All Manner of Afflictions

Allow me to paint a word picture for you.  All your life you have wanted to go to the Italian countryside.  The moment you have dreamed of is here.

You are standing on a hill with tall grass and cornflowers waving around you.  It is springtime and the breeze is gentle with just a kiss of warmth.  Above you the sky is as blue as something from an Impressionist’s paintbox—deep, so deep a blue that it verges on periwinkle.  There are no clouds, but the sun is not hot, just caressing as it sits on your shoulders.  The trees around the meadow are heavy with pear blossoms, sweet and ivory white.  In the distance, you can see Florence—ancient and mellow with the muddy green Arno River running through it.  You can just make out the Cathedral and vaguely hear the bells tolling their achingly deep tones.  The person you married is standing beside you.  The sacrifice of this person, their sole object to please you, has made this whole experience possible.  Out of nowhere, a string quartet begins to play Vivaldi.

You feel nothing.  Your heart is dead.  Everything might as well be ashes.

“Is it everything you dreamed?” your spouse asks, looking into your face with concerned hopefulness.

“Yes,” you lie, overcome with guilt because your stone heart cannot even feel gratitude or love towards this person.  Right that moment you wish you could die because you are the most wretched, horrible person on earth.  You have everything anyone could want and yet you are miserable.  You long for death to stop the only thing you can feel—deep, yawning, black despair.  But you fear death because you know that you will be eternally damned by a God who must surely despise you for your inability to feel grateful for what you have, for your inability to feel, faith, hope, or charity.

In fact, you are in the grip of a life-threatening illness, as real as cancer.  It is called depression.  What is happening in reality is that your nervous system is not functioning properly.  All the nerve-endings which should be communicating the visual and sensory details of the scene before you, the love which you should be feeling for your mate and your Creator are not doing their job.  You cannot feel because your brain is literally broken.

The only thing that exists inside you is a void so deep and so dark that you alternately fear for your life on the one hand, and wish for extinction on the other. You echo Nephi’s anguished cry, “Oh wretched man that I am!  Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. . . and when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins. . .”

Though you have not transgressed in any major way, you cry along with Alma, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.”

You think, “I am not worthy of a Priesthood blessing, but if anything could cure me, that surely could.”  You seek many such blessings.  You feel nothing.  The love of God cannot penetrate your breast.  It is as though your heart were encased in a lead shield.

The only thing that sometimes helps is sitting in the Celestial Room of the temple.  The purest place on earth.  Once in a great while, for a few moments, the anguish leaves.  You are not happy, but you are not tormented.  And even if you go to the temple daily, you cannot live in the Celestial Room.

After many years, you give up hoping for a miracle.  You know vaguely in some part of your being that if there is any hope it in is holding on to the Rod of Iron, and praying that when death finally comes, you will still be holding onto it.

The time comes that you can no longer go out of your home, for you are plagued by anxiety which brings on panic attacks where you fight for each breath.  You never know when one will strike.  Sometimes they go on for hours.  Even when you are quietly sitting in church, you can suddenly be stricken.  Your body goes numb from hyperventilation until you cannot even walk unassisted.

Will there ever be an end to it?  You foresee only a gray, embattled future, where each day is an endurance test just to survive.  You are completely alone in your leaden shell. No one and nothing can reach you.

Is such a scenario a bit extreme?  Would a just God allow a person to exist in such a state?  The answer is that depression is like any other illness.  It is a condition of mortality.  It is not a judgment.  A broken brain is a physical thing.  It has nothing to do with personal righteousness, anymore than cancer does.  The major difference between depression and other illnesses is that a depressed person can rarely, if ever, feel the Spirit, but is fully prey to the buffetings of the adversary.

How do I know in such exquisite detail what this disease feels like?  I suffered from it for twenty-five years.  I am the first person in my family, as far back as I can trace my genealogy, who has suffered from this genetic disorder who has not been institutionalized for life.  I raised a family.  I wrote three books that were published.  I held positions of responsibility in the Church.  Twice I was a bishop’s wife.  Yet every day I woke to the wish that it could be the day that I would be able to go back to my Heavenly Father.

However did I endure?  Most of the time, it was only because I knew that my suicide would scar my children beyond anything I could imagine. 

I think the only way I got through those blank, dead, heavy years is that I was enabled just enough by the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ to keep going, not to give up, to keep my eye on the distant goal that one day Jesus himself would put his arms around me and say, “G.G., well done, thou good and faithful servant.”  I pictured him holding my face in his hands and saying, “You are healed.”  I imagined eyes so deeply compassionate that they knew every pain I had endured, looking into mine with a love so intense that their very warmth would heal me clear through.  

I just never thought it would happen in this life.


"Did my life suddenly become easier? No. I’ve learned that life has plenty of challenges for everyone of any level of mental health, however I no longer felt hopelessly overwhelmed by my challenges. I felt like I had a fighting chance against Satan and his minions of despair for the first time in my memory. I felt like I could take the fight to the adversary instead of constantly fighting on the defensive."

"While serving, there were a few brief points on my mission where I felt close enough to my Lord that I could barely feel the effects of my clinical depression. Always these were periods of fasting, study, prayer, and service. Therefore, one may argue that if we were righteous enough, we wouldn’t need medication. I feel that while this may be true, it is foolish to embrace this mentality as a way of life." 


“Charity Suffereth Long”

To begin, let me speak briefly about what this book and its stories are and what they are not.  This is the account of three people and the way they dealt with a serious illness.  Most instances of depression do not last as long as G.G.’s did.  Most depression is not as severe as hers or Greg’s was.  This book doesn’t generalize about depression or provide a comprehensive overview that addresses all of its symptoms and consequences.  I am not a doctor, I am only a witness.

While we begin with a individual illness and specific people, the lessons we have learned extend beyond those particulars and, I hope, can be helpful to others experiencing severe and extended trials of many different types.  We have been specific because we would like those who are dealing with trials to both understand and feel understood.  And to hold onto hope.  If we included only abstract and general principles gained from our experiences without including some of the details, I believe our story might seem less real and less useful in the lives of others.

It is unwise to compare crosses and I do not mean to do so as I recount my experiences.  I cannot say that my suffering was greater or less than another person’s because I can not truly understand how anyone else’s trials have afflicted them.  Only our God and our loving Savior truly understand such things.  I can simply say that my trials were hard enough for me, hard enough to drive me to my knees for the most fervent prayers I have ever uttered and to change me in a deep and permanent way.

Ours is a sad story with a happy ending.  Some may feel, “This doesn’t apply to me because my story doesn’t have a happy ending.”  My response is that you’re not at the end of your story yet.  After one year, my story with G.G. did not have a happy ending.  After two years, it did not, nor did it after three or five or ten years.  In the fifteenth and twentieth years, I would have said truthfully that my story did not have a happy ending.  It was only after the possibility of any happy ending had nearly vanished from my hopes that the happy ending came.

One of the most fundamental promises of the Atonement is that there will be a happy ending to each of our stories if we will take the steps that lead there.  In His infinite wisdom, the Lord who knows all ends from their beginnings seldom reveals the precise timing or details of our happy ending to us.  However, because of His love for us and the sacrifice that proved that love forever, we can trust that those happy endings will come.

We use our specific stories to testify that the Atonement is real, very real.  The Atonement does not work only in general terms, it works for the nasty details of terribly difficult problems and deep despair.  Our Savior suffered and died to save individuals from their individual sins and to strengthen each of us in the minutes and days and years of our greatest challenges.

The sky was dark when He was crucified and the tomb was dark when His body was placed within it.  On the third day, the sun rose and so did He.  And so will we.

Understanding Depression

One of the great challenges for a depressed person is simply that most people don’t understand what is going on in his or her mind.  

Well-meaning family and friends who have never dealt with depression suggest a wide range of solutions that are way off the mark.  If these friends felt blue for a few days, then felt better, they weren’t really depressed.  Whatever remedy worked for them won’t work for someone who suffers from this illness.

For longer than I care to remember, I was one of those well-meaning people when dealing with G.G.’s depression.  I had many great solutions.  Unfortunately, they were for the wrong problems.

Following is a collection of things I learned by making mistakes.

One of the most difficult challenges for a faithful member of the Church who is depressed is that it is very difficult for them to feel the Spirit.  A wonderful conference talk, a tremendous testimony meeting, a great temple session, a beautiful priesthood blessing where the Spirit was touching everyone can leave them untouched and unmoved.

Is the Spirit present?  Yes.  Can the Spirit help the depressed person?  Of course.  Does depression remove any of the Spirit’s power?  No.  Can the depressed person always feel and understand the Spirit when he is present?  Not necessarily.

The nature of depression often causes the depressed person to blame themselves for their spiritual isolation.  They believe they are a bad person and must have done something very wrong because they couldn’t feel the Spirit.  Depression is not a moral failure.

It is difficult for the depressed person and for those close to them to accept that their illness can sometimes interfere with the delicate spiritual receptors that allow other faithful Saints to feel the promptings of the Holy Ghost.  Anyone can damage those receptors by violating commandments relating to improper substances, the law of chastity, bad movies or websites.  An innocent, righteous person can suffer from a mental illness that also damages those receptors.

I first learned this from a counselor with LDS Family Services.  He was making a presentation about depression to a Bishop’s Council during the early stages of G.G.’s depression.  He explained that depression sometimes made it very difficult for his patients to feel or hear the Holy Ghost and described it as one of the greatest burdens that accompanied this illness.

Depression changes the way that the victim perceives reality.  It injects different emotions and overtones into a situation than others experience under the same circumstances.  When a depressed person tells you that they see an event or a situation in a much different way than you do, they’re not confused or foolish or lying or dramatizing.  They are describing what they see and feel.  The difference between their view and yours is caused by their disease.  If they said that they saw and felt things the same way that you do, they would sometimes be lying.

Someone who has always enjoyed good mental health finds it difficult to comprehend that the way we see and feel and remember experiences is the result of a complex series of minute chemical reactions and processes that are occurring at lighting speed in our brains.  If those chemical processes are in balance, a person may perceive a sacrament service as an enjoyable, uplifting experience with their friends in the ward.  If those chemical processes are not working properly, the same person may perceive the same sacrament service as an unending condemnation of their numerous failings and deficiencies and the people in attendance as threatening and uncomprehending.

It is important to remember that those chemical processes are part of our mortal bodies, not our spirits.  We have each known spiritual giants trapped in bodies that manifest a wide range of physical limitations and illnesses.  With the right spiritual eyes, we will also discern that spiritual giants are trapped in bodies that manifest a wide range of mental and emotional limitations and illnesses.  Each of these bodies houses a perfect spirit that was born to heavenly parents.  

Our bodies are made of the elements of this fallen earth.  None of our bodies work perfectly, otherwise we wouldn’t die.  Each of us has a variety of problems that originate within our bodies.  Those that we call healthy have problems that manifest themselves late in their mortal lives.  Some of us, including those who are depressed, have very serious problems that originate with their bodies and manifest themselves much earlier.

One of the symptoms of severe depression is repeated thoughts of suicide.  When these thoughts arise, a faithful Latter-day Saint is particularly afflicted.  They know that suicide is wrong, but it keeps coming back into their mind uninvited.  For a severely depressed man or woman, suicide can also appear to be a way to end the intense and unremitting pain of their illness.  

You must not ignore suicidal statements.  Ever.

Some people do not understand that depression can be a life-threatening illness.  The way it takes a life is via suicide.  

There is no reliable formula for what you should say when your loved one is suicidal, but you need to talk to them and keep on talking for a long time.  The Spirit will help you.  You must be prepared to take the depressed person to the emergency room or to a psychiatric hospital for their own safety if you have any sense whatsoever that they may take action on their suicidal thoughts.  The Spirit will help you there, too, but when in doubt, go to the hospital.

. . . Continued