I struggle with depression. It’s been an on-again, off-again companion since I was about ten. Sometimes it is triggered by a situation or a disappointment, other times it appears to be hormonal or the result of physical or emotional exhaustion. Anger and hunger make it worse. It has never completely overwhelmed me; after all, I’m still alive to write this reflection. But it has yet to permanently go away; as many times as I’ve gotten a temporary reprieve, it is only ever temporary.
I was 20 the first time I sought help; I made an appointment with a counselor in college, I had to wait two weeks even though I was on fire inside, and by the time I was to see her, I felt better. I didn’t seek help again until a few years later, when something dramatically painful happened that I couldn’t ignore. Therapy helped a little. Pharmaceuticals were not worth the side effects. Marriage and pregnancy and motherhood brought steeper peaks and valleys. But eventually I found a spiritual solution that works for me if I do the work. It doesn’t stop the depression entirely, but keeps it from overtaking my life, and for that I am grateful. Today when it rears its ugly head, I have some strategies for coping, and it usually passes quickly.
I’m not sharing this from a place of self-pity or sympathy-seeking. I was in the thick of it when I started writing this piece a few days ago. I’ve been in a pretty dark place for about a year, sometimes deep within the cave of sadness and despondency, but most of the time at the mouth of the cave, desperately listening for God. I know other people (maybe you?) are too.
I’m writing this because it needs to be written. This weekend’s readings were all about depression. Elijah in the cave, Paul mourning his Hebrew heritage, Peter sinking when he tried to walk on water – each of these stories has a special message for the person who struggles with depression like I do.
Scripture scholars have written some wonderful commentaries about Elijah’s well-documented depression, and some less-than-wonderful “bible-based” depression advice, too. The basic gist goes something like this – Elijah suffered from depression because he lost his focus on God, and right after he’d had a great spiritual victory, no less! He got out of the depression by doing God’s will. So it stands to reason, if you put God first, you won’t get depressed. And if you ARE depressed, it’s because you aren’t putting God first, you miserable sinner. So go beat yourself up some more – that should cure you!
This weekend’s selection from Elijah’s depression story takes place just after he begged God to take his life, because he couldn’t see the point of going on. Yes, he had just experienced a spiritual victory, but demonstrating God’s power and showing up the king’s worthless gods had done nothing to convert Ahab or his horrid wife Jezebel. Sometimes our best is not good enough, and that will trigger anyone to get depressed, even a prophet. Why bother?
If you’ve never entertained suicidal thoughts, this will probably make no sense to you. You probably just shake it off and move on. Someone with depression can’t do that. It’s not a matter of will power. I ask you to kindly suspend your judgement and desire to fix it with advice while I tell you what it’s like for me. It’s a place of utter hopelessness, of being overwhelmed by my imperfections, inadequacies, insecurities, and failures. Ironically, it is especially poignant after an exceptionally good day, because I know it’s only temporary. It’s being unable to see past my shortcomings enough to believe that I am or ever will be deserving of love, affection, companionship, or understanding, no matter what I accomplish or what fleeting joy I might have felt yesterday. It’s a desperate desire for complete and total reprieve from the compulsion or expectation to do my best, because mostly I’m just tired of trying.
But it is not surrender. No, it is the ultimate act of self-centered rebellion. It is the place where fight meets flight. For me, this awful place will be my destination, sooner or later, if I don’t accept myself or reality, or if I entertain the voices of self-pity and resentment. Some people respond to these voices with drugs or alcohol. I respond in other less obvious ways that can be just as deadly, but slower. Yes, I do believe in demons because I have experienced them, first hand.
God didn’t take Elijah’s life, nor did God lecture his servant. He sent the prophet to a cave. That’s where we who experience depression often go when we need to hear the “still small voice.” But first, while we are in our caves, we have to experience what God is NOT – the storms, the wind, the earthquake, the fire. God is not destruction, of course. God is the quiet, still knowing that all manner of things will be well. But not everyone can weather the illusion of destruction that God is not. Light eternal shine upon them, for they rest from their labors.
This stuff is not something I like sharing. It’s something I’m deeply ashamed of. Which is why I share it. If I share it, I diminish its power. I’m afraid that if you know about my bouts of depression, I will scare you away, or that you won’t want to have anything to do with such a person. Like I have a contagious disease or something. Or worse, you’ll try to comfort me so that you can feel more comfortable. (FYI, when someone is depressed, they don’t need someone giving them advice or telling them how wonderful they are or how great life is or how much they need to get help. They need to be held. If not physically, then in prayer. If you have to say something, say I love you. Say I’m here. That’s it.) I have this completely ridiculous belief that I have to be sweet and happy and pleasant all the time or you won’t love me. Which is crap. I know some pretty miserable people, and their shitty moods don’t stop me from loving them; if anything, I love them more, because I know what it’s like to feel that way.
I have a really great life in the best country in the world. I’m healthy, and my kids are healthy, and I have friends who care about me and the absolute best parents anyone could ask for (unless you’re disgusted by potty humor). I have a job, a house, two cars, no debt, and food in the pantry. Life is good. But those feelings creep in, and it’s all I can do to keep them from dominating the space in my head.
I do whatever it takes to get them to stop. I’ve learned that strenuous physical activity and being outside in the sun does what prescriptions can’t. (For me, that is. There is nothing wrong with seeking pharmaceutical help!) I’ve learned to take these feelings one day at a time, because there’s a better than even chance they will be gone tomorrow as capriciously as they arrived today. I listen for the still small voice in everything. Everything. If I can just hear God, I will know I’m not alone.
Depression feeds off isolation. The cave is a necessary part of the process, but Elijah didn’t stay there. Ultimately he went back into the world and even found a helper in ministry. We can’t battle depression in isolation. Community is essential to keep it at bay.
Community is what Paul spoke of in this weekend’s epistle to the Romans. Paul often spoke of a thorn in his side; some “wound” that kept his pride at bay. I don’t know if that is what he was hinting at when he confessed, “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.” Paul went on to describe the cause of his sorrow – being cut off from his beloved Hebrew community. Paul sacrificed his whole life, including his relationship with a proud culture and heritage, for a relationship with Christ, and he was apparently not always happy about the trade.
This, too, I can relate to. Depression has spurred me to seek help, and I’ve found it in a place that works for me. I’ve found help in a spiritual (but not religious) path toward acceptance. I can feel God changing me, but sometimes these changes have required me to let go of behaviors and friendships I miss very much. I’ve even had to let go of aspects of my religious faith, certain teachings that may be well-intended but actually compound my guilt and shame to the point of debilitation. God didn’t die on a cross to create a bunch of new rules to strangle the people He saved.
When we grow closer to God, we often have to let go of relationships and attitudes which served us well but are no longer compatible with the new life God gives. If that kind of letting go took such tremendous faith for a spiritual giant like Paul, why would it be any easier for me?
Grief is not exactly the same thing as depression. Grief is a natural healing process. Depression is what happens when we don’t grieve. In my case, I often avoid the pain of going through the grief process and wake up to find I’m in a full blown semi-suicidal depression. Like Paul, I have to feel the loss, write about it, talk about it, and make the decision to accept the loss, whether it’s a death, a divorce, a friendship, an unmet expectation, or a stage of life that has come to an end.
Sometimes the grief over what “might have been” or what “should or could have been” is even worse than a loss of what really was – it is much more difficult to let go of a fantasy because you can’t let go of what you never truly had in the first place. The Hebrews were “supposed” to be the chosen people, those who were predestined to receive to first fruits of God’s blessing. It broke Paul’s heart that it didn’t work out that way. It’s ok to feel heartbreak. In fact, not feeling it will push that pain deeper, where it will fester and poison us slowly. Paul teaches me to feel my feelings, or suffer long term pain that leads nowhere but a slow death.
One of my feelings that almost always accompanies loss is fear. Isn’t it ironic that fear – of loss, of death, of losing myself to the apparent overwhelming demands of life – actually causes the very thing of which I’m so afraid? Enter Simon Peter, who had just enough faith to jump out of the boat in the middle of the storm, but not enough to walk to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if we who strive to live lives of faith and service aren’t especially susceptible to the sinking that happens when we take a leap of faith. Many of us are conditioned to believe if we have enough faith, we will be protected from pain – like some kind of emotional prosperity theology. We throw ourselves into storms, in the name of faith. But believing in God doesn’t make us invincible. Having faith doesn’t inoculate us from losing our faith, either.
“Why did you doubt?” This is what Jesus asked Peter, not as a parent scolding a child, but as a healer who wants to get to the root of the problem. Why do I doubt? It’s not a rhetorical question, and my answer may be different than yours.
I doubt because I know I’m not capable on my own. I’m just not. Faith in myself will fail me every time. I can’t. God can. I gonna let him. It’s a mantra I can say any time I jump out of the boat.
When Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, it wasn’t about walking on water. Peter’s doubt happened before he ever got out of the boat. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter said. Lord, if it is you. Jesus indulged Peter’s doubt and commanded him to come out on the water. But if Peter had had faith, he would never have said, “Lord, if it is you.”
I don’t ever have to jump out of the boat. I don’t have to “fight” the depression demons; it’s a losing battle anyway. I can wait on my God and let my God do the fighting. I can rest. I can eat. I can call someone or text someone and ask for prayers. I can go to the people who hold me in silence at the mouth of the cave and let me cry cleansing tears.
The walking on water gospel story is not about keeping our eyes in Christ in the midst of the storm and expecting ourselves to do the impossible. It’s about accepting our own humanity and our limitations. It’s about knowing He’s there with us in the storm, hunkering down, trusting He will come to us, and having the faith to wait.
This too shall pass.