It's just a blur. I remember that long winter as a dark but sleepless stretch of vomiting and scrubbing up vomit, the mingled odors of sickness and Lysol surrounding us as the washing machine churned out load after load and we bought gingerale and saltines every time we went to Wegman's.
I remember feeling extremely cross while getting ready for bed, angry about the futility of bothering to put on pajamas when I knew I wasn't going to get to sleep. I remember Shannon, poor little Shannon who slept alone on the first floor. On multiple occasions she vomited up the stairs into the berber carpet as she came trying to tell me that she wasn't feeling well. I remember little David, barely more than a baby himself, vomiting down the hall on the first floor, and me sopping it up with an armful of clean towels I'd just folded, then desperately pouring out half a bottle of full strength Lysol directly onto the wood floor where the vomit had been. I ended by pouring the same full strength Lysol over my hands and forearms in a Hail Mary attempt to eradicate the germs, but got sick a day later anyway.
It seemed as though we had the flu bi-weekly. When I got it, I usually threw up about twenty times over the course of about five hours before it settled into slightly less violent manifestations.
Of course, I understood that Shawn had to go to work to make a living for us. I understood that nobody could come and help us when we were all contagious with pernicious viruses. However, understanding the truth of the situation didn't help me soldier up under my distress. I cried a lot, probably every day.
Later, I read a book by Jean Fleming called A Mother's Heart (it's a fantastic book; everyone should read it). She wrote about their family being sick with a stomach virus. They had been missionaries to China, but this sickness struck when they were in the USA. She wrote of gathering her children into bed with her and leading them in a prayer of thanks for plentiful ice, and clean drinking water, and beautiful, modern bathrooms with flush toilets. I confess, even at the time I first read it (long after we'd been through our trying winter), I struggled to admit that I'd had anything to be thankful for when we were sick. Sometimes conviction dawns slowly.
Eventually, the bouts of flu began to hit less frequently. We went a month, and then six weeks. In April, around Easter, I got sick again. I think I was the only one that time. I remember because my back went into spasm before I started throwing up, and the only position that brought relief from the back pain was to lie flat on my back, but that was not an option with the upset stomach and nausea I was experiencing. It was an uncharacteristic 80 degrees, and must have either been Saturday or a holiday, because Shawn put baby Laura into the backpack carrier and went out to do spring clean-up on the yard. I writhed in bed, alone, inconsolably miserable, dehydrated from loss of bodily fluids and the unseasonable heat, my fingertips wrinkled up like raisins.
The sickness would have been easier to deal with had it not been for the depression. I didn't know I was depressed, and I don't think Shawn had any idea what was going on or what to do. Anyone who has been depressed would resonate to my description of feeling utterly hopeless, hurting so badly in my spirit that, literally, breathing was painful. Each day, I awoke to three little people already overflowing with their childhood needs, and their demands shattered against my skull, the things I had to do, no matter how I felt, and I felt completely drained and unable. I felt alone, unworthy, forgotten, abandoned, unloved, rejected and ugly.
Yet here again was the Lord's silent, unappreciated presence. I had no gratitude to Him for the way He enabled me--unable as I was--to rise from bed and make oatmeal, spoon it into small mouths, wipe off sticky faces, change soggy diapers and wash dirty clothes. I sat on the sofa, nursed the baby, read story books, picked up blocks, put socks back on little feet, cut skin off apples and crusts off peanut butter sandwiches. It was the grace of God, but I had no idea.
Their cries hit me like an alarm clock. I responded the way one responds to an alarm clock: a surge of adrenaline, a surge of despair, the labored heaving of a tired body in a necessary direction. I had little compassion, stunted affection. I only knew what I had to do, and by the mysterious grace of God, I did it. In my conscious mind, I thought, "I have made a terrible mistake. I thought I wanted to be a mother, but I am a terrible mother. I am no good at this at all. I need to sleep. I need some rest. I need a break. I'm going to die if I don't get some rest." But I didn't get rest, and I didn't die, I just got the flu again. And again.
My children were gut-wrenchingly beautiful. I knew that. They were beautiful and funny and smart and amazing. I was aware, aware enough to be frustrated that I couldn't properly appreciate it. "I am the only one who even sees how amazing they are," I thought. "It's just them and me. Nobody else knows. And I can't appreciate them because I am sick. Oh the waste, waste, waste. Who will appreciate them? I have made a terrible mistake. I shouldn't be their mother. I shouldn't be trusted with them. I can't do this. Who will love my children?" I wanted to die, but not really. I didn't want to go to hell, but even heaven sounded far too exhausting. I wanted to die like a dog, and just be buried in the loamy earth where I could finally be at rest, feel nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. I wanted nothingness, forever.
"I want to die," I told God. "I can't do this anymore. I can't do it, do you hear me? I want to die, but I don't want to go to heaven. I want to sleep, in the earth, and decompose and be nothing."
The Lord who (unbeknownst) had been holding me together all this time, patiently empowering me to care for my family, finally had enough. In the moment when I expressed those thoughts consciously to Him, I was aware of a sensation not unlike what you would imagine a toddler might feel if you picked him up by the back straps of his Osh-Kosh overalls and then rotated him around to look you in the face. The Lord got in my face, and He said (not audibly, but with words), "That is not death. When you die, you will come face-to-face with Me, and I will require you to answer for yourself." After an initial blow-to-the-gut speechless moment, I was tempted to whine back at Him, to say that wasn't the way I wanted it to be. However, something about His palpable presence gave me an extra measure of self-control. I'd been given a healthy, divine check, and it did me some good.
Over the summer, things leveled a bit, for which I am truly grateful. However, when autumn arrived again, with maple leaves turning the same saturated oranges and golds which had surrounded Laura's birth, with the days shortening into dark evenings long before Shawn returned home from work, I had a relapse of the depression. This is one of the ways I know now that it was depression. I began to feel a dread that deepened into a panic and spilled over in tears and angry words and clenching anxiety.
Undiagnosed, untreated depression is a terrible thing. The Lord brought me through mine, but it was a very lengthy process, difficult, and it left scars. I have so many regrets. Depression leads to sin, which leads to deeper depression. It is a terrible cycle. Thanks be to God for His infinite grace and constant abiding presence and patient healing over time.
At the risk of sounding like I am whining, or blame shifting, I would just like to say that it would be helpful if people could understand that a truly depressed person is not capable of fixing herself. In fact, she is not even capable of figuring out what is wrong and what might be done about it, let alone implementing a solution. It seems to me that obstetricians hand out leaflets about postpartum depression to new mothers. Maybe it's different now, but that is a completely useless thing to do. The depressed person, if she is truly depressed enough to need help, is almost never going to be able to ask for help, herself. Somebody else needs to step up and help, advocate, support, seek treatment for the one in need.
I think it would be helpful if families and churches could be educated about how to watch for people who are undergoing difficult times of stress, and how to intervene to help before utter despair and depression set in. Sometimes we actually should be responsible for others. Sometimes it is right to get involved, take action, demonstrate sacrificial love.
Instead, I've noticed a trend among church people who seem to feel that it is a virtue to say no. "I'm teaching myself to say no," they piously proclaim, as though they were actually guilty of always doing everything they were ever asked to do. While it is certainly of value to weigh one's commitments and, with God's guidance, choose the highest priorities when setting one's schedule, I don't think telling a desperate person, "No, I can't help you," is very often a virtuous move.
The Lord worked in my life through physical illness, exhaustion and depression. I learned that He could hold me together. I first-hand experienced that He did not leave me nor forsake me. He used His voice to speak truth into my mind when my mind was bending in wrong directions. This was ultimately good for me. However, I would be wrong to extrapolate from my experience that when another isolated young mother is having a difficult time, I ought to leave her to drown and thus discover God's grace as I did. When Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, God used it for good to prepare provision for Israel many years later when famine came. However, that does not justify the cruel acts of hatred perpetrated by Joseph's brothers. Just because God works good out of sin, it doesn't make sin acceptable. And just because God brings growth out of pain, it doesn't mean we should stand back and let pain run its course in the lives of people around us.
Joseph was the victim of sins committed knowingly and maliciously against him. Sins of commission. If I was the victim of any sin, it would have been sin of omission: people who maybe had an inkling that they could have stepped up to better support me, but found that their schedules and priorities prohibited it. If such is the case, I have no choice but to forgive freely and eagerly, for I myself have committed more sins of omission than I could ever count. I have failed to reach out, failed to support, failed to love. I must not be bitter against those who have only neglected to do for me what I also have neglected to do for others. Besides, whatever I may have suffered as a result of anyone's inaction, God ultimately used it to drive me deeper into Him, and there is no better place for me to be.
Yet, I must also use my experiences to teach me how to support others. I must allow my heart to be tender toward the hurting young mother, and others who are weak and in pain or despair. I must guard against thinking, "She needs to toughen up. She needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps. She is being a big baby and she needs to gut it out and learn what she is made of." Those are unrighteous thoughts, not humble, not compassionate, not loving, and certainly not Christ-like.
Trials are hard. Loneliness can be brutal. Depression is real, and comes in the aftermath of difficulties, when a person's confidence and security have been shattered.
God is real, powerful and present. He works in mysterious ways. He carries us through our most overwhelming floods. He cares for us and comforts us so that we also can care for and comfort others.
Time moves slowly sometimes, and the hand of God is not always visible, although it is always here. We, as God's people, can be His visible hands to those who are hurting, when they could not otherwise see His work in their situations.
May we embrace the grace of God as He pours it out on us, and may we recognize His good work in our lives. May we share His grace with those around us, according to their need. May we trust the Lord to give us all that we need to give to those in need, because His mercies are infinite.
May our hearts be filled with gratitude and love.