When I was eleven I saw the film The Dark Crystal. My mother took me on a Friday during the Christmas holidays. I had looked forward to it for months. I saw it and loved it.
The movie haunted my thoughts all the next day—the long-legged striders, the magic, the music. I went back two days later with a friend.
When I came out the second time something had changed inside me. As we rode home in the car my friend chattered away, but I barked at him and leaned my head on the window and felt something dying in my heart. We didn’t play anymore after that.
I lay on my bed until nightfall, gritting my teeth against a pain I couldn’t describe. One by one, my sisters, mother, and father came in and asked me what was wrong. I tried to put words to feelings deeper than words.
The world disappointed me. I wanted a new world, full of excitement and power and possibility. My father pointed out that our world had wonder and adventure of its own—knights and Indians and canyons and caves. I felt sick as he said it. These wonders were too small, too mundane. Is this all the world had to offer? My family left me alone. I writhed away the night.
Something new moved in that day. I didn’t know what to call it; I still don’t. Was it depression? Depression is too gentle a word. The other day I heard a girl say she felt depressed about her shoes. No, this thing wasn’t depression. This was a dark and ancient god moving into my ribcage, playing with me like a cat plays with a mouse, making a kite from my skin and tendons and bones and flying me from the bottom of the sea.
When I didn’t kill myself, we came to terms, the kite god and I. He agreed not to keep me clenched in a knuckle of anguish for the rest of my life. I agreed not to hope or laugh or enjoy.
I survived by escaping into other worlds. Middle earth. Narnia. A galaxy far, far away. I made worlds of my own, wrote them, drew them, inhabited and explored them, and dreaded each return to the real one.
I learned to program computer games. I spent my afternoons questing through the 6502 microchip casting spells woven in BASIC and assembler. It was the closest thing to magic I knew.
In high school, music became my world. Its harmonies and rhythms held a million secret hiding places. I learned clarinet and bassoon, piano and drums, saxophone and guitar and bass. I wrote my own songs—first simple, then more elaborate. By the time I graduated I had written three hundred jazz and classical pieces. In college I moved into rock. I wrote and recorded ninety songs.
But I never released them. I didn’t make them to be heard. They were private hymns, songs of pacification to the kite god.
Twenty years pass, tossing and turning me into a cold Christmas night in 2002. My wife has just gone to bed raging. I’m kneeling in my parents’ kitchen, being swallowed by silent darkness.
She’s angry because I spoiled our holiday. I’m tired all the time. I leave silences where words should go. My best smile is twisted. A tickling in my ribcage tells me he’s back, toying with the idea of stringing me up again.
Six months ago I was fine—coping mechanisms functioning perfectly. Then I got a new job, a new house, and news of a baby on the way. My thoughts kept drifting into questions and confusion. Why is the world like this? What God would make it like this? Do our choices even matter? By September, I thought of suicide again. I pulled over on the way to work and sat for half an hour on the side of the road. There was nothing I wanted ahead or behind. I told my doctor. She gave me fluoxetine.
It helped. After two weeks I felt fine. Not leg-slapping “Life is Good!” fine—but calm, even, easy.
I took myself off the pills in late October. Three weeks later I still felt fine.
Then it started coming back. A little dullness in the morning, a little worry in the afternoon. A little more the next day. The unease and confusion grew through December, and now I’m on the floor on my knees with my wife’s angry whispers still shivering in my ears.
“God help me,” I pray, and now I’m talking past the kite god to whatever Light and Life might hear me.
“I can’t go on like this. I can’t go back into depression. But I don’t want to get back on the drugs.” I whisper to my chest in the darkness, wondering if anyone can hear me. “If you had the power to raise Jesus from the dead, you have the power to stop my depression. Please take it away. Please take it away. I don’t believe you’d create a world where I have to use drugs to be happy. Please make it so I don’t have to use drugs. Please take away my depression.”
My words trail off. I clench my eyes but can’t think of anything else to say. I wait. I wonder if I have enough faith to earn a miracle. I feel the air with my skin, straining to feel any response from whatever God might hover near.
No response comes. But I feel calmer, and I breathe deep.
I go to bed.
When I awake in the morning, something has changed inside my soul. For the first time in what feels like a hundred years, the world looks good to me. The sunlight seems like golden fields that I could run and play in. The folds of the covers look like buttery hills waiting for me to explore them and climb them and tumble down their slopes. The feeling of being eight years old hits me so strong I can taste it. I want to leap out of bed and run outside and see what the world looks like from the crown of the highest tree. In the ravenous way a little boy wants to live, I want to live.
The kite god has flown. While I slept, depression was scraped from my soul like cobwebs from a cave.
I feel better all day, and the next day and the next. My wife and I go see The Two Towers. It delights me and fills me with wonder, but I no longer need it like I did. The wonder of Middle Earth no longer casts shadows across the real world. My wife and I hold hands as we come out.
Depression left me that Christmas Eve. Since then seven years have passed. It has never returned.
How did it happen? Why did it happen then and not before? Why did it happen to me and not to so many others who suffer just as much? I wish I knew. I wish I could put it in a bottle and pass it around.
I do know that I prayed. Whatever you may think about prayer, for me it was the turning point.
Some people think that believing in God is silly. Believing in God isn’t silly, and disbelieving in God isn’t silly. Each person gathers evidence and makes a choice. For me, disbelieving in God would be silly, because I asked and he responded. I can’t explain that away. Someone might say that it was delusion on my part—my “prayer” was really just auto-psychotherapy. You can say that if it makes you feel better, but it doesn’t really explain anything. It’s merely a dogged reassertion of assumptions.
Since that time I’ve asked and God has responded many, many times in a thousand different circumstances. Not one of them is proof, but the gestalt leaves me unable to deny God’s presence and loving responsiveness to prayer.
But I would not say that people who disbelieve in God are silly. Not everyone has seen God’s response.
Here, I believe, is the key. I got a response when I asked. If I hadn’t asked, I don’t think I would have gotten a response. If I had asked in a half-hearted way, as a backup plan in case the main strategy fell through, I don’t think I would have gotten a response. If I had threatened, or bargained, or talked down to God, I don’t think I would have gotten a response.
But how could I fail to ask? Now that would indeed have been silly.