Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Taking Counsel

I've been seeing a counselor.

There, I said it. That wasn't so bad, was it?

And yet it was terribly hard to do, to send the email asking for an appointment. I had to email, because I couldn't talk on the phone, because I couldn't stop crying. In September, a friend had asked me, "Do you think you might be suffering from depression?" and the idea made so desperately angry that I sat, locked in my bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably, and all the time thinking, "Something is wrong. This is not like me, ever." And I made a bargain with God, that if he would calm me down and make this crying stop and allow me to take my daughter shopping for pointe shoes that afternoon as I'd promised I'd do, that I would make an appointment with a counselor that very hour.

I googled "Catholic counselor Columbus", and the first link was a lady who saw clients at the next parish over. And I cried more as I sent the email, because I didn't want to be crazy, and I didn't want to have depression. God was faithful to his end of the bargain. My cloud lifted that morning (and, incidentally, has not returned since).

I grew up in a household in which psychological problems, not limited to depression, were allowed to fester to the extent of destroying a marriage, and I had always resolved that if I ever showed any signs of depression, I would seek help immediately and never put my family and my marriage through the chaos I grew up in. But it was humbling to have to make the choice, because I'd always prided myself on being the sanest person I knew, and here I was, weak and bleak and unable, through my own efforts, to reason myself out of my shakiness, either during my mental influenza in June or here in September.

Strangely enough, things started to sort themselves out after I made the appointment. Rather majorly, Darwin and I had a good honest conversation about -- oh God, let's just say it -- sex. Being married for fifteen years, you'd think we'd learned everything to we needed to know about what we needed to know and discussed everything that we needed to discuss (and sometimes it seemed that way), but the birth of the young fellow these 2 1/2 years ago set me back a good ways, and there never seemed to be a good time to talk about it. If there's one thing I've realized about myself, it's that any time I feel like I can't talk to Darwin is a bad time for me. I compounded that by being a martyr. Friends, don't be a martyr. God will send you martyrdom enough in his own good time.

My dears, I have the best and happiest marriage that I know. And yet, in the past years, the old saw "Marriage is hard work" has taken on a whole new meaning. I used to think it only applied to people who fought, or who were difficult or demanding, or who were dissimilar enough that they had to try to be interested in their spouse's interests. Maybe for people who were unable to treat each other with the common courtesy they'd show strangers or co-workers, marriage was hard work, but not for us. Perhaps we associated "hard" with "bad". Perhaps because we've always been able to talk about everything, and because we've never had a fight, nothing about our marriage had ever seemed hard. The instructive thing is that, in this case, "hard" never equated to "sinful". I needed to have a hard conversation with my husband, one which ate away at me because at every instance there was the possibility of giving great pain, and yet the more I tried to die to self, the more painful dying became. There was no sin on my part or on his part -- we'd done nothing wrong -- but there seemed to be no way to avoid hurting each other.

"As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.'" John 9:1-3

In my attempts to do everything through my own power, I'd forgotten the graces of marriage. I'd created several little fictions in which I examined every way I could avoid being hurtful, and yet in every story I failed. But, as I ought to know, real life is always more complex and interesting than fiction, because I don't control it. Once again, I had a conversation I feared would tear my husband down, and it only went right in every way. It opened the doors for healing and progress, without creating any bitterness or bad feeling where none existed.

All this, before my first appointment.

The counselor and I got on splendidly. God honored my prayers and directed me to a lady who was very compatible with me personally. As she asked me questions, I began to realize that whatever my problems were or had been, they didn't relate to the clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety. I took a depression inventory in which the severest possible answer was 63; my answers totaled up to 6. I took an anxiety inventory and scored even lower. And I came to understand how it looks from the outside to be a Catholic homeschooling mother of six living in a house with virtually no air conditioning. It was valuable to hear someone say that there were legitimate stresses affiliated with many children of many ages, that it is not abnormal to be ground down at times by these stresses. That is is genuinely wearing to do the unacknowledged work of running a household, work which nobody notices and yet everyone notices when it's not done. That wishing for gratitude and appreciation was not a selfish desire.

The counselor recommended that I keep a mood journal, to try to chart what might be causing emotional distress. As it happened, I didn't have any moods to report. But I did look back and make notes on why I had been so agitated in September when I made my first appointment:

  • I had gotten three (unconsecutive) hours of sleep the night before (ALWAYS look to the sleep)
  • I was starting a nasty sinus attack (always look to the sinuses too)
  • I had gone to bed unhappy
  • I had just found out, the week before at my checkup, that I was in fine physical health, and so 
  • I was already fearful that I might have something like depression
  • And then a friend told me that I should consider the possibility of depression, the condition I abhored for its consequences on a family.
Doubtless there were other factors at play too. But these seemed to provide an explanation for an uncharacteristic emotional state.

Through journaling, I put into words some things I'd always known about myself but had never thought about clearly. For example, I hate emotional manipulation with a burning disdain. I hate feel-good memes and sappy photos. I can't stand coy or cutesy pregnancy or engagement announcements. I detest romantic and horror movies that want to mold audience reaction. I reject fake awesome! But also, I'm wary if Darwin as much as brings me flowers, because that feels to me like trying to buy me off for something (which he's never actually done). If you have been obviously crying, and I ask you, "How are you doing?" and you sigh and say, "Fiiiine, I guess", I will go on with my life, because if you wanted to tell me your problem you would. (True example from college days.) I do not follow up on hints and insinuations, because if really wanted to tell me your drama, you would. My best friendships are with people who are honest and communicative and do not allow emotion cloud their better judgment. My earliest memories are of coping with emotional instability around me, for myself and for the younger siblings I protected, and since those days I've been been blocking out emotional manipulation, as a survival mechanism and as a personal preference.

In discussing why I often feel so willfully reluctant to do what I know I need to be doing around the house, the counselor suggested that I schedule some time in which I could feel secure in the knowledge that no one would make any demands of me. "Go to an hour of Adoration a week," she recommended. I have been doing that, and when I'm there I sit in silence. I don't demand of myself that I pray the rosary, something I never do well. I don't demand of myself that I state all my petitions, or consciously bring to mind everyone who's asked for my prayers. I just do what Jesus is doing, which is to be. I close my eyes, or I don't. I kneel or I don't. I read the Bible or I don't. And it is enough.

Also, I read The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times, by Dom Jean-Charles Nault. This was another recommendation, and it was revelatory. I know the signs and effects of acedia -- it's a subject I've written about a slew of times since 2007 -- but this was a more in-depth analysis than I'd read before. And it was good to be reminded of the five principal manifestations of acedia:
  • a certain interior instability
  • an exaggerated concern for one's health
  • aversion to manual work
  • neglect in observing the rule
  • general discouragement
and the five principal remedies:
  • tears
  • prayer and work
  • the antirrhĂȘtic method, or contradicting temptation as Christ did in the desert
  • meditation on death, and 
  • perseverance
I may have checked off very few boxes on the depression and anxiety inventories, but my funk in June is almost exactly described by the five indications above. There was a serious spiritual component, attack-level, if you will, to my weakness, such that I felt that I couldn't even ask for people's prayers because I didn't feel free to do so. And oddly enough, although The Noonday Devil has a chapter on acedia in the different states of life, few bits of the marriage section resonated at all with me, but the section on acedia in the monastic life was relevant in almost every particular. Perhaps as is fitting for a Benedictine abbot, Dom Nault writes about issues in marriage in a general vocational way (fidelity, sexual integrity, openness to life), but he writes about the challenges of the monastic life from a very day-to-day`operational perspective. My home is my cloister, and my temptations are those of the monk confined to his monastery, committed to a stable existence, and yet weary of the demands that stability puts on him. 

By the end of my first visit with the counselor we'd established that I didn't have clinical signs of depression. At my third visit, this past Wednesday, we agreed that there didn't seem any need for me to schedule again unless I found myself recognizing the kind of signs that led me into a downward spiral over the summer. Contrary to my expectation, I thoroughly enjoyed my time talking to the counselor. Perhaps I was anxious about the process because the one who needed clinical help in my family fought that help at every turn. But I love analysis and introspection, and therapy is a good place for those things. And I'm glad I went, because I won't be ashamed to go again if I need to. 


Julia said...

I love your honesty.

bearing said...

I'm so glad you overcame what barriers there were and took the first step of going to counseling. I think it's very easy to fall into the trap of "only some kind of people need therapy." And the dizzying variety of therapISTS out there is a little bit paralyzing. But if you just pick somebody who has a general sort of background and a good will, and go in openly with the short-term question of "Do I have a problem that therapy will help me with? What kind of therapy will best do this?" then you can get an answer to that question that can help you accept it if you are, at least temporarily, "that kind of people," and narrow down the dizzying variety of therapists to the sort that can help you.

I've often thought that there was a strong need in the Church (at least here in U.S. culture) for spiritual counselors, not themselves psychotherapists or psychologists and so able to make themselves available at lower-than-healthcare-industry cost to people in need of guidance, but trained at least to recognize when a person would do well to be evaluated by a mental health professional. I know cost is a barrier to a great number of people, but for others the barrier is their own preconceptions.

I'd like to know more about the differences between the acedia you describe and clinical depression. It strikes me that there are many mental health problems and spiritual problems that may masquerade as each other and sometimes work together, symbiotically, in the same person. I explored that a bit in my long struggle with the intertwined troubles of "gluttony" and "eating disorder." I never quite untangled the two. But if you would find it cathartic to write in more detail about what you've learned of acedia, and why you're confident that your trouble is spiritual and not -- for a better word -- clinical, I would be interested in hearing more about how you were able to make the distinction.

Brandon said...

I think people who dislike emotional manipulation tend to bottle up their problems and difficulties, too, because they dislike anything suggestive of it in themselves as well as in others; I find that to be an occasional issue with myself. It can be tough in the sense that it actually works a lot; everything runs more smoothly and reasonably -- but then occasionally something festers and suddenly it doesn't any more, and all too often it's something that could have been handled easily if it had been put out in the open at the beginning.

It wasn't until this post that I realized that a considerable portion of the traditional remedies for acedia have to do with external expression in some sense. I suppose that makes sense -- acedia is failure to face difficult good, so sometimes the problem might be that one just needs to build up the momentum.

mrsdarwin said...

Bearing, I think it's true that there can be overlap, and that one ailment can feed another (both physically and spiritually) but the main reason that the counselor and I don't think that the problem was depression was that overall, I don't meet a lot of the clinical indicators in the Depression Inventory. Not that I haven't had some of those symptoms at points, but that my pattern seems to be one of concentrated crushing stresses rather than one of ongoing depression. I am going to write more about acedia soon! I'm always writing about acedia, it seems!

mrsdarwin said...


I think people who dislike emotional manipulation tend to bottle up their problems and difficulties, too, because they dislike anything suggestive of it in themselves as well as in others

Yes! This is an excellent and very true point, and I recognize it immediately. I will a hundred times rather bite my tongue than do anything that might be read as fishing for compliments or sympathy, and 99.44% of the time that's a fine strategy. It's recognizing which important but emotionally fraught issue needs to be talked out sooner rather than later that's the kicker.

Foxfier said...

I don't share your horror of depression, but I'm really glad you don't seem to have it, and that you're getting the help you need. Hope it works wonders. :D

TSO said...

Back in '09 I felt the need to seek a counselor as well, and did pretty much the same thing as you - google searched for Catholic guidance Columbus. I ended up going to someone named Dolores; be funny if we had the same one!

Rebekka said...

I didn't remember you having written about acedia before, but your list of the five symptoms... Well. I recognize THAT. Whoa. That is my life right there. I do also however have a family history/tendency to crazy times, and have struggled with depression and anxiety to a varying degree all my adult life. (Was not a particularly cheery kid, either.) So the idea that depression/anxiety and acedia feed off of each other sounds very plausible. But it had never occurred to me that there could be a spiritual attack component to it.

I too would like to read more of your thoughts on the matter.

Also, why IS it so hard to pray the rosary?!

TSO said...

On the subject of the Rosary, what revolutionized the prayer for me was simply fixating on written meditations (particularly these: )

Probably cheating, since I'm reading as much as praying, but it sure does make the decades go fast.

Foxfier said...

Sounds like the "scriptural rosary" podcasts I use-- otherwise I can't focus on the mystery, unless I'm doing something else while I pray. (Folding clothes, cleaning, etc.-- juggling the rosary itself simply isn't fidgeting enough to get a really good quality contemplation of the mystery for me.)

love2learnmom said...

Great post - thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences! I share some of your fears, aversions and struggles.

Laura said...

This post really helped me. Thanks for coming out and saying these things. You've given me a lot to think about. Looking forward to more posting about acedia...