While seeing depression as a result of spiritual frailty or sin has become outdated, there’s still some odd Christian teachings about it. Depression is viewed as a season and something that – with time and prayer – can be overcome. All my life people have told me to be patient, that they were praying for me, and that I would one day know the freedom and joy that only Jesus can bring. The longer the depression stayed, the less people talked about it. They got tired of telling me they were praying, and I got tired of hearing about it. Believing that depression is a sign of spiritual weakness is not popular, but if you suffer from prolonged depression, people start to wonder.
Depression “success” stories are remarkably popular. Christians devour personal tales of fellow believers suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who have been transformed by God and grace, whose marriages have been saved, who have found peace, who have overcome brain chemistry and been “freed” from medication. They were lifted from the tar pits by Jesus and as one of those Christians who have depression, I was encouraged to pray for similar redemption. At a conference, a friend told a story about a young man who went to be prayed for and was healed from depression in that moment.
“How did he know?” I asked, confused.
“He just…knew,” she replied.
“That sounds like bull crap.”
“Do you not believe that God can do miracles?” she probed.
I didn’t know how to explain to her that that wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe God could heal me from depression, it was just that I knew if it happened, it wouldn’t be with just the snap of a finger. I had never seen God work that way. He didn’t seem to really be into that whole instant gratification thing. When I had that conversation, I was at the point in my life where I didn’t even want to be healed from depression. I was beginning to learn that it was just something I would have to live with, like a scar. Sometimes it would act up and interfere with my life, while other times I could almost forget it was there. I didn’t want to overcome; I wanted to persevere.
When I recognized that depression was going to a permanent fixture, I stopped struggling. The discovery came in stages, but was punctuated by the end of my second year of college, where things were going so well that I stopped taking my medication. From the outside, my life looked perfect. I had gotten into my dream school, was doing well, and making friends. I was also part of a faith community that emphasized spiritual warfare, and I believed that I had successfully conquered all my demons. Then a childhood memory rushed brutally to the surface and my brain broke. I locked myself in my room for three days straight and didn’t move. People had to bring me food so I wouldn’t starve. It was finals’ week and all my hard work seemed wasted. It seemed like I had won against depression, but it came back with a vengeance, like it had never left, or like it had been gathering strength. When summer came, I went back to my psychiatrist and was put on the highest dose of a new medication. For the first time, I accepted it gladly.
Antidepressants are notoriously tricky. The most prescribed class of medication for people like me with major depressive disorder and anxiety are SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). These were created based on the belief that depression and a host of other mental illnesses like anxiety is caused by a lack of serotonin – a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness- in the brain. The reason they are controversial is because of the nearly limitless side effects that have been reported, like loss of sexual interest, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and insomnia. They are also labeled with a “black box,” which means a side effect of taking the medication might increase suicidal thoughts and tendencies. When I first started taking medication in high school, I was required to see a psychiatrist once every two weeks and tell her if I was experiencing this side effect. I can’t say if these sorts of thoughts increased because of medication, but many of them did little to reduce my depression while also gracing me with flu-like symptoms, severe exhaustion, and muscle pains. On particular medication I took over a summer made me sick every morning for two weeks.
Constantly adjusting medications that didn’t seem to help much, but succeeded in making me ill was frustrating, but when I had that breakdown sophomore year, I knew I needed medication. No amount of prayer alone could fix brain chemistry. I was arguably in the best place I had ever been spiritually, I knew I wasn’t possessed, but still my head reeled and I couldn’t will my body to move. That experience taught me that I can’t pretend my depression is gone just because I feel okay. I have to anticipate it, plan for it, accommodate it. That’s what medication is for. Finding one with minimal side effects was worth it and when things are going well, I may be tempted to stop taking it, but when the other shoe falls, medication is there to balance out any craziness the body throws at me.
Once I realized that depression was going to be a part of my life in varying degrees, my expectations changed. Instead of trying to match everyone’s achievements, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t like “everyone else.” Certain things will never be easy, like making a phone call, getting to class every day, or hanging out in a large group. There are things I will never do, like travel alone, go completely off medication, or hold down a high-pressure job. It’s a good week if I get out of bed every day. And that’s okay. That is just who I am.
There are also things I know that other people don’t because of the depression. I understand hopelessness. When people ask why anyone would commit suicide, I have the answer. I don’t have a neat, happy success story, but I have a story that says, “Depression never goes away, but it doesn’t have to control or define you.” I can see where traditional mental health services failed people, especially religious ones, because it has failed me. What I learned most from depression is that it’s the place where I met God. He wasn’t in a counselor’s office, where I was given lists of mood-boosting activities, or in a required chapel where I felt completely alone while surrounded by other Christians. He wasn’t in books or sermons. He was- and still is – in the tar pit.
It would be understandable if I had abandoned my faith at some point during my struggles, but something kept drawing me back. Some of it was fear, yes, fear of venturing off into the unknown, but most of it was because I could see the marked difference between how my fellow Christians saw mental illness, and how God seemed to see it. The Bible is so full of references to persistent, bone-crushing sorrow that it can be overwhelming and triggering to read. People are constantly weeping, renting their clothes, pouring ashes on their heads, and lying on the ground, unmoving, for days. Jesus himself prayed with such agony before His death, that his sweat had blood in it. He is described as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” The one verse that has stuck with me most is from Psalm 34: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” I used to be frustrated with this. I understood the first part, but what about the second? Where was the “saving me” bit? When I accepted my depression as something that was just with me, my definition of “salvation” changed. It didn’t involve being pulled up from the tar in a bright beam of light and suddenly “knowing” I was “cured.” It didn’t involve some big success where I suddenly become someone I’m not. It’s the little things, like being loved. It’s having insurance for medication. It’s graduating from college, no matter how long it took. It’s finding people who understand. God had been saving me every day, bit by bit, keeping my head above the tar.
I should make it clear that not all of life is being in the tar pit. Good medication and healthy choices help keep me grounded and productive. It’s just that no matter how good things are going, that tar pit is never too far away. There’s no real rhyme or reason to why I fall in. Sometimes it makes sense, like the death of a family member. Other times it’s random, like the wind changed directions. I used to be terrified of that movement when I felt the tar rising up my legs, pulling me down. I would struggle and berate myself.
“How could you be so stupid?”
“Why did you let your hopes get up?”
“You know you can’t push yourself too far; why did you try?”
The voices are quiet now. The tar pit doesn’t frighten me as much. I just keep breathing and let it happen. Eventually, the tar thins out and I’m free from it for a while, with renewed focus and gratitude. Life goes on, and I have two choices: look back with regret, or keep moving forward with hope. I choose hope.