You may have noticed I have been reblogging some articles about depression. The reason is I have been working on my own statement about depression, and posting other people’s articles has allowed me to (1) keep content flowing while I work on my own, and (2) start getting information about depression out there.
There are a lot of misconceptions about depression that keep people who suffer from getting the help they need. So in this series I’m going to try to clear up those misconceptions, especially within the church. In my own experience, religion sometimes brought healing and comfort when nothing else would, and sometimes intensified and made my depression worse in ways nothing else could. And so I say I am in recovery from two things: Depression and certain kinds of faith or religion.
The first misconception is thinking depression is only an emotional state. Typically, people say they’re depressed when they are VERY sad. So depression in this sense is extreme sadness. Anyone can feel depressed after the death of a family member or friend, loss of a job, divorce or breakup, or some tragic event in their lives. This is what I call “situational depression.” But depression in the sense I’m talking about is not that kind of sadness. It is a medical condition. It is not something that happens because of life. It is an ongoing condition of the brain.
Did you know that your brain is constantly producing chemicals? More than 100,000 chemical reactions are processed in your brain every second. Obviously that is too much to describe in detail here. For purposes of this discussion, you just need to know that an important part this activity involves the production of chemicals like Serotonin and Dopamine. I will refer to them generally as “happy chemicals.” You have happy chemicals and stress chemicals in your brain. When your brain does not produce normal levels of happy chemicals, you live in a constant, underlying, and invisible state of depression – even when there is no reason for you to be sad. This kind of depression is a medical condition, not an emotional state where you can just “cheer up” or pray your way out of.
I would not know any of this if it weren’t for my personal experience. Sixteen years ago, I was professionally tested for depression. When the psychiatrist gave me the results, he said, “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”
Floored. Stunned. Discombobulated. Those are the only words I can think of to describe how I felt on hearing that. In that moment, my entire view of life and myself changed forever. High in every possible way? There is no more room for denial after that.
And it was not a recent development. I have been living with Clinical Depression all my life. This means my brain needs help in creating a healthy level of happy chemicals. When it does not get help, I walk around moody, temperamental, irritable, and looking angry even when I’m not. I isolate myself and either dread or loathe social interaction. I think all kinds of bad thoughts about myself, friends, family, strangers, the world, God, and life itself. I suffer with anxieties for no good reason. I think no one understands me, so there is no point in talking to anyone.
Of course, I was not like this all the time. It would have been easier to recognize if I were. I had ups as well as downs just like everyone, or so I thought. My emotional/mood spectrum felt normal to me because it was the only thing I had ever known.
If any of this sounds familiar, especially if you can’t identify any good reason for it, you may be one of millions of people living with undiagnosed Depression of some kind. How do you know for sure? Since it is a medical condition, it needs to be diagnosed by a psychiatric professional. But if people close to you think you are depressed, you should seriously consider getting tested. My mother and sister thought there was more going on with me than just the normal ups and downs of life. If they hadn’t urged me to get tested, I would still be undiagnosed, still moody and depressed, and still thinking it was normal.
Sorry for all this boring technical explanation and my personal stuff. But this is important to understand and so easily misunderstood. The depression I’m talking about is not about feeling sad. It’s about living with a brain that does not produce enough happy chemicals. Not understanding that has led to a lot of bad practices and bad advice that make depression worse, not better. When religion gets mixed up in it without understanding what Depression really is, it creates more problems than it solves. An article on Beliefnet said it well. “As we consider the causes of Depression, those of us in the church must face the ways we might be responsible for creating it.”
I’ve experienced some of those ways that church, religion, faith – whatever you want to call your spiritual life and practice – can be responsible not really for creating it, but for making it a lot worse. I thank God from the depths of my soul that He led me out of that and into a church, faith, and spiritual practice that helps my recovery and healing, rather than beats me down for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means. Because the only thing worse than living for ten years (approximately) in a faith or religion that will only acknowledge “spiritual” causes of depression is living in that kind of faith for ten years… and one day.
What I say next, I don’t say lightly. I’m not the type of person who goes around saying, “God told me this, God told me that, God has called me to do this…” So many times I have heard people say things like this and thought, You know what? I bet if I could hear God talking as much as you claim to, right now I’d hear Him saying, “Leave Me out of this!”
It’s not that I believe God doesn’t talk to anyone. I believe God talks to us all the time, but some people hear better than others. I’ve learned from hard experience I don’t hear nearly as well as I would like to. Probably because it’s being filtered through a Clinically Depressed brain. With that disclaimer, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I believe God is calling me to help others who are in the same position I was 16 years ago. People who know they are depressed and in recovery. People who don’t know it but have a sense that something is wrong with them. People who think it’s normal because they have lived with depression all their lives. And more specifically, to help depressed people who are hurt by religion. I believe I am in a position to help point you to what is helpful – and away from most of what is hurtful.
I don’t think I will ever say I am healed from Depression, but the recovery model of Alcoholics Anonymous has been very helpful to me. Just recently I have been able to look at my life today and realize I have come a long way on this road of recovery, though I have by no means come to the end.
There are some lessons I have had to learn the hard way. I hope to spare you some of that drama. With that in mind, here is what I think is most important for you to know.
- God is for your recovery and healing, not against it (Isa 53:3-5).
- God will not kick you when you’re down (Isa 42:2-3).
- Some churches and spiritual leaders are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.
- With the right help – spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and perhaps medically – you can live a happy and fulfilling life. You just need to learn how to stop Depression from sabotaging it.