During our College Summit trip a week ago, I (Ben) found myself in a tough spot. My writing group was playing it safe. We had gone through a morning and afternoon of free writing and no one had risked anything on paper. There were obvious reasons for that. All the students knew they’d be reading their words aloud, and you can’t blame a teenager for thinking twice about being vulnerable to a group of strangers.
Naturally, what they were writing landed on the page with a thud. A few were brave enough to tiptoe up to the edge and peek over the cliff. But then they scrambled for safety, content to use words that concealed the words they really wanted to use.
The goal, our writing coach had told us as volunteers, was to identify the student’s heartbeat and steer her toward putting that on paper. Frederick Buechner called his favorite authors “vein-opening writers” for spilling their lives right onto the page. I knew no one in this group was going to do that unless someone else started. So I did.
I told them that nine years ago I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital for major depression. I told them that I didn’t want to live anymore. I told them how painful it was for my family, and for my dad in particular. Here he was a doctor and he couldn’t fix his own son. In time I’d learn more about the genetics of mental illness — how they burrow down the root system of one’s family tree. I told them how ashamed I felt, that I didn’t have the freedom to shave because someone confiscated my razor since I couldn’t be trusted with it. I told them how I healed, slowly, enough to leave the hospital after a week. I didn’t tell them about the uphill climb from there: the stigma of mental illness, especially within some Christian circles (though I should say my immediate circle was incredibly supportive); the days that had been wiped clean from me, lost to marathon sleep sessions; a run of days so empty of feeling that I couldn’t imagine it ever being otherwise. I remember sitting in a busy coffee shop one day and thinking that the real me was sitting across the room, observing and taking notes on a stranger.
I shared this because those students needed someone to go first. And I shared it because the one pact I made with myself when I left the hospital — other than that I would never go back — was that I had to share my story. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I understood the word “depression” applied to me. And yet I can pinpoint my first memory of the illness at eight years old. I can’t make up that ground anymore, but I might help someone else do it.
I’ve come to the stage where I’ve made peace with my depression. It wasn’t until years after the hospital that I made a sobering discovery: I would never be cured. My situation was chronic. What I had to do was live with it. And so I’m trying.
I was a year and a half into youth ministry when I went into the hospital; when I came out, it felt like day one. Only it was better. I discovered what Henri Nouwen meant when he wrote about a wounded healer. Little by little, I stopped pretending to be someone who was in control.
I’ve been amazed in the past ten years how many other people have been on this road too. I have never regretted sharing the fact I have depression with anyone, but I’ve also kept that circle pretty close. I share it now, to an impossibly wide circle, because — simply — I feel compelled to. There is a new tab up top entitled HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE (now changed to BROKEN PLACES). It’s the title from a book by Michael Greenberg about his daughter being struck mad. I haven’t finished the book yet, but the words have stuck with me for their lyricism. Words have saved me from my illness, and I suppose that’s the reason why I continue to put words to paper about it. To the extent you’re comfortable doing the same, this could become a conversation.
After I shared with my writing group, they turned back to their blank pages. Some began scribbling furiously. Some frowned at their papers. Some looked for split ends. After five minutes, one walked to the front of the class. She was crying, and after she handed me her paper she went straight out the door. I waited a few minutes, then slipped into the hallway so I could catch her before she came back. I read what she wrote, which was the beginnings of a story much like my own though on a greatly accelerated timeline. After a few minutes she returned and sat down next to me. I asked her how she felt. “Awful,” she said, sniffling. Then, “But now that that’s out of me” — she nodded at her paper — “I feel a lot better.” “Have you ever written about this before?” I asked. She shook her head. “Never. I never wanted to.” Then she smiled and said, “But now it’s out.”