Several years ago I found myself face down on my office floor crying, trapped in a darkness of depression only I could see. Somewhere beneath my tears I found the strength to do what I had not been able to imagine before: I picked up the phone and called for help. Huddled under my desk, I told a stranger that I had this amazing life I could not seem to enjoy. Because I was not at risk of hurting myself or someone else, she could not offer me any immediate relief for my pain. I made a second call, to a counsellor’s office. Three weeks’ wait.
Three weeks to sit in the darkest part of my life and wait. Somehow, I picked up a book by Ann Voskamp called One Thousand Gifts, and I read it, clinging to this amazing woman’s story and her words and her practice of writing down one thousand things to be grateful for.
I began slowly. Time off to be sick. Frost on a windshield. Babies laughing. Sunshine through the window. Warm mittens. I kept a journal on the kitchen counter, another in my purse, and the last beside my bed. Whenever I felt overwhelmed with the dark, I looked around for something to write. Groceries I did not buy. Clean sheets I did not wash. People who do not need me to have it all together.
I had a lot of ideas about spirituality before depression, and they were nice ideas. In the desperation of trying to climb out of a pit, spiritual practices became a life preserver. Like a drowning person clings to her rescuer with a choking hold, I held on to gratitude with a death grip in the hope that depression would loose its hold on me.
I am embarrassed by my younger, self-righteous self, who thought for a long time that gratitude was an empty trend of the irritatingly positive putting on a false face. I was wrong. Ann’s words challenged the way I had come to be comforted by the darkness I hated: “Living with losses, I may choose to still say yes. Choose to say yes to what He freely gives. Could I live that — the choice to open the hands to freely receive whatever God gives? If I don’t, I am still making a choice . . . the choice not to.”
Depression, though formed in the storm of hormones following pregnancy and childbirth, was fed by my habits, attitudes and behaviours. I felt entitled to a life without suffering, and, without meaning to, I resented the sadness so deeply that I stopped opening my hands to receive the blessings being poured out in the midst of the dark.
Each person who grapples with depression does so uniquely. For me, the choice to receive even the depression with open hands changed my life. Depression has taught me that spirituality is nothing more than the everyday practices that help me to make peace with what is real. Gratitude was just one part of my recovery; it remains as one of the practices that prevents me from falling right back down to the bottom of the pit when a low day strikes now.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul encourages a group of early church converts to stay faithful to this momentous decision they have made to follow Jesus. He gives them a long list at the end of the letter of all the practices that should mark their faith, and among them, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:18).
When I began writing the lists of things to be thankful for, I had no expectation of a miracle. Those lists were the threads of a rope I needed to hold on to without being able to see the other end. Ann went on in her book to write that “thanksgiving precedes the miracle.” Her words offered hope that the practice of giving thanks was going to do something amazing, if I would keep practising.
Giving thanks is easier when circumstances are agreeable to me, but during these times I often forget to be grateful. On some level I must still believe I deserve the good things that happen to me. The problem with this faulty belief is that then the same must be true when difficult things are a part of my world. Gratitude frees me from a false economy of earning favour and punishment and opens me to the grace of life as a gift.
When I give thanks in the midst of the most difficult experiences, grace shows up. It is far from effortless to let go into a reality I would like to wish away. The last tear that escapes the eye after death. Holding a hurting child while she cries. Someone who loves me enough to tell me when I have hurt him. Those first three weeks of waiting, giving thanks in awful circumstances, led to an ongoing practice of gratitude — because when I stop saying thank you, I also stop seeing the miracles.
At the end of those three weeks, at that long-awaited appointment, my counselor warned me that this depression might end up being one of the greatest gifts of my life. I laughed through my tears of doubt. But now I know that the depression that threatened my life has been a great teacher of humility and of rest. The darkness has given me the gift of asking for help, the grace of sharing the story with others who have walked the same lonely road, and the mercy of being more compassionate with others and myself.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving and fall leaves and pumpkin pie, we are invited once again to give thanks in all things, to practice recognizing that everything is gift. This fall, I am giving thanks for depression, and for the way it makes me desperate enough to practice receiving grace.
Originally posted October 7, 2015.