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Joe Watson Jr.December 06, 2016

I was driving home from church after my fourth Mass of the day, and the dark night hung like a nightmare, closing in and pressing down. My thoughts, churning like rapids, ventured deeper and deeper into the pit of despair.

My marriage had just ended. For several weeks I put up a strong front, not betraying the growing depression that was overcoming me. Eventually, it hit with the ferocity of a tsunami, making me spin and spin until finally I saw no way out, nowhere to go except the end.

Backing Up

When I got married, I doubt anyone imagined I would give up on the Catholic Church. After all, before I met the one, the girl I knew I would marry, I had been discerning a vocation with the Jesuits for nearly five years.

But I left. I left for some some not-so-good reasons but primarily because I had no spiritual life to speak of. I found it much more difficult to have a healthy prayer life while married, especially after our kids were born. Occasionally, I said a rosary or recited some other prayers, but the distractions were too great. Without the help of a good, consistent spiritual guide, I was in over my head, not prepared for marriage or the spiritual responsibilities it entailed.

But I came back. I came back to the church a week before my wife left me. I shudder to think of how things might be different now if I had not. I was even luckier to have found a wonderful priest who, though busy, took time to guide me back to a life closer to God. During this time, he gave me a piece of advice I would need to get through my darkest hours: “You do too much; you need to pray more.” This priest and what he taught me were my salvation. Without the weeks I spent easing back into prayer, I would not be alive today.

On the Edge

It was a Sunday in November and the case of a young woman who had chosen to take her life by physician-assisted suicide had been all over the news for the past week. I attempted to conquer the questions gathering like storm clouds in my mind. Could I too choose to make the pain stop by staying busy? I volunteered to help out with as many of the Mass duties and as many Masses as I could—pushing the inevitable away and lying to myself that everything was O.K.

Eventually, the action was over and everyone had to go home. There is always a point when the doing ends, and then we are faced with the deafening and horrendous silence that is our thoughts. The light was extinguished; the darkness had conquered. Every thought that raced through my mind was worse than the last. The drive home quickly became a torture. The only solace came when I devised the method that would be the most efficient but the least painful. I had heard about this point on the road: the flood, if you will, that sends one over the top. The relatively long drive from the church to my apartment became a curse.

But somewhere along the road, God broke through the thick, viscous shroud that hung as a barrier to my inner being. Finally, that shield was penetrated ever so slightly, just enough for a small piece of self-realization and reason to break through. Suddenly, the impending danger to my life was hanging on the air as clear as a wild animal standing nearby; only I was the wild animal.

I drove straight past my apartment complex and checked myself into the hospital about half a mile down the road. That decision saved my life.

When I refused to go to the V.A. hospital, the doctor sent for a government representative, a psychiatrist, to evaluate me. The representative put me very much at ease, and instead of chastising me for “wasting resources,” as I expected, he simply said: “You’re very strong! To have realized the danger you were in and then come here for help—that’s not common.” I thank God for that moment of uncommon strength in the midst of despair.

Walking With God

It has been a year and a half now since that fateful day, and I wish I could say that I am cured, but that is not true. In reality, this kind of thing almost never fully goes away. One must admit that. One must understand that, or it will eat you alive. The question now is not, “Am I cured?” but rather “How do I live?” Every day is a struggle that I must meet head on—but not alone; that is where I went wrong and sometimes still do. The struggle is too much for us as individuals. While having the support of another person is always a bonus, it is just that, a bonus. The key is having a relationship with the strongest, wisest and most loving being in our existence: God.

I know: It sounds like a cliché. But we often rely on our personal relationships with family and friends, especially when life hits hard. Why, then, is it so embarrassing to do the same with the Lord? I needed to leave my ego behind and stop worrying what others thought of me. I began my journey the way one normally undertakes a new challenge: by finding teachers.

From the Benedictines I learned inner contemplation, to slow down, to meditate. At their monastery in Clear Creek, Okla., I was immersed in the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours, which the monks prayed in the most arresting Gregorian chant.

With the guidance of Jesuits I was able to return to my Ignatian roots. They have a house just down the road from me, and the superior allowed me to go on retreats there, even though I could not pay all the costs. Through the assistance of these wonderful Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality, I learned to find the shadows, the damage, the problems in my soul before they are able to build into a new crescendo.

Finally, I have gained much from my lay brothers and sisters. I joined a lay chapter of the Order of Preachers soon after leaving the hospital and with them learned the joys of Dominican balance. I learned that what I need is not too much prayer, not too much work, not too much community or alone time but to balance all of them together.

In a recent Sunday homily, the priest, the one who brought me back to prayer when I needed it most, made a wonderful comment about achieving such balance: “When the Benedictines open their ‘schedule,’ they put down when they pray and meditate, then they fit in the work that needs to be done. When we open our schedules, we shove work in until there is barely any room left, and then we try to squeeze prayer in.”

Not that long ago, I was not even trying to squeeze prayer in. Today, my prayers are constant and consistent. I am not free of my depression. Each day I wake and must force myself to think good thoughts and force the bad ones away, and it does not always work. But I am at peace. And that, I pray, is where I will remain.

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Bruce Snowden
7 years 4 months ago
Hi Joe, excellent humble sharing of your life with us in “The End Of Despair” for me and others, no doubt, very empathetic. I truly felt your pain in my heart and still do. I was told more than five decades ago that I suffered from anxiety neurosis, a pretty common experience probably you do too, maybe related somewhat to separation anxiety webbed to your divorce and other nasty life-stuff. For me anxiety is deeply rooted in negative childhood happenings. On this rough canvas of my life (everybody’s) Jesus paints an image which as time goes on you see His life outlined. That’s so very helpful! At eightyfive residual pools of that stagnant water remain, but the “life jacket” of trust in God often retrievable only as the “desire” to trust, works well for me particularly connected to Jesus’ Gethsemane anxiety experience, so gripping that He sweat blood, anxiety-stress rupturing skin capillaries, generating the impassioned plea of a son to his Father, “Dad, if possible don’t let this happen!” And true to life, guess what happened? Things got worse! Jesus was subsequently arrested, beaten and executed. Three days later things were righted, for us too in the “three day” conglomerate of our life, looking forward to “explanation” which Resurrection gives. Joe, I want you to know, YOU are now one of my heroes! Let’s prayerfully link believing that the best is yet to come even if wrapped in wrinkled brown bag-like paper, recalling what Paul says, “For those who love God, all things (not somethings) work together (not separately) unto good.” Augustine added, “Even sin!” Joe, you are a winner!
ed gleason
7 years 4 months ago
Thank you, Joe. Your story of how faith/prayer is keeping you alive gives us all hope that such graces will keep alive the Faith in our dark world. Know that you are a walking, waking grace that will lead the hopeless to a secure place.
Nancy Walton-House
7 years 4 months ago
Joe, thank you for honestly sharing your life with us. I am going to share your story with my brothers who are dealing with depression and anxiety. They can hear and openly consider a story of healing from another man better than they can from me.
Mark Connolly
7 years 4 months ago
Hey Joe. Thank you for your honesty. Well done.
Edward Heller
7 years 4 months ago
Joe, I want to thank you for your story. It is all to familiar to me. Major Depression became a part of my life over seven years ago. I like you have rebounded, however their have been many U-turns. To those who suffer from depression including their loved ones, I say never give up, but always be aware that at this moment there is no cure just treatment.
alan macdonald
7 years 4 months ago
Joe, this is one of the most inspiring articles "America" has ever published. Thank you.

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