Three ways Unitarian Universalism has helped with my depression

Three ways Unitarian Universalism has helped with my depression

My UU faith tells me my depression is my responsibility—and not mine to carry alone.

Kenny Wiley
Ultimate Frisbee players

(Courtesy Kenny Wiley)

Courtesy of Kenny Wiley


I’d guessed correctly—our ultimate frisbee tournament opponent’s best thrower faked like she was going to throw deep left, then adjusted rapidly, her wrist curling around the disc as she prepared to throw deep and to the right. I was one step behind the man from the other team I’d been assigned to defend. Pouring rain had given way to the blistering June sun. Our ultimate frisbee team needed to stop them from scoring here.

I sprinted one half-step behind my opponent, the two of us chasing the disc as it flew. Fresh mud flew off our cleats as teammates cheered us respectively on. The woman’s throw was, as usual, right on target. I’d have to dive. I stuck out my dirt-stained left hand mid-layout, my body fully horizontal. I knocked the disc away just as the man’s hands expectantly smacked together. The watching crowd erupted as I landed face-and-chest-first in a puddle of dirt and water.

On contact with the ground, tears immediately sprang from my eyes. I made to get up—the game wasn’t over, after all—and then discovered I was just done. I had nothing left except my despair. My teammate and longtime close UU friend Bryce helped me off the field, then held me as the tears kept coming. Opponents and teammates alike thought I’d been badly hurt. I was indeed in tremendous pain—just not from an ultimate dive. What a sight we must have been: two young men, sweating profusely and comically muddy, one weeping uncontrollably, the other’s left arm slung around the first.

I landed in that muddy puddle three years ago, one of four rock-bottom experiences I’ve had in my sixteen years with depression. I have since spoken out repeatedly, on Facebook and in sermons, on the importance of reducing stigma about mental health struggles. I am sometimes asked how my Unitarian Universalist faith helps me combat depression.

My depression is not my fault; it is, however, my responsibility.

I was first diagnosed with clinical depression at age thirteen, after a spiral of anger and lethargy rendered my parents utterly baffled. I would rage—on the tennis court, against my father, and, most spectacularly, against myself. I’d insult myself for hours on end, first under my breath, then in writing. Why didn’t people understand how horrible I was?

I’ve come to learn that such vicious self-talk is not my fault. Understanding that depression is largely chemical disequilibrium is intellectually doable; convincing myself deep down takes more work. Perhaps the toughest part of depression—both how it feels within and how it looks on the outside—is figuring out which parts or symptoms “aren’t my fault” and for what I must take responsibility.

As my mom observed me throughout my teenage years, she noticed that, while my depression could not be easily “cured,” I could mitigate the disease’s effects through what she and I began to call “The Big 4,” after the four rules that governed UU youth rallies in the UUA’s Southwest District. When I’d call her, feeling despondent, we’d go over the “Big 4” checklist together:

  1. Have you eaten lately?
  2. Have you slept?
  3. Have you exercised lately?
  4. Have you read anything good or learned anything fascinating lately?

Depression robs me of the inclination to take care of myself. I don’t matter, so why eat well or go play basketball? When I had a severe depressive episode in the fall of 2006, I focused on doing those four things every day. It didn’t fix things immediately, but the ritual of achieving small wins kept the suicidal thoughts at bay.

I am not alone as I face my depression.

“You have to decide to feel better” is both obnoxiously trite and entirely true in my experience battling depression. Folks who mean well but don’t understand how depression works chalk up defeating it to “you gotta want to.” If only! Yet the decision to face it down can, on some level, only come from within. Perhaps the most important thing I have done is to have the courage to let others in—and, through therapy and treatment and experience, figure out how those who love me can be of assistance.

My faith communities and close UU relationships have kept me alive. The story of my ultimate teammate Bryce just sitting next to me as I wept is only one example of how fellow Unitarian Universalists have been willing to simply sit and be with me. A person who refuses to give up on me helps shout down depression’s mantra: that I am unworthy and unholy. Those who sit with us in hard times are saying, through their actions, that we are worthy of love.

I will let people down—and still, I am good.

My depression leads me toward comparison. I compare my current self with the self of three years ago, or a friend, or an unattainable goal. If I were a good person, I would . . . Call people back more. Listen better. Be a better partner or friend. Be faster or thinner.

I work as a religious educator in the Denver area; our older elementary children at church have had a series of conversations about depression and mental health. One child wrote, when prompted to ponder how she might console a close one, “You are already good. You are already enough.”

You are already good. You are already enough. Through songs and gestures and tear-filled hugs, I have been told that by Unitarian Universalism over and over again. Not always, of course, and we do not say it or live it enough—but at our best, that is who we are. We are the faith of “You are already good. You are already enough.”

A few months ago—a couple of years after my dive into the muddy bottom of my despair—I found myself on another rain-soaked ultimate field, playing again with my friend Bryce. This time I was on offense, and he’d thrown the frisbee deep, and in my direction. At first it seemed too far away, but I sprinted hard anyway.

You can get this.

For once, my “self-talk” wasn’t negative or falsely positive.

You might not catch this. Run anyway. You might land in a huge puddle. Dive anyway.

I dove—right into a bunch of water—and missed the disc by an inch. People on both teams ooooohed their disappointment. For a moment I let my now-drenched head and face rest on the ground. Lots of water; this time, no tears. I got up and jogged over to Bryce, who shrugged and smiled.

“You okay, man?”

We made eye contact. “I’ve been worse.”

He grinned knowingly, we slapped hands, and kept on playing.