Spiritual Non-Fiction posted August 14, 2008


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A story of depression and faith

The Ups and Downs of Life and Faith

by AlvinTEthington









I was trapped underneath the exercise machine that my partner had given me for Christmas when I was a Divinity student at Yale. He had given me that in the hope I would forgo my half-a-gram cocaine habit, exercise, and lose some weight. Drinking constantly to counteract the effect of the cocaine speeding up my brain had made me gain many extra pounds. However, I was making honors at Yale, fighting for Yale to change their anti-discriminatory policy to include gay and lesbian people, and spending my money like wildfire. There were eating out every night, our luxurious apartment (complete with a  loft and a spiral staircase), which was half of what used to be a ballroom of a hotel in New Haven, and political meetings with students from the Law School. There were rumors that I was a drug addict, but my sharp mind was still quite functional in those days. I would stay up and "party" all night and attend my classes quite alert the next day.

However, I knew this couldn't last forever. I was even going to Mass stoned on cocaine. When I moved to California, I was determined to quit, but then I bought more cocaine than ever. The graduate school at which I was in a doctoral program had paid for my first year of tuition, so I had money to burn. And I did—on drugs, alcohol, and eating out.

Finally, I went to a kind doctor—a Seventh-Day Adventist, but of the liberal kind (yes, there are some.) He saw how tortured I was and sent me to a good psychiatrist whom I see to this day. The psychiatrist did an intake on me, and diagnosed me with severe clinical depression. He tried several anti-depressants and finally found one that worked for me. The urge for cocaine disappeared; I was lucky that happened before I "fried" the synapses in my brain.

By 1992, I was worn out. I had made money in my family business, but we all didn't get along at that time, and it was not easy to work with them. My alcohol use became continually more excessive. I was out of classwork by this time, had passed my qualifying exams—twenty hours of written exams and a two hour oral exam—but just barely. I had stayed away from alcohol eighteen days before the exams and read eight hundred pages a day.
My brain felt like it was going to explode.

I advanced to candidacy for my doctorate and began to work on my thesis.  It was hard and lonely work. My partner worked during the day, while I tried to put together my dissertation. I was working across so many fields—hermeneutics, medieval philosophy and theology, feminist philosophy, and metaphysics—and in so many languages—English, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Only I had a vision of what I wanted to do, and it took my thesis adviser years to understand my concept.

The battles, though, politically and academically, had left me drained. I didn't want to live. Although I had stopped going to Mass, I still considered suicide a sin. I was like the character Stephen in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; he didn't believe but still wouldn't take Communion. A friend told him he really did believe, otherwise he would just take Communion and not care about the consequences. My favorite Scripture at that time was “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

Although I had had several half-hearted attempts to commit suicide from college on, they had ceased with regular use of my anti-depressant. But I didn't want to live—the thesis was too hard to write, and my partner and I weren't getting along when he was home. He had started to deal with me in a passive-aggressive manner, for he was frustrated as well. So I decided to commit suicide on the installment plan—to drink myself to death.

I didn't realize that was not only a slow, but also a painful, way to die. I drank from morning to night. I constantly fell down, for my balance was always off. My partner would come home from work and find me passed out on the floor with bruises covering my body.



With some effort, I pulled the exercise machine off me. I decided this was no way to die or even to live. I had stopped taking my antidepressant months ago. I had to get help. But how could I? I was putting an amazing amount of alcohol, a long term depressant, in my body, and had stopped taking the medicine that counteracted my genetic predisposition to extreme depression.

Then inside I heard a still, small voice. You don't want to die, it said. Who was that? It couldn't be my own voice; I was immensely depressed and wanted to die. Some entity wanted to keep me alive. It wasn't I, so it had to be some entity outside myself that had entered my mind. Then I realized that God was speaking to me in the voice he spoke to Elijah.

My Christianity is of the rational sort, and I didn't (and don't) believe that God strikes people with metaphysical thunder. Yet I couldn't ignore the fact that there was no logical explanation for the five words I heard in that quiet voice.


I telephoned my sister, who had basically brought me up, for my parents needed to support each other so much psychologically that my sister took care of me from a very early age. I don't remember much of the conversation, but she agreed to pay for me to go to a treatment facility in Minnesota designed specifically for gay and lesbian people. In those days, my homosexuality had been an issue at the few treatment facilities I had tried. My sister remembered the conversation and told me she could never take another one like it again. I must have been hysterical.

I stopped drinking after that hospital stay and am not drinking today. I had one minor and one major relapse, but I did not drink for eight years. During those eight years, I acquired a job teaching religion on the college level, which I loved. I taught mostly community college and I felt useful—many of my students would ask me for recommendations for their third and fourth year of undergraduate work to good universities, like USC or UCLA, or good private schools, like Pitzer, one of the Claremont Colleges. They became successful because I had taught my classes as I would teach at one of the prestigious campuses. They knew how to study and how to learn.

I am not now drinking again after a major relapse that lasted three years. That will be covered in another autobiographical faith story. However, suffice it to say, I was saved from a path of a slow, agonizing terrible death by the still, small, compassionate, and persuasive voice of my Lord and my God, who is much greater than anything I have ever experienced.


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