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?