Chronic Illness, Depression, and Spirituality

There’s an old-school rule for clergy and spiritual teachers that says not to share about your personal struggles because people need to see you as a rock they can lean on. I suppose there is some truth to that, especially when it comes to people who share too much too soon. There are also some things that probably shouldn’t be shared, like pastor’s habit of picking his nose. On the other hand, does anybody really believe that anybody else is perfect? Certainly some people do believe spiritual teachers are perfect, but such beliefs are inherently unhealthy because they lead people to be greatly hurt when they discover their guru is human. Sooner or later, the odd burp or fart will escape without warning and the idolized will be thrown off the pedestal by the same followers who placed them there. There’s also the truth that all human beings, even spiritual and religious leaders, get sick and are subject to aging and death – and there is no hiding these realities. Having considered those truths and weighed them against the potential benefits that disclosing some personal struggles might offer to others in a similar position – and the fact that I have never been much for rules that exists only for covering the asses of those who wrote them – I have decided to share some of my struggles here with you in the hopes that you might find them useful.

I have had a chronic pain condition for almost twenty years now. My journey with chronic pain began in the mid-1990s, when I developed fibromyalgia. Men develop fibro much less often than women, and there are many theories about why that is the case. In the end, I had to research and suggest my diagnosis to my doctor when tests failed to reveal much and she was out of ideas. The truth was that I had so much pain in my ankles, knees, and wrists that I couldn’t get up out of a chair without assistance. There was no swelling, no redness, just pain and weakness. A visit to a rheumatologist confirmed the diagnosis, and I got some relief with allopathic remedies. Eventually the pain resolved and I went about my business. I have had a few less severe flare ups since then. By the middle part of the last decade I had two orthopedic surgeries that made me a pretty good weather forecaster. A back injury I had when I was twenty-five gradually got worse, and by 2007 I had chronic back pain that will never resolve, though surgery has reduced it significantly for a while. Over the past two weeks, however, my pain has intensified to the point where I once again have problems standing for a long time and sitting isn’t much better.

I have had clinical depression all my life, though I didn’t realize it until my early thirties when I was placed on anti-depressants to treat anxiety. I am one of the fortunate ones whose depression is well controlled with medication. I run into trouble with depression about once a decade when, for reasons science doesn’t really understand, my medicines stop working and I need to change to a new medicine. I am in the midst of one of those periods now, and am waiting to see my doctor. Of course, chronic pain tends to exacerbate depression, as does stress and other factors – but an increase in pain is also a symptom of depression and fibromyalgia flare ups. It can be difficult to sort through what is happening even for those of us who have been here before.

Spiritual people are often asked how it is that good [name your spiritual or religious tradition] people can become depressed. The answer is that we become depressed just as easily as anyone else. The reason is that mental illness is the result of brain chemistry, not lack of faith. It’s not a character weakness, the result of laziness, or any other piece of folk wisdom. Despite what some irresponsible and ignorant religious and spiritual teachers say, it is not possible to pray or meditate your way out of mental illness, nor is medication a barrier to spiritual progress. Such damaging fictions put people at risk for suicide and must not be tolerated.

This time around as depression has come to visit, I have asked it a question. I have said, “Hello, old friend, what are you here to teach me this time?” The truth is that I learn something about myself through every episode of illness, though the lessons aren’t always apparent until after the fact. I have learned that when I choose to befriend my illnesses and treat them with kindness and compassion I am much less likely to get down on myself, which only makes my mood worse. When I become depressed my primary problems are difficulty concentrating, short-term memory problems, physical pain, and fatigue. My mood isn’t great, but it isn’t the biggest symptom – which is one of the reasons it usually takes me a while t0 determine what is causing my symptoms. Being busy – and I tend to over commit myself fairly often – could cause all of my symptoms.

Half of all people will be affected by depression over the course of their lives, whether their own depression or that of a family member or loved one.  The stigma and code of silence around mental illness only makes things worse. It’s long past time we take mental illness out of the closet and educate both patients and the population at large. We need to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness and, perhaps more importantly, demand that health insurance cover mental illness fully and not offer limited benefits that make it difficult for people to access treatment. Silence isn’t going to lead to the changes we need to see, but people being open and honest most definitely will help.

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