Can Christians Suffer from Depression?

Can a Christian Struggle with Depression?

It is funny how certain events, which were very mundane and unmemorable at the time you experienced them, stand out in your mind as significant memories. For example, I remember a time when I was a child that my mother and I returned from a late night run to Wendy’s. We had bought Frostys and were preparing to go inside and enjoy them together. For whatever reason, as my mom sought to unlock the front door, she dropped hers and it spattered all over the sidewalk. I remember feeling very sorry for her that she was not going to get to enjoy her ice-cream. How old was I when that happened? I don’t know…maybe five. Why does that stand out to me as a significant memory of my youth? I have no idea. I just remember that it does. I doubt she remembers it. It is funny how such things can stick with you.

That leads me to another mundane event that I remember. It was in the late spring or early summer of 2012. I watching the Charley Rose show late one night. They were doing a series of episodes on the science of the brain and on this particular episode they were talking about depression. Several people sat around his table that night and discussed their experiences with depression. At the time that I listened to them it struck me as so strange. Their experiences were foreign to me and I could not really understand how what they were saying could be true. One gentlemen told of how after he had went on medication, after two weeks, he was suddenly back to his normal experience. He said to himself, “Oh, there you are again…where have you been for the last several years?”

I was fascinated, but I didn’t understand.

Little did I know, that only a short time later, I would understand his experience all too well.

Fast forward a few weeks to Saturday night, June 30th. For a few weeks I had noticed a slight change in my mood. I was more emotional than usual. A friend from out of town had been scheduled to have dinner with me and when he canceled, I cried. What? Cried? Yep. Cried. I had no idea why. I wrote it off as a strange aberration–possibly that I had not had enough sleep, or maybe there had just been too much stress lately and I thought I really needed a night out with a friend. I just knew the experience was strange. And happening more often.

All of that was a prelude to the night of the 30th. That night I had prepared for my sermon that I needed to preach the next morning. Everything was as it often was on a Saturday night. My family was already in bed and I was the last one to go to sleep. As I made my way to the bedroom something rushed over me–it actually felt like a physical event–and something changed in my brain chemistry from which I have never been the same. Suddenly I was filled with anxiety…suddenly I was afraid of things that had never occurred to me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with emotion. What had happened to me? I did not know.

All I know is that for days, and then weeks, and then months, it did not change back. Every moment had become a moment of excruciating pain. Nothing seemed right. I could not think like I used to. I could not reason like I used to. I could not change what was happening in my mind. I knew what was happening was not right somehow…not the way things were supposed to be…and yet I couldn’t reason my way through it back to a place of stability.

What I slowly came to realize is that I was experiencing my first moments of clinical depression.

To try to explain to you what hell the next 6 months of my life was like would be impossible. For those who have suffered with depression and anxiety, all I can say is, “you know!” For those who haven’t, all I can say is, “you couldn’t possibly know.” There is nothing like it. Even grief, which shares many similarities with depression, is not quite like it. It is a thing unto itself, and it is a monster.

Thankfully I had a wife who was very sympathetic. For about two weeks after our first son was born she had experienced post-partum depression. Lucky for her, she was able to pull out of it rather quickly, but she experienced it for a prolonged enough time that she knew my symptoms and knew what I was suffering through. I don’t think I would have ever made it through to the other side had it not been for her.

For six months I dealt with this monster mostly alone. I had an older friend who I was seeking spiritual guidance from, and he helped me along the way. But for reasons I can’t remember now, I was hesitant to go to the doctor. I had always heard that depression medication was highly addictive and it was not something I wanted to get into. I was afraid of it because I didn’t understand it. But after the encouragement of another close friend who had been through depression, I began to research the options myself.  I discovered that the medication was not like I thought it was. While it was true that certain medications for anxiety can become highly addictive, it was not true of depression medication in general.

Finally, after six months, I broke down and went. I had no choice. Either I had to get help somehow, or things were going to start coming undone in my life. Somehow I had managed to successfully work during that time and hide it from the people from whom I was preaching. I was too afraid of what they would say if they knew. And if they fired me, how would I then support my family? That would only make the depression that much worse! I felt like I was trapped with no where left to go.

So I went to the doctor. He prescribed me some medication. And two weeks later I had the experience of the man who I had seen on television earlier that spring. “Ah…there you are Curtis! Where have you been for the last six months?”

I wish I could tell you from that moment forward I was better without any regression. The truth is, it took a year of experimenting with medications and several years of counseling to come back to full health. Somehow I had fallen into a hole that I never knew existed before. The suffering was awful. But the pain was instructing.

Believe it or not, as I look back on it now, I am grateful for the whole experience. Not that I would ever want to fall back to that same place again. The suffering was of a kind I had not known was possible, and I would be lying to you if I didn’t remain somewhat afraid of it even to this day. No one goes through such an experience without carrying some battle scars on the flip side of it. It reminds of me of Jacob who wrestled with God, and then walked with a limp forever after. That is true of me. I am walking upright again, but forever with a limp.

But the reason I remain grateful for the experience is because it has made me a better minister. I know am far less judgmental of people’s suffering than I used to be. When someone walks into my office and is suffering from pain, I know now that I cannot fix it for them. I didn’t know how to fix my own pain. But I also know now that I am not afraid to walk beside them as they wrestle with their own pain. I know the trenches. They are familiar terrain to me. And I feel well enough now to walk with others who are still wounded but trying to reach safety.

So why write about it? Why preach about it as I have promised to do this Sunday morning. Because depression has often been kept as a dirty little secret in the church. I was afraid to tell my congregation in Slaton, Texas about the pain I was suffering. But when I came back to sufficient health, I told them of the struggle I had been through and the strangest thing happened. Person after person came up to me that morning and shared their own experience. I had never known. So many people had suffered in silence because no one had ever had the platform to step up and say anything about it publicly. It was then that I decided that I would not remain silent about my experience of depression. That if out of my own pain I could lend a helping hand to others who had been there, or currently were there, that I would do so. It needs to be said from the pulpit from time to time that even Christians can suffer from depression. Yes, we are called to be a joyful people, and I think a healthy mental experience is often a joyful experience. But we do not live in heaven yet. And we are not as strong as we like to think. Things affect us. Stresses draw us down. Events catch us unaware. And alas, some of us by temperament are just prone to a brooding personality. I wish it wasn’t so, but for some reason, in God’s wisdom, he has made it so.

So this Sunday, I am going to share something that is deeply personal to me. I am going to share my experience of depression with you. I do so in order to reach out to those of you who suffer silently. I want you to know that the church at Riverwalk is a safe place to make your sufferings known, and that it is a place where you can look to for support. You will not be judged here. You will be loved, precisely where you are. If you have never suffered depression, then it will be informative for you to understand from someone who has what it is like. It will help you be sympathetic to your family and friends who suffer. But most of all, I don’t want you to think God looks down on you because of your suffering. The disease does that…it tempts you to believe that everyone is against you…even God. It’s not true, and occasionally a preacher needs to stand from his pulpit and say so.

I hope you plan on being here this Sunday. I think you will not regret having come.

God bless you!

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