Tom Willadsen

The thing about episodic depression is that it comes and goes. It’s like the vaudeville joke: Man walks into his doctor’s office and describes his symptoms.

Doctor asks, “Have you ever had this before?”


“You’ve got it again. $10.”

And it’s like Dan Fogelberg’s experience of running into his old girlfriend at the grocery store: “Just for a moment I was back at school… and felt that old, familiar pain.”

When my last episode of depression hit, it was a replay of the dips I’d experienced in second grade, ninth grade, and college. For the last of those I employed some self-medication strategies: Pepsi, decongestants, conversations with two trusted friends, and humor. The turning point came one Sunday when my friend from across the hall walked into my room, looked at the clock and said, “It’s 12:01 here. It’s 11:58 on my side of the hall.”

“It’s Monday here also,” I replied. “Dude, you just crossed the International Date Line… and you’re late for philosophy.”

It was a completely stupid joke that mushroomed. By evening we had a strip of masking tape running down the center of the hallway. We were a bunch of liberal arts majors, so we wrote “International Date Line” in about eight languages on the tape. Classmates would step on either side of the line saying, “Sunday. Monday. Sunday. Monday.” We placed signs at the end of the hallway indicating “The Well of the Past” and “The Well of the Future,” which converged at our version of the IDL. For a day and a half, we were united by something that was completely silly, and for some reason, that helped me. The tide of this episode of depression turned; I started going to class again.

When I slid into my most recent episode three years ago, I knew this too would pass. Except this time, it didn’t. Instead of the three to four week troughs of “old, familiar pain,” this one went on for months and months.

I lost my appetite; then I lost twenty pounds.

I am a strong extrovert; I found that times I spent around people, even people I did not know, were like vacations off Depression Island. When I was alone, I sank back into a black hole.

After four months, I started taking St. John’s Wort. My brother had suggested it, and it seemed like a less dramatic response than getting on actual anti-depressants. I did not want the stigma of taking anti-depressants. I have preached sermons at funerals of people who committed suicide and said, “Depression is an illness that kills in the same way as cancer and heart disease.” I was afraid to take my own advice.  

I had gone to counseling a few years before and found that the one counselor in my area who was acceptable to my insurance plan was twenty-five miles away and average.

In some ways, an average counselor is worse than a bad one. After two sessions with a bad counselor, I’m saying, “I’m never seeing that knot head again!” and I look for another counselor. Of course, a good counselor is good. I find with an average
counselor I’m saying, “Maybe, I just haven’t clicked with him yet. I’ll give it a few more sessions.” Then the six in-take sessions are used up, and all you’ve done is spin your wheels. I decided to skip­ ­counseling.

So I sat in the living room in the dark for hours after everyone else was asleep, looking out at the night. Thinking and not thinking. Drinking, and not drinking sherry.

A few months into this one I noticed that all my children’s sermons were ways of helping our little ones experience and trust the reality that God loves them. After the third one, I realized that I needed to hear and trust that message more than anyone else. As far as I knew this was the only manifestation of this episode that anyone could notice.

Spending time with my sons was the only thing I looked forward to. The day before Easter, I looked at my younger son, who was six at the time, and asked, “David, why do I love you so much?”

“Because you do!” was his immediate, joy-filling response. I continue to use this litany with David, even though, now at age ten, he finds it tedious and protests, “Daddy, you always ask me that!”

At about month ten, I drafted an essay and sent it off to a friend who edits my columns. He wrote back, “It reminds me of things I wrote in my pre-medicated days.”

I felt like I’d stepped on a rake. Was my depression visible to others? I started to wonder.

I reached out to a trusted colleague, the older sister I never had. She said, “I can see how much pain you are in.” I had not thought of depression as painful until then. Difficult, dark, yes, but not painful. Then she asked whether I’d thought about hurting myself.  I hadn’t, but the question got my attention. It was the second rake to smack me between the eyes in less than a week.

These two friends gave me the push I needed to talk to my doctor and give counseling another try. I was surprised that a new counselor, acceptable to my insurance provider, had moved to town. I was pleased that he was well above average. I used my six sessions and still carry some of the advice he offered.

I got in to see my physician as soon as I could. On July 1, I started taking a prescription anti-depressant. And being my mother’s child, I am delighted to report that my first six months were samples! Free happy pills, what a country!

I did not feel any different at first. The tome that came with my free tablets said, “Several weeks may pass before this medicine reaches its full effect.” The list of potential side effects included “nausea, dry mouth, weight loss or gain” and many, many more. Before I felt any different, I became more patient with my sons. I found I could roll with things, not correct them instantly or say, “Not now, Dad’s having a hard time.”

Sunday, July 20 I planned to lead worship, then drive to Louisville for a week-long, intensive class. Before worship that morning I was walking through the coffee-hour room, chatting with the deacons as they were getting the coffee set up, and I found myself laughing with them about something. The laughter felt different. “I’m back,” I said out loud.

And that is how it feels, to be “back.” Not euphoric, not happy, not elated, but back to me.

I had been reluctant to start taking ­anti-depressants. I feared I would lose my unique perspective on life; that my sense of humor, which has helped me through so many difficult times, would atrophy from lack of need. What if my writing, a new self-medication strategy, lost its edge once my serotonin level stabilized? And, for the record, I’d spent nearly a complete year not being overweight. Maybe there was a health benefit to my depression that I was about to lose.

The starkest, though not the most significant, change is that I can no longer stand the music of Patsy Cline. There have been times when I have sought solace in country music. Other times, I now realize, I have needed solace because of country music. I am the rare intellectual who appreciates without reflexively mocking country music. And for years Patsy Cline’s voice, and her ability “to cry on both sides of the microphone” as one critic described, have moved me. Now, whenever I hear her I go all Dr. Phil on her.

“How’s that workin’ out for you, doormat?” I ask the speakers in my car when Ms. Cline confesses she’s crazy.

“That’s right, girl, you are crazy to let yourself get trashed by that pinhead another time! Move on! Don’t go back to him, you deserve better!” But all Patsy can say anymore is everything she recorded before that plane crash in 1963, songs of loyalty promised after betrayal. Perhaps that’s all a woman from Winchester, Virginia with a golden voice could record fifty years ago. I simply have no more patience with that kind of nonsense.

I feel like I’m back to me since that summer day. It is a good feeling. I find that I recommend anti-depressants to parishioners with an authority and conviction I did not have before. I remember, kind of, what my pre-medicated days were like. As one friend described his life before it was chemically improved, “On my meds I am funnier, you are more interesting, and I don’t want to kill the stupid people.” I would only add that one possible side effect, which the literature is unlikely to mention, is Acute Cline Revulsion. I can live with it.


The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He gave the 2013 Bibfeldt Lecture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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