A Few Words about Depression

I’ve dealt on and off with depression for most of my adult life. Starting in high school I can remember the warmth of summer giving way to the darkness and chill of fall, and a darkness and chill would begin to settle over my mind and heart. With the exception of occasional days where the world seemed full of light and hope and possibility, I would spend the next five to six months pretty severely depressed.

I was never suicidal, nor did I ever receive a formal diagnosis for my depression, but depression it certainly was. I was chronically tired, went out of my way to avoid people, ate too much (or, at other times, exercised too much – and sometimes both), and walked around in a cloud of confusion and vague anxiety over God-knows-what.

Those were horrible, dark days.

I’m 33 now. As I’ve grown older, deeper, and more self-aware, I’ve come to a handful of insights on what depression is FOR ME and how it functions FOR ME and what I can do to stay emotionally healthy. I add the qualifier “for me” because as I have talked with others I have become aware that depression is a multifaceted phenomenon and that different people have different triggers and experience it differently. As I’ve grown, I’m happy to say that those periods of depression are much, MUCH fewer and farther between. But I still get clobbered with them here and there, and after one such recent “clobbering”, I thought it might be good to share how I approach the issue and what I am doing to stay healthy. I will add once more that these are not the insights of a clinician or a mental health professional, but of one person who’s figured out a thing or two for themselves. Take them with a grain of salt and please, share what you’ve learned! We’ll be better for it…

1) There is a purely physiological element to depression. It took me forever to figure this out. When I was younger, depression would roll in, and (aided and abetted by the charismatic, you-need-to-be-happy-all-the-time-if-you’re-full-of-the-Spirit culture I was in) I would panic. “There’s something wrong with ME!” I would think, which would only make matters worse, because I couldn’t figure out how to fix whatever it was that was faulty and wound up walking around simply feeling defective. Wrapping my mind around the physiological element of it was an enormous relief, for it allowed me to be able to say to myself, “YOU are not depressed; YOU are okay. Your body and mind are experiencing depression, and if you’ll stay steady, it will pass.” I learned to make a distinction between the “me” that was, in Paul’s words, “hidden with Christ in God” and a “new creation in Christ”, and the “me” that was still “subject to decay.” In the same way that if I had a broken leg I wouldn’t say, “I am broken”, when my body and mind are feeling depressed I did not need to say “I am depressed.”

2) That insight allowed me to retain a measure of objectivity about what I was experiencing and cleared my mind so that I could make good, healthy decisions when I was in the middle of a bout of depression.  To continue the analogy I started above, in the same way that I wouldn’t TOTALLY identify my “self” with my broken leg, which would give me the space and freedom to tend gently to the leg and make the kinds of good, healthy decisions that would put the leg in a place where it could heal under its own powers, I found that if I retained a measure of objectivity about what I was experiencing, it gave me the necessary “distance” from the depression to say, “Ok, what do I need to do to tend gently with my mind and heart and soul as they work through these experiences?”

3) THAT insight allowed me to be gentle with and accepting of my “self” which was struggling to find emotional equilibrium.  I didn’t need to rush the process or heap condemnation on my “self.” I could love and tend to myself, the way that God loves and tends to me. I began to learn what helped me find that equilibrium, what helped me experience wholeness. I would exercise consistently (even if I didn’t feel like it – research shows a strong correlation between exercise and mental health), I would eat good, whole food (which probably deserves its own point, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just mention that my depression eating cycle was always disastrous – I would overeat because I was depressed, and then keep eating as a self-punishment for overeating rather than just taking the healthy, self-accepting position with my “self” that sometimes it’s just nice to fill your belly up in gratitude to God and others for the delicious food in front of you and you there needn’t be any negative consequences for so doing), I would seek out experiences that lifted my mind and heart, and would pray more consistently but less panicky, and center myself in relationships of openness and honesty–relationships that could hold my darkness and point the way to the light. When I broke the self-rejecting cycle of hating myself for feeling depressed, depression started losing its foothold.

4) I have learned to be quick to name my feelings of depression with the people who are closest to me. I don’t know why I did this, but for the longest time I would keep my feelings of depression from Mandi. My guess is that I didn’t want to drag her down too, but underneath that I sometimes wonder if I didn’t think I was worthy of love when I wasn’t functioning as I ought to function. Over the years I have learned that when the feelings of disconnectedness and wanting to run and hide start to set in, I need to resist the impulse and instead find a way to get my confused, muddled, anxiety-filled feelings out in the open with Mandi (and others who love me), which gives them permission to love me at my most vulnerable point. Depression wants to get you alone. The impulse to run away can be overwhelming at times. And the funny thing is, it seems like a good idea, in the same insane way that when a person at a dinner party starts choking, they will tend to want to leave the table to “go and handle it” by themselves so as not to disturb everyone. The only problem is, they fail to realize that “disturbing everyone” with their choking is a small price to pay for avoiding the far greater disturbance of their having choked to death in some forgotten corner of the house. Depression is EXACTLY like that. You have every right to “disturb” those who love you in the moment with your depression. Chances are, if you do, it will alleviate if not totally dissipate the feelings. IF YOU DON’T, trust me, there is a far greater “disturbance” to come for everyone. We need each other. RUN TO PEOPLE.

There is so much more I could say about each point, but for brevity’s sake I’ll end with this last little insight and open the floor for your comments:

5) I have learned that while it is true that there is a physiological element to depression, there is ALSO a “psychic” or “spiritual” dimension to depression, a dimension that originates in the “soulish” or more or less “immaterial” part of us, and that learning to understand and address what that looks like FOR ME helps.  Sometimes my depression is not a result of my being exhausted or overworked or the sun not shining for days on end or a chemical imbalance or whatever. For me, I often get depressed because I feel “frustrated” at the level of my person. There might be something in me that needs to get out but I can’t get it out, something that I need to say that I feel like I can’t say; it might be that I am feeling misunderstood by people and powerless to do anything about it; it might be I feel that my goals and dreams are blocked by insurmountable obstacles. My feelings of frustration quickly turn into feelings of anger. I first get angry at others or the world around my for not being what they should be or not understanding me, and then, after it seems like influencing others is out of the question, I get angry at myself for not being able to impact my environment in the way I feel I ought. When the feelings of anger get turned inward, I am sure to experience depression.

What I have learned is that there is no quick-fix for this. It is “spiritual”, in the sense that it is addressing and calling forth the maturity of my person. I need to be honest in naming the feelings of anger and frustration with myself and before my God, and then before others. And I need to make sure I am living authentically with the people in my life (family, friends, coworkers, etc) – if I am feeling misunderstood by them and do not take the opportunity to calmly and clearly state it, I cannot blame them for my state of being. I must live authentically with them, even if such authentic living proves messy or scary. It is better than the alternative.

One final thing I’ll say about all of this – I’ve often asked God to take away my experience of depression. It is uncomfortable and I hate it. But I’ve seen him use it. Some of my deepest insights into God and humanity and my “self” have come about through my “dark nights of the soul”, and have led me to a place of deep sympathy with the countless numbers of people who struggle with inner darkness. Though I certainly do wish that God would take away this “thorn in my flesh”, I have also found that it is through my wounds that others have been healed. Only a Crucified God could do that. And I’m grateful.

Talk to me. Was this helpful? What have you learned in your own experience?

  • Another viewpoint to deepen the story…

    Antidepressants as Means of Grace: A Deeper Story
    Antidepressants as Means of Grace
    Posted: 06 Oct 2014 11:15 PM PDT
    “I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to do,” I silently prayed, standing at the kitchen counter, pills in one hand, glass of water in the other.

    Fourteen years old and barely a high school freshman, I had just begun taking antidepressants at the recommendation of my therapist. For months, I had been treading water in a depressive episode that kept me locked in my room for hours at a time, often unwilling to leave the house, plagued with waves of anxiety that would flood my body from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

    I was embarrassed, afraid, and not totally sure where God stood on the whole medication for mental illness thing.

    On Wednesday mornings, the high school ministry team I was a part of met for breakfast at a local diner. As we swapped prayer requests over bad coffee and scrambled eggs, I shared that I had started taking medicine to help combat my depression, to which the leader of the team, a senior boy I admired, turned and forcefully informed me,

    “You know, that would go away if you just trusted God enough.”

    The table of chatty high schoolers fell silent, breakfast forks suspended in mid-air, waiting for my response.

    Until that point, I had been a shell of my normal self at these meetings, beaten and bruised as my heart was, not to mention intimidated by being the youngest on the team.

    For a moment I couldn’t speak, completely taken aback by his statement.

    But then I felt that thing in my chest, that flicker of fire that for better or worse, characterizes so much of who I am–a mix of naivete, blind courage, and sass that spilled out with the simple but firm declaration,

    “Once you walk in my shoes, then we can talk. But until then, you don’t get to say things like that.”

    He nodded quietly–maybe because he didn’t know what to say, maybe out of humility, maybe because he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. And then we continued on with our meeting.

    I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot recently, and how I’m one of the lucky ones who eventually shook free from the lie that taking antidepressants meant I didn’t trust God, and came to understand that it means I have a chemical imbalance that needs medical attention.

    Sarah, if you had diabetes, we’d give you insulin, and if you had cancer, you’d go to chemo, my Mom would repeat to me in those early months of trying out different medications in order to find one that worked best.

    I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve had enough voices like hers to draw me out of thinking the darkness was my fault, or that taking steps to help myself was somehow indicative of a lack of faith.

    It’s been almost ten years since that conversation, and I’m still standing at the kitchen counter each morning, pills in one hand, glass of water in the other. But I’m not offering prayers of apology anymore.

    Some mornings I offer prayers for help or relief–other mornings start with words of gratitude for the ways the combination of medicine, therapy, and community help me engage life as fully Sarah, rather than the lifeless shell depression can render me. Each are a means of grace through which I receive the tender care of Christ.

    Image Via “Meds” by Charles Williams: http://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesonflickr/3926259585/lightbox/

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  • So good, Andrew. I haven’t experienced this, but loved ones in my family have. My mother has suffered from it for years, has even been diagnosed by professionals, yet she still refuses to “receive” it. I don’t know if it’s her generation, her culture, her pride, or just plain denial, but she takes great offense at the term, even though the physiological aspect of chemical imbalance has been clearly explained to her. Your post is so helpful for those who not only may struggle with this but for those who have loved ones who do. Thanks for your transparency.

  • Wonderfully expressed Andrew. I loved your analogy about leaving the table while choking. I can relate painfully well. To all of what you wrote in fact. I know the panicky feeling that comes when depression creeps in, along with the lethargy and feeling of helplessness to do anything about it. And the pressure from the Charismatic culture even though that is more from my past. We all have our different paths, and I have spent several years in counseling learning how to “tend to myself”, and it has become a passion of mine to talk about how to do that in different ways. To not only allow myself to, but to learn how, and to take joy in it, realizing that it is from the heart of God. I love what you said here, thank you for being so vulnerable.

  • I’ve gone through post partum depression after the birth of all three of my kids. The first two times it happened I didn’t have any grasp of what was going on, and it turned pretty severe quickly. After Abby was five months old- my mom had her friends pray for me (your mother comes to mind), and it left me. After caleb, I used medication for 8 months until it went away. And after Anna, well- I was so hoping it wouldn’t happen again. It stayed away for almost two months- and then it hit. Hard. But- I knew exactly what it was. I knew it would leave, that it was not permanent. The dr set me up with a prescription, but I really didn’t want to take it. So I just had it sitting in my kitchen while I tried to wait it out. And I got prayer at my church. It didn’t work. But I got prayer again. And again. And a few more times. And then after one prayer- it lifted. Just like that. I have been fine since.

    Thanks for sharing your story Andrew. I hope to see you all sometime soon!

  • Andrew,

    Thank you for sharing on such a pertinent issue that so many of us are going through. I, for one, was diagnosed with depression several years ago when I was a senior in high school. I thought that it had gone away and that I had learned to live without medicating myself but then found that I the medication in conjunction with therapy and authentic community may be the best thing for me. The irony about my taking my medication is that I often felt that I was taking it to keep my parents happy, not necessarily myself. I knew that if I didn’t take my antidepressant and my mom found out, that she would be upset, even if I felt that I may not have needed them for a time.

    I have been fortunate, like you and some of the people posting here, to have people in my life who have encouraged me in acknowledging that my depression is something just as real as a broken leg, diabetes, or cancer. And with that, the treatment is just as necessary. It’s often hard to admit because it isn’t something that I can easily point out or describe to anyone. It is an illness of the mind and so acknowledging my suffering means having to be vulnerable about sharing my struggles and that can be very tough.

    I have found though that sharing from a place of authenticity and having people who are really willing to pour into me can be helpful. Also, during the particularly dark times when I don’t even know how to describe what I am feeling in simple words, it is immensely helpful to have people who are willing to just listen as I try and work out what it out myself. It can be helpful to hear my thoughts from a different perspective as those around me help me to reframe some thoughts that I may be experiencing. It’s often a challenge because I will find myself thinking things that I know aren’t true, all the while knowing they are false, however I am unable to convince myself otherwise. So having a different perspective can be helpful.

    I thoroughly appreciate your willingness to share your experience and your acknowledgment that your experience is YOUR OWN. Oftentimes, society may tend to place everyone experiencing a particular condition like depression in a sort of category, thinking that everyone has to experience it that way, when we are all unique and we all experience life differently and that is okay. Someone living with diabetes may have similar symptoms as another person, but their experiences may be vastly different. And that’s a good thing. We’re not robots. Our ability to experience a vast array of emotions, events, and circumstances in our own unique ways is a large part of what makes us uniquely human.

    Again, I really appreciate you being willing, open, and honest enough to share with us your experience with depression. Depression is very real and it feels as such. At the same time, it can often feel fake, even to those experiencing it due to a lack of externally visible or somatic symptoms. “How do I describe something that only I can feel? Can anyone else even begin to understand what I’m experiencing? Is this just a feeling? Surely I’m not depressed, because depression is just excessive sadness.” Depression is not just sadness. In fact, I have a hard time putting words on what it is because it can take so many forms.

    But, like you said these are just my experiences. Writing them down and knowing that someone is listening and someone may be able to get something out of it helps. Thank you for your authenticity. I really admire that.

  • It’s interesting that you come at this issue from a non-clinical standpoint, but the things that you discovered in dealing with depression took clinical psychology a long time to figure out. A good example is your idea of naming the emotion behind the depression. This is a powerful technique. The fact that you came up with this on your own is testimony that you are very self-aware (a rare quality in most people). You’ve inspired me to write something similar on anxiety, which I’m going to start working on.

    Thanks for expressing these things, it’s healing to hear that others suffer from these things but are able to overcome with their own reservoir of strength.

  • Thank you for this post. Charla recently used a phrase, “Giving dignity to my emotions.” Between her words and yours is some deep work God is unearthing in my story. Sadly, in the Church, or the church, whichever and maybe both, we learn early to hide, say the right words, deny, stuff, pretend–most in the name of being spiritual and holy and some kind of mature. It is to the detriment of us, singularly and plurally.

  • Hey Andrew,

    I want to say that this post has been instantaneously helpful in my life and I thank you for that. Your fourth principle of being quick to name my feelings of depression to those closest to me is one that I’d never heard before (I’ve had a diagnoses depressive disorder called dysthymia for about 5 years). I was also going through one of my own “clobbering” moments when I first read your blog, and immediately expressed my feelings to my closest friends/family/colleagues and it was a revelation for me.

    Yet, another question stirred within me that if you have time to answer one day I’d appreciate. It’s this: As a pastor (a lead pastor at that), do you have any additional insights on how to continue leading in spite/through your depression clobbering?

    As a college pastor, that’s been the question I’ve been asking myself for the past couple of years, and have made little headway on it. Again, thanks for your insights, they’ve been a blessing to me.

    • Hey Jamal –

      Thanks for writing! I’m so glad they were helpful…

      I can only speak for myself here, but as a pastor I think the “additional insight” would be that if I’ll let it, my “wounds” can be a source of healing for others. What I mean is that I’ve found that some of my deepest and most creative sermons, for instance, have come out of those places of darkness. The Incarnation allows me to assume that no part of my human experience needs to be excluded from what God is trying to accomplish through me. So if I’ll “own” it, God will use it.

      Tell me if that makes sense.

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