Waste Time or Die

I am re-learning how to waste time.

You would think as a pastor approaching fifty that I would be an expert in wasting time out of shear necessity. You spend enough time visiting families in ICU, walking in as the doctor is walking out telling you “You got it” as your member has just died and the family is wailing and throwing themselves over the still warm corpse, you figure out how to waste time, to decompress, as a matter of emotional survival.  You look at enough children, you going down on one knee, eye to eye, to answer their question: “Why is mommy crying?” as you steal a quick glance at the tiny graves of two still born babies, one with the dirt freshly tamped down covering a coffin the size of a shoebox and you learn how to waste time.  You just do. You walk into a hospital room to have a quick prayer before surgery for one of your seventy something year-old members as a nurse pulls you aside to whisper in your ear that your member’s husband just died down in the ICU due to a car accident and your member looks into your eyes and says, “Where is my husband? He said he would be here before I went down to surgery.”  You better damn well learn to waste some time or this job will eat your lunch.   

I once was an expert in wasting time, but then it was if I had forgotten how.  I became too stressed to de-stress.  And I guess that was the beginning of the end of my time walking the fence between occasional dark moods and clinical depression.  I began to think that wasting time was a waste of time.

It isn’t.

I used to take a few hours here and there, camera always in the car, at the ready, to squeeze in a nature walk in between visits or other pastor stuff. As soon as I put on the big floppy sunhat, the one with built-in bug repellent and SPF 50 and traded my Rockports for the water-proof, snake-proof boots, I was off and going. The background noise of life melted into the songs of birds and crickets. The smell of the forests, swamps, and rocklands of the Florida Everglades and other nearby environs worked some sort of holistic magic, an anti-depressant of a class as old as dirt, literally. Walking with a camera, especially once I took up macro photography in which close ups of little things or parts of bigger things dominate the viewfinder, allowed me to slow down. Way down. To see with a fresh set of eyes the things so often missed, but full of beauty and wonder, the strokes of the brush from the hand of the Creator.   In an hour or two, with a large memory card, I might shoot a couple of hundred photos of which a handful might merit keeping; a glorious waste of time besides the still waters, restoring my soul.

I cried a lot less then.

I am not naïve enough to believe that the Everglades hold all the answers or are all the cure I need, but I know that every moment of time wasted there provides co-therapy for my soul, if not for my heart and mind and strength, too.  Wanting to work every waking hour to prove something to someone, to myself, to no one, to fill some need, real or imagined, in some mis-guided belief that in this day of struggling parishes and idealized mega-churches that one can pour enough time into the challenge to work some victory that is not attainable and is indeed a false god. We have been freed for freedom which we in turn, day by day decline.  We clergy can work ourselves to death or re-learn the art of wasting time. It is our choice to make.


Emotional Barophobia and the Zombie Apocalypse

I felt good today.

There is some trepidation in saying that. OK, a lot of trepidation.  Blame it on emotional barophobia.   What goes up must come down.  Another theory that I do not suggest upsetting by trying to go all Mythbusters on it.

What goes up must come down. Sometimes down hard, hard like a meteor that failed to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere and left a crater so immeasurably deep that it wiped out the dinosaurs because it kicked up enough dust to block out the sun for two consecutive years. That hard. Sometimes what goes up comes down very hard and very down.  Should that inspire worry? Anxiety? Fear?

And yes I am making up a new medical term by applying the fear of gravity to what it is like trying to come out of depression and move forward towards wellness, so don’t bother reaching for your desk copy of the DSM-IV that I imagine most folks keep by their bedside for some light reading when fear of the next zombie apocalypse keeps you awake.  It is not there. You’re welcome.

On the face of it, it is absurd, the idea that feeling a little bit of joy might kick up some fear, some corner of one’s brain suggesting half-life values of joy shorter than the length of an average Youtube(tm) video [ four minutes and 12 seconds for those curious]. Crazy. Well, that is another word like “normal” from which we need to move away.  And since we are talking about zombies, have you ever noticed that they never get too joyful or too sad? Their keel stays just about even.  It works for them. And I am not sure that they process the risks involved in feeling joy like some of us who have stumbled down depression way might and so often do. Lucky zombies.

As someone whose top of the bucket list includes walking the road from Katmandu to Everest Base Camp, a life defined by an even keel in which peaks are sacrificed to avoid the risk of valleys, the goings up traded for an extra helping of the unvarying and expected instead of the comings down sounds like some version of hell. But depression is like being bitten by some huge spider, paralyzed and trapped in a web, as you watch life pass you by, opportunities lost one after another, the kids growing older, your spouse trying in vain to bring you up from the place and to coax you out to behold life as it is unfolding before you in all of its splendor and beauty.  

But today, I felt good. I can live with that.  

In Joy and in Sorrow, In Sickness and in Health


In the presence of God and this community,

I, Piper, take you, Keith, to be my husband;

to have and to hold from this day forward,

in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want,

in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,

as long as we both shall live. This is my solemn vow.

Twenty-five years ago, we wrote our own vows based upon these traditional ones, a copy of which was typed out on my Sears Selectric 2 Typewriter (with correcto-tape!) What we said that day,  holding hands and laughing, exists somewhere in a box with other memories, like the now empty heart-shaped box of chocolates in which I had hidden her engagement ring when I proposed a week before Valentine’s Day in 1988. Our knick-knacks of a life together have survived more moves that I can count thanks primarily to our US Navy time, with a few more moves in the ledger for seminary, internship and now the parish.  Twenty-five years. It is amazing how time has flown by and all that it has contained.

In the same week that we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary last month, I walked into a psychiatrist’s office as a present of sorts, that cost a mere $20 co-pay  and a willingness to admit that I had had enough. That I deserved better than a life than one in which I could count the number of times I had laughed this year on one hand. And that my wife certainly deserved more than a husband so often burdened with sadness, withdrawn, and unenthused about doing much of anything.   

As a pastor I have done my share of weddings, but truth be told, it is the vow renewal service that we hold each year during our main worship service that leaves me in tears. I believe those tears will be safe even from the anti-depressants now at work trying to even out my ups and downs. Whether they have been married one year or sixty-five (our current record for the renewal service), these couples have lived into those vows. They have gone through health issues, the death of children, the loss of houses and jobs, and in some cases, dreams. Many, I believe, had no idea when they first spoke those words what they were getting themselves into.  We didn’t.  We were young and deeply in love and ready for the adventure as long as we could share it together.  

That love accepted the rough edges, and trust me, I was so rigid about some things (“We can’t walk over there for the gorgeous view – the sign says no trespassing!”) that I can really appreciate how our life together has changed me.  “When marriage works well,” I often tell engaged couples, “You can become more of the people God hopes and intends for you to be. You do not go into a marriage to change one another; trust, commitment, and selfless love shared in partnership does that. And chances are you will only notice it in hindsight. When you catch your breath and look back and see how far the road you have travelled stretches into the distance.”  That love gave my wife the strength to reach down deep when I first fell into the dark and claustrophobic rabbit hole of depression following the 2004 hurricane season. It was then that the pressure of trying to juggle my role as pastor and council president amid the damaged roof, a broken septic system and a church cash flow badly wounded from two cancelled services left our next paycheck in jeopardy.  Piper all but handed me the phone to call the confidential Rostered Leader emergency help line that exists in our synod. That led to my first entrance into therapy through a local counseling center run by a Methodist pastor. She stood by me as I  made appointments for various doctors, who ran their tests and suggested medication for the discovered hiatal hernia that the stress was aggravating and provided assurances (your heart is great).  She supported my decision to take charge of my vocation by resigning as council president and looking to the future by commencing my Doctor of Ministry studies.

And five years later she would have to do nearly all of it again.

Stand by me as I went back into counseling. Stand by me as I lined up doctor’s appointments (Bad gallbladder, great heart, pesky hiatal hernia that hates stress as much as I did). I joined a gym. Ran a half marathon with her. If I only could have bottled that lightning! But it only proved a reprieve. Bought me a couple of more years.  Brought me to last year and that seemingly wide as a barn door gaping rabbit hole. Please note: I have nothing against rabbits personally and we currently foster Butterscotch, the bunny as I type this. Adoptive inquires welcome.

25 years. And she still crawls down the hole to help me find my way back.

In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,

as long as we both shall live.

So Happy Anniversary, Sweetie! And thank you.

I hope this is a gift that we can both enjoy at some point.

We’ll look back and we’ll have a good laugh.

We’ll take in all those gorgeous views and “No Trespassing” signs be damned.

I promise.  

The Dreaded Question

Once one receives a diagnoses of clinical depression and the initial trial of anti-depressant medication has begun, anxiety may build around the follow-up visit.

That’s my takeaway from the past month.

The post-first visit relief of knowing and naming, of getting the thing out in the open and beginning a course of therapy and moving forward towards wellness gives way to the desire to assess oneself. Daily. Was today better than yesterday? In what ways “yes” and in what ways “no?” Did things annoy me today? Leave me sad? Should they have? Did I get teary over something and should I have?

Note to self: Will I ever cry again and not think: Oh My God is my depression coming back?

Footnote to self: Well, it has to leave first, doesn’t it?

Questions, circumstances, relationships, work, small talk and big important talk and I ask myself: Were my responses normal?

You see I am still trying to eject “normal” from my vocabulary since it isn’t helpful according to my doctor.

Days pass as the medication, at least in theory, is building up to an efficacious dose over the first month.  That was the first checkpoint: the end of month one. And as the month drew to a close I found myself anxious (dammit I am not supposed to be anxious) anticipating one question that would be asked of me by my therapist. It would find its way into the conversation – I was guessing pretty much right off the bat. It would go something like this, I imagined:

“So, how are you feeling?”

I spent an entire week pondering how I would answer that question.  I thought about other important things, too. I may be sad and anxious, but not obsessive. Especially since our kids took over filling the dishwasher. Of course there is really only one right way to do that task,  but I just smile and walk away, thankful. Hmmm. Maybe I am getting better.  And the kids now empty the dishwasher, so I no longer sort them by size and type. And it doesn’t make me anxious at all, just frustrated when it takes me three days to find my favorite tea mug. I keep chugging on along with my work even as I ponder how I feel. I pour myself into planning for the upcoming council retreat, and think about better ways to minister to our sick and shut-ins, and write down and share steps to take to assist our leadership through the current  and typical tight summer finances. I write sermons that I think do not suck (noted in a humble Lutheran way.)  Hospital visits and dates with my wife and catching up on some TV shows. Days are filled and busy.

With a crazy month of summer under my belt and the initial dose of medication ramped up from say “introductory” to “minimum,” I knew, as the calendar kept reminding me, that the appointment at which I would have to give testimony to how things were going would be here soon.

How was I feeling?

The thing was I had no idea.

Which when you think about it, kinda sucks.

How was I supposed to feel? What quantity of feelings or quality of feelings moves me away from “the same” to better (or godforbid, worse)? 

The good doctor invited me into his office and I chose the usual spot near his cat and I related some high points, like no anxiety flare ups unless he was willing to count worrying about that question. I related some low points which opened up an hour’s worth of conversation.

I walked away feeling better about some things about which I had been pretty hard on myself.  I was told to stay the course.

How do I feel? 

It is not a minor question since the amount and type of anti-depressant medication hinges somewhat on my response.

And when you share your journey with depression there is the fear that a whole bunch of other people might start asking THE VERY SAME QUESTION.

I will save you some time. Right now I just don’t know.

Truth, Damn Truth, and Statistics

So according to a 2008 study out of Duke University’s Clergy Health Initiative clergy are much more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. At least half again as much, if not twice as likely. The summary of their report can be found here.  

Is anyone really surprised?

The survey also found that clergy had a 13% chance of being anxious (7% of clergy were both depressed and anxious).

What really surprised me was how low the numbers were. 

87% of clergy interviewed were found not to be anxious?

90ish percent were found not to be depressed?  

I’m thinking the North Carolina Methodist clergy that were interviewed for the study must have found some magic elixir that they add to their morning coffee or started therapy the day that were ordained. If so, good for them.  At this point in my journey it is hard to imagine that many non-anxious and generally healthy and satisfied clergy. But that’s me.

Then there was this no-brainer: 

“…the study found that pastors’ sense of guilt about not doing enough at work was a top predictor of depression, and that doubt of their call to ministry was a top predictor of anxiety.” 

Perhaps there is some odd solace in the numbers being reported here.

“The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed,” said Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.”

OK. Final statistic. I promise.

 The article goes on to say that “Nearly two out of three depressed people don’t seek treatment, according to studies by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Counselors say even fewer depressed ministers get treated because of career fears, social stigma and spiritual taboo.”

I have probably danced around the edge of depression for a good chunk of my life. I tried to get better. I really did. My best effort included a handful of periods of weekly therapy over the past decade with a pastoral-therapist. The first lasting six months, after accumulating stress and anxiety turned inward and left me with a perpetually twitching eye, insomnia, and a lack of energy that made it difficult to leave the house. Days crashed one into the next into the darkness. There was the horrible reflux that I tried to cover as genuflecting before the altar, with my right hand grasping the hand-carved wooden cross around my neck and me in a deep bow just trying to make it through another service without collapsing from  the pain. There were further stressed-induced humiliations, too, including one that men are far less likely to talk about, even less then depression. Which means practically never. So there was that. 

The counseling helped. Like releasing some steam from a pressure cooker. After talking it out with my therapist all would be well. For awhile. Years at times. Or months. And I found myself returning to the therapist’s chair (no couch in sight) off and on over the years as the stresses of life as a parish pastor  (budget woes, declining membership, conflict) built up and sometimes overwhelmed me. and I would always bounce back. Until I didn’t.

At some point 18 months of sadness just adds up to more than the sum of its parts; takes it toll. It can invites one to question  one’s specific and vocational call, even one’s faith. It makes every decision complicated and every decision made becomes viewed through a lens of self-doubt.  So I woke up one day last month and decided to do the thing  that I had told myself I would never do:  I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. Ten years of talking about the stress and anxiety in my life had helped, but I was tired of the treadmill. I needed a different approach.


A Poem As I Begin Treatment for Clinical Depression

The 50 milligram Lament


Operating Heavy Machinery is out,

About to cross it off my bucket list,

For now.

Rummaged those Tonka Trucks from my childhood too soon,

It seems.

For this, for all the absolutes, the things I know,

A counter-weight of a thousand questions yet remain:

Like which of me from history shall I be

As the pharmacology re-wires me,


50 milligrams,

Medicinal Kleenex for tears unexpected, unappreciated;

To soothe breaths and heartbeats that come too quickly,

all that energy paralyzing:

The fear of failing, of being nothing,

The latter of which is, truth be told,

A Christian’s goal:

To be nothing, so that in Christ one could be everything:

In him; For him; Though him.

I wait for everything, but the afternoon brings only rain,

For now.

But tomorrow might yet be the day

When by some mystery it becomes a yesterday of yesterday,

When I was someone else less sad.