I’m not one to join the bandwagon on “Awareness” issues. My mom died of breast cancer and I have yet to wear a pink T-shirt or run in a race. I get why people do that sort of thing, but I know my mom would be angry if I chose her death to be the catalyst that I responded to to “change the world”. She would not have wanted to be defined by cancer.
And I don’t really want to be defined by depression either. But with all of the posts going around on social media regarding mental illness following the suicide of Robin Williams, I can’t seem to stay out of the discussion.
I remember the first time I thought I was depressed. I was seven years old riding in the backseat of the car with my head pressed against the window. Nothing particular was going through my head at the moment, but I had an empty feeling inside, and the words came through my head, “I’m depressed.”
I don’t even know how I knew what “depressed” meant at age 7, but I remember that moment as clearly as anything. About the time I hit 12, the depression seemed to sink in and make a permanent home in my soul. There were plenty of times that I was genuinely happy, and for months go without a care in the world. But it always came back. Inexplicably and without warning.
The funny thing is, I stopped seeing it as a bad thing. Eventually, it became a part of my sense of identity. It made me deep and thoughtful. Melancholies were more artistic and intelligent. Tortured souls were my heroes – and happy people? Happy people were just buffoons who chose to live in oblivion rather than embrace the pain that was “authentic”. I became quite attached to my depression – loving the depression more than I loved myself. And the more I loved my depression, the more I hated myself, and the more depressed I became. It was a parasite that I didn’t think I could live without. I didn’t feel complete without it, and my whole identity was wrapped up in it’s cloak. It made me witty, mysterious, and above the fray of the shallowlands. And even when I was happy, I thought I could only appreciate the happiness because I understood the pain on the other side. I was TRULY happy, whereas others were conjuring up a fraudulent happiness based upon the temporal and meaningless.
I thought about death, but not really any more than a lot of teenagers probably do. I thought passingly, amusingly, about suicide – just the what ifs. Thankfully, I had a solid foundation in my faith as well as a stubborn streak from my mother that refused to ever go that route. But I did know how to wallow, and I wallowed extremely well – spending days on end in bed, faking headaches or nausea so my mom wouldn’t make me go to school. I think a part of her knew, and yet, for some reason, she chose to trust me. I would sleep for hours upon hours, waking up to write truly terrible poetry about my pain and sadness, and watching movies that made me cry.
None of this really bothered me until I was in a real relationship with a guy I truly loved. I would start fights with him and say the most horrible and irrational things to him, shocking even myself. I started to experience bouts of rage that I had never known before, and God only knows what kept me from some pretty extreme tantrums.
My first clue that I might have some chemical imbalances came when I started on birth control right before that guy decided he was still willing to put up with my crap and marry me. While on the pill, I would cry inexplicably, daydream of suicide, and be filled with rage that I would just beat the walls until my knuckles bled. The pain inside was positively unbearable – like a breached baby that won’t come out. I am so thankful that I recognized that it was the effects of The Pill, and I quit immediately, never to do hormonal birth control again.
But while the rage and suicidal thoughts subsided, the depression never fully went away, and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted it to. I’d lived with it for so long, I had no idea who I’d be without it. Treating my depression left me with two paralyzing fears: 1) That it couldn’t be treated, and I’d find out that I was terminal and life was never going to get any better; 2) That it was treatable, that I could be cured, but that I wouldn’t recognize myself anymore.
Throughout all of this, I blamed everything but chemistry. I blamed my family and life experiences, I blamed my husband for not loving me enough, I blamed myself for being weak and not spiritual enough, and I blamed God for not accepting my pleas for help by zapping me with joy. It was when I started resenting my second-born infant daughter that I knew something was more amiss than what I’d been telling myself. This couldn’t possibly be her fault, so why was I so angry with her?
The strange thing was, my mom was dying by this time, and I felt very little about it. She was in agony from the cancer that had eaten away at her backbone, and I had very little capacity for compassion for her. She had been my best friend for my entire life, we had a connection that I held precious, and yet, I felt too empty to deal with her dying. I will always live with the regret that I did not give her more in those last months, and that she did not feel from me then what I could have given her months later.
But the agony came rushing in the night before her funeral when everyone in my aunt’s house was asleep, and I crept to the dining room alone to weep uncontrollably and shamelessly until I had to clean snot and slobber off the table. I went home with a pain that I could not bear alone, and combined with my indifference toward my baby, I knew I needed help.
I chose to see a Christian counselor – someone who would pray, but not tell me that my problem was that I needed to pray more. We talked about everything you would expect – my upbringing, my relationships, my baggage. And while it helped to sort through those issues that had long been saddlebags ever-present at my side, it wasn’t quite the breakthrough I’d hoped for.
Then a friend told me about a medical doctor who treated with natural supplements that had helped him. I hadn’t trusted pharmaceuticals since my relationship with The Pill, but several naturopaths seemed like they were just trying to sell enough of their personal favorite vitamins to help them win that vacation rental in Florida. I decided a medical professional who considered natural means legit might, himself, be legit.
He took my pee, my blood, and my saliva. It was lovely. Then he told me to stop going to counseling for a while. Inside I was calling him a quack, that is, until he told me that going to counseling at that time was like trying to build a house without any tools. I didn’t have the capacity to deal with my emotional issues when my body was, apparently, completely whack (the medical diagnosis). I coughed up over $400, took the “vitamins” he prescribed and…
Dammit! I had lived with depression since I was seven years old, and a few pills a day completely vanquished it. Not that I haven’t been sad since, or hormonal, or absolutely pissed off, but Depression packed it’s bags and moved away, and I haven’t missed it one bit.
Looking back, I have a mixed view. There were life circumstances that I feel opened the door to spiritual attack. At seven years old, I should not have heard a voice in my head telling me “I’m depressed”. At the same time, prayer, more Bible reading, pleading to the sky for help never worked – it only sank me deeper in fact when I didn’t receive a response. I certainly had legitimate cause to be angry with certain aspects of my life that only a good counselor was able to help me sort out, but in the end, chemistry GOT it out.
Right now, I’m seeing arguments all over the map that “It’s spiritual – only Jesus can help,” and “It’s physical – we need to treat it like a disease.” Ladies and gentlemen – it’s both. We live in a FALLEN world, and some people’s spiritual brokenness manifests itself in depression. But we also live in a fallen WORLD, where that brokenness alters our bodies, our brains, and every physical aspect of our beings. Who thinks they can dissect the spirit from the soul from the body? Who thinks this world is so far removed from that other, unseen world? To the Believer, has God not created this earth and every physical thing in it? To the Unbeliever, why has chemistry not helped everyone if we are merely animals that respond to specific stimuli? To the Believer who thinks that I didn’t pray hard enough to receive my miracle, is a pill that finally worked for ME not a miracle or an answer to prayer? Do you think I’d trade the healing that came from those pills to continue a more pious alternative? To the Unbeliever who sees that I used science as a means to healing, simply put: without Jesus, I would not be on this earth anymore – period.
I’m glad we’re having this conversation about depression. I’m glad people are starting to strip away the shame of this disease and recognize that it’s not something you just choose – that it can’t be cured with platitudes or a little pep talk. We can’t always pray it away, but it can’t be compared to cancer either. Cancer is an obvious physical enemy – Depression is a deceitful illusionist that attaches itself to your soul, and strums thoughts onto your neurons like a bad tune that gets stuck in your brain. It feeds like a parasite, getting bigger and stronger, as you get smaller and weaker, and you are hypnotized by it’s voice. Sure, you still have a will, you still have the power of choice, but it gets buried under tentacles that wrap tightly around your will until you feel utterly helpless, and all you can do is be still and wait for help to come.
Whatever “we” do as a society, we cannot talk so confidently about what depression is or is not. It can only be vastly different for every individual, and whether it is treated spiritually, emotionally, or medically, all we really know for sure is that it must be treated individually.