Grant and Sherman
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The great American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman once said of his relationship with Ulysses S. Grant, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand together.” Having been both crazy, and at times drunk, I can relate to both men, both of whom also often suffered from severe and often disabling depression at different points in their lives.
Yesterday I wrote an article about depression and I decided to follow it up with another on the same subject. Yesterday I mentioned the late Iris Chang and her comments about how depression is not rational, and C.S. Lewis who talked about how mental pain is harder to deal with than physical pain. During my worst phases of depression in the years after I came back from Iraq, I fought every day to find something to hold onto, something to keep me from ending my life. If you have never experienced real depression, the kind that slowly eats away the very fabric of your being, you might not understand. In fact it was something that I really didn’t understand until I went through years of it.
Depression is far different than being sad. It is like the difference between having a cold, which you know should pass, and having an insidious cancer which even if it goes into remission lurks for another chance to strike again.
I think that Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of the book Prozac Nation, hit what I am describing on the head, “That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as he sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and in compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”
In a similar manner, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books noted, “Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
I have to agree with both of these writers, depression is the worst. I can live with insomnia, and night terrors, even with anxiety, but depression is the worst, it never seems like it will end. I was fortunate that I got through my most difficult times, including a period just over a year ago where I was nearly suicidal after very bad treatment in the Mental Health Department at the local naval medical center. It took the intervention of my former commanding officer, a doctor named David Lane, who had just been selected for promotion to admiral to get me the help that I needed, but not everyone has that kind of ace in the hole. I wouldn’t have thought of asking him, but his Command Master Chief, and my friend Ed Moreno, intervened, told him of how bad I was doing and that made all the difference. Ed didn’t try to fix me, he just stood beside me and when I needed help, he came through as a friend, and he is still a friend. That is what friends do.
I still struggle, sometimes with depression, but more often the nightmares and night terrors associated with my PTSD. Last night my wife woke me up when in one of my high definition nightmares I was thrashing around trying to defend myself from an enemy insurgent in Iraq. Now mind you, I was never in a close combat situation, but I took part in a number of missions where we didn’t know who the good guys or bad guys were and I was unarmed. But I can live with that, depression without end is far different.
In my worst times I had a lot of people tell me what I needed to do to get out of being depressed. Most were well meaning but didn’t have a clue as to what I really needed. I didn’t need someone to fix me. I didn’t need a checklist of things to make me well. I didn’t need to pray more, or read my Bible more. I didn’t need to work ungodly numbers of hours in ICUs where lives of people were hanging in the balance… all I needed was people who would say I love you, I care for you, and I value you for who you are, not what I want you to be, and will be there for you no matter what, or maybe, let me buy you a beer. Thankfully, there were a few people who did all of those things, and they have been there for me since I emerged from that darkness.
As for the others, who seemed more like “Job’s helpers” it is sometime embarrassing to come across them. Of course I am polite and I do not avoid them. That being said, once you have gone through this, you can see just how uncomfortable that they are to be around you. So those encounters tend to be brief and uncomfortable, as Job’s helpers quickly move along to avoid the awkwardness of the situation. The interesting thing is now I am perfectly fine with their discomfort.
I think that some of the best advice for those who live with, work with, or are friends with a person struggling with depression was written by English comedian Stephen Fry, who said, “Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” That is empathy in action.
I have a number of friends; classmates, and other people I have served with in the military who this very day just hope to stay alive, to find something to live for. The depression that they feel is often overwhelming. They are wonderful, talented and gifted people, people who have a strong amount of empathy for others, but they are enveloped by a darkness and fog which makes it hard for them to see any sign that the depression will ever lift. I have been there, and now I try to be there for them. For me it comes back to what Sherman said about Grant, If I don’t stand with those who suffer from depression after what I have been through, what good would I be?