By Gillian Marchenko

Playing Frisbee Alone: On Depression and Community

There’s a story I love about Moses in the book of Exodus. It takes place when the Israelites come up against opposition in the desert and Joshua leads them into battle. Moses stands on a hill to watch with Aaron and Hur. He realizes that when his arms are raised, the Israelites prevail.

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword. (Exodus 17:8-13)

This story points out the importance of community. God wants us to share the heavy things in our lives with others. He wants to provide a comfortable place for us to rest and heal (the rock under Moses), and he wants people around us who can hold up our arms when we can’t (Aaron and Hur).

In the midst of depression, I forget that God designed me for community. He says he made humanity in his image, and his image is the mystery of the Trinity: one God, three separate Persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is community. He lives in community all the time. Of course he wants that for us.

I cannot begin to understand why so many, indeed all of us, struggle on earth. But when I think about the Trinity in perfect community with one another, I can’t help but think that our struggles and our pain pull community out of us sinners who otherwise would think we were happy and filled up with Facebook and Grey’s Anatomy reruns.

If I don’t start allowing people to see me and love me in all my sweaty awkwardness and tears (not who I want them to think I am, not who I hope to be in the future, but who I am today), I’m not going to recover and heal. I’m going to be a turtle in a shell. Lonely. I waste the little amount of energy I have to keep everyone away, not understanding that other people’s love is what gives a person energy after all.

I hope someday I’ll be well enough to attempt to mend relationships. I imagine meeting with people and apologizing for dropping out of their lives. I keep a mental list of people to talk to: “I’m sorry I canceled our time together. I’m sorry I didn’t return your phone call. I’m sorry I forgot how to talk about life, mine and yours.” Whether sick or not, I behave badly during depression. Illness isn’t a reason to treat people poorly. I need to ask forgiveness when needed, and let others know at some point that I appreciate them. But it is going to take some time for me to get there.

Coming out of depression reminds me of my struggle with language acquisition in Ukraine. Now that I speak the language of my own life again, I look back and consider my identity, who I’ve been for the last few years, in the midst of at best mild dysthymia, and at worst complete functional demise due to major depressive disorder. There’s work to do. Damage control. Assess who is still in your life. Pay attention to who you have hurt. Apologize. Attempt friendships again.

The difference now, though, is that I see it approach and I’m not knocked down by the anticipation of the fight. I’m keyed in to moods that are out of whack, and what I can try to do to bring things back to a more realistic and hopeful place without giving up like I used to do.

The day after [my encounter with] Jill, I took Zoya to get her blood drawn for a checkup. That afternoon I attended a birthday party with Polly and Evie, then took Elaina to a secondhand store for a few summer shirts and a pair of shorts. I didn’t give up.

One of the points of Christianity is that you will never be alone, which makes me all the more ashamed of my loneliness. I’m ashamed that I can’t tap in to the fact that Jesus is here with me, right now, right here without expectations. I’m ashamed that I have forgotten how to tell people how I feel, and that I’ve taken it a step further and decided that they don’t want to know. And I am ashamed that I spend so much time thinking about all of this in my head when there are so many other more important, big, other-centered things in the world, like hungry kids and tornadoes and people who have actually never even picked up a Bible, that I could and should focus on.

This is where community is vital. My recovery depends on connecting with people. I think of that popular movie Fifty First Dates with Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler. A girl has an accident and comes out of it with only a functioning short-term memory. Every day she wakes up stuck in the day of her accident. Sandler’s character falls in love with her, and throughout the movie he figures out how to show her every day who she is and her place in life so that they can build a life together. He uses videos and music and smells and notes to convince her of his love.

I need that. Every person I know needs that. We need that kind of love and drive and connectedness to others so that when depression or marriage problems or cancer pushes us down, we can pop back up after a while, gasping for air, and those people, the very hands and feet of Jesus, are in place to remind us who we are.

On the second day of the writing conference, while listening to a lecture, I looked out the window and noticed a college kid, a little fluffy around the middle with red hair, playing Frisbee by himself. He stood in a large grassy lot, stretched his arms and looked around. He then pulled back his right arm, shimmied and whizzed a blue Frisbee into the air against a backdrop of trees bearing hints of spring in small green buds. The Frisbee landed, he grabbed his backpack down by his feet and walked toward it to pick it up and do it all again. I thought of myself at the conference, how I was flinging my mind out into various workshops and lectures and then walking to where it landed. It suited me to do that alone, there at the conference.

But it does not suit me to play Frisbee with myself when it comes to life. All these realizations about friendship and community startle me. But knowledge is power. At least I am thinking about it all. Perhaps I am starting to get better.

SaveSaveTaken from Still Life by Gillian Marchenko. Copyright (c) 2016 by Gillian Marchenko. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

About the Author

Gillian Marchenko is an author, speaker, wife, mother, and advocate for individuals with special needs. Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression is her second book. Her first memoir, Sun Shine Down (T. S. Poetry Press), chronicles her experience having a baby with Down syndrome while serving as a missionary overseas. She and her husband Sergei spent four years as church planters with the Evangelical Free Church of America in Kiev, Ukraine, and they now live with their four daughters in St. Louis, Missouri.

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