Beginning to Understand

September 2004

I used to think that only selfish people fixated on themselves enough to be depressed. Recently, however, I've been reading a book by Kay Redfield Jamison as part of my thesis research that is making me rethink my assumptions. In it Jamison explores the link between manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. She uses famous historical figures like Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Allen Poe as well as demographic surveys to show that rates of mental illness and suicide are much higher among artists than the general population, and argues that when combined with great talent, inner suffering can help to produce extraordinary works of art.

I am neither manic-depressive nor suicidal, but it's hard not to recognize myself in some of her descriptions. I'm aware of the tendency to diagnose oneself with textbook diseases, but I still want to know: When I struggle with depression and binge-eating, how much of that is illness and how much is sin, and are the two so different after all? What part of despair is chemical and what part the willful decision not to have faith?

There are moments when one feels beyond reach, when the logic and love that are supposed to protect one, don't, and even the Psalms articulate nothing. In those moments I feel like my memories of childhood happiness belong to somebody else. There are times that I am so upset I don't want to say sorry. I just want to go somewhere far away and cry and cry until my vision clears and I know what I see in my heart, until there is not one drop of poison left in my body. And I wonder, am I allowed to say such things? As a Christian one is supposed to have passed from death to life, and I believe. I do believe. I just can't comprehend how witness is possible: When I am most honest and un-self-conscious, is it joy that you see? Is it faith, is it trust?

Before coming to college, I copied a passage by Ibriham Farrah that finished, "We change the meaning of the words of our vocabulary with age." I remember telling a friend, at eighteen I am confident of being right on most important matters. Goodness, God, forgiveness, grace - I do not think that I will change my mind on these things. But I don't know them really yet. I think that kind of understanding only comes from very much suffering. How can the Incarnation take on meaning until one has experienced in one's self how sin abounds, and yet grace abounds still more?

I don't have the right to say anything. Physically, I am in the same place if not worse off than I was three years ago. It is incredibly frustrating to watch all the effort collapse in another cycle of bingeing and forgetting. Oftentimes the struggle seems futile, but through the process I believe I have gained something of value. I think I finally begin to understand what it means that the gospel is good news, and that we are saved by grace alone. But I don't know. As Toni Bentley writes in Winter Season: "I am hesitant to speak about my return [to the New York City Ballet]. It is an ongoing procedure. I have a joy and an energy and I fear explanations. I don't want to examine them too deeply or search out the sources. Joy is a gift, and I will not look for a price tag."

Joy is a gift. Forgiveness is a gift. The sense of God and of purpose, the sudden clarity that comes after a cry, is a gift. I am scared to say more. What if by this time tomorrow I have lost even the vision I had today? What if tomorrow like today I am grown more undeserving than the day before? Each time I resolve to try harder, starting now, and even as I say that I am reaching to feed the loneliness with physical sustenance. I am sick of trying and failing and trying again, over and over. But what can I do? I can give up for a day, but if God thinks I can do it then who am I to say no? If he gives me another chance, then I will find the courage to try again until I get it right.

- esther-emmanuel