I was watching tennis with my father in law on one lazy Sunday afternoon surrounded by three German Shepherds. The dogs and I had fallen asleep and I woke up to a chorus of snoring. As I looked at my father in law sleepy eyed, he looked around the room at our snoring dogs and said, “Could you not watch one hour?” This is of course a reference to Jesus’ harsh words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. This moment before Jesus’ death is one of the most cited passages for the humanity of Jesus. Throughout history theologians have pointed to this moment in time and space where Jesus seems the most human. Here, and the curious scene when Jesus weeps for his friend Lazareth, Jesus seems the most vulnerable. Matthew 26:38 says that Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow–and in Luke’s account Christ is so distressed that he sweats tears of blood. On the cross, experiencing the alienation and abandonment from the fellowship of the Trinity, He cries out the lament, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
One of the most difficult symptoms of depression for me is the loneliness. For as long as I could remember, I’ve always felt out of place. In high school, my preoccupation with books and theology rather than sports and tractors naturally put my social prospects at a disadvantage. But as I would learn my problem of isolation was not my social awkwardness but withdrawal. Because when my feelings get difficult for me to manage I assume that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. For others, it seems that their path through life is not fraught with valleys of despair. And it seems to me that the heart ache and brokenness of my life just doesn’t happen to people who seem to me to be perfect. For too long, I believed these people were just beautiful, bubbly, smart and kind—things that I could never be or attain. So, for too long I didn’t reach out. Either my friends wouldn’t care or they couldn’t handle the deep pain I was experiencing. The problem with this lie is that there’s some truth to it. A lot of people just don’t have the framework for mental illness. When my in laws think about mental illness they think of the psychological experiments, repressed memories—and their schizophrenic aunt that we don’t talk about. The reason for this blog is to change this. By bringing difficult things out into the open, we normalize and can learn how to care for people. Because the truth of the matter is that mental illness is more common that we think—18% of people in the US. It is a silent disease that becomes a crisis when it’s too late.
Until recently, I only had one or two friends that even knew about my struggles with mental illness. I would unload all of my baggage on people and when trouble came I would expect them to hold me through it. There were some that did. Fiercely loyal people, my husband and my best friend both have clear sense of who they are. They naturally have clear boundaries with people. And they stood and still stand by me when trouble came. Others, who didn’t have the time or resources or simply didn’t know the expectations I had of them fell away. I don’t blame them but they became a self-fulfilling prophesy of why people can’t be trusted.
When I open the library around 6 AM, I drive through what’s known as the Duke Forest—a dense forest Duke uses for hiking trails and ecological research. This morning I drove through a dense fog that covered the forest. Without street lamps, I could imagine it would be perilous hiking. I found out two weeks ago that I was not admitted to Duke’s ThD program. I was shocked. I found out from a friend in my cohort when he asked how my interview went. When I didn’t get an invitation to interview, I knew. After eight years of theological study, this was it. This is what I’ve been working toward. It was the only school where I applied because it was the only school that worked geographically for us. I had already spoken with professors at Duke about a possible dissertation. Mentally, I was there with a velvet draped robe and tam doctoral hat. I often caught myself writing Dr. Lindsey Gibson on my notebooks or just to see what it looked like on my resume. I often imagined receiving mail addressed to Mr. and Dr. Gibson and lecturing freshman about Christology. I often sported Duke apparel proclaiming my allegiance to their athletic programs but also associating myself with Duke and thus proclaiming my own academic excellence both past and future. After receiving this news, it was over. All of the degrees that I’ve earned and the degree I’ll earn in May didn’t matter. I had planned for this eventuality—but I never thought it would happen. All of a sudden, I don’t know who I am anymore. The sweatshirt with DUKE brazened on my chest all of a sudden became not my future academic excellence—but my failure. All of a sudden, I have no future, no plan, and no hope.
I sunk down to uncharted waters of depression. It wrapped around me like a fog and I was lost in sin and came closer to suicide than I’d care to admit. Unable to care for myself, I was forced to reach out to my community. With a clear explanation of what was going on, boundaries and expectations, my community showed up in so many ways. Through the confession of sin, one friend saw me in my brokenness. Because her way of life is so steeped in the gospel, she immediately pointed me to the one who forgives. She opened up her home and her life in inexplicable ways. “Just come” she said. “Don’t knock. Don’t call. Just come.” She embraced me in my suffering with the arms of Jesus. She was the light in the fog that called me home. One friend answered the phone at 12:30 AM and spoke gentle words of comfort to my husband’s anxious heart. Another, simply sat in the darkness with me. She saw it for all its horror and didn’t cower or run away. Yet another friend answered the phone at midnight came and sat with my weeping husband until around 3am. I stayed at her house for a weekend and watched Psych reruns and ate ice cream. As my thesis advisor, Dr. Warren Kinghorn wrote, their presence simply said, “You are unable to hope right now, and that’s OK. You don’t have to. We will carry you for a time in the work of hoping.” They hoped when I couldn’t hope for myself. As we told my sister and brother in law—because their life is steeped in prayer, in the presence of such darkness and pain they stopped and prayed. They cast out anything to do with the Enemy and invited the Spirit of Life and Truth. They prayed for strength beyond themselves when they couldn’t offer anything more.
Bonhoeffer writes in his book Life Together, “A psalm we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgement, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.” The Christ I encounter and overemphasize in my life is the divinity Christ who is homoousious with the Father—holy other. Bonhoeffer reminds me here that debased as man Christ is not only mediator of my salvation but is actively praying for me. He is not only Just and Justifier—but both the subject and object of our prayer. In the psalms, Christ both lives among us and experiences suffering but also offers prayer to ease the suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane Christ doesn’t just or even primarily pray for Himself and the agony He will endure—but weeps over my suffering. My suffering is not that I didn’t get what I want by not getting into Duke—but that I would place my value, sense of success/failure and worth as a person to a point I’d contemplate suicide but that my status and worth as a person was grounded in something other than Christ, Himself. That’s the real tragedy—that after eight years of Christian formation I’d forget something like that. Christ cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He weeps that mental illness would lead me to a place of withdrawal and that humanity would ever be separated from the Father. My community can love me fiercely and boldly because it is firmly rooted in the community of the Trinity. Yes—they can stay up and watch just one hour because the Son already watches and prays for me.