When I first moved to Georgia at the tender age of 21, a newly married bride with not a clue about how to be a wife or an adult for that matter, I slipped into a profound depression that lasted for three years.
I really didn’t realize it at the time, but I had walked into the perfect storm, a whirlwind of stressful life changes: a move to a different state into a new role as wife away from my support system of friends and family, a start as a transfer student in a much bigger university, and a transfer to a new branch of Starbucks. I had no idea why I felt the way I did or how to make myself better. “Depression” sounded like a textbook term that had nothing to do with me. It never occurred to me that I was suffering from depression or what the root causes for that could possibly be.
Everything was new. And, to make the transition that much more difficult to embrace, I began to suffer renewed feelings of loss over a previous relationship that I had never been able to find closure in. I faked my way through lectures in lecture halls, shifts at work — and then fell into bed feeling like I was at the bottom of a cycling torpedo of black despair.
I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly claw my way out of how I felt. One of the reasons that it went on so long is because I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I lived a double life — presenting a smiling façade to the world and suffering alone with my own angst. It was not until I went forward for prayer one Sunday, and the pastor mentioned that he felt someone needed to forgive someone and say that person’s name, that some things began to click for me. I said the name of the person I needed to forgive; instantly, the black clouds enveloping me parted.
Although I didn’t have all the answers leaving the altar that day, I understood something important about myself: I had been carrying the weight of unforgiveness and the other person’s negative view of me around for years and carried it right into my marriage. I felt so depressed partly because I had so much repressed anger at the individual in the relationship and anger at myself for “failing” in the relationship. Even though I was married, I had never processed through the emotions from the previous relationship; therefore, those emotions reared up at a time when I was feeling insecure, vulnerable and out of my element.
Christians Get Depressed
Somewhere along the way I got the idea that as a Christian I have to be happy all the time or the world will not want what I have to offer, but what I didn’t realize is that the world does not need a false façade or a fake person. The world needs authentic, flaws and all.
The reality is not that Christians will never get depressed. Christians do get depressed. We need to look no further than the book of Psalms to see a man often in the depths of despair. David got depressed! He expressed great despair when God took his child that he conceived with Bathsheba; when armies advanced and his enemies outnumbered him; when troubles overtook him and his body was weak and sick as a result.
Depression is not something to hide or pretend away. When we are depressed, our mind is processing through a loss of some kind or reacting to a stressful event or situation. The solution is not to pretend that we don’t have a problem but instead look to the root of the depression and determine the source of our negative feelings. Is there a relationship that we need to reconcile? Do we have unresolved anger towards a person, an individual, ourselves, or God? Have we just experienced a loss of some kind such as a death of a loved one, a loss of a position, or the loss of our health? Those circumstances can encourage negative thoughts that leave us feeling depressed. (More here on Forgiving Others: Taking a Relationship Inventory.)
David had the right idea — he poured out his heart to God and penned his very real emotions into poignant psalms. He didn’t put on a brave front to God and pretend like he had everything under control. He got real and admitted his need for God. However, nowhere does it say in Scripture that God was upset at him for having those emotions. God can handle our bad feelings.
Because of my own struggles since that day at the altar, I have come to understand more about how to overcome depression — and accepted the fact that Christians do get depressed, but we don’t have to stay depressed. We may not get to choose the circumstances that leave us feeling down or the reactions people have to us that make us feel isolated and unloved — but we most certainly can choose the way we handle and react to those times when a blanket of gray envelops our souls.
1. Practice thanksgiving in the moment.
I used to consider myself a realist — I thought that in order to see the world realistically and shield myself from unneeded pain meant anticipating when this pain would rear its ugly head. However, this just made me a paranoid, critical person who wasn’t very fun to be around. Thanksgiving didn’t seem like something that would help me crawl out of the pit of pain I had fallen into.
However, it is no coincidence that so many verses in the Bible stress being grateful in all circumstances — thanksgiving helps to take the edge off of the pain, even forget it. Ann Voskamp recommends listing gifts daily in her study One Thousand Gifts. She carries around a little list and writes down her “gifts” as she goes through her day.
This may not sound like a profound activity, but what I didn’t realize is that I had gotten into the habit of meditating on the negative problems happening in my life, and it was taking my mind to a dark place. The more time I spent stewing over what was wrong and who had wronged me, the more time I spent in the throes of depression.
Habitually listing what we are grateful for and rehearsing that in our mind may feel a little forced and silly at first, but as we continue to engage in intentional gratitude, we will find that our depression lifts much sooner — and we can have peace even in the midst of very stressful circumstances.
Prayer sounds like a no-brainer solution that well-meaning people offer you when they don’t know what else to say, but it really does work. Even though it is helpful to talk to others, no one else can help us in our situation like God. We can be honest with him about how much that person’s remark hurt us, or how scared we are about taking a step of faith or how angry we are at our husband.
Prayer time is a great emotion neutralizer. We come into it with angry, despairing, devastating emotions and walk out of it with a different perspective, a sense of calm, and a release from all of the bad that has been swirling inside of us. As Philippians 4:6-7 recommends: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
The truth is that when we are at our lowest, we just don’t feel like praying at all, but when we do it despite not feeling like it we really see results. In fact, as this verse suggests, God promises to guard our heart against the anger, despair, and bitterness that threaten to overtake us. God’s peace becomes our protector.
3. Know it’s a season.
The reality with depression is that it sometimes can last for a long time — especially if it is following a loss of some kind. There may be quite a bit of time that passes before you begin to feel good again. In her CNN article “Going Public With Depression,” published shortly after Robin Williams’ death, Kat Kinsman reflects on her own journey battling depression at fourteen and how she feels now as an adult:
Now, 25 years later, I’ve lost too much time and too many people to feel any shame about the way my psyche is built. How from time to time, for no good reason, it drops a thick, dark jar over me to block out air and love and light, and keeps me at arm’s length from the people I love most.
The pain and ferocity of the bouts have never eased, but I’ve lived in my body long enough to know that while I’ll never ‘snap out of it,’ at some point the glass will crack and I’ll be free to walk about in the world again. It happens every time, and I have developed a few tricks to remind myself of that as best I can when I’m buried deepest.
While I can’t agree with everything Kinsman says concerning depression (namely, I believe that we can overcome our negative thinking patterns and indeed “snap out it”), I like how she acknowledges that we can look to the hope that we may be in a hard season, but it won’t last forever.
Knowing that the depression will pass and that there will be a day when we wake up and no longer feel trapped in a black hole helps us when we don’t feel like talking about it, praying about it or keeping in touch with the outside world.
4. Keep moving.
In yet another juncture of my life, when I had quit teaching and was feeling isolated and insignificant in my role as stay-at-home mom, I felt like I was in a major slump. Something told me to just keep going. Keep attending church events. Sign up for a mom class. Keep searching for a school for my daughter. Keep showing up at my husband’s basketball games.
Sometimes when we are praying and working through things, and we still feel like we are in the valley — choosing to continue to engage in social avenues helps to lift some of the heaviness. As Joyce Meyer suggests in Approval to Addiction:
When we are hurting, our natural tendency is to nurse our wounds. We may want to isolate ourselves and think about how pitifully we have been treated. I have discovered that when I am hurting, the best thing I can do is keep moving. While I am hurting, I just keep doing what I would be doing if I were not hurting. I go to work, I study, I pray, I go out and preach, I keep my commitments. I keep doing the good things God has given me to do, and I trust Him to take care of the evil things.
5. Focus on others.
As I detail in another post, I was at the doctor’s after a miscarriage for an ultrasound and follow-up visit, and I felt God’s nudge to minister to some of the nurses and patients at the doctor’s office. I have to admit that I was very uncomfortable with the idea. Offended, even. Are you serious, God? Do you really want me to say some things to these people when my own heart is broken?
It turns out that reaching out to others in my own pain and sharing my story had a very healing effect on me. I actually started feeling more sorry for some of the pregnant women in the office then for my own un-pregnant state. I have to attribute this feeling to God because my own feelings did not suggest to me that I should do anything but focus on my own state. God knew by pulling my heartstrings that I would help myself by turning outward and aiding others.
(We can often swing to drastic extremes where we try so hard to pretend nothing is wrong and only focus on others that we lose ourselves in the process. With keeping our commitments and focusing on others, I definitely am not suggesting doing these things without taking care of ourselves. There definitely needs to be some alone grieving time after painful events or losses; however, sometimes we can isolate ourselves to the point where we hurt ourselves more.)
As I look back on some of the seasons where I thought that my depression would consume me whole, I can admit quite happily that I made it through. In time, the feelings lifted, and I was able to enjoy life again. Although I was fortunate to get the healing I needed at the altar as a young bride, there have been other seasons that took some persistence and perseverance to make it through the tough valleys.
Simply knowing that bad things will happen, and we will experience negative emotions but do not have to let these things derail or define us — helps a little when sadness steals its way into our lives.
Do you believe that you may have depression because of repressed anger towards another person that has not been resolved? Another great resource for you to learn about the healing effects of forgiveness is outlined in Joyce Meyer’s article “The Poison of Unforgiveness” — a read I highly recommend!