Joy eluded me like a forgotten melody. I felt as if I'd lost myself...
Nov 6, 2008
Easter Sunday, the calendar on my kitchen wall proclaimed. So did the kids' baskets with their neon-colored eggs and marshmallow bunnies. And our new outfits for church.
Jamie, 13, and Katie, 11, had polka-dot dresses like mine, and three-year-old Thomas proudly wore a miniature tie. Easter was all around.
So why wasn't it Easter inside me too?
"Look!" my husband, Rick, said as we pulled out of the driveway. "The pear trees are blooming! First time since we planted them!"
I don't even remember us having pear trees. What's the matter with me, Lord? It had come on so suddenly, this gray, gloomy hopeless feeling.
At church, shouts of "Happy Easter!" bombarded us. "Happy Easter!" I parroted, mimicking my friends' bright smiles. Put on a happy face. What kind of Christian is sad on Easter?
I told myself it was only temporary. But April and May went by with the same dreary numbness. I forgot to eat, I was losing weight, I couldn't sleep. My mother wanted me to see my doctor, but what could I say to him–"I'm feeling sad but there's no reason for it"?
Besides, weren't Christians supposed to rejoice in the Lord? All my 34 years I'd gone to two church services every Sunday, Tuesday night outreach, Wednesday night Girls-in-Action when I was younger, nowadays Prayer Meeting with Rick.
What would everyone think if they knew that I was feeling this darkness inside, that I was failing God so?
Maybe I just needed a change of scene. In June, when we went on vacation, things would be different.
On the drive to Florida's Gulf coast, I tried to join in with Rick and the kid's excited plans about everything they wanted to do once we got to the beach, but I ended up feeling like the odd sock in the dryer.
At our rental condo I went through the motions, packed picnics for the beach, played games, and at night while my family slept, slipped outside to cry.
Stepping out the glass sliding doors into the briny darkness, I listened to the rhythm of the waves. Why didn't it soothe me as it always had? I have new freckles on my arms, Lord, so I must be in Florida. Why can't I feel anything?
I came home feeling worse than when we left. I stopped looking in mirrors, unwilling to face the drawn, needy-eyed woman lurking there.
All summer I forced myself to take the kids to our neighborhood pool, thinking, Maybe if I act like the other moms, I can feel like a mom again. As my friends chatted, I put on sunglasses and pretended to be absorbed in a magazine.
I thought I was fooling even Rick, till one evening he said, "You don't hum any more, Julie. Is something the matter?"
No! That was the trouble. Everything was fine, except me. "I'm just a little tired," I told him.
"Let's pray about it," he said.
I have prayed! I've prayed and prayed and nothing happens. Rick must have been more worried than he let on, because for the first time in our married life, he suggested we kneel and pray out loud together. I repeated everything after him, like wedding vows.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
It became a nightly ritual, praying together at bedtime. "Thank you, Lord," Rick would close, "for giving Julie your perfect peace." I'd feel peaceful too–for as long as he prayed. Then he'd fall asleep, and when I couldn't lie still any longer, I'd ease off the covers and tiptoe over to the clock.
12:10. 2:30. 4:15. It became one more thing to conceal. How could I tell my husband that his prayers weren't working? How could I disappoint Rick like I'd disappointed God?
By October my mother had started dropping in "just to say hello" a couple of times a week. She asked no questions but her transparent efforts to cheer me up told me that my forced smiles were no longer fooling her, either.
In early November she insisted on taking me shopping. At the mall Mother zipped over to an outfit. "Look, Julie, this is the new color for fall! Mustard. See those jeans? And the matching vest?" Explaining it to me like I'm a preschooler.
She grabbed the clothes and pushed me into the fitting room. My back to the mirror, I pulled on the jeans, two sizes smaller than usual, and tightened the belt to its last notch.
"Julie, what's taking so long? Can I come in now?"
"Okay," I said resignedly.
"Oh, Julie, that color's wonderful with your red hair! I'm getting you the outfit. Why don't you wear it out, and we'll stop for ice cream on the way home." Yippee. Ice cream.
Back in her Oldsmobile, I refused to get out again. "You go in for the ice cream and bring it out." I was safer in the car than with people who might expect me to be chatty and cheerful.
Mother came back with my childhood favorite, a chocolate milkshake with real whipped cream. I sucked hard and fast through the straw to try to remember those shivery feelings. It was no good. Why isn't anything in life fun anymore?
Mother started coming by daily. I hated it when she arrived, and I hated it worse when she left. One morning she walked in with her camera and followed me around the house snapping pictures. "I want to show you how pretty you are."
Mothers always think daughters are pretty. I'm a fake and a failure and it has to show. Still, seeing her trotting after me, clicking away, was so funny that I had to laugh. It was like hearing a forgotten song. She finished the roll and hurried off to a one-hour developer.
Coming back, she fanned out the pictures like a winning hand of cards. She must have had these touched up. I look so... normal.
I picked out my favorite shot, the one with me laughing, and carried it around the rest of the day, then put it on the refrigerator. I wanted to hold on to that laugh, to believe it meant I could be happy–be me–again. But as with Rick's prayers at bedtime, the lift didn't last.
When Mother came back the next day, I was sitting on the kitchen floor crying. She got down beside me. "Julie, I think it's time to see the doctor."
The last fragments of my self-respect crumbled at that. Dialing the doctor's number felt like the final defeat. He gave me an appointment right away.
I sat in the familiar green leather chair in his waiting room, wishing I could be one of the other patients. The lady with the five fidgety kids, the old man staring out the window, the gangly teenager.
What grown woman needs her mother to go to the doctor with her? And what would Dr. Kelly say when he found there was nothing wrong with me? I could see him marking my chart "Mental Case/Weirdo."
"Julie, come on back," the nurse called. Would she have to know too?
"What's the matter, Julie?" Dr. Kelly prompted gently.
Confessing my condition to someone else was one of the hardest things I'd ever done. "I–I just don't feel like myself anymore. I guess I haven't felt like me for maybe nine months now and I can't seem to stop crying."
In a matter-of-fact manner, my doctor went on asking questions. Had the symptoms come on suddenly? he inquired.
"Have you lost weight?"
"Do you sleep too little or too much?"
"Have you lost pleasure in the things you used to enjoy?"
"Do you have trouble concentrating?"
Yes, yes, yes! To them all.
"Julie," the doctor said, "you're in a depression. Depression can have many causes, but when it comes on this suddenly it can be a physical condition due to a decreased serotonin level in the brain. It's not a character failing or a sign of weakness. Even big, strong football players experience depression."
He's not judging me! Football players. Say it again... a physical condition...
"But, Dr. Kelly, if I had enough faith, couldn't God heal depression?"
"I'm a man of faith too, Julie. Sometimes God uses doctors to help heal. Remember when Jamie broke her arm? You took her to an orthopedist.
"Depression is an illness," he went on, "often treatable with medication." He tore a prescription off his pad.
"With this, your serotonin level will gradually increase. As it does, I believe you'll start feeling like your old self. You'll need to stay on the medicine at least six months. I'll want to see you again in four weeks."
I left his office walking on air. But a week on the medication changed nothing. Hope slipped away like an escaping balloon.
Then one morning in the second week, I woke up and realized I had slept the whole night through. Like a slow-motion film, frame by frame, other changes followed, cheerful moments breaking one by one through the grayness.
One Saturday some two months after my visit to the doctor, Rick and I took the kids to McDonald's. We stepped through the door and suddenly I remembered the taste of french fries. This is what it feels like to be excited about food! I stood in line like an impatient child.
"May I take your order?" said the boy on the other side of the counter.
"Yes!" I answered eagerly. "I'll have a large order of french fries and a large chocolate milkshake, and, oh yeah, lots of ketchup!"
I grabbed the tray and followed my family to a booth. Yummy, salty, hot french fries! Adding plenty of pepper, I dragged each fry through a big mound of ketchup. The saltiness made me crave my milkshake. I sucked the cold drink down so hard and fast that my throat shivered.
Thank you, Lord, for my chocolate milkshake. I grabbed Rick's hand under the table and whispered, "I love you."
Two more months went by, the good days coming more and more often. Then it was Easter Sunday again–oh, but not like any Easter I'd ever known!
As we pulled out of the driveway on the way to church, I noticed the pear trees were a glory of white lace. In place of dull gray were yellow daffodils, pink dogwood–everywhere new life, new hope.
And most of all in me. Dr. Kelly was wrong. "You'll be your old self again," he promised. But this was a new self! This self didn't have to be the model Christian who never missed a church service and showed only her best side.
This self was weak and needy and depressed and knew that was all right–all right with people and all right with God. Once I admitted I was hurting, I'd found his helpers all around me. Rick. Mother. Dr. Kelly. My friends at church I'd assumed would be so disapproving.
It was when I thought I'd failed God that I'd truly found him, when I'd plummeted the farthest that I'd landed in his arms. Sometimes, I realized as we drove up to the church, the most glorious way we can rejoice in the Lord is to let him have our deepest pain.