A Bone Fracture & Mental Illness
I sense that mental illness resembles a bone fracture. Bones have remarkable durability, but also, once broken, can rapidly heal and be reset. With normal daily use, one might never be aware of past problems. But a healed bone may or may not be as robust as it was before the break. A vulnerability still remains, the constant potential for a repeat fracture, which is why caution is always necessary.
Depression, and indeed the whole gamut of mental illness, is so varied that generalizations are rarely helpful. It can strike at almost any age, individuals from all walks of life, temperaments and ethnicities. It is no respecter of the divisions that bedevil human society. Sometimes there are obvious causes or triggers; often, there are none at all, its roots perhaps lost in the remotest strata of our genetic inheritance.
Sometimes the affliction disappears as mysteriously as it arrives. It can stop people completely in their tracks, perhaps becoming so acute that it leads to periods of hospitalization. For some, it is mercifully brief; for others, chronic, but somehow compatible with a semblance of normal working life. For me, it has been an ongoing, ever-present consciousness, a constant ache with occasional stabbing pains. I don’t have great highs, though occasionally I envy the thought of them (until I remember that, for friends with the likes of bipolar disorder, these can be just as hard to navigate as the lows).
Charles Darwin’s Loss of Happiness
Charles Darwin, known for his theory of natural selection, noticed that his later life included a “loss of happiness.” While he never acknowledged that it might have been related to his changing worldview, which eventually rejected the idea of a higher power in favor of philosophical naturalism, it is hard not to wonder about the connection.
Darwin observed, “Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. . . .
I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Introduction by Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Rockville, MD: Serenity, 2008), 80–81.
Christian Faith & Competing Views on Antidepressants
It was a very hot Southern California afternoon in August 2007, but thank the Lord, I was preaching in a nicely air-conditioned church with about one thousand people in attendance. The pastor was gone on vacation to Europe. I had preached at this church four times previously, and I was enjoying the morning immensely. While making a point in my message, I rather offhandedly mentioned that I was on an antidepressant, and I urged people who were struggling with anxiety/depression to check out this avenue of help.
Well, my point was like teeing off a golf ball in the shower: It quickly ricocheted right back at me! As soon as the service ended, two elders rushed me into a back room and told me in no uncertain terms that their church did not believe in such medications. I was never invited back. The disciplines of psychiatry and psychology are widely rejected by evangelicals.
As one Christian leader put it, “True psychology (‘the study of the soul’) can be done only by Christians, since only Christians have the resources for the understanding and the transformation of the soul. Since the secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations, it is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on the temporal level . . . Scripture is the manual for all ‘soul work.’” In stark contrast to this approach, consider the words of John Wesley: “To imagine none can teach you but those who are themselves saved from sin, is a very great and dangerous mistake. Give not place to it for a moment.”
A Day in the Life of Someone Living with Depression
Depression takes so many forms. Here’s how it looked for me today: All day I felt like a failure. An unending loop played in my head telling me that I have failed everyone in my life who loves me. My thoughts primarily focused on my wife and children who deserve a father who isn’t a failure.
They deserve a father who is loving, financially successful, upbeat, and well liked by others. But what they have instead is me. A person who is none of these things. I am a failure. This is what my depression tells me, and this is how I feel. Facts and reality mean nothing. I know (I think) that none of this is actually true, and yet knowing this does absolutely nothing to make me feel differently. The only truth that matters is the one that lives inside my head.
My feelings of failure also made it damn near impossible to think clearly today. I struggled mightily to write only a few words. Words that probably suck and will be of no use to anyone. On top of all of this is a pervasive boredom that has replaced my interest in topics I know I like. I went for a jog today (a near miracle) and listened to a book on my phone that has mesmerized me for weeks.
But today I had to force myself to keep listening. I know, intellectually, that I am interested in what the writer is saying. I can also appreciate the fact that the book is well written. I also know that I want to know what will happen next in the story. And yet, today, I do not care and feel as though I will never care about it or anything else I used to care about ever again. This is depression. And it is hard.
Depression is a Thief
Depression is a thief. A pickpocket. Swiping a memory here and there. An emotion, a plan for the afternoon, part of a conversation. It is a burglar. Leaving behind empty surfaces and containers that used to be filled with childhood and marriage and friendship. It is a mugger. Stepping out of the dark. Threatening and taking the carelessness of the night away. A kidnapper. Talking, silencing, tying up, holding captive. Until days later, or weeks later, she wanders back home, staggering, unsure of what happened or how she escaped. It is sort of like that. Sometimes.
Fate Is Blind, Providence Has Eyes
Charles Spurgeon, the most popular preacher of nineteenth-century London, battled depression throughout his life. He said, “If God is in control, if his name is hallowed, then that means he is in control of my depression. Fate is blind; providence has eyes.”
Finding Our True Selves While Battling Depression
In her compelling memoir Still Life, author Gillian Marchenko recounts her struggles with depression. In this excerpt, Marchenko describes one of the many paradoxes that come with depression: how to be yourself.
Be true to yourself—and all those other inspirational memes float around social media every day. But if we are honest, finding our true selves is as difficult as catching a fly with chopsticks. We are many things. At best, we can admit it.
With depression, though, fragments of a person no longer exist. Your personality stagnates and fuzzes like a compact disk that skips at the best part of your favorite song and then later lets it vanish altogether. It is a heavy fog that burns off midmorning. People assume depression is about emotions: a person is sad; a person is down.
But I’ve come to realize that depression is about disappearing. You become nothing. Feelings fly away. There is no future. No past. Your body becomes a shell with nothing inside. And the deeper you fall into depression, the more you become a shadow of yourself and the harder it is to pretend that you are still you, that you are okay, because even you forget who you are. One of the biggest tragedies of depression is myopia. You cannot see beyond your own nose. You no longer live. The various yous are snuffed out like candles.
A Great Killer
Depression is one of the greatest killers of our time. It affects 50 million Americans at some point in their lives and has increased 400 percent since 1987. Depression is associated with suicide, divorce, job failure, heart disease, obesity, and dementia. Depression doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in women and quadruples it in men. A staggering 23 percent of women between the ages of twenty and sixty are taking antidepressant medications. The risk of depression also significantly increases after the age of sixty-five.
“It is Not the Healthy Who Need a Doctor”
Ann Voskamp, in her book The Broken Way, describes what it was like to have mental illness trivialized from the pulpit, as someone who identified with similar struggles:
I was eighteen, with scars across my wrists, when I’d heard a pastor tell a whole congregation that he had once “lived next to a loony bin.” I’d looked at the floor when everyone laughed. They didn’t know how I had left my only mama behind the locked doors of psychiatric wards more than a few times.
When they laughed, I felt the blood drain away from my face, and I’d wanted to stand up and howl, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” I’d wanted to stand up and beg:
When the church isn’t for the suffering and broken, then the church isn’t for Christ. Because Jesus, with His pierced side, is always on the side of the broken. Jesus always moves into places moved with grief. Jesus always seeks out where the suffering is, and that’s where Jesus stays. The wound in His side proves that Jesus is always on the side of the suffering, the wounded, the busted, the broken.
Keeping Faith in the Silence
In her compelling memoir Still Life, author Gillian Marchenko recounts her struggles with depression:
Yes, but what about Jesus?” friends ask later on. It is a valid question. If others look at my life, I hope they’ll see that faith is important. I believe in the story that some people let waft through their minds only at Christmas: that Christ was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died a death we all deserve, so that we can have a bridge to God. Sergei is a minister.
I spent years as a missionary in a foreign country. The point of my faith is that God came to me so that I can be with him. What about Jesus? I think. When depression takes over, everyone in my life falls away, including him. I can’t pray, or read, or talk. When I am not stuck in a pocket of depression, I pray for help and healing. “Take this away, or at least help me figure out how to handle it better,” I whisper, expectant. But a concrete response doesn’t come. All I get is silence. How does one keep faith in silence?
The Rich Young Man and the Street Urchin
There was a rich young man who had a series of disappointments that made him feel that life was not worth while, as if he really had nothing left to live for. On his way to the river where he intended to end his life, a street urchin met him and begged for a little money to buy bread. The young man, seeing by the pinched face of the child that he was really hungry, said to himself, “I will see that this boy gets one good meal before I die.”
He took the boy to a good restaurant and ordered for him such a meal as he had never before seen in his life. As the young man saw the child eat, a strange feeling of joy crept into his own heart. Then he thought that if he were to commit suicide, the boy would soon again be as hungry as before.
So he decided that he would make it his business to see that that child always had enough to eat. The young man had found happiness, for he had something to live for-a human being he could help.
Leon L. Caviness
An Unexpected Friendship
Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.
Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:
“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.
Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.
The Volcanic Nature of Depression
Depression has felt volcanic at times. It may lie relatively dormant for some time, while its lava and force are constantly shielded beneath the tectonic plates. Without warning, it then forces its way through, plunging the mind into a riot of irrational thoughts that discombobulate and terrify. And I just don’t see it coming. There may not be a specific catalyst or trigger at all. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, there may be no apparent catalyst, even after I wrack my brains to retrace my mental steps.
The power of human memory is astonishing – smells, sounds, songs or circumstances can evoke a past moment, which in turn can provoke a long-forgotten feeling, especially if it has a downward trajectory. Strangely enough, people nearby may not notice much outward change, especially if the mask is still intact. I’ll come to that.
But I’ll be caught out by an eruption of psychological pain. It feels like sudden grief and despair without an immediately obvious loss. Or it might manifest as uncontrollable anxiety and dread. There might have been occasional hints that this was coming, but nothing to prepare one for the eruption. Of course, if there are external factors and triggers, then it is all the worse for that. But even if there is an escape route from these, there is no escaping one’s own mind. Just the potential of that dormant havoc is scary enough.
What It’s Like to Live with Depression
We finally discovered that what I had was depression. I had battled depression before, but for some reason this time it caught me off guard. At one point, I met with a group of people who wanted to know more about what my depression was like, so I brought part of my weight set from home with me.
I had a volunteer carry a bunch of things across the room while also carrying two twenty-five-pound weights. I said, “This is what even the simplest tasks are like for me—returning a voice mail, mowing the lawn, taking a shower. Anything I do is that much harder.”
Where Your Unhappiness Comes From
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc.
Somebody is talking . . . Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.”
Why It’s So Hard to Get Rid of Negative Thoughts
Core beliefs can be hard to change because they’ve generally been with us for a long time, and we assume that they’re true. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to changing our core beliefs is that they are strongly self-perpetuating. When we have a fundamentally negative view of ourselves, we’re biased to interpret negative outcomes as evidence of our shortcomings.
Seth J. Gillihan, “What Makes Us Think Such Negative Things about Ourselves.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Depression. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!