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Remembering the way out of the shadows


May is Mental Illness Awareness Month. Perhaps not a Hallmark card event, but important nonetheless. According to recent statistics, mental illness will afflict one in four Americans in a given year. Treatment for mental disorders is successful even compared to treatment for common physical ailments, and yet, many suffer without treatment, believing there is no help for them or that they just need to get themselves together, concentrate, try harder.

Thirteen years ago, I joined the ranks of the “one in four Americans” as I was overpowered by a clinical depression that was so bad at times I could not dress myself, fix a meal or leave my home. After two hospitalizations and both therapy and treatment with antidepressants, the bottom lifted enough for me to function and begin the journey from despair to joy.

Sometimes, when it was particularly bad, I would be so lacking in confidence that I could not make decisions about the simplest matters. Grocery shopping was agony as I stood in mindless indecision between bananas and oranges. Once I went to the video store to pick up some movies for the kids and came out 30 minutes later empty-handed.

It was then that I began to tentatively develop my Rules for Living with Depression. I could not always follow them, but as I gradually ascended from the darkness, these rules became indispensable to me. Though depression is far from me now, I still follow them when life gets stressful.

1) During the good time of the day -- there’s usually an hour or more when one is more energetic than other times -- make a list of tasks to accomplish the next day. Even the most mundane things should be written down: Take a shower, eat breakfast, take a walk, write a letter. And then the next day, just do it. If you can’t decide which one to do first, do them in the order your wrote them down.

2) If indecisiveness is a problem for you, go with your first decision. You know that if you were healthy, your first decision would be fine. Nothing has changed in your ability to make good decisions, only the confidence that they are good.

3) When people express a desire to be with you, believe them. Your company is still enjoyable. It is only you that doesn’t enjoy you now.

4) Never finish a job at the end of the day. Save some part of it until the next day to finish, because it is easier to continue a task than to begin something new. (I strongly recommend this rule for writers.)

5) Make beauty a part of your life every day. This was always difficult for me because even when I knew something was beautiful, I just couldn’t feel it. However, there is objective goodness in beauty, and the depressed person should be exposed to it to counter the darkness.

6) Exercise every day. Period. It’s proven that it makes you feel better. It has to do with endorphins: little guys that are released into your brain when you exercise.

7) Sing every day, for the same reason. Apparently endorphins like music, and singing doesn’t make you sweaty.

8) Be humble. Believe what others tell you about the good, the true and the beautiful. The pitfall for the depressed person is that, knowing they are ill, they somehow still believe their view of the world is accurate.

9) Go to church. Read the scriptures. You will feel the psalmist’s lament as you never did before and you will be one with those who cried out to Jesus for healing. You are now among those poor in spirit whom Jesus called “blest.”

10) Find someone to trust and tell them your darkest thoughts. Bad things grow in the dark. Talking about them brings them into the light and shows them for what they are. This rule is the most important of them all.

Perhaps it seems odd that May is the month chosen for remembering mental illness. Better it should be November or February, where, at least in my part of the world, the weather is so dreary. But spring is hard for those who cannot perceive beauty, for those who feel dead inside when life is bursting all around, for those who live in the shadow of the cross while others are breaking out of the tomb. The contrast is almost too much to bear.

The depressed person must be reminded that there are no shadows without the sun. The sun is just on the other side of the cross, and you will find your way there. You will be raised up and, when you are, these dark days will be a distant memory, and -- if you can believe it -- a memory for which you will be grateful.

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri. Her e-mail address is pbs@fidnet.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001