I don’t remember what made me think of it, but yesterday I had a sudden vivid memory of the wife of one of the preachers in the church I grew up going to. The family was composed of father, mother, a daughter a year or two younger than me, and a son several years younger than me. I forget exactly how old I was, but I’m thinking I was maybe seven or eight and the little boy was three or four when the family first moved to our town. He was really into pretend karate fighting, and I would let him punch and kick me, so he liked me a lot.
The mom was soft spoken and a little withdrawn, though she had a kind air about her. She also seemed sort of fragile, a bit mousey. I don’t remember whether it started right after they moved to town or whether it began a year or two into their residence (in the Methodist church, preachers rotated every few years on some random-seeming schedule that I never understood), but at some point, she began crying in church pretty regularly, and though I remember thinking it was kind of weird, I didn’t think too much about it beyond simply observing it.
Sometimes she’d merely project a sort of weepiness with a trembling chin and puffy eyes, and sometimes I think she would actually cry in church. It never struck me that she was crying with religious fervor, but more that she was crying in an unprompted way, a way that wasn’t really normal for grown-ups, or at least for grown-ups I had been in the habit of being around.
Once I was invited over to a sleepover at the parsonage. I suppose this must have been a couple of years into their residence, so that the age gap between the little boy and me was a hair less significant. I vaguely remember feeling weird about the sleepover. Although I must have enjoyed the punching and kicking and other play to some degree, I think I may have felt a little bit like a sacrificial lamb, as if I was being sent over to divert the other kid and less because I was eager to play for my own benefit. Given a choice between a sleepover with this kid or a sleepover with a peer in my own age group, I surely would have chosen the latter. I have a few visual memories of the parsonage. I remember watching a little TV or perhaps playing a few minutes of a video game. I’m sure we play fought a little bit. And then I remember the mom crying, and I remember my feeling that things definitely were not ok, and that I didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to be there anymore. I forget whether she asked me to call my parents to come get me or whether I wanted to call home. I think I did wind up going home that night.
Only as a grownup with the weird flash of memory about this family — a family I haven’t thought about one bit in probably close to 30 years — does it occur to me that this woman was depressed. She wasn’t a weirdo or a delicate flower or anything; she was depressed, overwhelmed, and having real trouble coping. I remember as a kid thinking that it was strange that the preacher’s wife often seemed so upset. If anybody should be happy, it should be the family of a preacher, as close to God as those people must be by virtue of their relationship to the preacher, who after all was super close to God and thus somehow immune to whatever grownup problems there were in the world.
I am not a religious person, and thinking about it now, I wonder if depression isn’t somehow almost worse for people who are religious. If I feel sad or deflated or overwhelmed or blah, there is no greater significance to the feeling for me; I just feel that way and there’s no sense for me that it’s in spite of faith or is some kind of test of faith or is the will of a power I’m supposed to revere. But to be the preacher’s wife and to be depressed must feel like some kind of horrible betrayal, or must feel more keenly like a personal failing (as if having greater faith might have prevented the terrible feeling), which seems like it would exascerbate the depression. Really I think it’s not valid to talk about one depression being worse than another — it’s a very personal thing, tailored to the individual — but it’s sort of tempting in a case like this. If I feel bad, I can chalk it up to bad chemistry, which in a way seems less like a kick in the teeth than feeling like a personal moral failing might also be at play.