Posted on October 16, 2017 by Jenn Zatopek
There are some mornings in which I have woken up alternately dreading the day and looking forward to it. This was one of those mornings.
I pulled myself out of bed, but not before saying to myself, like a petulant child, “Do I have to go to work?” Padding myself to the kitchen, I poured myself a cup of tea and sat down for a while to think and pray and practice redirecting my mind to inspirational thoughts. I went for a walk in the glow of the sunrise and ate breakfast. If it’s not already obvious, I put off going to work as long as possible. This happens when you work in social services: it is called burnout and it appears to be part of the steep learning curve for those of us brave souls who enter the helping professions.
At the time, I worked as a case manager at a low-income mental health clinic in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Driving to work and crying was not an uncommon experience for me, but this morning, I focused on cultivating happiness. This is not my nature, and on many days, I would rather die slowly of existential angst than pursue more helpful ways of being in the world.
So this morning I resolved to focus on the good things right in front of me. While I drove to work, I turned my attention to the low green hills along the riverbank, the brightly colored flowers along the avenues, the small brown squirrels that raced across the streets, and the fluffy white clouds that scuttled across the sky in the early morning hours.
Even before I stepped out of my car at the clinic parking lot, my heart was in a full-tilt panic: I work with individuals who are in spiritual, financial, and emotional poverty. Sometimes it was too much suffering to bear. My first client I visited lived in a beautiful modern apartment located almost thirty minutes away from the clinic. It took me over forty minutes to arrive, and the commute was stressful, the highways congested and constructed all at once.
After I arrived, I relaxed and took in her cozy apartment and I noticed all the details she is blind to: the beautiful indigo couch and matching recliners, the cute bookshelf decorated with spoils from various discount shops, the lovely vermilion bowl of fruit, and the bright flowery bedspread. I drank in the beauty of her small apartment and while we visited, I listened to her rail about interacting with others along with her paradoxical desire to connect.
At that time, I reached for my patience and practiced the skills learned in school, how to weave the good of a person’s story from their distorted perceptions. The worst thing about depression it this: it is a liar and not only distorts our thinking process, but also distorts everything else in our lives: our vision of the physical world, our capacity to bear witness to the goodness of others, and our ability to affect long-term positive change in our lives. In essences, it is like any other addiction: it stands in the way of our transformation.
A funny thing happened when I sat with her, that faraway day, and I’ll try and describe it to you now. It was like I was in two different worlds. In the first world, I saw a shimmering palace of rest, a treasured home of thoughtful care and decorum; she clearly delighted in creating a beautiful space for herself and guests.
But then I entered into her world, which was filled with shadows, fear, and darkness, distant lights on the horizon. This dear person was lost within herself, and she was not able to find a way out (not yet at the very least). I knew part of her history, old wounds buried deep inside, and I made the choice to step down into the darkness with her, armed with the only tools I know which include good counseling skills, God, a sense of humor, and severe hope.
I worked the loamy soil of her life with an influence that there is, in fact, another reality that lives in parallel to her own. I mirrored her experience, and she gained some insights during my visit, like perhaps the fear of meeting others is her own judgement against herself. In my experience, people are hard on themselves in so many ways, but she struggled to rise above her victim story, a narrative so easy to slip into, like an old pair of shoes.
There’s a curious image that comes to mind when I think about her and other folks in the black dog of depression: imagine an enormous dark cloud hanging over one part of a massive sprawling garden filled with heavenly sunshine, clear skies, and warmth. The darkness is there, but you can choose to step into or away from it, and it is becoming clear to me that the darkness is there to contrast against those times of light. Perhaps the light is around us all the time and we have to choose to focus on it, to pray and practice gratitude to uncover those glimmers of shimmering beauty.
But the woman I longed to help was in the darkness pit. In bondage to victimhood, she claimed she could not change, in spite of all evidence suggesting she very well could. She clung to her belief furiously, like a terrified animal gripping a tree limb, and my time spent with her amounted to examining evidences of times in the past she has elicited positive change in her life.
And yet she persisted in clinging to her belief that any positive change was simply not possible. Sometimes it is easier to accept a comfortable lie of not belonging than it is to believe the truth of belonging to God and humanity.
The session was frustrating for us both, but at the end, I looked at her and marveled at the tenacity of the human spirit and the desperate desire to stay stuck, to see again two worlds contrasted in one place: light and dark. She wanted to change and yet she fought me on every positive change she has made.
Who knows how her story will end? Will she choose to believe she can make small changes and turn her life around? Will you? Will I?