The Loneliness of Depression
I am genetically predisposed to depression. My mother’s family is filled with people who take medication for anxiety. My father has manic depression (bipolar disorder). As a pre-teen, I saw a therapist and was on a mild medication. I have never been under the illusion that depression was anything other than a silent, painful, and lonely disease. Unfortunately, not everyone knows this…
My mental health was stable until my early adulthood (when depression is especially likely to surface). During the latter part of college, mild symptoms began to surface. I entered into what would become a half-decade long period of insomnia. I was still functional, though, and to those around me I just appeared to be a restless pessimist.
After college, I went to seminary. My symptoms worsened. In addition to insomnia, pessimism, fatigue, and restlessness, I had feelings of worthlessness and guilt. I felt empty and that nothing mattered. I began drinking, heavily. Overcome with these experiences, I became increasingly irritable and isolated myself from the community. Thankfully, with some close friends’ support, I began therapy. It did not take long before my psychotherapist diagnosed me with severe clinical depression. Even though I knew better, I felt ashamed of my diagnosis. With regular cognitive therapy, an anti-depressant, and an excellent resource book, Feeling Good, I was given a clean mental bill of health after several months.
Responses to my condition were varied and hurtful. Whereas my father described my new state of health as though “a weight had been lifted” and much of my family was supportive, not everyone was. In the midst of my depression, I was told by a seminarian, now a priest, that I “needed a more Christian attitude.” Sadly, many others followed his lead and told me that I needed to just relax, be more positive, not be so hard on myself, quit withdrawing from the community, etc. The common thread to all these sentiments was that it was ultimately my fault that I felt that way and my responsibility to get myself out of it. All this did was encourage my self-isolation and add fuel to my already destructive negative feedback loop within my mind. Ultimately, in the midst of my therapy and recovery I withdrew from seminary.
We, the victims and survivors of depression, face the problem that our struggle is confused with just being down or feeling sad. The difference between clinical depression, a diagnosable and treatable disease, and the temporary emotional state of feeling down is lost on many people. Christians, in some ways, have it even harder. Aren’t Christians supposed to be happy? Isn’t the church a built-in support network of compassionate and understanding people? Unfortunately, even in our church communities we can feel the agony of isolation. Even in our communities of faith, we can feel shame because of our struggle with an emotional disorder. Even though I knew better, I felt like being diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants meant that I was a failure. My particular community did not help in this regard.
Christianity does not guarantee happiness and Christians are not promised special blessings in this life. Contrary to so much of what we hear on American Christian radio, TV, and from many of our pulpits, being a Christian does not mean we get to escape, avoid, or skip out on the struggles of life. We have our crosses to bear. Martin Luther struggled with depression. So did John Williamson Nevin. Job, Mother Teresa, John of the Cross, Dymphna, Christina Mirabilis, Eustochium, and Margaret of Cortona all struggled with emotional darkness personally or in those around them. Even in the midst of the most isolating bout of depression, we are never alone. Christ is with us offering rest for our souls (Matt 11:29-30). There are fellow Christians who suffer from depression, have suffered from depression, or love someone who does. So many of our saintly forebears also experienced our pain.
I was not alone even in my darkest moments. I am not alone as I continue to live with the potential of renewed symptoms.
You are not alone.
Mighty God, in Jesus Christ you dealt with spirits that darken minds or set people against themselves. Give peace to those who are torn by conflict, are cast down, or dream deceiving dreams. By your power, drive from our minds demons that shake confidence and wreck love. Tame unruly forces in us, and bring us to your truth, so that we may accept ourselves as good, glad children of your love, known in Jesus Christ. – Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer
(Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1993), 450.
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