Depression is a chronic illness, like diabetes or asthma. You have conquered it only when you’ve learned to manage it.
I manage it by being vigilant, by watching the ebb and flow of my mood. I observe myself like a seismologist pouring over a graph, extracting meaning and possibilities from the minutest peak or trough. I identify triggers and sense the small tugs on my soul that could lead to a spiral. When I feel the slow descent into melancholy I muster up all the effort left within me to drag myself inch by inch out of the slump, and sometimes it works. I quarantine and self-medicate when necessary.
I manage. I’ve been managing.
“Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is distressed.” Psalm 143:4
In the January of 2014 I was discharged from the NHS therapist I was seeing. Scanning my psychological questionnaire, she remarked that my exit scores were better than some of the staff working there. She wasn’t much older than me, a perky brunette with thick-rimmed black glasses and an accent that suggested the Home Counties. She probably had no real reference point for the kinds of experiences that I was talking to her about, but she let me talk and sometimes said helpful things.
“When was the last time you thought about dying?”
I explained to her how I had had a panic attack a couple of days ago at a friend’s surprise engagement party and left abruptly to sit in the car. I sobbed uncontrollably before slumping down in the passenger seat and wondering where I could find a garden hose. That’s how people killed themselves in cars, right? Something about the exhaust pipe, carbon monoxide and a hose.
“You know, it’s not actually normal to think about…suicide…as often as you do. You’re not meant to live like that.”
It had never occurred to me.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5a)
“She told me to not take the medication…because I had the ‘mind of Christ’.”
I sputtered and snorted.
“The ‘mind of Christ’ what does that even mean?”
A friend had been diagnosed as bipolar and had spoken to a leader in her church, asking for direction. She was briefly counselled by one pastor, who soon realised the depth of my friend’s needs. But rather than refer her to the mental health services, or direct her to someone who could help, she abruptly stopped the counselling sessions, leaving this friend confused and hurt. Eventually, this friend sought professional support and after a diagnosis and tedious bureaucracy and back and forth that eventually led to a referral, she was given a prescription for medication to take alongside regular sessions with a psychiatrist. Progress. The kind of progress I had been praying for from the moment I knew that she self-harmed.
But when speaking to a different church leader about her experience and diagnosis she was told not to take the medication as it would interfere with her mind. Didn’t she know that she had the “mind of Christ” and therefore shouldn’t mess with it?
“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it has melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue clings to my jaws; you have brought me to the dust of death.” (Psalm 22:14-15)
Some years earlier when a friend was prescribed anti-depressants, I was the pious young Christian who hinted that maybe she should not take them. I was zealous and naive. I didn’t know what I was talking about. I believed that mental affliction was something that could be prayed away, and meditating on Scripture was all it took to banish the personal demons within you. I believed this as someone who had experienced depression and suicidal thoughts, but was convinced I had fought them off with religious fervour.
Soon after this misguided advice, I would descend into a black hole that swallowed up all concept of faith and spirituality. My fervour fermented into bitterness, that I chased down with gulps of rum to encourage sleep. I eventually recovered and re-discovered my faith, but now I had a bit of insight into the dark depths of the human mind and a respect for the science of mental health treatment.
“I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears.” (Psalm 6:6)
“Can Christians be possessed by demons?”
I asked the internet this question during one of my darkest moments.
“No, but they can be MENTALLY OPPRESSED…” a Facebook friend replied.
“What’s the difference?” I asked. Maybe there was an answer within my flailing grasp.
“I’ll have to explain later.”
I’m still waiting.
“I am feeble and severely broken; I groan because of the turmoil of my heart[…]For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me.” (Psalm 38:8, 17)
We’re getting better at talking about these things. By “getting better” I mean we’re actually acknowledging that these afflictions exist. By “acknowledging” I mean some of us talk about our experiences in vague and self-conscious ways with people we hope we can trust and others tweet abstractly about how we “need to talk about” mental health.
We won’t desecrate our pulpits though, unless it’s to engage in the foot stamping, slick sweaty prayer that is meant to exorcise such demons. And we all have our private theories of how these invisible illnesses take root and blossom in the brains of the supposedly faithful.
“Lord, why do you cast off my soul? Why do you hide your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer your terrors; I am distraught.” (Psalm 88:14-16)
I was referred to talking therapy because I had been to see my doctor. I was suffering from insomnia and migraines, and I was wondering if I could get some kind of prescription for sleeping medication. Instead I got a psychological analysis and a diagnosis of moderate depression and acute anxiety. I was referred to a therapist for weekly sessions of CBT.
CBT doesn’t work for everyone. I know those who it hasn’t helped and those who are vehemently opposed to it’s all-encompassing application. I don’t know if it worked for me. I mean, I did the exercises and read the literature, but I think most of all I just needed to talk.
Around the same time that I started CBT, I started reading the Psalms, and that had a profound impact. In those ancient hymns and poems I saw a person – a highly revered person in Judaism and Christianity – who suffered and was tormented in similar ways to me. In the verses I recognised anxiety, depression and even despair. I was not cursed – at least no more cursed that King David himself – I was a human going through the mortal experiences of life.
I stopped feeling ashamed of my supposed weakness. I no longer felt trapped by the brokenness that cycled back every time I felt like I may have been “cured”. I stopped wondering if my professed faith was a sham. I was normal. I was a Christian. I had depression.
We go through these things.