When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. On a bright and clear Thursday morning in October (the 31st to be exact) I woke up and couldn’t move. I remember starting to rouse myself and laughing ruefully at the thought of getting out of bed. An A+ student, oldest child, and member of the cross country team, I’d never chosen to just stay in bed before. I’d never experienced such stiffness and pain–though I vividly remember even more than a decade later that I felt no fear over my suddenly-old body.
My dad came to my room 20 minutes later, and I gasped at the pain that shot through my arm when he took my hand in his. He carried me downstairs and we went straight to the doctor. For the rest of high school, and most of college, my condition determined most of my daily life. I went to bed early because my body was always fatigued. I took several pills daily and injected myself with medication up to three times a week. With treatment I was able to return to running, but I couldn’t manage long distances anymore. I pulled my backpack behind me on a foldable suitcase roller (before the days of roller backpacks) and asked friends to help me lift books from my locker. My identity was completely wound up in arthritis.
Even though I still receive IV treatments for this disease, it doesn’t hover over my daily life in the same way anymore; part of it might be that I live somewhere else now–no one here would know about my medical journey unless I told them–I didn’t live through it with this community. There was a time when there was no denying the illness I bore; a teenager, hunched and shuffling through school hallways, a college student dragging refrigerated meds around with her. The illness took over my body not only internally, but externally too–the signs of disease were everywhere around me. Now, I might feel a little more stiff when it’s cold and rainy, but I hardly think to myself, “oh, that’s arthritis,” let alone showing or sharing it with anyone else. Once in awhile, my thumb will ache for a few weeks, but other than slapping on some Aspercreme, I don’t give it a second thought.
This monster that invaded my life 15 years ago has become so mundane as to not warrant a moment of my brain space, though there was a time not too long ago when I was certain I’d think of arthritis and be overwhelmed by its treatment every day of my life. It’s this experienced truth that gives me hope for a more recent monster: depression.
Over the last year as my mental illness grew acute, parishioners mentioned that I seemed down–was everything okay? What could they do? In September, I took a month of leave to turn around and face the demons that were chasing me, thanks in no small part to Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s book, “Darkness Is My Only Companion.” As I read Greene-McCreight’s honest and hopeful theological engagement with mental illness, God used this part memoir, part devotional to loose the scales from my eyes: there really is a monster in my life again, and feeding him a pill while crossing my fingers for the best outcome wasn’t going to cut him down. Though the treatment plan seems onerous now, and I’m already tired of tending this beast, I know that it’s possible in a decade or two–if he lasts that long–the regimen will be old hat.
The hardest part is continually re-training myself that this depression-and-anxiety cloud isn’t a cold–something to deal with in an afternoon with a big dose of chicken soup–but truly a chronic illness, something that I’ve got to let change my life, something that I’ve got to face again every day and learn how to placate even as I seek his demise. “Beating” mental illness may look a lot more like treating arthritis than healing from a cold; I may always have depression with me, I may never be “cured,” but as with arthritis, managing symptoms, preserving quality of life, and staving off deterioration–learning to live with it, maybe even coming to a point of not giving it a second thought. As our suffering becomes part of the woodwork of our lives, we are transformed and we are freed.