As of today, I am a depression survivor.
This is no small thing, and it is an ongoing thing. I woke up this morning. I’m living my life in spite of my urge to give in to the depression – if not to the point of suicide, at least to the point of allowing it to completely destroy my life (my job, relationships, etc.) by no longer trying. Because I’m still pressing on, I count myself as a survivor even as I cope with the very real, daily symptoms and struggles and emotions caused by my depression.
I have coped with depression since I was a teenager at least, although I can look back and see glimpses of a dissatisfied child prone to moods and fits of melancholy (but mainly I was very hyper). My diary reads of more than teen angst. It reads of a severely up and down personality. It reads of a girl who knows she should be happy, says as much, but can’t find it. It reads of a girl who captures fleeting periods of happiness over material things (e.g. a movie) or what felt like a spiritual breakthrough to extremes only to fall right back down again in discouragement. A sample of my diary would read like this: 10 days worth of entries about feeling low and trying to figure it out with my limited teen knowledge of life and emotional/mental health (which in the kind of home/church I grew up in was usually stigmatized as a sign of some kind of demonic oppression or a lack of faith for healing or similar notions, but a little more about the lack of support to come later) only to be followed by maybe 10 entries about how I’m changing my life, I won’t let myself stay sad, I should be happy and thankful, or I’ve got things to look forward to, etc. This pattern persisted beyond my teenage years of keeping a diary only to shift to my online journaling/blogging.
While I have coped off and on for all of these years, the past five to six years have been almost a nonstop low with maybe only half a year’s worth of truly okay time total (dispersed, a month here, a month there, etc.). My lowest point was 2015 in which I spent almost 9 months not eating, not sleeping more than two hours a night (reading through the night hours is probably the only way I coped, honestly), self-harming (not cutting, but falling back onto my childhood struggle with skin-picking disorder), being highly antisocial, etc. I was so low that I still don’t understand how my family could look at me and not think I needed help beyond my dad’s advice to pray it away, my sibling guilting me because I was impossible to live with (even when I warned in advance I might be difficult on really bad days and that my capacity to deal with things was low), or my mom who basically told me “I don’t know how to help you” and “you just have to get out of your head/go take a walk/do something useful” etc.).
And that was just how it went down with my family last year. The stigma of emotional/mental health struggles existed when I was a teenager too. I feel like it’s been a struggle and a half just to get them to see that I’m not making it up, I’m not just a drama queen, and I’m legitimately not okay sometimes. I’ll never forget one time we visited another church and the pastor whom I’d not even talked to before came up to me after the fact (which made feel very uncomfortable, but that’s not the point of this story) and started telling me that there was freedom for my depression and that my sadness was an attack of the devil and so on (I’m not saying his heart wasn’t in the right place, by the way – and I don’t really want to get into the theologies of spiritual warfare in this post). I listened graciously and my heart beat wildly because at that time I’d felt it for months that I was in a very low place – I recall likening myself to Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings and her low spirits and fear of being trapped in a cage to my closest friend who knew I was struggling. But the first thing my mom said when we got home was along the lines of: Well, he was way off base wasn’t he? I broke down into tears and told her along the lines of: No, he’s not. I’ve been sad and felt like I’ve had a weight on my shoulder since (insert month here). She was flabbergasted. So either I hid it well or she really just wasn’t attentive enough to see. And I recall her saying, “well everyone gets sad, that’s normal” like she was trying to rationalize it away. Then it turned into, “well, let’s pray about it.” (I’m not upset she wanted to teach me to trust in God and to turn to Him first, always, for the record. It’s one of the things I’m glad of. If I didn’t feel like I could or should turn to Him, who knows where I’d be as low as I can get sometimes. It’s not like I have an abundance of people to turn to here on Earth.)
Now, I want to say, I do understand that depression is hard to deal with on all fronts. I don’t blame my family for not knowing how to handle it when I was young or last year or even now. But I’m still human with needs and desires so I do wish the atmosphere had been more loving than it had been instead of making me feel even more like a failure, or in some cases a bad Christian.
Thus, it was during this severely low time last year that I really started to stray from the straight and narrow as it has always been presented to me (although, it was more like a straw that broke the camel’s back deal; there had been struggles and questioning before.) I felt like if I’m already dangerously depressed, why add repression in the name of righteousness to it? Why am I doing this? Out of genuine love and reverence or fear? I started to understand that if I, a girl raised to know the truth and have a relationship with Christ can have such a horrible – yet by Biblical outlines benign and precedent – struggle that I feel no love or understanding about in the body of Christ, then how much more of a depressing life of fear and repression and condemnation is it for the Christians (say nothing of those who don’t believe at all and we’re supposed to be witnesses to!) who struggle with those things we are quick to throw stones at even more such as homosexuality, promiscuity, drug addiction, etc. I started to understand that something has to be amiss, either with my beliefs or my parents’ beliefs. I started to realize I’m not cut out for legalistic Evangelicanism. I started to realize that for all the head knowledge I was raised to have, maybe it didn’t become heart knowledge after all and its on me to work on my relationship with God, not me and my parents and God. I started to realize I don’t have a lot of answers and I still have a lot of doubts about doctrine. But for all of that realization I realized I still truly believe that Jesus Christ is who He claimed He was and did what the Bible says He did because of God’s love.
So with all of that in mind I stopped trying. I said que sera sera for all intents and purposes. Whether or not it had any impact on my climb from the valley to the plateau I’m at now in terms of depression, I can’t say. And I won’t deny the negative aspect of it. Some of my worst days now are the days I fear I’m deceived and will be separated from God for eternity, the days where I’m not being Christian enough and it causes strife with my parents, and the guilt from doing/thinking things that I still keep secret from my family for the fear of being condemned further by them. That said, I do firmly believe now that it’s still ultimately healthier for me to separate myself from the overall authoritarianism of my parents attempts to treat me like I’m still the child they’re trying to train up. It’s healthier for me to become my own person and deal with my own faith (which I still actively want to do and want God to show me truth as a result of my relationship with Him and not solely secondhand from others’ relationships alone).
And while my depression is likely caused from bipolar (with the possibility of underlying autism) – since I have not yet sought professional help this is based on an in depth health screening I was obligated to take for college about six-seven years ago – I still firmly believe repression and remaining in an atmosphere that condemns with one hand and waves with the other depending on the issue.
All of this brings me back to the main point: dealing with depression in an Evangelical atmosphere. All of that rambling was to outline just some of my personal thoughts and experiences as someone who was dealt this battle. I know of countless other stories I’ve read from teenagers and adults who struggled with depression (caused by one thing or another) and have had it even harder than I. I’m sure there are many who have killed themselves because they didn’t find the love and support they needed from the body of Christ – some maybe because they reached out and were discouraged and some maybe because they were too afraid to reach out because they didn’t sense they’d be received with open arms.
That’s why I feel the need to talk about this. To add my voices to the others who have come to the same conclusion that this is not okay. It’s not okay in general, and it’s especially not okay for Christians. Mental illness is stigmatized by a massive amount of people regardless of faith. A person raised in a Muslim home may feel trapped by and condemned for their depression. A person raised in an agnostic home may feel trapped by and condemned for their depression. A person raised in a ‘loose Christian home may feel trapped by and condemned for their depression. It is not only me. It is not only those like me who had the unique experience of fundamentalist and/or strict Evangelical doctrine to aggravate the struggle with depression. And therein lies why it’s not okay.
If anyone of a Christian leaning that believes Jesus said, “Come to me all who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest” and dismisses those who come to them looking for the image of Christ with a “there’s something wrong with you spiritually” or “you need to pray/believe it away” then have you not fallen short in your efforts to be Christ-like while likewise condemning someone for falling short in their efforts to be Christ-like? This is the nuance of faith, in my opinion – why it becomes so easy for us to judge left and right with no thought to the fact that to judge is to open yourself up to be judged in turn.
I know some will say, “But telling them to pray is telling them to go to Jesus so He can give them rest!” I agree, in theory. But then what do you do with the person who does pray and still struggles? Would you have them come to the conclusion if they do not receive rest, as they seek it, then we are disillusioned in our faith? Or are you willing to intercede for them, to have two or three gathered in belief with the struggling party, day and night until the rest comes? The Bible is full of examples where prayer can be a physical and emotional strain and disheartening for us mere humans. How much more so for the one already depressed? Already at their wit’s end? Who will lift his/her arms when they grow weary? So I agree, in theory. In practice, it’s not always enough for us as believers to do.
My point here is, based on my own experience and convictions, there has to be 1. validation of a person’s struggle on a human level 2. no qualifiers placed on a person who needs rest other than that they are burdened and 3.we need to offer practical, loving support. Yes, it is important to care about the person’s soul and spiritual well-being. But God has also given us wisdom and resources for while we are here on this imperfect Earth and still so far removed from what He ultimately wants from us.
This is why I now especially avoid (and try to reasonably voice my opposition to) pastors or sermons that feed into the stigma that there’s something wrong with the person that’s depressed on a spiritual level. Even if that’s true, even if you believe illness isn’t God’s ultimate desire for us and that Christ was bruised for our inequities and took stripes for our sicknesses, spouting and victim blaming doesn’t help a person that’s depressed (no matter the cause of that depression). I was depressed as a sixteen-year-old girl who was by all accounts ‘on fire for God’ – as the phrase often used in Evangelical youth movements goes and basically meant I had quiet time daily (or tried) where I read the Bible and prayed, I was active in the church, I held myself to a higher standard of no dating, no listening to overly secular music, no cussing, etc., I witnessed regularly and so on. I am still depressed as a twenty-something woman who works a full time job, pays bills, struggles with her faith and passion for the Church and now watches movies/reads books/engages with people who – if my parents and upbringing are correct – condemn me to one of the ones who may just say “Lord, Lord” on the day of judgment (which at some point will probably be its own post).
The point is, the depression is still here and I’ve tried to pray it away, ‘good work’ it away, faith it away, exercise it away, vitamin it away, distract myself from it by busying myself, etc. The only thing I haven’t done is sought professional help due to the internalized stigma and the fear of medicine making my life worse. So if I’m to believe the Christian that stigmatizes it, then ultimately it is my own fault. Am I without sin or above reproach? Of course not. I’m sure there are mistakes and bad choices I make on a daily basis that compounds my problems whether it be spiritual – not turning to God and at least breathing a small prayer at the onslaught of a bad mood – or just plain foolish – filling my hours with needless going-going-going and not getting the physical rest my body needs or something else. All I’m asking for understanding until I learn to stop making those mistakes, until I find the physiological means of correcting the chemical imbalances in my brain (that can lead to emotional responses that lead to mistakes/bad choices), until I move past any trauma that has caused my crushed spirit or self-loathing (should that be the case as it is for some), or until I’m healed.
That’s what I want for everyone and I want the body of Christ to rise up and be that support group. It is my firm desire we shift the paradigm. I desire greatly that in the future less and less people have to be where I am – struggling with their identity as a Christian, the fate of their soul after death, what they even believe in – all because if this is what it means to be a Christian they don’t know if they want it or can handle it. And I pray that in the future nonbelievers are able to turn to unconditional programs run by ministries and get the help they need for their lives and stay because maybe it’s not such a bigoted and silly thing to believe in a creator and savior because they’ve felt an abundance of His love and grace through those who profess faith in Him. No matter what becomes of me, I want others to be truly set free – physically, emotionally, and absolutely I want them to be set free spiritually. I want better and truer for them than what I’ve found thus far for myself.
ONE LAST THOUGHT:
As certain as I am that things are not where they need to be in the Church as a whole, I also am certain that there are already ministries out there that do just as I’ve said I want to see and then some. While I haven’t found any personally where I live I know that often it has to do with the culture of a location, denominational beliefs, etc. As I make it my goal in the future to continue my efforts to speak out on this issue, part of that will be seeking out these ministries and other similar resources.