Joanne Lee Wong
Surviving Depression With The MGS Verse
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
AFTER almost one-and-a-half years of Covid-19 restrictions, I was finally sat in a proper pew yesterday! At Trinity Theological College, no less.
It brought back so many wonderful memories because my sister was married in that chapel; and now it means so much more because my Husband just graduated there as one of eight supervisors in Singapore who can teach Clinical Pastoral Education to pastors and theological students. (Sorry, I just had to brag a little bit.)
The Anglican pastor who was preaching during the sermon before, Reverend William Tham, quoted from “Every Moment Holy” by Douglas McKelvey – a series of new liturgies for the ordinary events of daily life. Except that the prayer he quoted “Do not be distant, O Lord”, in the context of Joseph (he of the Technicolour Dreamcoat), was nothing ordinary to me at all.
“Do not be distant, O Lord, lest I find this burden of loss too heavy, and shrink from the necessary experience of my grief.
“Do not be distant, O Lord, lest I become so mired in yesterday’s hurts, that I miss entirely the living gifts this day might hold.
“Let me neither ignore my pain, pretending all is okay when it isn’t, nor coddle and magnify my pain, so that I dull my capacity to experience all that remains good in this life.
“For joy that denies sorrow is neither hard-won, nor true, nor eternal. It is not real joy at all. And sorrow that refuses to make space for the return of joy and hope, in the end becomes nothing more than a temple for the worship of my own woundedness.
“So give me strength, O God, to feel this grief deeply, never to hide my heart from it. And give me also enough to remain open to surprising encounters with joy, as one on a woodland path might stumble suddenly into dapplings of golden light.
“Be at work, gilding these long heartbreaks with the advent of new joys, good friendships, true fellowships, unexpected delights. Remind me again and again of your goodness, your presence, your promises.
“Let me learn now, O Lord, to do this as naturally as the inhale and exhale of a single breath:
“To breathe out sorrow,
To breathe in joy.
“To breathe out lament,
To breathe in hope.
“To breathe out pain,
To breathe in comfort.
“In one hand I grasp the burden of my grief, while with the other I reach for the hope of grief’s redemption.
“And here, between the tension of the two, between what was and what will be, in the very is of now, let my heart be surprised by, shaped by, warmed by, remade by, the same joy that forever wells within and radiates from Your heart, O God.”
It’s a long passage, but it felt like I was brought low yet lifted up at the same oxymoronic time.
You see, the reason I haven’t written for a year or more now is that I have been suffering from an episode of clinical depression. I am not being melodramatic about this because this is the fourth episode I have gone through in my adult life and I know what depression feels like.
The first instance was when I broke up with a guy I had been going out with for six years – someone I thought I was going to marry. The second was when I was dumped by another I was seeing for three years who cheated on me throughout and married his ex-girlfriend six months after. The third was a long drawn-out affair during the four years I was being stalked and eventually led to me having to leave journalism – something I considered my calling in life.
This fourth episode, however, has had roots in many things. The fact that I cannot mother a child of my own; the fact that my career still has not found its footing since I left journalism; the fact that my health seems to go from one woe to the next; the fact that the last one-and-a-half years has changed me from an extrovert to an introvert and I no longer recognise myself.
Remember how last February I fell off a horse during a riding lesson and broke four ribs? Well, I had to spend six months in bed pretty much immobile to recover. It was so bad that I even developed bed sores on my left ear because my broken ribs were on my right.
Then, as I weaned off the opioids I was given unknowingly during these six months, it triggered an intense rash of intense migraines – sometimes two to three times a week. So I sought treatment for these migraines - now that a new class of preventive drugs have emerged which could have given me a better quality of life since the onset of migraines since puberty – and even that took six months to kick in. During this period, insomnia hit me hard and my sleep pattern was completely screwed up. I’m still dealing with that insomnia, but what it’s taken me ages to say – maybe because I still think it’s taboo in our Asian society – is that I’m now suffering from a crippling episode of depression that no one seems to understand.
Sure, in the previous three episodes, everyone knew the trigger and commiserated. In this episode, however, no one really gets it. Sometimes, I don’t even get it. But there it is, anyway. What Winston Churchill called his “black dog”.
Sir John Everett Mallais
The reason I haven’t written about it before is because the Covid-19 pandemic rages on and is taking lives all over the world. My woes are nothing in comparison to what others and their families are going through. But a friend recently reminded me that no one’s tragedy is bigger than another’s.
So I’ve become a hermit in the wake of this episode of depression. Friends have forgotten me because I haven’t been in touch. I’ve stayed away from anything social – not attending my well-meaning church small group, using Covid as an excuse not to go out for lunch or dinner appointments, avoiding logging into social sessions on Zoom. The only thing that gets me out of the house are medical appointments and my riding lessons – the perfect hermit activity because it’s just you, the horse and the instructor. Not much chit-chat or après-activity to be forced to engage in.
Reports say the Singapore Counselling Centre saw a 40 per cent increase in the number of clients from 2019 to 2020 with stressors ranging from the derailment of school, work and social routines, and financial woes, creating a sense of hopelessless.
I cannot really say I suffer from the above except maybe the social routines, but my depression has made me extra-sensitive to the depression of those suffering from Covid-related woes. Thus, I haven’t felt I had the right to talk about my sufferings while others were going through so much more.
Of course, I’ve been reading all the comforting verses from the Bible. But it’s one thing to read and know something intellectually or experience spiritually, but when your brain chemicals are imbalanced (the cause of clinical depression once it is triggered), it’s not something you can just snap out of or say “this, too, shall pass”.
This month, however, is my old school’s Founders’ Day: the Methodist Girls School.
All week, my Husband has been mentioning the “MGS Bible verse”. Eavesdropping, I wondered what MGS Bible verse. Later, when we chatted about it, he was surprised I didn’t know. I guess we never called it that in my time - 2 Corinthians 12:9:
“But He said to me, ‘My Grace is Sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” [Emphasis mine]
I’ve heard it all my life growing up in MGS for 10 years. How could I have forgotten? More than any other verse, devotional reading or well-meaning advice I’ve gotten in the past few months, that verse spoke volumes to me and shook the anchors weighing my heart down.
I’m not out of the woods yet, as I’m sure many of you out there are stuck in too, but we can take heart that Jesus’ grace is sufficient for us to overcome our weaknesses and anything that is pulling us under.
Remember that old poem “Footprints in the Sand”?
“One night I had a dream…
"I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord, and Across the sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand;
One belonged to me, and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of my life flashed before us,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that many times along the path of my life,
There was only one set of footprints.
I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in my life. This really bothered me,
and I questioned the Lord about it.
'Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, You would walk with me all the way; But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, There is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why in times when I needed you the most, you should leave me.'
The Lord replied, 'My precious, precious child.
I love you, and I would never, never leave you
during your times of trial and suffering. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.'"
Thank you for carrying us, Father. Please continue to do so.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.