Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.