Depression has been a familiar and unwelcome companion through my 20s. I have had six unannounced visits over the past ten years, each visit lasting between one and six months.These excerpts from my journal will give you an idea of how I felt during these times:
Nov 2003: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Something definitely is. Well, I guess I do know partly what’s wrong with me: laziness, depression, unmotivation, pessimism, neediness, frustration, discontent . . . but what I don’t know is how to get over this . . . I keep on asking God but I sense nothing.”
July 2008: “Yesterday morning I was so emotionally tired — I just started sleeping from my exhaustion. It was like I gave up . . . this is too difficult to have all these questions and doubts. I’m tired of my disbelief.”
Mar 2011: “I wish I were stronger. Life feels so heavy now. Everything I do feels so difficult — I need to force myself to do them: my work, exercise, socializing, and especially waking up.”
I remember being at a Men’s Breakfast at my church, and five out of the six men at my table admitted to going through depression. But it is rarely talked about. One book I read called God in the Dark says, “A common misinterpretation of the healthy on the sick is that wellness is a matter of choice and decision.” During one of my darker seasons, my mentor Ken Shigematsu lead pastor of Tenth Church recommended me a book by Parker Palmer entitled Let Your Life Speak. In this book, Palmer asks the question, what if you viewed Depression not as an enemy seeking to hurt you, but as a friend that brings you gifts? As John Piper says in his book Don’t Waste Your Life, God takes what the enemy intended for evil and redeems it into something that benefits us. That is what Scripture means when it says, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Embracing the good in depression
Realizing that Depression was a guest instead of an intruder allowed me to embrace my depression and realize the gifts that this companion brought. The following are a few ways depression has helped me grow as a person.
1) It showed God’s unconditional love
My work productivity decreased significantly when I was depressed. I felt guilty about this because I tied my worth to my productivity. I struggled with the tension of being unproductive and the voice of God telling me that I was valued and loved unconditionally. In a world that often tells us that our value comes from what we can do and produce, this lesson was very valuable.
2) It helped me to become more vulnerable
I use to gain a lot of my value and worth from how people viewed me. I hid my faults and showed off my strengths, in hopes that others would like me. But I always felt like I was putting on a show. When I became depressed, it me forced to reach out to those around me for help. I chose to show them the dark parts of me and was surprised to be accepted and loved in spite of my weaknesses. With this growing realization came an increasing freedom to be vulnerable.
3) It taught me to trust my gut
One of the things that depression allowed me to uncover was my trust in my own mind. I like to think through every decision and see all the angles but this often causes me to think in circles and confuse myself, especially with major life decisions. I discovered that one trigger for my depression was the fear of making the wrong decisions. God has taught me that it is okay to trust my “gut”, my “heart”, and the Holy Spirit’s promptings without necessarily having to understand the logic behind it.
4) It made me humble
I came to understand my own limits and learn to accept them. I came to realize that I could not do anything and everything that I put my mind to. Going through depression helped me grow empathy for others going through hard times.
5) It made clear God’s superiority over darkness
After the depression lifted, I began identifying the good things that God gave me during those difficult times. No one likes going through the valleys of life, but many are glad that they have experienced those times. I admit that I am still afraid of going through depression again (or other difficult times), but knowing that God can bring much good out of something negative takes away some fear of future suffering.
6) It helped uncover the roots of my depression
During my fourth bout of depression, I finally started seeing a counsellor to help me. This process was very helpful as it prompted me to dig deeper and uncover the roots of my depression, instead of just hoping it would pass and never return. Through conversations, thoughtful reflection, and prayer, I identified patterns in my depression. Depression was a symptom of deeper underlying issues. Without going through this, I might not have uncovered these things and learned about myself.
Throughout these difficult times, I came across many people that tried to help. Most would give me advice and suggestions of what I could do to “get better” or “feel better”. Sometimes I appreciated their concern, but most of the time I would only become more frustrated because I had tried everything they had suggested (the worst piece of advice I have ever gotten was to just not be depressed. Right, very helpful). Looking back I’ve come to the realization that although people want to help, many do not know how.
If you’d like to be help a friend or family member that is going through depression, here are my suggestions:
Don’t give advice easily. Giving fast advice makes it sound like the solution is easy and undermines the suffering the person is going through. I have made this mistake far too many times.
Listen and affirm their feelings. One of the best things my wife did for me when I was going through depression was to listen. Sometimes I felt like a broken record because all I seemed to talk about was how down I felt. When Olive listened to me, I began feeling like my emotions were legitimate and that I wasn’t crazy to feel this way.
Wait with them. Dr. Sharon Smith of Sanctuary Minsitries, an expert in mental health, says the best thing to do to help someone going through depression is to wait with him or her. It is like sitting beside them in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise.
Here are some resources on depression I have found helpful:
— Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus every Season of the Soul by Mark Buchanan
— Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer
— God in the Dark: Through Grief and Beyond by Luci Shaw
— Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion by Wayne Cordeiro
— Olive’s blog post on depression
Have you experienced depression and if so, did it bring you any unexpected gifts?