Finding Hope

“To exist in a hellish state is to be denied forever the promise of hope, of redemption, of love. To those who have been forsaken, hell has no geography.” -John Connolly

“We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve been trying for months now to write about hope. I’ve spent several ink cartridges, crumpled countless sheets of yellow paper as I work through drafts, and have continuously found myself coming short of the mark; without a whole lot of clarity as to what the mark was to begin with. It strikes me that this difficulty in writing about hope mirrors the difficulty I’ve had holding on to hope in my own spirit. One of the foundational concepts in mental health recovery (or any recovery, for that matter) is hope. In order to get out of bed and face the day, we need hope. In order to have the courage and strength needed to battle our inner demons and seek healing, we need hope. In order to pick ourselves up, time and again, after we fall down, we need hope. In order to live day by day in a meaningful existence, we need hope.

Growing up in the Evangelical Christian Church, I learned to draw my hope from the certainty of future events and places. The pain and suffering of this life would be proven worth it at the end as the wicked were punished and sent to hell while the righteous were welcomed into heaven where there was no more pain, no more tears. As I grew older and my eyes became more open to the world, this belief system began to shift. Hell was no longer a distant place, it was an ever-present reality. A reality in which a young girl is raped and beaten by her father and his friends, where children lose life and limb as collateral damage in senseless wars, where infants are born dependent on heroin and other illicit drugs, where a woman is beaten by her husband day after day and her children are forced to watch, where children as young as 7 years old decide to hang themselves because life is just too painful and they’ve lost all hope of redemption. This is hell, and a hell created entirely by humankind.

It is easy to lose hope in this seemingly hellish existence, we don’t have to look far to find pain and suffering. But there is also, if we look closely enough, healing and strength. And hope.

In the work that I do, I have the honor of listening to people’s stories, and helping them to identify and draw on their own internal strengths and resources. There is often incredible suffering and injustice in these stories and I am continually amazed at the inhumanity that humans are capable of displaying toward one another. But I am also in perpetual awe of the strength, resilience, and grit that people show by surviving and finding healing from these wounds. When the parents of a child who has committed suicide are able to forgive themselves and create meaning out of their loss by spreading awareness and tools to keep more children from taking their lives, there is hope. When a battered woman is able to find safety, heal from her wounds, and use her story to reach out and help others, there is hope. When people get tired of seeing the innocent injuries of war and rise up to question and protest their government’s military interventions, there is hope. When a young woman is able to recover from the trauma of her childhood and help give voice to others who are suffering, there is hope. Where there is healing, there is hope; and while it may at times be hard to see, there is healing all around us.

For a good portion of the last 10 years of my life, I have had trouble hanging on to hope, expecting hope to present itself to me as a long-lost friend. But I’m recognizing that finding hope is my own personal responsibility, and I’m learning to find it again. In spite of the finite disappointments of this world, I cannot lose hope of the infinite possibilities. A life without hope is indeed a hellish existence.

These days, I find much of my hope from watching my son grow and develop. He is so enthusiastic about learning and discovering his environment, his talents and abilities, the world is full of possibilities for him, and helps to me hang on to infinite hope. How could this face do anything else?

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How do you find hope in your life?

Picking up the Pieces

One of the most difficult things about a depressive crash, other than the experience of the crash itself, is the recovery process of putting back together all the shattered remnants of your life. At least this is true in my experience, and really can be true of any fall that results in a state resembling rock-bottom, depressive or otherwise. Everywhere there are reminders of the dark places you’ve been, the mistakes that you’ve made, and the people that you’ve hurt. It can fuel the desire to run away, to isolate, or to fall back into old patterns that led to the crash in the first place. If not handled well, it can lead to a vicious cycle that proves incredibly difficult to break.

My old pattern was to change everything about my life after a depressive crash, from my job to my close relations to my living location. I told myself this was all in an effort to have a fresh start, to allow myself to heal and recover. But what it really did was to fuel my denial. If I run away every time I crash, I never have to face the magnitude of my problem. I can tell myself that my depression was only due to my external circumstances, not an internal problem that needs to be addressed. And yet I have continually found myself in many different circumstances, but still wrestling with my demon of depression. The problem lies with me.

There is a movement within the mental health field to adopt a recovery-based approach in addressing mental illness. This makes a lot of sense to me, and I think the 12-step process used by many to recover in addiction can also be used to recover in depression. My first step in learning to better manage my depression was this: “I admitted that I was powerless over my depression and anxiety, that my life had become unmanageable”. I have recognized that I cannot do this on my own. My depression is not a character flaw that I can just work on by myself and make it go away. It is a part of me, and it has to be managed so that I can continue to live a rich and meaningful life. But I cannot manage it by myself, I need help…from friends and a strong support network, from regular therapy, from tools such as exercise and mindfulness, and from medication. I have given up my sense of control over my depression, I am allowing it to exist, and I am learning to manage it as a chronic condition.

For quite some time, I have not managed my depression well. In fact, I have avoided even admitting that it exists. This has led to a massive blindspot in my existence…as I spend time helping others to manage their emotions and mental health more effectively, I have failed to apply those lessons to my own life and have lived in a sort of juvenile emotional state. When I am depressed, I avoid my friends by not returning their calls or coming up with excuses when invited to spend time with them, I become irritable and explosive with my wife and am emotionally unavailable, I stop doing things around the house like cleaning and cooking, and I neglect responsibilities like work and paying bills on time. All of these things have consequences, and while I recognize they are a symptom of my illness, I also recognize that it is my responsibility to manage my depression so that it does not so significantly interfere with my life. I must own up to this, and I must work to repair relationships that have been damaged and attend to responsibilities that have been neglected. This is a scary process, but one that more often than not bears surprisingly positive results.

When a problem is avoided, it can only become larger. When it is dealt with, it may be painful, but it can no longer grow to the behemoth it often becomes in the mind.

I’m working on owning up to my responsibility in managing my mental health, first by admitting that I actually have a problem, and then by seeking help from powers outside of myself and working to repair the damage caused by my past negligence. I’m finding, thus far, that the people in my life have been incredibly supportive and understanding. Most of the problems that I thought existed were only the creation of my own mind.

It’s not easy to take an honest look in the mirror, take responsibility for our circumstances, and do the hard work to create the lives that we desire. It’s much easier to find fault with our circumstances and with other people in our lives. But anything short of rigorous honesty is living in denial, pure and simple.