As summer ends, I have this very specific feeling. Imagine it’s 8 p.m. the Sunday evening of a glorious weekend and there’s an exam waiting for you Monday morning for which no amount of studying would prepare you. That’s the feeling.
The reason is simple: for as long as I can remember, my life has been shaded by clinical depression that comes in its seasonal form every autumn like an unstoppable glacier. It happens in waves, with low points sometimes lasting anywhere from a few days to several months. It’s something I’ve become much more attuned to these past seven years serving in international missions.
My friend Clara told me this is a good time to mention that this post isn’t a cry for help. I’ve been able to develop a support system here in Barcelona that helps make sure I have the resources I need to make it through the rough seasons. Plus Alisha is the best partner I could ever ask for. Instead, this is a nod to every other person currently bracing for the oncoming months.
To clarify, being depressed and having depression are different things. “Being depressed” is that universally-experienced feeling of sadness-mixed-with-unhappiness and it usually goes away after a short while. Depression like mine is often said to come from my brain’s inability to create as much serotonin as an average person’s; coincidentally, this is one of the chemicals that create the sensation of joy. Without it, I’m stuck with the absence of joy.
My therapist has done a lot to help me understand how this shapes my character. Aside from validating circumstances I experience that are genuinely depressing, she’ll say things like, “You know, you’re always preparing for doom. You’re not able to find satisfaction in the immediate victories because the path to long-term successes often feels impossible.” Those words have actually brought comfort: lately I find myself thinking, “Oh snap, there’s that doom again! Remember, Josh, you’re doing exactly what you’ve always dreamed!”
It helps a little.
This is the part of the post where Christians will often say something tidy like, “Let go and let God,” or, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” If you’re that Christian, please stop because I don’t think your words are having the effect you desire. Below is one of the last Tweets by Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and mental health advocate, made before he took his own life earlier this month (and the first comment):
Please don’t be that Christian.
Living internationally has made me realize that, while depression can be found in every corner of the earth, cultures view it very differently. Lithuania especially gave me some rough moments when it came to medication. My doctor would often question my need for medication that had proven to be helpful. I had two psychiatrists grill me for an hour just to tell me that depression is an “American thing” and that we overmedicate. Once when I was at the pharmacy, the worker read my prescription out loud and then asked me if I’m homesick.
Lithuania was also the first place I had people tell me they were going to “pray my depression away” — as though I haven’t tried that countless times. As the Spiritual Life coordinator, I was surrounded by Christians from all sorts of different backgrounds, so this was different than my experiences in the church. I know the students who would say that were well-meaning and I loved their hearts…but I, someone in the depths of depression, could only hear the implication that I lacked faith.
They prayed. I prayed. The depression remains.
As a person of faith, the best thing you can do if you know someone with depression is to let them know you’re thinking and praying for them, that they’re not a burden, and that you really do want to walk with them through this valley. And be sure they’re connected to a support network that has their back.
If you don’t have depression, it can be hard to understand what’s happening to someone who does. And, when you have depression, it’s strangely comforting to hear others echo what you feel using different words. I spoke to a handful of folks I know who also carry this weight and wanted to share some of their important, beautiful insight:
“Please don’t pray for me to miraculously be healed from depression. Pray for me to find joy in even just a few moments each day. Pray for me to accept that I am not broken but rather perfectly and wonderfully made. Pray that God reveals how to use my depression as a tool for his kingdom.”
“Talking to someone is a healthy and helpful thing to do, but while in the throes of depression that is often almost impossible.”
“I often took to heart that if I had enough faith, I could move past depression and would, therefore, go off my medication or stop going to counseling. I saw medication and counseling as me having a lack of faith. Sometimes the act of faith is trusting those God has placed in our lives to support us with the life God has given us.”
“I think there are no 100-percent-healthy people this side of earth — we are all a bit broken or decay with time. Depression is a difference; sometimes it sucks and impacts us like a disability and other times it helps us create, exercise compassion and do many more other things.”
“Even if it seems that the bad episode will never pass, it always eventually does.”
I’ve taught myself to hold onto the truth that my most creative moments are often the product of my depression. It’s part of what makes me who I am. In this way, I walk in the footsteps of my mother, her siblings, and my grandfather.
Sometimes I wonder if a few of the writers of the Psalms had depression. Repeatedly you read this structure of emotionally crying out and lamenting from a deep, wounded place paired with a rational self-reassurance that the God of love and joy is near (even if not visible or felt). A favorite example:
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.
You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
‘Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favourable?
Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’
And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Maybe that’s the hardest part about depression — rationally knowing what’s happening but being unable to change how you feel.
As we bid a farewell to summer, know you are not alone.
While I am by no means a medical professional, I wanted to share some of the things that have been helpful for me.
People: As someone with depression, the thing that helps me the most is having a network of non-judgmental folks — many who have depression themselves. Oftentimes, we lean on each other. This shouldn’t be read as an alternative to professional help — finding a qualified therapist or counselor is crucial.
Reminders: One of my tattoos is a reminder to keep my head up and to fight to see the good that surrounds me. It helps because it’s pesky and won’t go away. If tattoos aren’t your thing, a friend introduced me to The Happy Givers, who make some cool things that can be a similar reminder.
Silly: Watch some stand-up comedy online and ask your friends to recommend books and podcasts that made them laugh out loud. Depression festers in the mind and finding sustained ways to laugh are important in giving your brain a break from itself.
Communicate: If you’re attuned to where you are in terms of your depression, develop a language that helps the people who care about you know how you’re doing.
Get help: Sadly, this next sentence is almost received as white noise, but if you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.