Healing: Input, Thermometers and Thermostats

I was sitting on the couch watching an episode of Breaking Bad when my wife sat down next to me. The scene was intense. It was important to the plot of the whole show. The kingpin drug lord was making a point to one of his underlings in a brutal manner. While the underling watched the drug lord motioned for a thug to shoot the man’s brother in the head. In the style of the show, there was no looking away by the camera. The bloody execution unfolded right before the lens. The living brother bent over the dead brother as he bled into a swimming pool. I leaned forward to see what would happen next, but what happened next was not on the television.

I heard a small gasp and a stifled cry from my wife and looked over to see huge tears streaming down her face. I stared at her wondering what was wrong and if it had anything to do with me (I was hoping not).

“What’s the matter, baby?” I said.

She said through her tears, “That’s so horrible. So awful. How can you watch that?”

Under normal circumstances I’m not at a loss for words, and in that moment I heard a string of responses start up in my head. Things like: it’s just a show, it’s not real, it’s good story telling, it’s interesting… but right then I heard something else that came from another place; a revelation from the Holy Spirit. Looking at my sweet wife, who is a thoroughly loving yet remarkably unsentimental person, I saw it so plainly that it shocked me. My wife was responding to the images on the television like a normal human being would respond. To see what I’d just seen and sit forward curious to see what came next was not normal human behavior. It was a perversion of, or at least a diversion from, proper emotional response.

Listen carefully: I understand the value of stories. I am a story teller. Some of the stories I tell include brutal things. I am not suggesting we cannot watch things like Breaking Bad nor am I saying we need to “clean up” or censor everything. That’s not the point I’m making here. What I want us to think about in this context (healing depression) is that we may contribute to broken emotions by repetitiously taking things into our hearts and minds that call for an emotional response in reality but instead produce either a wrong emotional response or no emotional response. The Breaking Bad incident happened during a lull in the depression, but later, when things were especially hard, I went back to this revelation and made some decisions I’m sure helped me recover from depression.

What is depression? It’s lots of things, but anyone who has experienced it will agree that the experience of depression is malfunctioning emotions; emotions out of synch with reality. Perhaps it is also true to say it is the absence of proper emotions. As strange as it sounds, when I was at my worst, I could not be sad for sad things to the same extent I couldn’t be happy for happy things. Everything hurt so much and so long that nothing changed my emotions very much. It was like I could watch the tragedy and the comedy of life without responding. While we explore the reasons we are depressed, it makes sense to look for things that contribute to this emotional short circuit and work on rewiring our emotions. Since I was dealing with a mostly downward mood, I shifted my entertainment input to comedies and live sports, both of which required little thought on my part. Even the live sports can be a problematic thing when we are too invested in a particular outcome – seriously folks highly emotional responses to the result of games played by millionaires? That’s just as jacked up as my emotionless response to Breaking Bad.

I’ll tell a story on myself. My team won the national championship for the first time a couple years ago and even though I could barely watch the games it did effect my mood. I was invested, and it would have hurt if they lost. But now I go back and regularly re-watch the games because they make me happy; and it’s a lot easier to watch when I know they win. I do it for the same reason I watch the comedies that make me laugh and rarely watch new ones. I do want to be entertained, but I want to heal my emotions more than I want new movies or games.

We have to get real with ourselves if we’re going to get well. Getting rid of input that contributes to improper emotional responses and loading up on things that make us happy is relatively easy and accessible even for really hurting people. Did your team win the big game? Go on YouTube and rewatch it. Did that movie crack you up years ago? Find it and stream it. Is there a place nearby that makes you smile? Go sit and relive it. Go and get those recycled emotions and put them in your heart. On the other side: is a show making you feel heavy? Ditch it. Politics bringing you down? Turn off the coverage. A place remind you of loss? Stay away from it. Remember this isn’t a forever thing, it’s emotional triage. In the long run, one of the ways you’ll know you’re getting better is that you’ll be able to watch shows, go to places, receive news and have proper human responses.

It’s great to have normal healthy humans around like my wife who can help us see what healthy responses look like; thermometer people. It’s even better to have a relationship with a thermostat person like the Holy Spirit who sets the right temperature for us, whispers when we should heat up or cool down, and then helps us do it.

Some of the things He’s led me to understand I just shared: avoid “heavy” entertainment, disengage from the 24/7 news cycle, take in things that make you laugh, relive events that made you happy. The ongoing help from my Helper is the gentle nudge I get from him when I’m taking in things and not responding properly or letting the input push me too far down (or too far up) emotionally; the thermostat bumps me and I listen. Often the Spirit reminds me of the word “I have it” which resets my emotions to the proper temperature. The result is that I am not as easily moved in ways that used to spiral into deeper depression. The Holy Spirit is many things, but one characteristic I appreciate about him is his relentless hopefulness. I sense his presence here more than anywhere else right now probably because I know I cannot generate hope on my own steam. He is happy to give away his hope. All I’ve done is begin responding to the thermostat.

We can recover proper emotions. What he has done for me he will do for anyone who asks. Let me know if I can help you. You can email me at: rkenwardjones@gmail.com