A Marine Corps vet reflects on the crushing reality of mental illness
They’d brought a prisoner in the back of the humvee. He was an Arab, a puny wasp of a man, with a bush of dirty hair and large twitching eyes. His beard was too large for his gaunt face, and his neck seemed to strain to keep it up. Two of us stood by, bristling with M4’s and ammoladen body armour, watching and waiting.
He’d been shot. I couldn’t tell if it was shock or an overload of deadening hatred, but his eyes told me nothing. They stayed that way even as his head slumped forward and he let out his last breath.
The glazed numbness in his grey eyes visits me every time the depression settles in. It crushes silently with its weight, like a cold lead blanket wrapped around me.
I’ll stay away from the putrid details of the man’s death, and the fragmented glimpses of the friends who died beside me, because the depression didn’t start there, and it didn’t end there. But the eyes made it worse, much worse.
Strangely, I didn’t realize I had depression until I was 29 , when I had a random idea to look up my symptoms. Sad, anxious, empty. Hopeless, pessimistic. Guilt. Worthlessness, helplessness. Tired. Loss of interest. Lack of pleasure. The verdict was clear. It sank like a dagger deep into my gut as I read it. Oddly, this was my turning point, though my formal diagnosis didn’t come until years later.
Like most of us, I make a lot of mistakes. Glaring, unforgiving mistakes. Thankfully, this time around, I did something right. I prayed. I listened. I went to the Bible for my answers. I’m ashamed to admit that I was surprised when the answers came. Apparently God loves me like a son, and He’s constantly near, speaking to me, gently nudging me in the right direction. It had never occurred to me that He desperately wanted to help me, and that He knew exactly the way how. Through His words and leading, I learned that I had buried some violent memories from my past. My depression would return like a dog to vomit, like a vulture, to feed on those corpses buried deep in my brain.
I remember the first time I dug up those memories, still damp with salty blood, gritting with teethgrinding sand, and soaked with more than a few tears. It was excruciating but freeing, because as those tiny, translucent streams of lava poured down my face, I knew that He had scattered my sins as far as the East is from the West, and that there was no condemnation for me, because I was in Christ Jesus. The blanket of depression lifted and the warm surge of peace welled inside me. I had heard that “God is Love,” but never truly knew it until then. I felt accepted, important, and a part of something bigger than the tiny world I lived in. Depression left, for the moment.
Naturally it was a bone-chilling, overcast Monday when it came back. The heater was broken and the only thing that warmed me was the desensitizing fire of vodka mixed with whatever I could root out of the fridge. After a week or so, something snagged my attention. It was a simple thought, or maybe a voice. “Stop,” it said. “There’s a way out.” I can’t say for sure, but I think it was God.
I listened. I read. In Psalms, David cried out to God. I did the same, asking Him to search my heart and make it new. But what made all the difference was remembering who God is to me, and who I am to Him.
With every verse I spoke aloud — the verses about how I’m a child of God, and how much He loves me — I could feel the light taking over the darkness, and the heaviness dripping away. It was slower than molasses crawling down an ice luge, but it left because it had to. Peace warmed me from the inside out, and pinpricks of searing joy poked through, bit by bit.
I wish I could say that was the last time depression got ahold of me. I would love to brag about how I broke the thing once and for all. But you know how it is. It always comes back. But thanks to God it comes back weaker, tentatively, like it’s testing the waters, plopping its big toe in the water to see if it’s too hot, or too cold. More often than not, it stays out, because darkness can’t enter a room full of light.
George Macdonald said, “Till we know Him, let us hold the Bible dear, as the moon of our darkness, until we walk in the sun Himself, and no longer need the mirror that reflects His absent brightness.”
I want nothing more than to walk in the Sun, which makes me invincible to the fear that shrinks before Him. I don’t do it all the time, but when I do, the nightmares don’t come back, the flashes of red Iraqi sand disappear, and my hope bursts into flame.
I like to look in the mirror when I’m with Him. I don’t see the dead grey eyes of a prisoner staring back anymore. I see the Sun. I see a joyous and almost mischievous gleam in those eyes, balanced by the pure gaze of Love. I know it’s not just me staring out from that reflection, and I’m thankful, because I’m not alone.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Davi Ozolin.