Shame and fear. They often go together… afraid because you feel ashamed, or afraid if you open your mouth and admit to that thing that you will be shamed. And while they sometimes operate separately they almost always have the same effect – they silence the one they’re oppressing. They bully into hiding. And in silence and hiding they are allowed to grow and weaken their subject. To make her feel like she’s the only one. That no one would understand. That she’s the lone sufferer in a sea of people with picture perfect lives. And it breaks my heart.
So we hold it in and pretend we have it all together just like everyone else seems to. And the idea that weakness is wrong or brokenness must be deserved continues to be perpetuated by the silence. The truth is that we’re all just a little bit broken and so we live in a world of silent broken people pretending to be fine. But when someone finally makes it to the other side of a struggle and breaks the silence, or speaks up in the midst of the suffering our ears are tuned and we get a little tinge of hope. Maybe we aren’t alone after all. Maybe we don’t have to be afraid or ashamed because there are other people out there going through the same thing. Whatever that thing is for you.
When I wrote “Can You Imagine?” over a year ago I was stunned when it had been shared on facebook over 3,000 times the week it published. But it started making sense when the emails came pouring in from women dealing with infertility. “Yes!” They would write… “yes I can imagine because I am living this and it feels so good to know that I’m not alone.” And there the hope is born that maybe we don’t have to be ashamed. That maybe it’s okay after all. Other people are going through it too and having all those same feelings you do… maybe it’s okay.
Here’s the thing I didn’t write in that post above: “Can you imagine spiraling into a season of depression but being afraid to tell anyone?” I’ve never suffered from clinical or long term depression. But I did go through a season of what I can only describe as depression during the worst parts of our infertility journey. It was hard to get out of bed some mornings. There were days that John would come home from work and I had just managed to get myself showered minutes before. So many days I wondered what on earth I was here for… because the very thing I wanted to do and the only thing that felt like it was of any worth or meaning was the one thing I couldn’t do. Be a mother. I sobbed on the couch and in the shower and by myself often… sometimes daily. And I kept it to myself – only John knew how sad I was all the time.
When I went out to public events, or church, or to see friends, or family holidays I plastered a smile on my face. Sometimes I would have genuine moments of happiness, but not the true joy that was normal for me. Occasionally I would let a friend or two in and tell them I was sad about my infertility, but I never let on just how bad it really was. I was ashamed. I felt like I should have better control over my emotions. That I should trust God more. That if I was just a better Christian I wouldn’t feel this way.
I’ve heard on more occasions than I want to remember that depression either is or can be caused by un-confessed sin in a persons life. I think this is a dangerous message to be coming from the pulpit – not because I totally disagree. I’m sure there have been many times that people keep terrible secrets or have awful habits that cause them some depression. But to say it every time we have any sort of discussion in the church about depression creates a dangerous mindset that depression is caused by sin and then it turns into depression equals sin. And that perpetuates stigma and a culture of shame and silence. Because what Christian wants to admit to depression when everyone around them is going to assume they must have some terrible un-confessed sin in their lives? And if we can’t admit to something then we can’t get help.
Here’s the thing. Every single person on this earth has sin in their life. All of us. We’re human and we mess up something daily. It’s just the way it is. When a person is diagnosed with cancer or some other disease we don’t start with asking, “is there un-confessed sin in your life?” No! We cry with them and make food and pray and offer to sit with them at doctor’s appointments and pray for them and listen and love them. This should be our response when someone tells us they suffer from depression. Every time. First thing. And this should be our response when someone tells us they’re struggling with infertility.
I remember the six months that I drove an hour to my OBGYN every single week to sit in a waiting room alone among a bunch of pregnant or brand new mothers. Eventually they came to get me and I would go back to a room where a nurse stuck a giant needle in my backside. It hurt to walk for a couple days. Every week. For six months. And on the hour drive home I would cry the whole time and feel so lost and alone. I could have used a friend and I had several who would have dropped everything to take turns coming with me. But I was afraid to ask, afraid to tell them just how hard things were. I didn’t want to appear weak or faithless so I kept it to myself and waited until John came home from work and I would cry on his shoulder and he would listen and I would feel better for a little while.
The thing I want you to know is that I never got professional help of any kind because I was ashamed. And none of the doctors or nurses in our fertility clinic ever asked me how I was doing. In all four practices we’ve been with over the years not one medical professional asked how we were handling things emotionally. It was all 100% medical. The only time I ever cried in front of my doctors and nurses was when I was in the middle of a miscarriage. I always held it in until I got in the car. It shouldn’t be this way! And I’m sure it isn’t for some practices. They should have asked. They should have told me it was okay and normal to feel depressed. They should have guided me to some resources. They deal with infertility every day! Shouldn’t they know this by now?
Thankfully for me my depression was just for a little while and as the shock and the hardest parts of our infertility struggle wore off, so did the depression. As I learned to accept my infertility and look toward the future and what might be possible I began to find joy again. As we walked with determination through our first adoption I found renewed passion for life and purpose for my days. And the truth is that God was just as good in my infertility as he is now, but I was having a lot of trouble seeing that and I could have used some help. Some support. More than just scripted platitudes. I could have used some corporate tears and compassion. But I didn’t know how to ask because I was too afraid.
Fear keeps us quiet because we’re human, and let’s be honest – we all say and do stupid things. (Some more than others… but we’re all guilty.) Fear tells us that if we’re honest and share those deeper parts of our hearts we’ll be misunderstood. Fear tells us that people won’t react in a kind or loving way, so it’s safer to just keep it in. But when something happens (like the loss of a comic genius) and people start speaking up we can help ease fears and end stigmas. Some people will still say things that hurt, but we just might find our community of people who understand – who have been there too.
This isn’t just a post about depression and it isn’t even a post about infertility. It’s about being better at community. It’s about being better as a whole at compassion and our national discussion of, well, everything. It’s about creating an environment within every church of love and grace and how we address suffering. It’s about not ignoring or dismissing something because we don’t understand it. And I need to be better about it too – I have so much growing to do in this area.
If you’re one of those women silently suffering in the middle of her infertility story please take heart! There is a ministry being built as I type this and I can’t wait to share it with you! Stay tuned here or keep up on my new facebook page because I’ll be announcing there sometime in the coming weeks.
** update: As I’ve been thinking about it more, and chatting with my mom in the comments section, I feel I should clarify something. Depression is a term we use fairly often even when it may not be the appropriate term. Depression is a pathology and what I experienced can be better described as grief. The words I wrote remain true, though, whether you are experiencing grief or true depression. You have nothing to be ashamed of – don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help. : )