)

Elijah was also suffering from the burden of carrying too much responsibility. He lived in an era when Israel had broken faith with God. He was the point man in God’s campaign to bring Israel to repentance.

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

This is a heavy burden to bear. The religion of Israel mattered profoundly to Elijah. He felt that its very survival rested on his shoulders, and his alone.

Elijah came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)

So Elijah’s depression has three1 identifiable causes:  (1) the inevitable letdown after his triumph on Mount Carmel; (2) Jezebel’s threat on his life; and (3) the onerous burden of responsibility he carried.

“It is enough,” he says, with profound understatement. “Please — just let me die.”

Sceptics deride the Bible for its fantastic stories, and I understand that point of view. Elijah is associated with a series of outstanding miracles. It is as if earthly limitations don’t apply to him:  rather like Jesus walking on water.

Even if faith says that the stories are historical, it’s still difficult to relate to a superhuman hero.

It’s worth noting that the Bible also has this other side. In most cases — Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Jeremiah come to mind — the veil is lifted at least occasionally, and we see the frail, human side of the Bible’s heroes.

It is then that the Bible seems truest to us:  it is then that the reader experiences this subjective response, verisimilitude.

(Cross-posted on Emerging from Babel.)

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1Four, if we include physical exhaustion:  “And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you'” (1 Kings 19:7). This, after Elijah had run a great distance to escape Jezebel’s wrath.

Interview meme

Jamie recently participated in an interview meme that is currently making the rounds of the blogosphere. I volunteered to be interviewed by her in turn, in part because I was curious to see whether she would take the opportunity to pin me to the wall on my heterodox theology.

Jamie defends traditional Christian doctrines that I tend to problematize. But in her own way, she wrestles with the same questions that preoccupy me. I guess that’s why she has been a faithful long-term reader, although I’m sure I exasperate her at times. For the record, I have a lot of respect for her intelligence and for her reluctance to settle for pat answers to thorny questions.

As it turned out, she didn’t go for the jugular as I feared she might.

1. If you could go for some other dream career besides the line of work you’re currently in, what would it be?

First, a word on my current career. I work for the Government of Canada: specifically Health Canada, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. I don’t blog about it because most of the documents that cross my desk are “secret” — confidential documents on their way to Cabinet ministers.

I am a policy analyst, involved in the negotiation of land claim and self-government agreements with Canada’s aboriginal communities. The negotiations are led by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, but I participate in determining the scope of the health component of the agreements. My proudest achievement thus far has been the conclusion of the Labrador Inuit Association agreement, which took effect in December 2005. Last year, we concluded negotiations on three agreements in British Columbia, but they haven’t been ratified yet.

The point is, I’m not eager to change careers. All the work I have done for the past twenty years has had a social justice angle to it. That is my “dream career” in a general sense.

We won’t know the impact of these self-government agreements until some decades have passed, but I can say this much with confidence: the status quo isn’t working, either for aboriginals or non-aboriginal Canadians, and we’re implementing a different approach. Maybe it will constitute a breakthrough, but that’s not within my control.

I’m satisfied that this is a worthy “social justice” initiative, and I’m proud to be part of it. I’m not sure anything else would make more of a practical difference than this initiative has the potential to do.

But I’ll quit dodging the question now. I’ve often thought it would be neat to be a journalist. If I could earn a living by writing, I would be seriously tempted. “Rock star” would tempt me too, but I lack musical talent, a sexy physique, and charisma, dammit! Hence I’m eminently suited for policy analysis.

2. If you were an inventor, what would you invent?

I would invent a new drug which would enable people to see the world from someone else’s perspective temporarily. You would use it in conflict resolution, or when seeking consensus on an intractable, contentious social issue. If you took it, you would understand an issue from within the perspective of the other party to the dialogue, just for an hour or two. Then you would revert to your own perspective, but a little chastened and wiser.

Either that, or I would invent a pill that would turn me into a flashy guitarist with a sexy physique and oodles of charisma. Then who knows, Jamie, my first stop might be your house.

3. Have you ever broken a bone? If so, what’s the story?

An interesting shot in the dark, but I’ve never broken a bone.

I hit myself in the nose with a tennis racquet once when the ball took a funny hop. I made a reflexive, lightning-quick adjustment to get my racquet on the ball, but my nose got in the way. I still have a scar to show for it.

4. Looking back on your life, of what are you most proud?

It would have been easier if you asked me what personal history embarrasses me. I could have written five thousand words on that topic, easily. I regularly flash back to specific moments from my past with acute embarrassment, whatever that says about me.

What am I proudest of? Of demonstrating courage of a particular sort: “courage to change the things I can” (here quoting the prayer of serenity).

When I was in my mid-thirties, I reached a point of personal crisis. I had made a few key decisions in the naivety of my youth that led me to a regrettable place years later. I felt trapped, and I spent four years in what I would describe as a low-grade depression.

The only way out was to make radical changes of a sort that would actually make the crisis worse in the short term. That’s often the way of it: you have to pass through chaos on your way to producing order, per Genesis 1.

But to bite that bullet takes a lot of courage, particularly when you’re depressed. First, you have to find a reason for hope: some end goal that will motivate and sustain you through a season of painful turmoil. Even when there is a little light glimmering at the end of the tunnel, many people lack the courage to act.

Acting necessarily involved wholesale change: a crisis of faith that I am still working through, a divorce, a change of career, the loss of virtually every friend I had at the time. My family supported me, with misgivings: my Dad was afraid I was having a breakdown and he suffered nightmares about it.

It doesn’t sound like something to be proud of, and there’s embarrassment (even shame) in the mix. But the results are in, eleven years later. The nay-sayers (who were legion) have been proven wrong. I’m newly remarried, still in relationship with my children (which was no small struggle for some while) pleased about my new career, with better long term financial prospects, and enjoying my relentless inquiry into questions of faith and philosophy.

Most importantly, I am “at home in my own skin”. That was the fundamental issue eleven years ago: the life I was in was ill-suited to the person I am. I’m proud that I had the courage to do something about it, and fight through to a good result.

Note: Jamie has a fifth question for me, but I’m going to address it in a separate post.

Love that stands the test of time

This photograph of an archaeological discovery is very powerful:

Valdaro lovers

I know it’s trite to point out that love was a familiar human experience, even 5,000 years ago. But somehow this photo brings it home with real emotional impact.

Of course, we don’t know the circumstances of the burial. Reuters reports:

Even their gender is an open question until scientists confirm the theory they were a man and a woman.

Archaeologists seem certain the couple died young, since their teeth are intact, and that they died during the Stone Age because of an arrowhead and tools found with the remains.

The indications are the couple did not die in each others’ arms and were buried that way in some sort of prehistoric cemetery.

Which would still make them an iconic couple in the eyes of the community that buried them in this extraordinary pose.

(Hat tip, Doug at United Cats.)

The black dog howls at my door

Winston Churchill referred to depression as a black dog.

As is true with all metaphors, it speaks volumes. The nickname implies both familiarity and an attempt at mastery, because while that dog may sink his fangs into one’s person every now and then, he’s still, after all, only a dog, and he can be cajoled sometimes and locked up other times.

That’s a positive interpretation of the metaphor. Depression doesn’t respond to cajoling, in my experience! Perhaps the metaphor is more sinister than that: the black dog is an adversary that cannot be shaken off, always out there (even on good days), though you can’t quite see it, persistently hunting you down. It’s a scary shadow to live with, akin to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

black dog giving chase

My family has a marked history of depression and suicide, which suggests a genetic predisposition. Many years ago, the high school guidance counselor took my girlfriend aside to warn her: “If you decide to break up with him, be careful how you handle it — you never know how someone in that family might react.”

I’ve been fortunate. The teenaged years were a real struggle for me, but I’ve been healthy as an adult. Sometimes depressive; even a low-level depression during a particularly difficult period (when my marriage was breaking down), but tougher and more resilient than some of my near relatives.

But this weekend, the black dog was howling at my door. It managed to sneak inside at least once, and leave its muddy paw prints in my entranceway. The good news is, I think the trigger was my asthma medication, so I’ve stopped taking it.

I’ve suffered from mild asthma every night at bedtime for the past several weeks. I have a prescription for a daily inhaler, but I had never filled it until now.

Saturday, I had a somewhat frustrating day. Then I had a small setback before bed, and I had a complete meltdown. I bawled like my best friend had died, and it took me about an hour to regain control. Poor MaryP — she was trying to find out what was “really” wrong, because my response was out of all proportion to the stimulus.

That episode set me to wondering about my asthma medication, so I googled it. Infrequent (less than one percent incidence) adverse events for inhaled budesonide include “psychiatric symptoms including depression, aggressive reactions, irritability, anxiety, and psychosis”. I suppose my inherent depressive tendency made me more susceptible to this adverse reaction.

But of course I’m speculating. Maybe it was just a coincidence. I’ve stopped taking the medication; now we’ll see whether I start to feel less fragile. I’ll follow up with my doctor when I have more information for her.

In the meantime, I worked out my coping mechanisms a long time ago.

  • Seek a balance between rest and productive activity.
    It’s a mistake to sit idle, with nothing to occupy you except thoughts of how depressed you are. Much better to set manageable goals for the day (changing the cat litter, for example) so you’ve got something to feel good about when bedtime arrives. (For me, “manageable goals” includes blogging!)
  • Do something physical.
    Yesterday, I went for a forty-minute walk despite the cold weather. (Minus 18° Celsius = 0° Fahrenheit — within seasonal norms for Ottawa in January.) Exercise is a constructive response to stress of any kind — even if it’s a cold day!
  • Get extra sleep.
    I had an exceptionally demanding week recently, and I suspect part of my problem is the inevitable letdown from that. I didn’t sleep well that week. Now I’m going to bed early, aiming at an extra hour or two of sleep each night to catch up.
  • Eat nutritional foods.
    Note the theme of the three middle bullets: look after your body. You can’t directly control your emotional state, but looking after your physical health is an indirect lever on emotional well-being.
  • Seek support from friends or family.
    MaryP has been entirely supportive, making little adjustments in the domestic routine. I’m very blessed, and I appreciate it!

I expect the ship will right itself, soon enough. Or (reverting to the original metaphor) the black dog will slink off with its tail between its legs.

Til the next time.

Defenceless against pretty woman

I don’t usually read Dear Abby, but for some reason I did today. This letter is pathetic, but hilarious.

Pretty girl is more than roommates can handle

My best friend, “Ted,” and I recently met an attractive girl I’ll call “Bridget.” Ted was married and suggested I date Bridget.

Within a few days, before I got up the nerve to ask her on a date, Ted broke up with his wife, moved in with me and started seeing Bridget.

This was awkward, but in addition, Bridget started making sexual advances toward me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the wisdom to keep away from her. Although we didn’t have sex, I was closer to her than I should have been to my best friend’s girl.

Bridget JonesTed knows about it, and now ensures that Bridget and I are never alone together. He constantly worries about the situation, and it is interfering with his job.

I believe he wants to break up with her, but he’s afraid I will date her. I agreed with his suggestion that we both stop talking to her, but they are still dating. She continues to flirt with me every time he leaves the room, and I am defenseless against a pretty woman.

Bridget says she likes me, but she loves Ted. She clearly has some attachment issues. I would love to talk to her about them and help her.

I think Ted and I both have strong feelings for her. What should we do? Neither of us can resist when she cries or wants something.

“I am defenseless against a pretty woman.” Honestly! Are there still men living in the West who blame women for their lack of sexual self-control?

It’s too bad Dear Abby doesn’t publish photos, because “Bridget” must be beyond pretty.

Other people’s children

Isaac 1“Hello, Stephen”, says the young man behind the cash register.

I must be giving him a blank look, because he adds, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Uh, vaguely.”

“I’m Don and Janice’s son.”

“Oh”, I say, feeling relieved. “You were just a little kid the last time I saw you.”

Feeling relieved, but also old. Nothing ages you like other people’s children.


When you meet an adult you haven’t seen for a few years, they still look basically the same. If anything, you can take perverse delight in the fact that the hair is greyer, or the bald spot or the paunch is bigger.

The passing years have not been kind to you, old chum!

Isaac 2But when you meet other people’s children after a few years have passed, there’s no upside to that moment of startled recognition.

This is Shane? This young man with the deep voice? It can’t be … he just learned to ride his bike last summer.

Oh.my.Gawd. It is Shane.

And that wasn’t last summer! It was, let me see now … never mind, let’s not go there!

He’s not smirking, is he? What does he see when he looks at me? What does that Bible verse say? — oh yeah —

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Shane has grown up. And I have grown …?

(The two photos are of my youngest son, Isaac, who has certainly changed with the passing years, but who hasn’t quite reached that stage where he’s going to make my friends feel old.)

Roadside memorials

From time to time, I pass a handmade cross on the side of the road. I am vaguely aware that such crosses mark the site of a tragedy. These are very personal memorials to loved ones who died prematurely and violently. But I hadn’t really attended to the practice until this weekend.

Evidently they have become a social phenomenon.

roadside memorial 1

(Note the work gloves.)

An article in the Ottawa Citizen made me stop and think. And today, when I googled “roadside memorials”, Google returned 38,000 hits, including this one:

On the Pacific Highway in [New South Wales, Australia], north of Clybucca, is a white cross by the roadside.

It tells any passerby that Timothy was born on November 5, 1987 and on April 8, 2001 he was “born to eternal life”. Motorists speeding by see Timothy’s memorial out of the corner of an eye, friends and family come to mourn there and bring floral tributes, and road maintenance workers know to leave it alone.

In the process of claiming public road space for themselves, those who construct these memorials clearly desire to go beyond the management of mourning practices and spaces provided by the traditional authorities of the church and the state. Timothy was “born to eternal life” by the roadside; that place is now sacred space.

[source: Pointers, journal of the Christian Research Association, Australia]

Road memorials mark the site of a traffic fatality. They have proliferated because so many people die prematurely in automobile accidents. The Citizen reports:

Once found mostly in Catholic countries, roadside shrines are now common in Canada, the United States, Europe, Britain and Australia, where about 20 per cent of road deaths attract memorials. With an estimated 1.2 million traffic deaths worldwide annually — including nearly 2,800 in Canada, 850 in Ontario and about 30 in Ottawa — there’s no shortage of victims to memorialize.

Undoubtedly this is part of the message of these roadside memorials, sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a week of rain. They are probably not intended as a gesture of protest, but they do have that effect.

Don Baccus puts it succinctly:  What’s the message behind these photos? How does “drive safely” sound?

It’s a good reminder. When you’re behind the wheel of a car, it only takes a moment of inattention at the wrong time to cut short someone’s life. I do not want to live with that on my conscience.

Despite the obvious connection with automobile accidents, roadside memorials originated in an era before cars. This account takes us back to a simpler time:

THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos (“resting places”). …

“THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

“The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

“Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots. …

“Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young.”

[source: Descansos; the text in quotation marks is from Descansos: An Interrupted Journey, by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995)]

Contemporary memorials mark an evolution in our religious practices; a kind of democratization of religion, given that this is a grassroots phenomenon. The Citizen reports:

“These practices mark an historic change,” says John Belshaw, acting dean of arts at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. “The grieving process has gone into the public domain.” …

One of the striking things about roadside memorials is their similarity in every country in which they appear. While some are simple wreaths or bouquets of flowers, the more permanent shrines usually feature crosses, often with the name and date of death of the victim. Some also include personal mementoes such as stuffed teddy bears, pictures, cards and letters, sports equipment and other meaningful items.

A few shrines are virtual celebrations of hard-living, risk-taking machismo. While such memorials are most common in Australia, they can be found in Canada as well. One that Mr. Belshaw and Ms. Purvey found in B.C. featured beer bottles and packs of cigarettes, with images of well-endowed women plastered on the cross.

“In that case, the cross is clearly being used ironically,” he says. “He clearly didn’t lead a good Christian life.” …

Mr. Belshaw admits that when he and his wife began their research, the whole notion of roadside memorials left him feeling a bit queasy.

“I thought it was a bit grisly and grim,” he says, “but I’m increasingly of the mind that it’s one of the healthiest things the public’s ever done.”

That’s a view shared by another academic who has studied the roadside memorial phenomenon, Jennifer Clark, of Australia’s University of New England. …

This represents “a dramatic shift towards the democratization of memorialization,” Ms. Clark contends.

“Roadside memorials are not earned as a reward for selfless or admirable deeds, nor do they commemorate service in public office. Rather, those they remember are ordinary men, women and children with no claim to fame. They may even have died because their actions were foolish, such as speeding, driving while drunk, or driving while tired.”

I found this comment particularly poignant:

Researchers have noticed the tendency to infantilize victims in their teens and twenties by surrounding their memorials with soft toys and other talismans of childhood.

To Mr. Belshaw, this is a reference to the victim’s lost potential for redemption. “When a 19-year-old comes out of a bar three sheets to the wind and wraps his car around a lamp post and the next morning you find teddy bears at the accident site,” he says, “that’s a statement that essentially this was a good person who could have been redeemed.”

The article from Pointers (cited earlier) also reflects on the spiritual significance of road memorials. The authors call attention to the concept of sacred space:

Although memorials that use apparent religious symbols signal a significant link with Christian faith, this is not necessarily the case. The use of such symbols may in fact be little more than an attempt to find culturally appropriate symbols to express death, where there has previously been a paucity of such symbols apart from those offered by institutional religion. …

The memorials witness primarily to the spiritual significance of place. Their role is to mark the very spot where life was lost. Some memorials are explicit about that and refer, for example, to Sharon who was “tragically killed at this spot” or Sandra, Stacey and Joanne, all “tragically taken at this spot” or Jody who “died here”. …

When a roadside memorial is erected it suggests that the cemetery or crematorium is unsatisfying as a focal point for mourning. Anecdotally the place of death holds a stronger spiritual connection with the individual than any place of final rest of the body. There remains something intrinsically more important about the place where life ceased or, more accurately, where a life-changing event occurred.

At this point, I think we are approaching an explanation for the phenomenon. The majority of people no longer feel any sense of personal attachment to a religious institution or a church community. When it’s time for a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral, the clergy who performs the rite of passage is often a complete stranger. Even the cemetery has become a place of little spiritual consequence:

When the state-controlled secularised cemeteries replaced the more communally-based churchyards in the 19th Century, a sense of community was lost, as well as a spiritually meaningful place to mourn the dead.

“The cemetery,” wrote Thomas W. Laquer, “would not speak of a place but of people from all places … unknown to each other in life and thrown together in a place with which they might have had only the most transitory acquaintance”.

By contrast, the site of the death is instantly infused with a profound personal significance.

Not everyone is thrilled with the proliferation of roadside memorials. It certainly puts municipalities in an awkward position: the space has been privatized and hallowed, but it remains public property. West Virginia has posted a primer for roadside memorials on the Web to try to retain some control.

Private citizens may have mixed feelings, too. Returning to the Citizen‘s account:

Family members are not always pleased when friends erect roadside memorials to their loved ones.

Mr. Belshaw tells of a woman in Victoria [British Columbia] whose son was killed in a traffic accident. Friends put up a memorial and she went along with the idea. But she had to drive past it every day to get out of the cul-de-sac where she lived. “It was like a knife through her heart,” he says. “She really suffered with it.”

Sometimes property owners near the accident scene object because they find the constant reminder of tragic death depressing.

“People tend to react fairly viscerally to them one way or another,” says Mr. Belshaw. “Some will say, ‘I don’t need to be reminded of my own mortality on a daily basis.’ Others will say, ‘Yes, you do’.”

Put me in the latter camp. We’re too insulated from death in our society. If road memorials remind people that we all have to take death into account, I think that’s a social good.

roadside memorial 2

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