I’ve been thinking about depression and Christianity these last few days as the topic came up in a recent sermon at my church. It’s a really difficult one to handle from the front as people’s experiences of depression can be so different, and their questions about God and faith will therefore also vary. So I’ve been trying to think back to my own experiences, the questions that I had (and didn’t have) then, what I would say to my past self now, and also what I’ve personally learnt about depression and faith from the experiences I’ve had.
Firstly, my experience with depression may or may not be typical. I’m not actually sure how atypical it is. I think it would be really interesting – if it were possible – to find out just how many people with depression are actually suffering from some physical issue such as overwork or a long-lasting, unremitting emotional strain of some sort. My own depression came from my trying to do more activity than my body can handle, both at times when I didn’t know I had an underlying genetic illness and after diagnosis before I had learned to stay within a safe activity range.
Much current treatment for depression centres on changing how we think about our situation, or teaching us how to reach a goal in achievable steps – but what if the problem is actually with the situation itself, and depression is either a protective step (a level of withdrawal needed to cope with the rest of life) or a normal outcome (a body that is worn down in some way)? I feel low when tired, irritable when hungry and tearful when dizzy. Many people with Postural Tachycardia experience what feels like anxiety, when really it’s just (‘just’!) a high heartrate due to being upright too long. Living in poverty or at the lower end of a steep social gradient causes chronic stress, and the physiology of stress is harmful to the body and neural networks – causing, amongst other things, depression and anxiety.
My worst bout of depression was when I was around 25. I had experienced a brief remission in my physical illness and had been able not only to walk but to run long distances. Then it all went downhill again, and I was getting noticeably weaker and more ill with each week. I had to slowly give up so many things that I had gradually built up to being able to do again, and that hurt. I didn’t know how ill I was going to become, and that was frightening.
It was a deeply distressing time as I cried over and over again about what I was losing and had lost already. There were times when I sobbed my heart out for two hours straight, needing family or friends to hold me and just be there so that I wasn’t alone. There were times I needed Valium just to give my poor broken body a break from all that crying and emotion.
From that experience, I learned several things.
Firstly, never overlook the importance of your physical needs. This also meant for me that I had to let go of (flawed) identities of being a ‘hard worker’ and even someone who over-works. That was a thing about me that everyone knew and expressed admiration for; and ‘hard workers’ are valorised in this society. So it took some time for me to realise the toxicity of this message, reject any praise I received for ‘pushing through’, and actually listen to and meet the needs of my body. Just like Elijah needed sleep and food, then more sleep and more food, so I also needed to be looked after and look after myself physically and physiologically.
Secondly, the importance of people. Friends and family are vital. However much God loves you, he doesn’t usually make you a cup of tea. He doesn’t clear up for you when you drop a full glass milk bottle on the floor. He doesn’t give you permission to bake a cake and then leave all the washing up for him to do later. He doesn’t physically sit next to you and pray to himself with you. He doesn’t drive you half an hour each way to get you to a church that has a service at a time when you’re most awake. All of these took real, physical people living in the same house as me or attending the same church.
Occasionally I have been told that I shouldn’t trust in people; I should trust in God. I have learnt to reject such messages. The message is nearly true, but it’s just off kilter enough to be badly wrong. I’m perfectly aware that people aren’t perfect and that they can’t meet my every need. I never wanted anyone to do that nor expected it of them. But what I did need was people who would reliably try to be there for me, would make time for me in my need according to my need, and would be sorry when they couldn’t do it. My parents provided that physical bedrock as I was living with them at the time; I could rely on them to clear up my kitchen mess and do my laundry and cook my meals and pay for my food and cost of living. Friends, sadly, lived too far away to be able to see me outside of church, and that was emotionally hard. A curate at my church provided the spiritual bedrock, and that really healed my heart.
There were some people who would let me visit and chat with them occasionally, but who for various reasons did not have much time for me. But my curate tried to check in with me after pretty much every church service and mid-week bible study for months. It wasn’t always possible, but that was okay because I knew he wanted to and that he would try again next time. It wasn’t a case of fitting me into an over-crowded diary weeks apart, with me left to struggle alone in-between. He was there, and he could be relied on, and I still can’t express now just how much that meant compared to people who essentially only cared for me as a special favour in their very limited time. These people were important too, as they were people I knew could help me wrestle with deeper theological issues, but ultimately they weren’t the people who got me through that time because they just couldn’t, and therefore (sensibly for their own needs) wouldn’t, give me the time that I needed right then. I respect them for their wisdom in doing only what they could – but I needed the curate too, and I thank God for him often.
I don’t think I asked much of the curate. Five or ten minutes just to let me have a brief expression of how my heart was doing in that moment, to sit with me in recognition of my suffering, and to come with me before God with prayer. I think at times perhaps he felt overwhelmed and like he had nothing to say theologically to help me. Which is fair enough. It wasn’t a specific doctrine that was going to transform my life at that time. It was the persistent presence of God through this curate, my parents, and my wider friends and family.
I learnt to express my grief and my anger to God – preferably with someone there with me to keep me safe from the pain of dealing with these things alone. I learnt to meditate on the glory of heaven and, by fixing my eyes on that, I have very gradually come to genuinely believe that maybe these present sufferings are not worth comparing to that future glory. I learnt to make God the centre of my life in my emotions and heart as well as my head; to genuinely not look at my life as though I am the centre of my story, but as though Jesus is. I learnt to live each day to the glory of God, doing only what God has given me the capacity to do that day and not worrying about things outside of my control or beyond my strength.
Thirdly, I learnt to have sympathy for my past self. It is easy to see in young children that we do not expect of them the competencies that we expect of an adult. But I think I expected that once I reached adulthood, I would be finished growing. I think now that in terms of emotions, we are all infants. We learn emotional skills throughout our lives and even when we reach old age we are still young compared to how much more depth we could have.
I look back on my past self and I see a young flower, just coming into bud, too young to survive a hard frost and needing protection and care. She wasn’t lacking or imperfect or flawed. She just wasn’t ready yet to handle frost. She needed to be cared for and exposed only gradually to colder temperatures, and if a particularly cold night did come then she needed extra care to survive it or extra nourishment after it to survive and thrive.
When she is older, she is no more complete or perfect or flawless than she was when she was still in bud. She isn’t a different flower or a superior being. But she isn’t killed by a frost now. That doesn’t make her better than her budding self. It doesn’t make her morally superior. It just makes her a flower that is getting nearer her full bloom and her strongest self.
Emotionally, however, I don’t think any of us gets beyond the bud stage. Some of us are slightly older buds and have learned to deal with slightly harsher frosts. But none of us are in full bloom, and none of us are ready to totally withstand a frost on our own. We all need sympathy for our current selves as well as for our past selves. We all need help.
What I am trying to describe there is more of an emotion than a thought. It is an emotion of compassion for all who suffer; an emotion that says you are not to blame for experiencing states of depression or anxiety or other mental health issues. It is an emotion that says it is okay to find life hard, and to have to take time to process that, and at times to find life too hard. Sometimes it is too hard. But hang on in there, and if for a while you haven’t got the faith to hold on, maybe I can hold it for you.