It took a while but I finally had that conversation about Christmas. The other day, someone asked me if I felt Christmassy. The honest answer is no. I often struggle with my depression at this time of year and this year has been no exception. I don’t know why; all I know is that at some point I will feel my mood recess into depression, and it will last for probably a couple of weeks, sometimes longer. This year I’ve had an unusually high awareness of it happening, which has helped me remember lessons I have learned the hard way, through the life-course of my depression. They helped me survive the wave, which I am just coming out of.
Being a Christian leads to some unique challenges; the bible does have lots to say about depression, but the church is often guilty of saying “trust and obey, and it will go away”, while the reality is far more complicated. This a post I wish existed for me when I was first diagnosed with depression. I hope that it helps any depressive or anyone supporting someone with depression. Crucial note: I am not saying that by doing these things, the depression will go away – merely that doing these things will help you survive until it goes away. They are the Christian’s toolbox for survival, to go alongside the normal advice of eating well, sticking to routines, exercising, taking your meds (if that applies), doing the homework for your psychologist et cetera. It’s a long post, almost as long as a depressive episode feels! Take it all, or some, or none.
Let someone know; ask for prayer
The relationship with faith and depression is bizarre, and not as straightforward as causality or correlation. I think it works in a dimension that we haven’t discovered yet. Personally, when I’m low sometimes I am more aware of the need to pray, but feel less able; I also read the bible less (go figure: it’s something I normally enjoy – and as a symptom, interests normally go out the window).
Friends can pray for you, or send you verses to help you have a morsel when you are unable to eat meat.
But keeping friendships going is often the most difficult thing to do: to engage in conversation, to listen and laugh at the right times, to speak clear enough that others can actually hear me saps energy and frustrates me. It is equally hard to get in touch when things are rough – but by gum, find a way to let someone know that you’re struggling.
If you can, work at preparing the soil in the good times. I moved city just over a year ago, and although I quickly settled into my new church, it took time to build relationships to a point where I could mention that I struggle with depression. This is partly the nature of relationships (they take time and energy, both of which can be a challenge for a depressive), but also because there are many misconceptions people believe about depression, even in the church.
Mentioning your depression in the good times makes it a heck of a lot easier to send that text because your friends will already have some understanding. “I’m struggling” is easier to say than a longer back and forth conversation discussing how you feel and, no there is no real cause that you know of and yes I am on medication and no it doesn’t just go away by trying and it isn’t just laziness and do you know the waiting list for psychological support and look all I really need is someone to come and help me with those tasks you find so bloomineasylikemakethebedandtidythekitchen.
It is hard to be open and honest. For all of us. But it’s like a muscle: the more you do it, the stronger you get at it. But it is still tiring. It is easiest in the good times.
Be encouraged with the command that as Christians we are to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Galatians 6: 2). This is a two way street, but it does mean we should be able to find at least one person to be able to message when things are bad. If someone doesn’t try to understand, ditch them as a potential confidante; there are plenty of other people out there (you don’t need to announce this; just stop confiding the deep stuff with them).
If you don’t have anyone to turn to, find a prayer line. UCB’s Prayerline can be phoned or – perfect for the depressed man who finds it difficult to talk – emailed!
Serve where you can, pull back where you can
As Christians, we should be giving of ourselves as much as possible. A few weeks ago I wrote about how I discovered that fulfilling my wants is not as satisfying as doing my duties. I believe that what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 12 & 13 is: “we all have gifts; we are all to use those gifts to serve others with and in love.” This is good and healthy, but we need to be aware of our metal well-being. We can get pulled in too many directions, especially at Christmas!
When depressed, I don’t have the energy to serve; and my mind is cloudy – which makes it difficult to see what needs to be done, let alone do it.
Furthermore, as an introvert I need time to myself. This is more pronounced when I’m low. To keep on serving is a dangerous plan and without exception has made me worse off. There are some things which are impossible to give up. The trick is learning what you can cut back or out, to carve time to exist and reduce the pressure. This takes a bit of play and thinking, and a friend to help you realise what can go on without you. For instance, on Saturday there was a prayer meeting at 8am. Friday night we made the decision that we wouldn’t go. Praying with others is awesome – but my body needed to sleep. Sleeping properly helped me be attentive during a training meeting for an event, though it was still hard, and then do some household tasks which needed doing, like pollyfilling a hole in the wall where the curtains came down, before rehanging them.
Cling on to the hope you have in Christ
It is true – all our needs are met in Jesus.
It is equally true that I can not explain this, or understand – particularly when I am low.
It is especially true that some well meaning people will smile benignly and remind you of Philippians 4.
Last Sunday I came to understand that it didn’t matter whether I understand. What matters is whether I choose to accept and trust that Jesus does meet our needs in his own time. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand how the chemicals make pollyfill work; I could understand it perfectly but that is garbage if I leave it in the packet. Depression can cause us to doubt, lose hope, forget that Jesus loves us and knows our pain. Cling on.
I have had enough bouts of depression (of all severities) to be able to trust that they will go away. It isn’t easy to do so. When I’m low my thinking gets muddied. I often have doubts, so my aim is to cling on.
This trust is not a vague “i hope the bus will come on time today”, but a white knuckled clawing onto a branch amid a torrent of water.
Treat yourself with dignity
God gave us all talents and pleasures. These are good things. Use them. ‘Self-care’ is a term that is used by many professionals. Don’t think of it as guff or be afraid of it. Do things that you will enjoy. It takes time and energy to begin to do them, but do them anyway, knowing that they will help you relax – this is important. Listen to a favourite album. Make a bath. Watch Black Books. Read a book you’ve read a thousand times.
Treating yourself with dignity also means accepting that you are in a depressive state. This allows you to think more practically. So, although I will still panic about how much I have to do, I try to start somewhere, and prepare for it to the tasks taking as long as they take. Surviving means aiming for the baseline, not kingship.
Dignity also means accepting medical help when you need it. God gave us medications and doctors; accept these as a gift.
Go to church
Experientially, this is one of the hardest things. The church as a whole gets many things right, but depression can make church hard.
Depression makes you look inward, and now more than ever you need something or someone to force you to look outward and get grounded. We can only do this with the Holy Spirit’s help (there’s a prayer point for your prayer pals!) It will be hard to look at others in church and see them worshipping heartily with ease. They may not actually be at ease, but you will not believe that. This feeling is more pronounced in a charismatic church where people are raising their hands, seemingly en masse to the same bits every week; the same bits you find yourself disbelieving. Conversely it is easier to sit down and weep in a charismatic church, where people are used to seeing others down mid worship.
It will be hard to be with people at a time when you want to be by yourself. Go dragged by a friend, kicking and screaming and leave as quickly as you can if you must, but don’t neglect to go there in the first place.
There is very good reasoning behind Paul’s command to not “neglect to meet each other, as some are in the habit of doing.” I discovered this by accident a few months ago.
During worship, our heart can be turned be turned toward Jesus if we let it. Often during a depressive period it will take me a few weeks of sitting through church before my heart is warmed enough that I’m able to be thankful for anything as small as the sun being out. During those weeks grace dripped into my mind, and slowly worked. The warming can take a while, but when it starts – healing has begun. It may still take a while for the depression to lift. But if you are doing all of these things, you are hopefully surviving until it passes!
If you find any helpful morsel in this post, let me know! Remember, these things don’t make the depression go away. God does not say “you are depressed because you are weak of faith” or “you are depressed because you are living in sin.” Only He knows why he has given us these times. Yet he has given us these things to help us survive through them! Let’s use them gladly.