Is this Happening to You?

By John Mallon

From The Sooner Catholic, October 8, 1995

You find yourself awake before dawn. You think about praying but somehow you can’t, other than to beg God for it to stop—that horror and terror like a ringing in your ears but in your whole body—you can’t believe it’s happening to you, and you don’t even know what is happening to you except you hurt excruciatingly inside.

Others begin to notice. You don’t want to do anything and you stop caring that you don’t. You don’t know why you resent other people who are able to do things and care about things. Something seems irrevocably lost. Maybe something—or someone is, and there is nothing you can do about it. Life hurts. The air hurts. The only thing you look forward to is being alone—crawling under the covers and shutting the world out—It serves them right! You wish someone or something could reach inside you and understand but at the same time you don’t want to let them. 

People ask you what’s wrong and you say “nothing, I’m just tired,” which is partly true—you are never not tired and other people all seem like enemies. You just don’t care anymore. Are you punishing them? You might even get angry, defensive if someone tries to speak to you or suggests you think about getting some help. You wait for “it” to lift and think you can (or ought to be able to) pull yourself together, and yet your life is starting to slip. You don’t care about work, the things you used to enjoy look insipid. Everything is an unthinkable chore— making a phone call, eating, answering the phone, having a conversation, making small talk is absolutely unbearable. You forget things. People are starting to think you’re irresponsible—at least that’s what you think they think. How dare they? You are utterly overwhelmed at the smallest chore. Bills go unpaid—balancing your checkbook? You might as well try to go out and lift the building.  Your brain just can’t wrap itself around it. It’s no exaggeration. Somewhere you know something is not right and you know you ought to be able to do these things, and that “ought” becomes an accusing finger pointing relentlessly without ceasing. Haunting guilt increases the vicious cycle.

Speaking of accusation, most of us, quite naturally, tend to “believe” our thoughts, but what if our thoughts are repeating things like, “I’m no good, nobody loves me, how could anyone love me? I’m unlovable, unattractive. I’m getting old. I’m gonna die alone and destitute.” Ordinarily you’d reject such thoughts as nonsense and self-pity, but suddenly they seem so... convincing. These thoughts are not true, but where do such cruel and frightening thoughts come from? 

So what is wrong? Why is it hard to admit something is? Are you going mad? No. All of the above are typical symptoms of a common and treatable illness. It’s called depression. It is a very serious and incapacitating illness. You may fear there is something wrong with your character or fear everyone else thinks so. But it may simply be that your brain chemistry has been thrown out of whack by intense or prolonged stress. The actual chemicals in your brain that regulate the stability of your moods can be overworked and thrown out of balance. This can be caused by such things as the break-up of a relationship, loss of a job, (or even change of job) betrayal by a friend, rejection, loss or—something like the Oklahoma City bombing. The Oklahoma City bombing. Hmm. “Everybody else is holding up just fine, so I ought to be able to,” you may think. “It’s been almost six months. I should be over it by now.” Who says everyone else is holding up just fine? No one is making any comparisons. If you hurt, you hurt. Maybe you weren’t directly affected by the bombing at all, and think, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way, those people have real problems. No. If you hurt, you hurt. And you have a right to all the care you need.

The disturbing symptoms described above may show up six months or even a year or more after the trauma. But it is not a failure of character but a disorder in body chemistry. It is nothing to be ashamed of and can be treated medically and therapeutically. It is not something we “snap out of” by will-power anymore than we can snap out of a broken arm. Recognizing it and getting the help we need is half the battle. We need to see a doctor or a counselor. It is difficult to open up and receive that kind of help. But to ask for help, when we need it, is something we all have to do sometimes. It is a sign of courage and strength, humility, wisdom and character. If someone abuses us or humiliates us in our need the loss is theirs. “When did we see you, Lord and not do those things for you?” Actually, to go to someone in our need is to do them a great honor and pay them a great compliment. It gives them an opportunity to be generous and receive the crucified Christ in you. It tests their character. How they receive you is a reflection their character not yours. To entrust someone with the sacredness of your helplessness is a noble thing, like going to confession.

We tend to think of being Christ-like as being strong, wise, and compassionate to others, we don’t like to think about being on the receiving end. Yet, Christ fell three times under the weight of His cross and needed to be assisted by the Cyrenian. Imagine God needing help and having no choice but to accept it! He was broken for us. He was not stoic, did not put on a facade of strength but entered in to human weakness in all its degradation and humiliation and made it holy. 

Depression is a medical problem, not a character flaw. We are approaching the six month anniversary of the OKC bombing, and also the holidays, which can be a difficult time for many people. Catholic Charities and other organizations have help available for depression, loss, grief, post traumatic stress disorder and other invisible scars of this brutal violence which has wounded us all. If you are having difficulty, please, give someone the gift of seeking their help that we all may share in our continued healing.

“When one member of the body suffers, all suffer.” (1 Corinthians 12:26-27)

© 1996 By John Mallon