Thursday, October 28, 2010

Depression, forgiveness and love

I'm shifting back into a personal mode with this post (but there will be another post on Bible and canon matters soon). The last two weeks have been a rather emotional time. This afternoon I was at a funeral for a friend of mine, John McCulloch. He was part of a regular lunch group at University of Qld that was going since the mid-90s, 1996 I think. It was a bunch of queer postgrads and friends. He started off as a friend (he was tutoring at QUT then) but ended up as a postgrad, our last, because the group has pretty much wound up now. I also realise now that the last time I saw him, in June, he must have known he was sick because I found out at the funeral that his dissertation, which got submitted, was pretty much publishable, even including an index. Back then he was having it all edited and it sounded like it was a major job not simply a proof read, which suggests to me now that he knew then that at least it would be wise to get as much done as soon as possible. After that his health went down. I was out of the loop by then with the full onset of depression then flu on top of that and while I knew he was not well it would be a while before it became clear how serious it was and by the time I found out how bad things really were it was too late. And then he was dead. I hope to write about him in the near future but I want to wait for a little while yet.

Death and mortality are not what I want to write about although they provide me a sharp frame in which to write, a stark backdrop to my thoughts, maybe even a note of urgency. No, I want to write now about recent developments in my own personal life, a surprising twist in my saga of depression and the crisis and rupture in friendship that was part of it almost a year ago. I wrote about it all in my After the Eclipse post back in July and if you haven't read it or have forgotten the details you might like to go back and re-read it. But to briefly reprise the main gist for this post. Last year a friend, I'll call him M for a blogging identity he used, came back into my life. Our friendship became very intense before collapsing under the weight of my depression, anxiety, mania. As I said in After the Eclipse, by November last year I was probably barking mad and M was copping most of the shrapnel. It's now a little over a year since I last saw him, a happy mid-October day 2009, I was still holding it together then. Strangely though I remember as he was leaving, watching him walk off down the street and thinking to myself 'I'm not going to see him again for a very long time'. I dismissed it as a chill of anxiety, well, tried to anyway. Perhaps, looking back on it, it was the 'scout ripple' for the great wave of anxiety that would sweep over me as everything around me seemed to unravel completely, from end of October onwards last year.

Writing that depression post in July was in part about trying to make sense of where I was by then psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. It was also an attempt to express the grief and the guilt and shame over the rupture with M, to express some kind of apology to him. It was a desperate attempt in the hope that one day he might read it. I'll quote a snippet of what I wrote then

Then there is all the grief about the friendship now lost. If there was anything I could do to undo those events, I would. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for him but I know some of what it might have meant for him to have suffered it. That comes from confidences that remain between he and I, which I keep close always. And, believe me, that knowledge heightens the guilt as well. I hope he wasn't too damaged by what happened; I know how, why damage could be done. I don't know how but I hope I can atone in some way, make some kind of expiation some day. I am so sorry. As for any reconciliation, well that's not in my hands and I don't know how it would come about anyway. All I can do is pray in the words of Julian of Norwich that one day, that somehow "all will be well" - for him most of all
Those words remain true. I am still so sorry and I hope to make amends to him somehow one day and I hope so much for a full reconciliation between us, to see and talk with him again, that "all will be well" again between us.

As it turns out, he has read that post. I know because he emailed me last week. That was kind of a strange day. I'd had to go out to the university to do some things. For some reason he was on my mind that day, especially on my way home that afternoon. Maybe I'm kind of tuned to him in some way? Anyway, when I got home and turned on the computer I was thinking something like "what if there's an email from him" and when I opened up the browser I glimpsed there was something and when I got into my mail, there it was. It had happened. I was elated and terrified at the same time; I left his to last and went though my other mail, my heart racing. When I finally opened it and began reading, it was a moment of sheer joy. All the guilt and shame was suddenly lifted, it was a moment of respite for me from all that shame and pain. I won't divulge the details of what he had to say but the gist is he was wanting to express his sorrow and apologise to me for what had happened, for his terminating the friendship back then.

Initially I could only respond to his sorrow and pain. I'm a bit of a big kid, really, and rushed in half cocked. I wanted to reassure him and I also wanted to say my apologies to him. Oh what a flood it was. And I wanted to respond as soon as possible because I could see the pain in what he wrote and I didn't want to leave him hanging. That was all Wednesday/Thursday of last week. I don't think I even really paid attention to his own apology because I was reading the fact that he had contacted me as his forgiving me. But I kept pondering and reflecting upon all he'd written and pretty soon realised I'd stuffed up again. Ah, the curse of good intentions!

To explain what I mean, I'm going to have to back up a bit now and quote some more of what I wrote in July

Everyone thinks of depression as grief or melancholy or sadness and, yes, it is all of those. But, at least as I've experienced it, there are two key words, doubt and paralysis, that best describe what happens. Doubt, well it's central to anxiety isn't it. You doubt everything, most especially yourself. Nagging, nagging doubt, that probably is the famous black dog that worries at you like a dog at bone. It chews up all the inner energies so that sometimes a complete lethargy, exhaustion comes over you. From doubt comes paralysis. You doubt everything including your abilities and all your motivations. Doubt puts everything in the worst possible light. Consequently, it becomes too difficult to make any sort of decision, to initiate any sort of action. You're like a rabbit in the spotlight, frozen, because everything you might opt to do looks so bad, either bad in itself, or coming out of something bad in yourself. That I'm writing all this now indicates that the doubt has eased because at it's worst I could not have even put finger to keyboard. I would be caught up in an inner self-critical monologue busily analysing and tearing apart why I'm going to write and what I'm going to write...

But I wasn't happy with that and in the comments thread I went on to elaborate some more on doubt

I don't think I really conveyed what I meant by doubt, let alone why it might result in mania. When I talk about doubt, I mean what could be termed a process of self-criticism, except that this is the most withering, most savage, most acerbic and most relentless critical reflection upon oneself, you can imagine. And nothing is safe: every act, every thought, every feeling, every word, aspect of oneself is thrown under the most probing and savage scrutiny. This self critical process is like a Greek chorus in your head, always commenting, always criticising. It never stops. The result is that you see yourself in the worst possible light all the time.

Oftentimes the result is a retreat, a withdrawal into oneself. It's exhausting having to endure such a barrage of criticism. Also you think so little of yourself, that you feel that contact with others is some kind of awful imposition upon them. You withdraw rather than make life difficult for them, which is what you think you are doing because obviously you are such a useless or vile or rubbish person. That's what the chorus is telling you anyway.

In his email M said that, like me, he too has been grappling with deep depression at the time. The tone of his email indicated that he still was, just like me. We have both, then, been dealing with that maelstrom of internal withering self-criticism, that relentless, unescapable internal accuser. I said that M came back into my life last year - he had withdrawn from me quietly a year before and I realise now, reflecting on the reasons he offered then as to why, that it's likely even way back then his internal prosecutor had set me up as a standard he couldn't live up to, set me up as a standard by which to point the finger and proclaim "J'accuse!" That internal prosecutor twists and perverts everything to make you look like utter rubbish, a vile piece of shit. That's the cruel dynamic of depression. Furthermore, that malevolence of depression is such that my apologies in the face of his apology could even be taken up by that internal prosecutor as yet another rod for his back.

I know that because that's why I was responding to his apologies with apologies of my own. That he was apologising to me was further proof of how bad I was and so on setting up a feedback loop of guilt that would ensnare us both. My internal accuser was trying to derail his apology. I wanted somehow to break out of that. What I decided to do came as a complete surprise to me at first.

What I did was to write back to tell him I forgive him for everything, all those actions and inactions to me for which he had been tormenting himself.

In such depths of despair that so characterise depression, what you feel, what you know about yourself can be described in one word, unforgiven. Your inner accuser puts you through the most relentless examination of conscience imaginable (I'm sure many Christian saints were battling with depression in their lives). There's no let up. And no chance for absolution. There is only that constant inner chorus attacking you, vilifying you, scrutinising every aspect of you, because it is, after all, part of you, it knows all your secrets. In the Hebrew Bible, Satan, the Satan (ha satan) is the accuser, a functionary in the heavenly court. I think that in some sense that heavenly court corresponds to our own inner world (we are the image and likeness of the divine), so it's unsurprising we have our own satan, an accuser, as an aspect of ourselves. One thing I have learnt about that accuser is that accusation is all it knows (in Jewish tradition angels are only capable of performing only one task at any given time and they must complete that task before they can take on a new one). It reminds me of those hideously obsessive prosecuting attorneys in US crime dramas that are only concerned with one thing, making sure the accused goes down, regardless of any details and facts in the case (one of the reasons I can't stand such US court dramas, it's all so inhuman and yet valorised at the same time).

In the depths of depression our accuser is in full flight and of course it can only do one thing, accuse. It's not interested in healing, it's not interested in resolution, it's certainly not interested in reconciliation, of setting to right all the screw ups and messes and failures that it so eagerly pinpoints and presents before us. No, all it can do is accuse. At its worst it's like a lynch mob, it's not content until it has fully victimised and destroyed you, me, us. In it's eyes, I, we don't deserve anything more.

It strikes me that forgiveness is one way of shortcircuiting that accusing, satan trap. As I said before, M contacting me was to me a sign of forgiveness, I was forgiven, he had forgiven me, and it gave me an amazing sense of respite, of joy, so much that I couldn't really attend to what he was saying, couldn't attend to his own self-accusations. I also realised that no matter how much I said it was fine, how sorry I was, how it was my fault, all of that, it was probably grist for the mill for that accuser of his. I could feel mine stirring too looking for new opportunities to bring the calm to an end. So I decided that the only thing I could say to my friend - because he is my friend, dear to me, despite the rupture - it's one thing I learnt from my accuser, it could attack me so readily over him because he is so important to me - the only thing I could say to M was, I forgive you. If your accuser presents the spectacle of my pain before you and accuses you of failing me, remember I forgive you and your accuser has no right to use me to convict you. No right whatsoever because I forgive you.

Ideally, I guess, it should be about forgiving ourselves, I forgive myself, M forgives himself, you forgive yourself. The accuser can only accuse, it's brief is not forgiveness. Consequently, I think it's only forgiveness can undo the power of the accuser. Yet in the face of that relentless barrage of accusation, it's all you can do to keep things together, you're down on the ground crawling, struggling. When I was bashed in Townsville back in 1988 I was punched in the head, tried to escape but couldn't. All I could do was run out into the street so that I could be seen, and drop to the ground curl up in a foetal position while they kicked and stomped on me. It's not a bad analogy for what I've been describing with depression. The accuser is kicking and stomping you as you curl up on the ground in desperation. All your energy is directed in staying together; there's no reserves left to forgive yourself. Forgiveness, then, has to come from somewhere else, somewhere outside. Humans are not isolated individuals pursuing our own self interest, we are social beings. As John Donne said, "no man is an island entire of itself" we are "each... a piece of the continent, a part of the main." The continent of humanity, the continent of life. So for my friend, for M, I realised it was essential that I put aside my own guilts and shame and respond, reach out in the only way possible, to forgive him. And I hope that I have, therefore, if not fully immobilised his accuser, at least taken away some of its power over him.

I think one of the most important personal tasks facing all of us is to practice forgiveness. I know it's not easy and in many ways it actually goes against the grain of capitalist society particularly in its current neo-liberal phase, with its all power to the market, there is no such thing as society, we are all but consumers striving to be winners ideology. I think it's especially important for us LGBT people. I recently read a report from QAHC on mental health and LGBT communities in Queensland. The figures for self harm, suicide, drug and alcohol problems, depression were horrific but sadly not, to me, surprising. And interestingly, the report highlighted the social dominance of neo-liberal ideology as a major factor in making things worse. There's no place for forgiveness in the neo-liberal isolationist cult of the self. Forgiveness acknowledges the other, the other in pain, and the self in pain too; it is reciprocal, it is healing, it promotes reconciliation, drawing people together, rather than the atomising driving-people-apart self-centred dynamic of capitalism so vigorously promoted by neo-liberal ideology.

Over the last year, I've found myself thinking on odd occasions of a moment in Lord of the Rings. It's towards the end after the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the ring. Sam and Frodo have been snatched from the jaws of death after extraordinary struggles and suffering. The next chapter, the next scene in the film, Frodo wakes up. Gandalf is beside the bed to greet him and then the others come in to welcome him, to celebrate his recovery, lastly Sam. The image of it has repeatedly cropped up in my mind (maybe not all the details, and probably not accurately) and I've thought 'oh how wonderful it would be to wake up from all of this, for this struggle to be over' while imagining myself in that bed with my friends there to welcome me back (and M among them). The hopeless struggles of Frodo and Sam to get to Mt Doom and destroy the ring, for me anyway, serve as a good mythical image of the struggle that is depression. At the moment I have a respite, thanks to M, but I know I have more struggles ahead. I've got to work what to do with the rest of my life, to sort out my life work. Maybe those struggles wont be so bad but I hope for that time when I can wake knowing those struggles are over. I also hope that you, M, my friend, will soon wake from your own prison of pain and despair. I hope I can be there to welcome you back, to celebrate. I'm prepared to wait for that day in the next room, or down the corridor, or in the lobby, even out in the cold windblown street if you prefer.

I hope the day will come when I will see you and I can say, not 'I'm sorry' not even 'I forgive you' but 'oh it is so good, I am so happy to see you again'.

And you, dear reader, please say a prayer for my friend... and one for me too.

I seem to have become rather too personal. Normal service will be restored in due course.


  1. Goodness, I sound so surprisingly sure of myself in parts of this. Moreso than I really am, perhaps.

  2. The importance of forgiveness seems vital for health and healing. A notable Catholic healer, Fr Francis McNutt, writes that more than anything else unforgiveness blocks the healing energies and you can't really proceed with a person in a state of unremitting hatred - which some people really are and they cling to their hatreds for dear life as I fancy you could say is happening with people like Taliban fanatics. McNutt considers unforgiveness worse than many sins, the one that keeps individuals furthest from the divine and this appears to be the position of the gospels which say if you won't forgive nor will the Father in Heaven forgive you.

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