Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a focus in Celtic folklore, mythology, and history. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, Penn., in May 2016. In August 2017 she presented at Doxacon, the Orthodox Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, on the topic of fairy tales and the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that says, "Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again." Cynthia was Chrismated in September 2012 and attends St. George Church in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she tends the parish library.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, on the cusp of my graduation from college, I had a nervous breakdown. My longstanding identity as a student was being stripped away, and I couldn’t find a deeper identity beneath it. (There were additional, more complex factors as well.) I came back from commencement, locked myself in the bedroom, and cried. I skipped my own graduation dinner.
I was Protestant at the time, and my church friends were a bit like the Prophet Job’s friends; they told me I should pray more (shouldn’t we all?) and that obviously I didn’t have enough faith. My grief was so black and viscous that some days I wanted to be like Job’s wife and “curse God and die.” It was this point in my life when I broke from Evangelical Protestantism, although it took me another twenty years—what I call my ‘wandering in the desert’—for me to find the Orthodox Church.
Depression is insidious because it makes you think it goes on forever. Despair gnawed my stomach like a magnifying glass on a sunny day smoldering a piece of paper. I carried a black hole within me that constantly threatened to engulf. I held it at bay with prayer. Prayer and medication.
My prescription anti-depressants successfully stabilized me, but it was prayer that saved me. Don’t misunderstand me: I needed my doctors; I faithfully took my prescriptions. I encourage anyone in serious emotional distress to see a professional and follow their recommendations. I still (again) see a therapist today although I no longer need medication. And prayer helped me hold myself together during the long days that felt like months until my next weekly appointment. Swallowing my pills took maybe thirty seconds once or twice a day. The rest of the time, I was still stuck with myself. I clung to prayer like a capsized passenger clinging to a life raft. Prayer is a life raft.
On bad nights, I would binge-read the Psalms, starting anew each time and usually making it past Psalm 50 (51), so that when I finally did find the Orthodox Church all those years later, I immediately recognized our frequent petition, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy. . .” At the time, however, I’d favored these verses from Psalms 41-42 (42-43): “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God for I will yet praise Him, my savior and my God.”
Depression paralyzed me; I could barely get out of bed and brush my teeth. I faked my way into a post-graduation job so at least I had a forced, external reason to wake up in the morning, but I wasn’t feeling any praise for my unpredictable and unstable emotional reactions. I repeated the words anyway, claiming them as my own.
Sometimes I look at my miserable two decades of wandering—broken friendships; family estrangement; a divorce—and regret my turbulent journey. I am still picking up some of those broken pieces today. I often wish I’d had the benefit of a spiritual father back then to succor and advise me during those bleak days. (Those of you reading this most likely do have a priest you can talk to. Go talk to him!) But I can’t regret my journey too much. Eventually my topsy-turvy life brought me to the Church. What I didn’t know at age twenty-one is that God plays longball.
Every Pascha, St. John Chrysostom’s homily reminds us of the far-reaching extent of God’s mercy: “If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him also be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord . . . will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour . . .”
This is an essential message—of course for all of us—but especially for those struggling with depression or mental illness. It’s hard to find hope when our own minds and emotions threaten to overwhelm us. It’s hard to remember the eleventh hour, or even the next minute, when each moment in despair seems to resonate forever. That’s why the Psalms remind us that this moment doesn’t last forever. Put your hope in God with the hope—dare I say knowledge—that you will praise Him again.
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