* This piece originally appeared here on thislife magazine
‘Nearly three years ago, I found myself being unwillingly placed in a new and unfamiliar landscape. Months in, I began to sense that I knew the name of the place, but I was too scared to speak the words out loud. When my resilience eventually waned, I sat in my doctor’s office, and tears streamed down my face as he named the foreign terrain using the word I’d been so afraid to verbalise: depression.
I quickly wanted to ‘fix what was wrong’ – a symptom of society’s need to portray ourselves as sorted beings who conquer all the challenges life throws at us. Sadly some of them are sticky like blackjacks, fiercely attaching themselves to us and despite our best attempts to rid them, we simply can’t that easily. Some remain with us our whole lives.
The last three years have been a journey indeed, and below I share some things that have helped me navigate the territory.
Being known in the midst of my involuntary inner turmoil was deeply helpful and healing. My close friends and family were able to extend a shoulder to cry on. Perhaps it’s a guy thing – or rather a human thing – that we want to fix people. Fifteen years of pastoral ministry was enough to teach me that despite my best efforts, I can’t fix people.
Author Bob Goff details a life lesson that he had to learn: ‘I used to want to fix people, now I just want to be with them.’ I had to help educate people regarding how they can support me. I didn’t want answers, or to analyze the situation: I just needed people to be with me in the midst of the darkness. I want to be asked how I am, have someone listen, and know their love in the midst of that. Sometimes words are not necessary. One of my mentors had told me repeatedly that the greatest way that God heals today is through community. I know think he’s right.
I’ve also realised I’m most drawn towards the people who with courage and vulnerability are able to stand, warts and all. It had taken me some time to realise that in the context of the church, where I had worked for many years, that there was a need for leaders willing to show their unfixed and broken parts. I now realise that need is everywhere.
redefining depression & healing
Despite the prevalence of depression in our day and age, it still carries some taboos and unhelpful stigmas. Maybe this is because it’s difficult to understand depression fully until you’ve experienced it. Studying psychology and years of helping people deal with various disorders still didn’t fully prepare me.
I’ve been encouraged with some new studies casting some surprisingly positive light on depression. New York pastor Tim Keller refers to the findings of a researcher: ‘People who have gone through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not’. He mentions that these studies indicate that ‘people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general, an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.’ Sobering, yet hopeful.
Depression is often linked to underlying stress, pain, loss or anxiety. Through the help of a good counsellor, I was able to start to probe some of the roots of my depression. Dr Rachel Naomi Remen says wisely that “the way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life.”
My journey involved coming to terms with various forms of grief and loss, and in my case, a nine-month course of anti-depressants afforded me the opportunity internally to deal better with what some external circumstances were causing. My course of treatment was a combination of therapy, medication and a supportive community. For some many depression is a chemical imbalance, and medication is a long-term necessity.
books and beer
When I had very little motivation to participate in some of the activities that I usually found life-giving, I needed to make some readjustments. Towards the end of 2015 I read the inspiring story of Nina Sankovitch who after losing her sister, embarked on the incredible journey of reading a book each day of the year to help her deal with her grief. The books helped her deal with, rather than escape, the barrage of emotions that she encountered as she mourned. You can read her story in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
I decided to embark on a less intense, but still ambitious journey of reading a book a week for the year. I managed to rise to the challenge and thoroughly loved the adventure – experiencing healing in the words, stories, and lives of others. I loved the hours I spent lying under the fragrant fig tree in my garden accompanied by Kathleen Norris, Donald Miller, Marilynne Robinson, NT Wright, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Malcolm Gladwell.
I also discovered that some form of craft or creativity helped. With a gift voucher from a friend, I bought a home brewing kit and made my own beer. The sense of satisfaction of making something and releasing some creativity was healing. Of course, it helped that my beer (appropriately named Parson’s Ale… I was living in a parsonage at the time) was among the most delicious craft beers I had tasted.
Right, faith. I’d love to boldly declare that it had been my faith that carried me through – that I was able to ‘walk in victory’. Many who have struggled with depression will tell you it’s not as easy as that. Depression has a sinister way of seeping into all aspects of life: what appears to be a psychological issue quickly morphs into a physiological, spiritual and social one.
One of the hardest lessons to learn in depression (and most certainly outside of depression) is how we feel does not dictate truth. Feelings don’t inform truth: truth is much bigger than the frivolity and ever-changing nature of our feelings. In the absence of some of my usual spiritual fervour, all I was left with was a sense of longing. A sort of spiritual homesickness.
I took delight in the words of a master storyteller, Frederick Buechner: ‘Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement towards, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.’ There were many times when that longing or homesickness was all I had but was enough.
Another faith lesson I had to learn is that sometimes it’s ok to let go of God. I desperately tried to hold on, fearful of what would happen if I let go of my grip on God. Eventually I had no strength and let go, not knowing what to expect. I soon began to realise that instead of me free falling, God was holding onto me. I was so used to how my tight grip felt that I hadn’t fully been able to feel and know His grip.
what lies ahead
Three years later I still have dark days: some bubble over into several days, and at these times I try to quell any fear of another grand depressive episode. Thankfully that has not come yet, but if it does, it will not signal failure on my behalf.
While I can’t predict the future, I do know that it’s ok to not be ok, and am learning to be much easier on myself. I’ve discovered that whilst I find it easier to accept grace from God, and those around me, it’s often I who am the hardest taskmaster. Despite what I’m going through I have to continually remind myself that my wholeness is never lost – it includes my wounds and vulnerabilities. I’m a whole person working out how to best navigate this beautiful life, with grace as my guide.