My second year in grad school, I took a poetry writing course. It was a workshop-based course, so our professor took us through a “practice” workshop session using one of his colleague’s poems. It was a beautiful, powerful, compelling work.
It also triggered me.
We read it communally, but silently, in class. By the time I reached the second page, my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it hammering against my rib cage. There was a loud rushing in my ears– and blackness was circling and tightening my vision. I felt sick, and faint, and I couldn’t even excuse myself. I felt like I stumbled out of the classroom, and I barely made it to the bathroom before I vomited. I curled up around the toilet, laid my head on the tile, and tried to will myself to stop shaking. I couldn’t. I was sweating all over, and the cool tile felt both miserably ice-cold and yet soothing.
Eventually, I crawled back to class, collected my things, and slowly made my way out to my car. When I finally reached the semi-privacy of my car, I broke down. I sobbed for almost half an hour before I could pull myself together enough to drive home. I don’t know how I made it back to my apartment without getting into an accident, but somehow I managed. I walked inside and collapsed on my living room floor and laid there for hours.
At some point, my roommate got home and found me there, cradling a pillow. She asked me what was wrong, and I explained what I’d been through. When I got to the end, I started trying to belittle it. I was being melodramatic. I had just gotten myself all whooped up. I just needed to practice more self-control. My roommate stopped me. “Sam . . . I think you had a panic attack.”
I googled “panic attack,” and found the Mayo Clinic’s entry on it– and my roommate was right. I’d experienced many of the symptoms they list. I didn’t know what to make of this, as my mental framework of all mental problems being sin problems didn’t have a whole lot of room for them.
I kept having them, though, and they kept getting worse. And the triggers could be anything– there was nothing I could do to avoid them. And they were crippling. I would have hours or full days where I couldn’t do anything. One happened in class, while I was teaching, and it was all I could do to make it through the last ten minutes.
Finally, I had to go to my boss because it was severely affecting my work. She was so compassionate– she understood what I was going through. I don’t know if she had experienced it herself or had been close to someone who did, but she didn’t dismiss me. She did ask if I was seeing anyone for them, and when I said no, she offered her psychologist’s name.
Go see… a psychologist? I remember staring at her, stunned. Part of me couldn’t believe she’d just recommended a secular psychologist, even though, superficially, I understood that this was a perfectly normal, kind and sympathetic response. I shook my head. “Thank you, but if I do go and see someone, I’d prefer to see a biblical counselor.”
She opened up a little bit further, giving me glimpse of her history, attempting to encourage me. At one point, she briefly mentioned that there were plenty of options for a healthy recovery, including medication. I shook my head again and interrupted her. “I’m . . . not really comfortable with taking medication. I think I can get a handle on this on my own.” I think my response surprised her as slightly out of place– her comment had been an aside, really.
I left her office, happy that I had her support and understanding, but not any closer to a solution. I knew that seeing a psychologist wasn’t the answer– the problem I was having wasn’t one they could fix, and what was medication going to do? All it could do was turn me into a passive zombie.
Several weeks later, I wasn’t any closer to an answer. I had dedicated time to meditation and prayer, looking for guidance and illumination. I’d found Bible verses and pinned them around my cubicle, reciting them under my breath as I hid in the under-construction stairwell.
One morning I woke up and looked around my room. I thought about getting up– I needed to- but I couldn’t. Not yet. Pulling back my blankets felt impossibly huge. As I lay there, I remember wishing that I never had to move again. That morning, a thought trickled in.
I was depressed.
I had been avoiding admitting it. It had been lingering in the back of my mind, unacknowledged. I took a deep breath, and said it out loud.
The admission felt loud in the still quiet of my room. But, suddenly, it was like a load dropped off my chest and made it easier to breathe. The raw honesty soaked in, slowly. I went about my day, battling with myself. I wanted to dismiss what I had said out loud that morning, but I also couldn’t let it go. There was something about the rightness of what I’d said, the trueness of it, that helped me deal with what had been happening.
It was a lesson that I’ve kept on learning since then. That words have power. That they can lock– and unlock doors. They can wound, damage, cut– and they can heal. There are some words that I grew up thinking of as friendly– but now frighten or trigger me. And there are words I was taught to fear, but now are familiar.
Words like depression.
I’d been told that the word depression was a lie. No one is actually depressed– they’re just sinners, and liars. They have deceived themselves, and they’ve bought into the convenience of pretending that they can ignore their “soul-sickness” with a diagnosis.
For me, acknowledging the truth of a word set me free. I could be depressed, and while that wasn’t a healthy thing, and I couldn’t stay there forever . . . knowing what was happening and having a word for it was the first step.