Depression and Memory

My first post on this topic: Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

Our ability to remember is an amazing gift from God. I have always had a good memory; it isn’t something I developed… it was just there. I don’t know whether memory problems are generally part of depression, but here I relate how they were connected in my situation. Over the years I have discovered that memory can be good, bad, or confusing.

Memory: The Good 

From grade school through college, I was fascinated with numbers. My memory allowed me to be both fast and good. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I could do most math problems in my head. In fact (this was in the days before calculators!), in college I took 85 credits of math and 35 credits of physics—and never learned how to use the slide rule. I could write down about every 3rd or 4th step, keeping everything else in my head.

I could remember dates, people, and events very easily. When reading, I could often remember where something was on a page and sometimes the page number. No, I don’t have photographic memory. But memory was of great value. If I have driven somewhere, many years later I can drive through that area and remember exactly where to turn—and I don’t even need to know “that I turn after the third oak tree on the right after the end of the fence posts.”

Memory: The Bad

As a Christian, I have found memory both good and bad. I can easily memorize things, where they are in the Bible, Greek and Hebrew vocabulary/grammar, etc. So what is bad about memory? I can remember details of events, especially bad ones. I can remember sins I have committed years and years ago. Even more, I can remember the hurt and pain I have caused through my sins.

And that is when memory seems to be no longer a blessing, but a curse. While occasionally I can remember someone else’s sin against me, there is not the intensity and continuing rehashing as with my own sin. For several decades the memories also meant that I didn’t (couldn’t) sleep at night. My mind was too busy, going over the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, etc. of whatever I had done wrong.

In the long slide into depression, my memory took on the role of the accuser… Now instead of the wonderful aspects of my memory, the ugliness of myself, my sin, my inner turmoil were my constant companions. I didn’t need someone else to help me on this frantic descent, because I was more than sufficient, and my memory kicked into high gear. Oh, there were others who consciously or unconsciously aided me in this memory deconstruction. Even now, as the worst of the depression has passed, my memory serves me well and I remember… sort of.

Memory: The Confused

Perhaps most surprising for me is when my memory failed me in the final year before my breakdown and in the first two years afterward. There are gaps… During that time, and since then, my wife might mention something that happened, and I would look puzzled as if “what is she talking about?” To me, it never happened. And the confusing part—for me, I was usually the one who could recall events, conversations, etc.

And so, what had been a normal part of my life, a well functioning memory, was no longer “normal.” But the gaps are primarily limited to that three year period of time. Sometimes I get frustrated that I have gaps in my memory. Other times it doesn’t bother me. Mostly it confused me. In one sense during that three year period, it seemed like I was floating along as an outsider to everything that was happening. In that sense I could even imagine my memory gaps related to my floating alonside the action of life and then switching to living in the midst of that life. Mostly that three year period is a confusing time for me because of my fragmented memory.

Memory: So What?

Memory is a wonderful gift from God. And for most of my life, it has served me well. During the darkest days of depression and in the aftermath, memory failed me, delighted me, and confused me. I think the remembrance of sin and its effects stayed with me, and that haunted me the most.

Yet, right there is where God in His graciousness has worked his marvelous, loving work. In Jeremiah 31:34 when prophesying about the new covenant (testament), he writes:

[Yahweh declares:] “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

God in His infinite wisdom and perfection states clearly that he will not remember my sins. That means that with my memory I am trying to “be better than God at the memory game.” My memories of my sins were tearing me apart. Those sins had been forgiven by God, and now even the memories of them were gone! That was overwhelming to me—and freeing. Forgiveness through the Word, through the Lord’s Supper, through absolution was no longer a part of life, it was the heart of my life, a life which would be destroyed by the memories, but is now forgiven, restored, and enhanced by God’s forgetfulness.

Over time, I have discovered that the memory gaps no longer have a hold on me. But even more, the memories of sin have been transformed into memories of God’s faithfulness and His forgiveness and His love. “And I will remember their sin no more.” God grant me that kind of memory.

See God Has Amnesia for more reflection on this grace aspect of “remembering.”

Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

I have battled depression for many decades, and most of that time I was not even aware of it. During that time, to even consider what was happening as depression was considered a sign of weakness—and that could not happen! As I sank deeper into depression, though, the more I fought against that possibility the deeper the hole became. My desire to avoid that, eventually led me to work 18 hours/day, then 20 hours/day, then 22 hours/day. Two hours sleep is not healthy—for anyone. For one battling the unknown depression, it was disastrous. Ultimately, following a dramatic two year slide my body, my mind, and even my spirit rebelled, and gave up.

Lamentations1
Jeremiah in his lament

When you reach absolute bottom, it is not a pleasant place to be. I could neither read nor write. I couldn’t concentrate. And I couldn’t bear to be with other people. I was lonely, yet wanted to be left alone. Lamentations 3:17-20 captured where I was:

My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the LORD.”
Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me.

I received professional help and medicine—notice, I received, I couldn’t even take the initiative to get help on my own. Over the next two years of recovery, as my body and mind rested, I was led to discover and even recognize what had happened to me. But my ultimate help came from God. Again in Lamentations 3:21-24

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.”

In my mind, I did not want to go back to the darkness that slowly strangled me. God’s promises and deliverance were my new home for comfort and peace. And yet…

The Triggers that Surprise

At times I was caught … by that downward slide! What was happening? I thought I have moved beyond this experience. It can’t be happening again! I don’t want it, I can’t stand it one more time!

It took time, but finally I began to recognize that there were triggers around me that caused such a backward slide into depression. The triggers can be events (holiday, birthday, etc.), meeting certain people (who may have had no role in the original depression), or even time of year.

For me, the big trigger was the time of year. Every year from late January to early March, I sense this looming darkness in my spirit. It’s not something that charged into me, but a slow squeezing effect. And that brought back the memories and fears of the worst days of the depression and collapse.

Through this process, I realized that I was going back to the longer hours, if my body would permit it (thankfully, it would not). My approach changed from focusing on more work to focusing on protecting my heart—not an easy thing to do in weakness. During this 6-7 week period, I had to be careful about how much sleep I needed. I found that after the breakdown, sleep was easier for me. I couldn’t physically keep up the hours. And that was good.

Spiritually, I rediscovered how critical the Lord’s Supper was to me. Also, I had to specifically concentrate on maintaining daily Scripture reading, and prayer. For some people, this seems so obvious, “Well, duh!” But recovering from depression meant for me a daily battle, and not always successful. And as difficult as it was at times, I needed to be around people. Their fellowship, even when almost no one knew about my background and what I was experiencing, was critical for my stability. I didn’t even need to talk, just to be around people was important.

It has been 14 years,a and the trigger of winter still rises every year. It is not as intense as it had been in the first 3-4 years. But it is there; the battle has begun anew in the last two weeks.

There are other triggers. Occasionally I will hear a song that brings back the depression in all its ugliness. Other times, it will be a smell that evokes memories. Even glimpses of photos will take me back 50 years… and the battle of depression, unknown at the time, comes upon me.

Once again I am drawn back to Lamentations 3:1-24

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.”

“I Have a Dream!” — The Challenge for us as Christians

Note: Occasionally I will use a term that can be emotionally loaded. Please do not misunderstand this—I do not do so to antagonize anyone or to add to heat to the discussion, but only as an understanding of what was heard in context in that time.

Growing up in the 1950’s and early 1960’s as a Caucasian I was not aware of any kind of racial issues, not by my intention, but by circumstances. My personal life was separated from that, physically and in terms of communication. Hey, I only made one telephone call (the nine-party line) before I was in Junior High. So my exposure to racial issues was limited to what was on the radio and later TV.

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...
“I Have a Dream!”

My sense of “segregation” is that we who lived in the country with homemade or second hand clothes were the outsiders, segregated from those who lived in town with the new clothes (my little mind felt that way, whether it was true or not). In the world I lived, I knew only one kind of racial barrier: Caucasians (‘whites”) and Native Americans (at the time, “Indians”). For me, the common terms “colored” “nigger” “black” or “African-American” were lost; that was not a world I inhabited. (Just as a side note, I never used the terms “colored” or “nigger” at any time in my life [except in reference when teaching, see below] because I found them offensive even when hearing them at the time.)

I knew about the Civil Rights movement, and followed the events in those “other worlds,” like Selma, Montgomery, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc. But that was not my experience, and there was really nothing I could do to change that… I didn’t even have enough money to take a bus trip to locate a troubled spot. But I was fascinated by Martin Luther King, Jr. even then. He spoke to my heart, even though I had not “been there, done that.”

Going to college in 1967 meant for me entering a new world—I met a friend who happened to be “black”—that was the term everyone used. And I met more. They were not angry, belligerent, or mean. They were “just like me.” For good or bad.

But I also saw on TV what was taking place and the violence. I knew in my heart from own experiences (another blog?) that what had happened, and still happening in many places, was not right. But not being “there” and life still going on in my own world (college then teaching), I was on the sidelines.

Several years later (early 1970’s) I served in the U.S. Navy. And there I was immersed in the aftermath of the riots of the 1960’s and 1970’s. As an Intelligence Officer in a Navy squadron that meant I did all the other jobs that none of the pilots wanted. One was to teach an “engagement” series of meetings titled “Race Relations” (plus a couple other related topics) to our squadron. The Navy was responding to real problems in real life on board ship. So I moved from the sidelines to active involvement. And now I saw the anger and hostility, arrogance, and condescension —on all sides—because we had “whites, blacks, and Hispanics” all mixed into close quarters.

Over the next three years I led many discussions, some heated, but none violent. That experience opened my eyes to the hurts and anguish that many felt, and that I had not. Surprisingly, during the entire three years, we did not have one “explosive” event, fights, stabbings, or confrontations. Looking back, it was a combination of things. At the time I wasn’t sure what I had done was helpful, but now 35 years later, I see the value of my observation close up and personal of what racial strife does to people, no matter which side.

In the 1980’s at seminary, I had many friends, but one of my closest friends (who happened to be “black”) became my daily Greek reading partner. Every day we met to read the Greek text, discuss, and pray. I remember during our fourth year he was asked to preach in Seminary Chapel on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He asked me about the sermon and how he was going to preach it. We talked about it. He preached it, and he did an excellent job, good Law and Gospel presentation and application. He began the sermon (as only he could have): “I have a dream!” … I have come a long way since the early 1950’s.

Since 1967 I have had a greater appreciation for what Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed —he far better than anyone—and what he fought for. It saddens me to see many twist what he had said and done. Many claim to follow him, but they really do not (another post?). That is, they have inherited a complaint or plea without having lived the reality behind the plea. They have not lived in that same environment that gave rise to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s passion and dream. And in the process, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation continues, but not always along racial lines.

We adopted two brothers from Korea in the 1970’s. We experienced the hidden prejudices, the intentional sometimes silent, but sometimes very vocal, forms of racial discrimination. Does it compare to what “blacks” experienced in the years prior to the 1970’s? No, and it is not written to elicit that comparison. Rather, to show that looking at only one aspect of discrimination misses what Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed.

My heart aches for anyone who lives in that kind of environment, especially for those who cannot do anything to change the circumstances. And sadly, abuse (marital, family, elder, etc.) falls into this same category. It is not popular like the Civil Rights movement eventually became; it is hidden by the abuser, the one being abused for fear, other family members, and by the “silent majority” who pretend it doesn’t exist. Even in the Church.

As a Christian I have begun to appreciate even more what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and proclaimed. Also as a Christian, I can appreciate even more what the Bible reveals about God’s care for those who are outsiders: widows, orphans, foreigners, aliens, outcasts.

As Christians are we continuing the prejudice, the strife, the separation, the willful neglect of those who suffer injustice? And from that Biblical perspective, we, of all people, should be sensitive to what is happening in our world today—and then realize that God may be using us to be a voice from those who have no voice. And if God used and continues to use Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge us out of our complacency, then so be it. After all, it is not just him that can say, “I have a dream!”

“Weak and Loved: A Mother-Daughter Love Story” by Emily Cook

My initial reactions to this book: gripping, riveting, compelling, page-turner, raw, intense, compassionate, revealing…. The list keeps getting longer. This is not a mere human interest story with Bible passages thrown in to “make things better.” This is a heart-wrenching revelation of what it means to be weak, and demanding, and weak, and bargaining, and loved, all seeping out through the cracks of the story.

Weak and Loved by Emily Cook

After sharing words of sympathy and encouragement, [my aunt] ended her email saying, “People tell you to be strong—I say be weak and be loved.”

Those words of encouragement to Emily form the basis of this powerful book. Emily Cook takes the reader on an unexpected journey of what it means to be “weak and loved.” Don’t expect a standard “tragedy” story with Christian clichés (“I trusted Jesus and everything turned out great!” or “If I can do it, so can you”). While it has a happy ending, this is not an easy journey, and the words “weak and loved” become central to understanding her daughter, her husband, herself, and God, but even more “what it means to be loved and to love.”

Emily Cook draws us into her life experiences as she encounters a struggle with the illness that strikes her daughter, and which seems to spiral out of control. We see how this affects her family, and Emily herself. We get a look inside the heart of this Christian as she wrestles with her role as mother, wife, and ultimately a daughter of God.

From my experience, stories of Christians enduring trials often present the events as a semi-documentary, with only glimpses of what goes on inside the person. The circumstances themselves take on a life of their own and become central. Not so in Weak and Loved; Emily bares her soul before God, sharing fear, doubt, even sin. And now she shares it with her readers. The inner conflict, so painfully exposed on each page, yields to this confession: “Death and sickness harassed Aggie while sin, doubt, and despair harassed me.”

As the disaster unfolds in her daughter’s life, Emily faces the darkness in her own life in a realistic, honest way. How many of us would be willing to open our lives and express the despair, “God will not forsake us…but if He did, would it look much different?” She was keeping notes throughout the entire journey. Thus, we are not left with a post-tragedy reflective piece with distance and time to sand off the rough edges. No, the reader sees and feels the agony of each raw moment as the author experienced it. We are carried along with Emily in the ups and downs of the whole ordeal. And at the end we experience the life-giving surprise that was hers in real time.

How far does love go? What are the bounds of Emily’s love for her daughter? When she is at the bottom she explores her heart. Then God slowly leads her to recognize, “The grip I had on Aggie was not holding, and it was not helping her get better. I did not possess her, and I had no right to demand to keep her.” Her resistance as a mother to let go of the daughter she loved so much brings her to a realization of the God who loves her daughter even more—a battle of love that continues.

Weak and Loved is a remarkable story of clarity about the inner turmoil of a parent who questions what is happening, herself, and even God. By God’s faithful persistence in working with her in the turmoil, not removing her from it, Emily learns about God’s love for her daughter, her husband, her other children, and ultimately God’s love for her. Only then do we see this as a Mother-Daughter Love Story—or better, a mother-daughter receiving-love story.

The appendix, “On being loved in the waiting room,” is brief, but worth the price of the book. She fills the gaps for so many people who struggle in helping, serving, and knowing what to say to those in the midst of tragedies.

First chance you get, buy this book. It will draw you in, challenge you, and lead you into a new understanding of yourself, your circumstances, and God. Ultimately you will know what it means to be Weak and Loved.

Preview the book here.

Buy the book here.

Watch for it at Amazon within the next two weeks. Visit Emily’s blog today.

The Cappadocian Fathers

Basil the Great of Caesarea

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nazianzus

Summary of Cappadocian Fathers 

So much of what we today consider “normal” in church and in doctrine comes out a struggle within the early church. The doctrine of the Trinity as formulated in the three ecumenical creeds came about in the battle against Arius.

Arius (256-336) was Bishop in Alexandria, Egypt. He questioned whether the second person always existed. By doing so, he challenged the fact of the New Testament that Jesus was truly God, and equal to the Father in the Godhead. The Council at Nicea in 325 was the first general council of the church catholic and one of the issues it dealt with was the teaching of Arius. The council condemned that teaching of Arius.

But the battle was far from over. The entire 4th century was one of turmoil in more clearly articulating the relationship of the Father and the Son (as well as the Holy Spirit). It was not a pretty sight in terms of instability, church fights, etc. (sounds almost like 2012). But the three Cappadocian fathers were instrumental in defending the Trinity based on the Scriptures. We give thanks to God for raising up these three to defend the faith.

Suffering: Plan A or Plan B?

Nancy Guthrie, a well-known author, knows suffering, death, and anguish. She and her husband experienced the death of two of their children, both at six months of age but three years apart. She has written serveral books addressing the topic from various perspectives. If you haven’t read some of them, you will be rewarded if you do. Holding on to Hope and Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow are excellent for an introduction to Nancy, her family, and suffering/pain.

As part of my reflective reading each day, I have started reading a book that she edited in 2009, Be Still My Soul: Embracing God’s Purposes and Provision in Suffering. She selected 25 writers throughout Christian history who tackle suffering. The authors range from Joni Earickson Tada to R. C. Sproul, from John Newton to Martin Luther, from St. Augustine to Corrie ten Boom.

Today I read what Joni had written about “God’s Plan A.” In the midst of trials and suffering, we sometimes think that accidents like hers catch God unawares and so he has to come up with a Plan B, because Plan A was just ruined. Not so, says Joni.

But I have to remember that the core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin, even up to my dying breath. My pain and discomfort are not his ultimate focus. He cares about these things, but they are merely symptoms of the real problem. God cares most, not about making my life happy, healthy, and free of trouble, but about teaching me to hate my transgressions and to keep me growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. God lets me continue to feel sin’s sting through suffering while I’m heading for heaven, constantly reminding me of what I am being delivered from, exposing sin for the poison it is.

(God’s Perspective on Suffering, p. 34)

Powerful words that leave us no wiggle room to “adjust” God’s plan so that we can be “happy.” Joni then concludes:

One day God will close the curtain on evil and, with it, all suffering and sorrow. Until then, I’ll keep remembering something else Steve Estes [mentor and friend] told me as he rested his hand on my wheelchair: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” I can smile knowing that God is accomplishing what he loves in my life—Christ in me, the hope of glory. And this is no Plan B for my life, but his good and loving Plan A.

(God’s Perspective on Suffering, p. 34)

Am I rejoicing in God’s Plan A? Or have I been living in a dream world thinking that “if only…” which becomes “my Plan A and it better be God’s Plan B, because look at what happened to God’s Plan A”?

Reflective reading? Yes! Exposing reading? Absolutely! Christ-directed reading? Again absolutely!

References:

Guthrie, Nancy. Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose and Provision in Suffering : 25 Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Problem of Pain. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010.

Guthrie, Nancy. Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2009.

Guthrie, Nancy. Holding on to Hope: A Pathway Through Suffering to the Heart of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2002.