Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ranting From the Depths of Chronic Illness at the Height of Midsummer

One of the first psychiatrists I knew told me that depression is repressed (denied) anger.  Since then I’ve heard it described in a variety of ways, including several chemical descriptions that take away all ownership of the state from the individual, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard one that is more to the point.  Depression is anger turned inward, that is hidden from the self.  Depressed people are the angriest people I’ve ever met, perhaps particularly so because they don’t even know they are angry.

I know that for me growing up, and probably for at least two generations of women before me, anger was not allowed.  Rage at circumstances, at the system, was not permissible.  Christianity is all about love, right? So only loving feelings are allowed.  Christ gives the believer a new being of joy; anger and rage belong to the old sinful nature that doesn’t exist anymore.  That was the dogma anyway. 

Of course, it doesn’t work that way.  When life doesn’t turn out to meet my expectations, when it seems that life conspires to constrain me, when any healthy person would say, “this really sucks and I’m seriously pissed off!” but such an expression is not acceptable to the New Creation in Christ, where does all that energy go? Where has all that energy from three generations of angry Christians gone? 


I thought I was depressed but actually I am seriously pissed off.  I am less than four weeks away from being 45 years old, at least half my life lived already, and what have I done with myself?  Who have I been?  Who am I? I spent the first 25 years trying my damnedest to be a good Christian woman—with all the contradictory roles that meant—and I spent the next 20 years hiding from what I had let religion teach me about smart, accomplished women.


I have let many potentially fruitful opportunities pass me by out of fear:  in college, my professor approached me with the chance to turn a paper I’d written into a real experiment on gender role acquisition in children, the University of Illinois at Chicago offered me an unsolicited place in the doctoral program in psychology.  After a semester’s interning, Tom Ong (the O of the former MR&O Advertising in Philadelphia) wanted to hire me. I blew them all off with blithe disregard—looking back with the hindsight of middle age, I turned them all down because I might have been successful in any of those endeavors.

I’ve started the path to graduate school four or five times (I’ve lost count), begun multiple different careers (teaching, two different times, not including homeschooling; naturopathy, twice; kinesiology, twice; retail sales in natural health, a couple times, once I even tried to buy the store but the place went bankrupt first) that never got off the ground.  I’ve been fired from every job I ever had, except one—probably the best paying job I ever had—I quit that one. 

I suspect that I’m unemployable now.  I haven’t even got callbacks from any of the jobs I’ve applied for in the last 5 years, despite persistent follow-up on my part.  I suspect that I’m too old and know too much for an entry-level position in any field but I have no credentials or legitimate experience that qualify me for anything else.


It was damn hard work being perfect at never achieving anything.  The constant stop-start of job changes, school plans, dropping out to raise kids (and don’t start on how my kids are my achievement because my kids are at their best when I interfere with them the least), the struggle to maintain excellent mediocrity.  Always starting but never finishing a plan.


I read once in a novel, so it is not scientific evidence but it sure made sense, that chronically ill women (who tend to be of a certain age and socio-economic status) use their illness to give them a sense of purpose in a situation where their intelligence and talents are not valued—basically, in the story, middle-aged housewives are just so freakin’ bored they develop malingering hypochondria.  I really don’t think the condescension of blame-the-victim is particularly helpful but the basic point seems to fit.  It was certainly not considered acceptable for me to be too terribly smart (but neither was I allowed to skate through school with bad grades) and having professional goals that couldn’t be easily seconded to my future husband’s career was clearly frowned upon. 

Anyway, between the desperate fears I experienced, the ongoing cognitive dissonance between what I was taught at church and home and the visceral knowledge I had of spiritual realities, the disparity of the secular schools who said I was really smart, much smarter than I demonstrated (“does not work up to her potential” I think was the recurring phrase from the teacher conferences) and the need to be dumber than any potential spouse, into adulthood where I kept trying to be perfect but not achieve too much, just look like I was (yes, I know this is really run on bunch of clauses—today is stream of consciousness writing)….


I am so frustrated and angry that I developed hypoadrenia—burned myself out trying to measure up to all the disparate standards I had internalized, all the while compromising my own intelligence and wholeness.  I’m angry that I had to get sick to see how killing my belief set was.  I’m angry that when I did get sick, no one (friends, family, medical professionals) took seriously how ill I was.  I’m angry that following the medical advice I did get turned the illness toward my central nervous system and I went crazy.  I’m even angrier that when that happened my doctor dismissed me.  I’m angry that my daughter still throws it in my face that I “still have holes in your brain”.  I’m angry that three years later I still have to carefully conserve my reserves—can’t take on too much, can’t work too hard—I’ve become the shadow of a person I had set out unconsciously to become.

I’m pissed as all hell that I can’t write the way I used to, can’t pull the words out of the air to perfectly say what I mean as easily as couch collects dog hair.  It frustrates me that I can’t write up my thoughts quickly and concisely anymore. Yes, I can at least hold a thought long enough to string a sentence together—most of the time, May wasn’t a good month for that—but oh it is difficult compared to what it used to be!  I feel like a runner after a traumatic brain injury who has to relearn how to walk but remembers the feel of skimming the surface of the ground.


This collection of complaints is, I guess, only peripherally about religion. Or maybe not.  I certainly sacrificed my health, my sanity, came close to losing my marriage and my kids, on the altar of trying to follow the rules, of black-and-white thinking that I learned from religion.  I have succeeded in being a martyr to legalism—if not to the fundamentalist Evangelical brand.  I am climbing down off that altar before it actually takes my life. 

My mother died at 49.  I’m going to be 45 next month.  I refuse to continue digging my early grave to prove something to no one in particular.  I want to spend the next 45 years embracing the freedom, the peace, and the abundant life that Jesus taught was our birthright—he never promised Easy Street but he promised an easy spirit.  I want to find out just what I can be and be All That.


  1. Peace to you, friend. I hope composing the post helped you further down the road to where you are going.

  2. Yes, thank you. I feel much lighter and fresher today for posting that sturm und drang yesterday.

  3. Thank you for the post, even if it wasn't the one you intended to write.

    I can relate to a lot of what you're saying. We are the same age, at least within a few months (I am already 45), and there is something about this age that is sobering, at least for me, I think especially since I have also been diagnosed with a chronic, life-altering illness within the last few months, and some of what you said about your health reminded me of what I am facing.

    I, too, have been somewhat obsessed (probably the right word) with the perfect mom thing for the last 20 years. But at nearly the end of the whole child-rearing gig, I am not sure if our kids turned out pretty good because of me or despite of me, and I suppose it doesn't matter. But there is a feeling that a lot of the striving was for naught, and now it's all just like dandelion fluff floating in the wind. I know I placed a lot of unnecessary stress on my family with all of my striving, and the inflexibility on my part when something came up that was outside of my legalistic comfort zone or construct. They seem not to have held it against me, although I do take some gentle ribbing for it these days.

    I had no real epiphany about the whole thing (motherhood conflated with evangelical - and largely legalistic - Christianity). I just more or less got tired. I could no longer reconcile my long-held beliefs (read: rules to which I adhered) with the Christ of scripture, and can't explain the irreconcilable differences adequately to my would-be detractors. I am a Christian, but I am no longer sure what is expected of me by my Christian community, and often don't care that much. My health suffered, and I can't honestly keep up at the pace I did for years.

    Ack - this is too long, but I just wanted to reach out and tell you that I can relate to a lot of what you are saying and as my sons would say. . . "am feelin' you".

    BTW - I found you on the Razing Ruth blog.

  4. Savannah, welcome to my blog. And my condolences(?), feelings of compassionate frustration(?)... there just isn't a word to adequately express the emotion I feel for you that isn't patronizing or dismissive... on your recent admittance to the ranks of the Invisibly Ill. It really sucks but I have to say it does cast the rest of life in different and more spiritually relevent colors.

  5. Yep, we are definitely kindred spirits. Sometimes feels like we were sold a bill of goods, doesn't it?

    Looking forward to keeping up with this blog. ; )

  6. "...sold a bill of good..."

    oh, hell, yes! Much of this past year--coming to admit my fundamentalism/fear, blaming it on family, church, religion, recognizing what that theology and resulting orthopraxy has cost me--has left me exceedingly angry and bitter.

    I really don't want to live in that angry place, it is nearly as destructive as Fear to get stuck in (useful and perhaps necessary as a place of passage, however). So I have been starting to look past the "bill of goods" to why it is so easy to sell such stuff to people. Why has Christianity in its various forms remained so appealing for two millenia? If it didn't somehow meet deeply some need people have, we wouldn't keep buying it no matter how well-marketed it is.

    Certainly there are hucksters and shysters willing to trade in people's immortals souls for power and glory. But there are also truly humble, devout, loving servant people. Often the two groups sound an awfully lot alike and we the buyers mistake the Product (the bill of goods) for the Produce (the fruit of the spirit that develops in the truly holy).

    When I can see how the traditional doctrines and dogma have actually deeply nourished people down through ages and into today, despite the powermongers rampant in the institutionalized religions, it becomes easier to let the anger go, to let that passion be transformed into more love for our Creator and his Created. And forgiveness becomes possible.

    It's still a process that I'm only beginning, there are several people out there who I still can't think about without wanted to throw up a sign to ward off evil--oh, yeah, that'd be evil itself to Evangelicals. Sigh.

  7. If it ain't got Fruit, it ain't from God.

    Interesting how much Fruit there is to find OUTSIDE of church, isn't it?

    ; )

  8. Final Anonymous,

    LOL! Yessss!

    There is some really good fruit growing where fundamentalists say it can't grow- and yet there it is! Whaddayaknow? =D

  9. I got into a disagreement with someone over religious plurality--is salvation (however one defines that, we didn't specify in the discussion) possible outside of a "saving faith in Jesus as resurrected Son of God"--and this was my primary argument. If the measure of holiness is Fruit, and every religion I know agrees that lovejoypeacepatiencekindnesshumility is the only measure of holiness, then how is holiness possible in these other religions? There must be some possibility of connecting to the Divine other than Jesus if holy people exist in all religions.

    The rebuttal fell back on "I am the Truth and the Way, no man comes to the father but by me" so then by definition these so-called holy people were not really saved but were only doing good works. Uh... yeah!

    The doing of good works is the process of developing the lovejoypeace and the lovejoypeace is the motivation of doing the good works. And grace is the moment when the action becomes the character becomes the action.

    This fanatical idolatrous irrational adherence to certain interpretations of canonical scripture leads to such willful blindness! How can we not see the holiness that surrounds us just because it sings a different hymn? Can we no longer see people but only the caricatures fed to us by our rigid biblical interpretations?

    Been there, done that, still find it tragic.