PEN Prison Writing Contest Winners Posted

The PEN American Center, a writers’ association that defends freedom of expression and other human rights, offers an extensive Prison Writing Program that mentors incarcerated writers and promotes their work through readings and publications. The winners of their 2007 writing contest are currently online.

I was especially impressed with J.E. Wantz’s first-prize essay “Feeling(s) Cheated“. Part memoir, part political analysis, this piece describes the author’s treatment with the antidepressant Paxil. Wantz asks tough questions about what the individual, and society, gains or loses by medicating the symptoms rather than addressing the causes of sorrow, anger, and shame. When does medication become a crutch, as well a cheaper alternative to rehabilitating the prisoner? What is the true self, and at what cost are we willing to experience its emotional highs and lows?

Wantz recounts a traumatic encounter with a volunteer preacher who denounced antidepressants as Satanic. In this man’s view, mental illness was a demonic possession that would be cured if one’s faith was strong enough. This inaccurate, shaming message cut the author off from a sense of God’s forgiveness, though the challenge also motivated him to wonder what emotions he was so afraid of experiencing without the drug.

When I was a teenager I wasn’t prepared to deal with the emotional quagmire that lay before me like a quicksand minefield. I was too tied up in other people’s views of who I should be. Other people condemned me because I was not like the saints of old. They wanted to shape me into their idea of what a good moral person should be. Their inability to consider that maybe they didn’t know what they were talking about never entered their minds. They were right; everyone at church, at youth group, and at summer camp thought the same way. Everyone in my world, limited as it was, told me who I was supposed to be. How could they all be wrong? My mind and emotions were at war. A war I could not win without help. In the psychiatric field I believe that this is called a cognitive dissonance. Ten years later I was introduced to Paxil. The drug helped solve none of the key issues, it merely put them on hold.

But did I need the drug for ten years? Or would a much shorter time period have been appropriate, maybe the original six-month trial period? A drug that was meant to be a stop-gap emergency measure had become a lifestyle. It had become a habit. Did the Band-Aid become the putative cure? My body consumed the substance daily, building a dependency.

An October 2005 article in The Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Lincoln’s Great Depression” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (adapted from his book entitled Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness), examined and found a man who was tormented by melancholy, to the edge of suicide. The author’s argument is that Lincoln’s struggle from within his depression focused his statecraft in ways that were essential to addressing the specific challenges of both the war of secession and the contentious debate on slavery. But, as the author explains, all of that arose from Lincoln’s approach to living with his depression. He did attempt medical remedies that we can now conclusively say did not help, and in fact may have harmed. He tried tablets of mercury, cocaine, and infusions designed to induce violent diarrhea, to name a few. Today we see all these remedies as “snake oil” in the battle against depression, but the medical establishment of the day trumpeted their efficacy, much as the current TV commercials do for every conceivable malady anyone with disposable income could have.

Lincoln worked with his depression and is now, inarguably, considered one of this nation’s best presidents. He didn’t overcome, rise above, or surmount his melancholy. He never gave a glowing testimonial about how he found God or a drug that miraculously saved him from the clutches of the demon depression. No, he had a different approach. The author tells us that Lincoln requested a copy of the eulogy given at the funeral of his 11-year old son, Willie. Shenk says, “He [Lincoln] would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.” The idea is that “ . . . with confidence in God, ‘our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing’ it is good for us that we have been afflicted.” His depression was not a demon to exorcise; it was a fact of everyday life necessary to live with.

What explains the judgmental attitude that some Christians have toward depression, as described in Wantz’s story and this RELEVANT Magazine article by Laura Bowers? In a culture that is hyper-sensitive to any signs of Christian hypocrisy, where evangelism is met with suspicion or indifference, I for one certainly feel pressure to pretend that my faith makes me happy and functional. Turning to drugs looks like an admission that Jesus isn’t enough. If the product doesn’t work for me, why would anyone else buy it? I’m not just the president of the Hair Club for Men, I’m also a satisfied customer! 

The flip side of this judgment toward others is shame about one’s self–the exact thing the gospel is supposed to free us from, which should be a sign that this attitude is un-Christian. When I am depressed, I am afraid that it undermines my credibility and makes me unlovable. Depression reveals how much power I’m still giving other people to determine my self-worth, when I “should” be getting that from God’s unmerited love. I put “should” in scare-quotes because these days, that expectation feels like just another demand to which I can’t measure up, i.e. another source of depression.

How do I get from here to there? Maybe I don’t. Yesterday I prayed, “God, thank you for making me a melancholy person, because that is how you made me, and so you must have a reason that is for my good as well as the good of others.”

Do I feel better today? Do I have to?

3 comments on “PEN Prison Writing Contest Winners Posted

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  3. zhenimsja says:

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