In the summer of 2021, Reverend Cindy was exploring Rocky Neck in Gloucester when she saw a sign for an art show with an arrow. She followed the dirt road which brought her to the Paint Factory, and then followed the arrows upstairs. When she told me this story later she described her astonishment at everything she was encountering…”The view…and then the buildings…and then Ocean Alliance and the whales and the drones…and then I Am More!!” I received an email from her asking if we could bring the exhibit to the community of her church in Boxborough, MA, which we did in September, and during her remarks at the reception she astonished me with her story:
When COVID hit, we all had to get used to wearing masks to protect us from a virus. We learned how to function with half our faces covered up, and even decorated our masks. It was a life-saving act, and a relief when we could take them off. But many of us – myself included – had been wearing masks for a long time. And no matter how decorative we made them, they still separated us from others. And many of us still haven’t taken them off.
I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life. For years I tried to do all the right things to chase depression away – exercise, therapy, helping others. By my mid-twenties, my life looked so good on the outside: I loved my job as a pastor, I had a wonderful and supportive husband, we spent lots of time with family and friends. But I still felt like life was empty. Like I was empty. When I was alone, especially in the car, hopeless tears would flow. It felt like a pit of grey sucking the life out of me – a pit so deep I’d never get out. I could fake it well in front of others, but that only seemed to make the pit bigger.
For me, a small dose of antidepressant medication made all the difference. These days I occasionally go through small waves of depression, but nothing like what I experienced for more than a decade. I expect I will be on medication the rest of my life. I know medication isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t always work, but I feel like that little pill has saved me.
Too often, religion in general – and Christianity in particular – has perpetuated the idea of shiny (white), happy (heterosexual), people (ideally wealthy and English-speaking) as the norm and the ideal. Some people have the sense that if their faith was strong enough they wouldn’t deal with depression, or they think God has given them mental health challenges as a punishment. And so people put on masks before coming to worship – not to protect against a virus, but to hide their challenges, their scars, their uniqueness. In truth, those are the very things that make us beautiful, strong, holy and whole.
And so, gradually, I’ve been practicing taking off the mask. Depression and mental health issues are common in clergy, as they are in many helping professions. But those truths are often hidden, out of fear and shame. As a pastor, I’ve carefully shared my history of depression with my congregations. I don’t want them to feel like they have to take care of me, nor do I want to imply that my path is the only or right one. Sharing my story helps me dismantle the stigma around depression, and talk about a God who is with us in the valley. A God (or Spirit or Nature or Love) who is part of us, and loves us just as we are.
I am called to remove my own mask, to go first in being vulnerable and honest, hoping that will help others do the same. When we do, the bravery and beauty are amazing to behold.