Awhile back, I spent over a month’s time reading and meditating on the Old Testament book of Job. Many would prefer to either ignore such a text or rush through it to get to happier and more upbeat books than one that deals with a man who loses everything. Yet I came away from this reading, which was not my first, with a better understanding of Job and suffering because of my own life experience struggling with depression. Suffering, lamentation, sorrow are not topics our modern culture, especially in the Church, like to deal with. We prefer our worship be joyful (to the point that it becomes hollow) and our sermons uplifting and positive. Yet, without struggle, there is no spiritual depth.
Almost like a fairy tale, the book of Job begins, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” How many other books of scripture begin this way? The opening line gives us no indication of what is to come, what is to befall Job. It only paints a portrait of a man who is strong in his belief and love for God. But the narrative will turn and in a most unexpected and cruel way, with what appears to be a wager between Satan (who is named here for the very first time in the Bible) and God. To me, as the story unfolds, it does so in a way that the narrator is telling an allegory of an Everyman (and this was definitely how the poet and artist William Blake saw him. In fact, Job was a subject he would return to again and again in his career because suffering from depression himself, Blake saw a connection to himself and this biblical figure).
What struck me the deepest in this reading of Job was when I came to the thirtieth book and read these lines:
And now my soul is poured out within me;
days of affliction have taken hold of me.
The night racks my bones, and the pain that
gnaws at me takes no rest. (30:16-17).
As I read those deeply moving lines, my mind returned to a time when I hit the lowest point in my life, when I could not see past my own pain, when my depression brought me to a place where suicide became a viable option. It was a place of such darkness, such loneliness, such isolation and grief for a sorrow that I could not completely name. Yes, I had lost a job that I had poured so much of myself into. Yes, only a couple of years earlier my mother died of cancer. But there was more behind this depression than both of those losses. It was as Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.” Mine brought about the near destruction of my marriage and my very life. And one of the hardest things about my depression was being a member of a local church.
As the Church, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another. Being an introvert, the church has always been a struggle for me. I have a hard time in group settings and, even more so, in social settings. Whenever I go to any social, I come away feeling exhausted and depleted, as if I have had something taken from me. I am always anxious and ill at ease. This is worsened when I am struggling with depression. Many would not even know when I am because depression is not sadness and I can easily mask it. I am not alone, either.
According to the most recent reports, 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, 18% of Americans suffer from anxiety disorder and 10% suffer from clinical depression. 80% of those who suffer from depression never receive any kind of treatment for it. 7% of those in the church suffer from depression. 27% are women. The statistics on men are unknown since men are less likely to admit it in themselves and remain untreated. A study was done by Barna even showed that one-fifth of young adults leave the church because their faith does not help with the depression, anxiety and other emotional problems they are experiencing. Many felt stigmatized by their illness and found that the Church often frowned on taking medications and view depression as simply a spiritual issue.
When I was going through the worst of my depression years ago. I felt a sense of shame and secrecy. I had lost my job and found Sunday after Sunday, men asking me, “So have you found a new job yet?” The longer it took, the worse I felt. When Danelle got a job first and went back to work and I became a stay-at-home dad, I found myself being viewed differently in the Church where it’s typically viewed as a man’s role to support his family and here my wife was. Some men joked, “Wow, I wish I could lose my job and just stay at home all day. You sure do have it easy.” It wasn’t. I have absolute admiration for any parent who stays at home. It is a psychologically draining and often thankless job.
Unfortunately, like Job, I found that those around me were not sympathetic or even understanding. I drove the van for the shut-ins at our church for a while. My depression worsened to the point where I had to call the man who was over it to let him know that it would be best that I no longer drove the van. When I explained the reason why there was mostly silence and then, “Okay. Hope you get better.” That was it. And I never got any follow-up calls from him or anyone. No, I wanted to check on you or pray for you. No, I just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you. Nor did this happen when I left our Sunday school (now a growth group) and my wife continued to attend when I hadn’t. No one reached out to me as I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into what Saint John of the Cross labeled “the dark night of the soul,” as I felt more and more worthless and I became more and more withdrawn.
Henri Nouwen, who also suffered from depression throughout his life, wrote, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Job did not have such friends. Nor did I. They are rare. To be able to do what Nouwen writes is to be Christlike. To simply be there for someone when they are going through hard times and trials and not offer Bible verses or platitudes, but just sit with them.
Whenever I seemed down, I was often told that I just needed to have more faith. I began to feel more and more responsible for my depression. I felt more and more isolated: from others and from God. What was wrong with me? In a culture of faith and where Jesus died for my salvation, I did not find joy or hope, but hopelessness and despair. In his Inferno, Dante wrote: (translation by Robert Pinsky):
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard – so tangled and rough.
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring; death is hardly more bitter
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw . . .
That line “death is hardly more bitter” is so true to someone in the utter depths of the mire of depression. Death is almost more of a relief. I have struggled with depression ever since I was in high school. It often came on without warning and I have found myself, over the years, waking up with the first thought of, “I hate my life.”
Depression is not an issue of needing more faith. One cannot just snap out of it. It is more than emotional but is physical, physiological and medical.
When one goes back to that thirtieth chapter of Job, he continues with:
But when I hoped for good, evil came,
and when I waited for light, darkness came. My
inward parts are in turmoil and never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about darkened, but not by the sun;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
When my depression was at its worst, I did not eat and lost so much weight that I became gaunt. My eyes were cold, dead and lifeless as a shark’s. I was exhausted but could not sleep and suffered insomnia night after night after night. The night hours could be the worst and most painful. All of the world seems to be sleeping but me. I would pace about the house as quietly as I could. “Why?” was so often the question on my lips. Why did I have to be born? Why did I have to live and go through each day again and again and again? Why did everyone else appear so happy and together? Why couldn’t I just go to sleep and not wake up again?
Often, I would just sit and stare for hours.
I stopped reading. Something I had never, ever done before.
Or I would begin to cry for no reason. I was just overcome with an overwhelming sadness.
Ordinary tasks seemed insurmountable. “Why make the bed? I’ll just have to do it again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that . . ..” endlessly. The mundane and day to day things that I had taken for granted became Sisyphus eternally pushing the boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down again so that he would have to start over.
My prayers had all withered and dried up within me. And it caused even more of a crisis that, in the midst of my suffering, it felt like God was not enough or, at times, even there at all.
Singer and songwriter Sara Groves, whose most recent album Floodplain dealt with this subject matter, said of her own struggle with anxiety and depression, “You feel like something’s terribly wrong. Like you’re in a fight with somebody you love or you have to confront something but when you look around, there’s really nothing there. Your brain will bring you all kinds of reasons.”
Depression does not make sense. It does not have a logic. One cannot simply think positive thoughts and the depression will go away. You cannot pray it away. Trust me, I tried. Depression is not a spiritual issue. It can come from genetics or because of a biochemical reason or postpartum depression after the birth of a child. Some are situational, such as after a great loss or death. Author and professor Lauren Winner found this out after the breakup of her marriage and the death of her mother. Winner found herself going through a period of utter doubt and despair that she chronicled in her powerful book Still Life: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. As she wrote, “The anxious heart, in all its flailings, loses its hold on whatever grace God has bestowed upon it, and is sapped of its strength to ‘resist the temptations of the evil one,’ who is all the more ready to fish in troubled waters.”
Depression is like being trapped under ice. No matter how hard you attempt to break the ice from underneath, you can’t. No matter how much you struggle to free yourself, you can’t.
It’s also like being a goldfish in one of those plastic bags they fill with water and then tie off with a rubber band at the pet store. Except, this bag has a tiny hole and water is slowly leaking out and the bag is slowly closing in on you.
Depression is inward and downward to a place where the only way out is through. It was in my utmost despair, that I considered suicide. For those who suffer depression, there are moments that become so dark that you cannot see even the tiniest glimpse of light. For many, they reach that point and take their own lives. I was ready to myself, but I cried out to God, “If you’re real then I need to know it right now! Either you’re real or it’s over!” I was that blunt, that direct. I did not have the strength to pray anything else. I was tired and I was done. There, in that bleakest of moments, I heard that voice of inexplicable grace tell me, “Look up.”
There, on the fridge, was a photo of Benjamin. He was barely five.
As I looked at the face of this little boy, the voice asked, “If you commit this act, how will it impact him? How will he be damaged and suffer his whole life? How much will he question and doubt? Where will the unsurety lead him? To a moment like this one?”
I wept. I wept as I had never wept before.
” . . . if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there.” (Psalm 139:8).
Depression is a state of disconnection to people and relationships and to the beauty in the world and to God and to one’s self. I realized how desperately I needed professional help.
Often one needs medication simply to stabilize oneself. I did. Because the troughs I had fallen into were so low, I needed medication to just even me out. It took medication just so I could even begin to start to see past the suffering and the hurt and the hopelessness. The medication helped me so that I could begin to talk to my Christian counselor about what I was going through. But without that medication, I never would have even begun the process of climbing out of the pit. In the midst of the brokenness comes wholeness. It was only then that I could begin to find myself stable on the God that Paul Tillich called the “ground of being.”
In one of the most powerful and brutally honest books I have ever read about the struggle with depression was William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. For those who have no concept or the beginning of an idea of what it is like to suffer from depression, Styron writes:
In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.
The history of the Church is filled with those who have suffered depression: Moses, King Saul, King David (look at the period of the Cave of Adullam as well as many of his psalms), many of the Old Testament prophets (such as Elijah and Jeremiah), the apostle Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Rich Mullins, Brennan Manning, Kathleen Norris (who even wrote a book about it entitled Acedia & Me, as acedia is the spiritual term for the disease), Chonda Pierce (she also wrote a book about it entitled Laughing in the Dark), Jonathan Martin (who wrote How to Survive a Sinking Ship) and the rapper Lecrae.
In Psalm 38, David wrote:
My strength fails;
I feel only weakness, irritation and depression.
I am tempted to complain and to despair.
What has become of the courage I was so proud of,
and that gave me so much self-confidence?
In addition to my pain, I have to bear the
shame of my fretful feebleness.
Are those not the words of a man sunk in despair and ruin?
Because I sought help and got on prescribed antidepressants for awhile, I began to find my way out of Dante’s dark wood. But it deeply changed and transformed me. Simone Weil once wrote, “Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.” Many who read that would readily disagree, but she’s right. Because of my struggle with depression, I have become less guarded and more open. Depression has left me with humility, empathy, and compassion for others, particularly others who are hurting themselves. It has opened me to others as I had never been before and I think it has helped me to have a deeper understanding and connection to the sufferings and wounds of my adoptive son. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”
You can’t cure depression, but you can successfully treat it. 60% to 80% of people suffering from depression can be treated successfully.
Now, whenever I start to feel any anxiety or panic attacks or depression coming on, I am more open about it and less secretive. I ask for help and I tell my wife what is happening.
Depression has left its wounds in me. Yet it is from those wounds that I can help others to heal. We in the Church need to be more sympathetic, empathetic and compassionate to those going through the struggle. It is not an issue of sin. It is not an issue of not having enough faith or trust in God. We need to not attempt to jump in with the answers or a Bible verse but just listen. Just be with the person who is hurting. We need to come to them without judgment or bias.
Depression has not gone away. I am still taking medication for mine. I force myself to find the beauty, the grace and the meaning to go through my days. Unlike in my past, however, I am not silent about my suffering. I am not ashamed or feel that it is a failing in myself or my faith. I speak because there are those who desperately need to hear, “You are not alone. This is not your fault. This is not a personal failing or a weakness of faith. But you do need to get help.”After I first blogged about my depression, many came up to me (in secret) to tell me they needed to read my words, to show their loved ones what they, themselves were dealing with in their own struggles with this illness (and it is an illness no less than cancer). We do not shame other diseases like we do depression. There are no 5-k runs to fight depression. We don’t wear ribbons to celebrate those who have depression.
Recently there has been the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. People are asking, “Why would they kill themselves when they are successful and at the top of their professions?” Success, notoriety, and fame are an outward life that can have absolutely no bearing on the state of one’s inner life. One cannot buy out of, travel away from or escape depression in what our culture considers the pinnacle of what a life should be. In the United States, we have bought into the falsehood of the self-made man or that one can simply “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” We see a comedian like Robin Williams taking his own life and, only as we find out the facts, realize the tragedy behind the comedy, the loneliness behind the laughs and his health problems. Depression does not care if you have power and prestige. Those are not safeguards against it.
Like Dante, I have descended into hell and returned, so that, like the poet, I can say, “And yet, to treat the good I found there as well. I’ll tell what I saw . . .”
This can no longer be taboo. This cannot be something that we, especially in our places of worship, can keep silent about.
And it’s important for those of us who have gone through the darkness and the valley of the shadow of death to speak up. We need to tell our stories and our struggles. We need to be open and honest with the people we should be able to be the most vulnerable with: our brothers and sisters in Christ. And they need to hear this. They need to listen. And they need to love and embrace without condition. Only then will any of us begin to truly heal.