Vows: Coping With Depression as Love Wins the Day

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Vows: Coping With Depression as Love Wins the Day

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Vows

By TAMMY La GORCE

From the moment he spotted her in a church pew in 2012, Noah Sutter had a crush on Anna Risch, a college student with part of Psalm 18 (“I stood there saved, surprised to be loved”) tattooed on her forearm. But it was the Anna Risch he got to know two years later — the one whose suicidal thoughts had put her into a hospital — whom he fell in love with.

Before Ms. Risch’s descent into depression, she was a romantic spitfire in the habit of keeping boyfriends no longer than what Mr. Sutter called a nine-month “limerence phase.” (Limerence, for those not as fluent in psychological terminology as Mr. Sutter, means a state of mind resulting from romantic attraction, characterized by euphoria.)

Ms. Risch is now feeling better and is living with Mr. Sutter in Cleveland, and they both hope to be ordained as Episcopal priests once they complete their studies at Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago. (They do most of their courses online.) But their path to romance was a lengthy one, helped along by a shared disdain for social injustice and an appreciation for the hidden value of a particularly boring book.

Mr. Sutter, now 28, was with Alex Barton, his best friend and former roommate, when the crush on Ms. Risch, 27, began.

Reverend Barton, a recently ordained Episcopal priest, recalled that the two men noticed Ms. Risch, then a double major at Baldwin Wallace University, the first time she came to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. “You don’t see too many young adults at the church, so when one shows up, you’re immediately magnetized,” he said.

The two men wasted no time inviting her to one of the frequent gatherings they held at their house, an “intentional community” made up of eight members of the Episcopal Service Corps, a national network of young adults committed to living simply and serving their communities.

If the participants at these parties were churchy, the goings-on were not. Beer drinking and dancing were the norm. But the night Ms. Risch arrived, with a date, Mr. Sutter turned his back on the norm in favor of a semiprivate conversation with her. “Anna and I found ourselves standing in the corner talking about books, for many hours,” he said.

“We enjoyed talking about books with her so much, Alex and I invited her to come to a sleepover,” Mr. Sutter added. Sleepovers at their house were also a regular event for those in the church community, but they were less about having a good time than about meaningful discussion.

“They were a time to talk about finding yourself, about our commitment to friendship as a community and where you were professionally,” Mr. Sutter said.

When Ms. Risch arrived, it was with a caveat.

“She said she was really stressed out with school stuff, and she didn’t know if she could stay the night,” Mr. Sutter said. “Alex and I pestered her to stay. We told her everything would be fine.”

Insomnia was one of the side effects of Ms. Risch’s stress. By the time the rest of the party conked out on couches and the floor in the wee hours, Mr. Sutter found Ms. Risch wide-awake and alone. A knight-in-shining-armor instinct kicked in: He ran upstairs to the attic bedroom he shared with a roommate and returned with a book, “Martin Luther 1521-1532: Shaping and Defining the Reformation,” the second of a three-part biography, by Martin Brecht.

Ms. Risch listened to Mr. Sutter read aloud. “It was so boring, she was asleep within two seconds,” Mr. Sutter said.

Ms. Risch thought it was a sweet gesture.

“I noted how comfortable I felt, something I hadn’t felt in a long time while trying to sleep,” she said. “Brecht really cemented it for us.”

After that first sleepover, Mr. Sutter and Ms. Risch became confidants about each other’s yo-yo dating lives. Though they had been immediately attracted to each other — “There was definitely a flame right away,” Mr. Sutter said — their timing was off. When one was going through a breakup, the other was with someone new. And when both were finally free in February 2014, a cloud was drifting overhead.

Ms. Risch had just joined the Episcopal Service Corps and moved into the intentional community Mr. Sutter had recently moved out of — each class of eight corps members live together in the house for one year — when she began to feel depressed.

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“I had had depression before, and really when I look back there were so many signs it was coming,” she said. “I was living in Cleveland in a tiny, run-down house with eight other people and no privacy. And it was the winter when we had those polar vortexes.”

She had also taken a vow, as all Service Corps members do, to live in poverty for the year.

“It’s both an illness in my brain and also really situational,” Ms. Risch said. “That situation is what put me over the brink.” After “a lot of self-harm,” including using needles and glass to cut herself, she was hospitalized and was told she suffered from cyclothymia, a cousin to bipolar disorder.

In the months that followed, Mr. Sutter, who was still in Cleveland continuing his studies and his work on social issues including poverty, watched as she tried several different medications and suffered more than a few relapses. His bedside manner may not have suited everyone in the fog of depression, but for Ms. Risch it was transformative. And healing.

“He didn’t coddle me,” she said. “He wouldn’t acquiesce to what I wanted. If I wanted to stay home all day, he said, ‘No, get out of bed and go work out.’ He says no to me a lot.”

He did not say no, though, in June, when she felt healthy enough to ask him on a friendly outing to a jazz festival.

“We rode our bikes,” Ms. Risch said. “After it was over I said, ‘Do you want to ride home with me and have a sleepover?’” It was a reference to Mr. Sutter’s community sleepovers, but she was thinking of a sleepover with more than strictly spiritual conversation. “The next morning we came down for breakfast, and someone said we had hearts in our eyes.”

Those hearts had been trying to surface since the February hospitalization, if not before.

“I was already madly in love with Noah,” Ms. Risch said.

They said they tried to take things slow, because their friendship was far too valuable to risk losing. But a few weeks after the bike ride, Mr. Sutter asked her to accompany him on a backpacking trip to Yosemite. They returned from the wilderness decidedly as a couple, and have been so ever since. Around the same time, they also each began the process of discerning ordination to priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

But the mounting days and weeks of Ms. Risch’s depressive darkness were still very much with them.

“I was giving her a lot of care, and I didn’t know if she would ever get better,” Mr. Sutter said. “I had no way of knowing who she really was, what her normal was.” He carried on because of something Ms. Risch was in the habit of repeating. “She would say, ‘You’re so generous to me.’ That was my love language, those words of affirmation. They gave me the energy to keep going.”

Her depression was a strain on Mr. Sutter as well.

“I had to go to friends and get nourished,” he said. “I had to talk to my spiritual director. I had to go to Jane to talk about the tools I would use to keep Anna feeling grounded and loved.” Jane is Jane McKelvey, a therapist Mr. Sutter and Ms. Risch saw separately. They now see her together.

Ms. McKelvey is impressed by the devotion Mr. Sutter and Ms. Risch have to each other. “Their willingness to communicate openly has been a huge benefit to them,” she said.

Mr. Sutter proposed during a party in St. Louis in May 2016 to celebrate the graduation of Elisabeth Risch, who is Anna’s sister, from college.

The new graduate didn’t mind sharing the spotlight that day; she was just glad her sister was headed toward a happy ending. “She’s improved so much, and a lot of that is thanks to Noah and his attention to figuring out her needs,” Elisabeth said.

The couple were married before about 230 guests on July 22, 2017, at the Church of the Ascension in Lakewood, Ohio. The Rev. Canon Vincent Black, the couple’s priest for the past three years, officiated with the Rev. David Bargetzi giving the sermon.

In keeping with the couple’s passion for social justice, the wedding liturgy — the form and readings used in the ceremony — was developed by the Episcopal General Convention to include same-sex couples. Ms. Risch and Mr. Sutter chose the liturgy because they wanted to affirm the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples in the marriage sacrament.

Just before her wedding, Ms. Risch said she hasn’t had a relapse in a year and half. She credits therapy, medication and Mr. Sutter.

“We take care of one another,” she said.

Mr. Sutter said: “I fell in love with Anna because she’s brilliant and strong. The way she fought depression showed her resiliency and how independent she could be.”

Anna’s mental health, he added, “has been a gift that has helped her empathize with so many people. It’s helped us understand that mental illness is not an abnormality. We see it as something that needs to be accepted as part of being human.”

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