Monday, August 5, 2013

The Christian and Depression: A Woman's Perspective

by Laura B.

In this installment of our series,  I'm going to share some of my own thoughts. But before I begin, I need to clarify that the information presented in this post is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis, and it is in no way meant to be a substitute for the advice and professional care of a physician. What follows is just some of what I've learned through my own experiences with the illness of Depression.

I have lived with Major Clinical Depression for my entire life of 45 years. I was only 17 when I first crashed into the clutches of what became a terrible foe, although I wasn't actually diagnosed with the illness right away. That came a few years later, when I finally asked my doctor to try me on anti-depressant medication. At the time of my first depressive episode, anti-depressants as we know them today weren't even available. It was the end of 1987 when Prozac received final marketing approval, and my first descent into the jaws of the black dog came in December 1985. Also, there is an extensive history of the illness in my family, and my Mom was one of the silent, stoic sufferers. Because she just wouldn't talk about it, not even to her doctor, she was never officially diagnosed. As an adult, and as I increasingly recognized some of her symptoms in myself, I figured out that she'd been a depressive too.

Most times, Depression is triggered by what the doctors call "a precipitating event," and for me, that event was something as seemingly innocuous as doing grade 12 math homework. I always had trouble with math, and one December afternoon, I just could not figure out how to do a homework assignment. I don't remember what I was having so much trouble with; I just remember something inside me snapping, and I started to cry.  These weren't ordinary tears. This was something that came from much deeper inside, and I couldn't stop. I felt a desolation and hopelessness unlike anything I'd known. I was at home by myself after school; Dad was working afternoons, and Mom got off work at 6 pm. I didn't know what to do, so I walked down the road to meet my Mom as she walked home from work. She was greeted at the end of the block by an extremely upset daughter, and I don't remember what happened for the rest of that night, although I must've calmed down some on the outside. On the inside, that desolation and hopelessness never lifted. Instead it took root and grew and expanded, and many subsequent episodes were to follow as my illness intensified. Depression might be "triggered" by a specific event, but chances are it's been quietly developing in the background of a person's life until that certain something finally brings it to the fore.

The Lord saved me in 1997, when I was 29 years old.  At that point, I'd been a depressive for twelve years that I'd never care to repeat.  Those years weren't all bad, of course, but nothing looks good to you when you're depressed most of the time.   My Depression didn't magically disappear the moment He saved me, however, I would learn that the Great Physician still heals, but it's been a process, not an immediate thing.  The process He brought me through has not been a walk in the park, but He taught me things I wouldn't've otherwise learned as my illness was finally brought under control.

 This series is written for Christians who are living with Major Clinical Depression, but in many cases, depressed Christians started out as depressed unbelievers, as was the case with me.  There are many similarities between saved and unsaved depressives, or between depressives who have received Christ according to John 1:12 and those who have not.  There are also some rather significant differences.

Having experienced life on both sides of the fence, I'd say that the biggest difference between the two is hope.  Now, I know it's hard to believe if you're feeling utterly hopeless, as depressives generally do.  But take heart, Christian:  you see, an unsaved depressive's resources are confined solely within herself.  When you're unsaved and depressed, your ability to comfort yourself is virtually non-existent, so you have to rely on externals for help, be they your husband, kids, food, alcohol, TV, work, shopping, or self-help books, for example.  Yet, as much as loved ones want to understand and support you when you're depressed, sometimes they can't.  Kids who avoid you because you're depressed or a husband who throws his hands up in the air and walks away in frustration when you're crying are really no help at all.  TV and a bowl of ice cream may provide an evening's worth of distraction, but when the TV is turned off, you still feel pretty bleak and hollow inside.  Self-help books may have some good ideas, but who has the ability to concentrate?  Externals are often found to be lacking.

A Christian, on the other hand, has resources and comforts besides those which lie within.  Christians who are truly born again according to John 3:3-7 can go to the Lord, and indeed should go to the Lord to "obtain mercy, and find grace and help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).  We have a Saviour Who has promised to "never leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Hebrews 13:5).  We have an entire Bible full of promises in which to find encouragement if we would but "seek ye out of the book of the LORD, and read" (Isaiah 34:16).   In the throes of Depressive illness though, we Christians often forget that.  So sometimes that's why God allows a Christian's depression to remain: so that eventually they learn to seek His help first and cling to Him when a depressive episode hits.

Major Clinical Depression is a mental illness with a physical cause, but it can be severely compounded by our emotions and faulty thought patterns, as well as hormonal fluctuations and imbalances.   (It has traditionally been believed to be more prevalent in women, but that is gradually changing as it becomes increasingly acceptable to talk openly about mental illness and more men admit their struggles.)  Premenstrual syndrome can be nasty for a woman who isn't affected by the disease of Depression; it can be even nastier for a woman who is. It's up to the Christian woman who believes God's word to learn how to cope with their monthly cycle in the light of their depressive illness because just as God won't let us use our depressive illness as an excuse to cut corners while following Him, He won't allow us to use PMS as an excuse either!  

A Christian is a trichotomy composed of body, soul and spirit.  Symptoms of Depression can find their origin in any one of the three; the trick is to learn how to identify the source of each depressive episode when it hits.  Think of it as untangling a big ball of yarn:  a jumbled mess of symptoms including lack of interest in that which used to interest you, sleeping and more or less than usual, behaviour that is observably agitated or slowed down, inability to concentrate, feeling worthless and hopeless and frequent thought of death or suicide is present as a result of your illness.  Might the cause be physical, originating in your body?  Are you taking your anti-depressants as prescribed, or have you been lax about it and allowed the chemical imbalance in your brain to reappear? Are you eating healthy food which can really nourish you, or processed junk that your body can't handle?  Are you making an effort to eat even if you don't feel like it?  Are you trying to maintain regular sleep patterns?  These are things that you can do something about fairly easily, whether you feel like it or not.  Or might the cause be mental:  a result of faulty thought patterns and coping mechanisms?  Philippians 4:8 tells the Christian where their thoughts should lie, and it's one of the first verses I ever memorized.  This is also where talk therapy or cognitive-behavioural therapy could be helpful if it was something you and your doctor decided to try.  Lastly, might your current depressive episode have spiritual origins?  Is the Lord trying to teach you something that the Enemy doesn't want you learn?  Is the Lord using Satan to afflict you for His purposes as He did Job?  Might unclean spirits be wreaking just a little bit of havoc to make you miserable?  This is where it's vitally important for the depressed Christian to be in God's word and memorize as well as meditate on scripture to allow the Holy Spirit to encourage you as He brings relevant verses to mind as well as to be able to use scripture to counter the lies the Enemy is telling you, just like Jesus did during His temptation in the wilderness.  

You'll do yourself a world of good if you use scripture to counter your feelings, too.  Feelings are shallow and often impulsive and inaccurate. To quote the late Dr. Adrian Rogers:  "So many of us want to feel victorious, but let me tell you something. Our feelings are the shallowest part of our nature. Salvation is the deepest work of God. And, God doesn't do the deepest work in the shallowest part. We need to get our salvation out of the realm of fickle emotions and begin to reckon the Truth of God's Word. We must count on the life of Christ in us day-by-day and moment-by-moment."  Jesus promises "a bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory" (Matthew 12:20).  But you'd also better periodically check yourself that you're not enjoying feeling miserable.  It's easier to let yourself stay down in the dumps than it is to fight to bring your illness under control.  If you don't want to get better, you won't. Remember that God's will for His children is that they be conformed to Jesus' image and He'll do what He has to do in order to achieve that.

Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:29 ¶ For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.

 Proverbs 4:18 But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.

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