"I hope you never relate...."
That seems like a strange thing to wish for someone, right? I mean, we all long for connection and for understanding, don’t we? However, in a recent conversation with my son about clinical depression the only thing I was left with was the hope that he could never relate to it. Ever.
Recently, a young, successful, Christian young man who served as an Associate Pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, ended his life. His name was Jarrid Wilson, and he left behind not only a grieving wife with two very young sons, but a large following of people who are battling their own mental health struggles. What makes this ironic to some people is that Jarrid was a devoted mental health advocate. He was transparent with his own struggle for peace and in so doing gave hope to others who suffer. On the day he committed suicide he posted the following message,
“Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”
Among the many who were baffled by his actions was my son, Graham, who is an aspiring, young pastor. He struggled to understand how a 30 year old minister with a beautiful wife and two healthy little boys, one who was so influential, well-loved, and successful, could choose to end it all. Graham said, “Mom, he had it all. He was literally living my dream! How could he do this to his wife and little boys? How could he be so selfish? I don’t understand! I’m so angry!”
I thought for a moment, instantly remembering and reliving some of the darkest moments in my own life as well as those of close family members. Then I said, “Honey, my prayer and hope for you is that you will never relate to or understand that type of mental torment.” Then I attempted to describe something that is really indescribable; the heaviness, the hopeless despair that overtakes everything that is good and clouds all objective reasoning; the soul-crushing sorrow and despondency that is present for no identifiable reason.
Those who suffer from Major Depressive Disorder are often baffled by the emotions that torment them. It is a relentless darkness that overshadows everything despite having the “dream” job and spouse with 2.5 kids (how is that even a thing?) and the house with the white picket fence. Actually, having all of those desirable things makes it all the more vexing to those who suffer with depression. They think to themselves, “I have everything I ever wanted. Why can’t I just be happy like everyone else?” Reconciling their feelings with the facts of their life circumstances doesn’t help. No amount of praying for relief helps. Sometimes medications don’t even help. Welcome to clinical depression.
I hope that I am conveying that Major Depressive Disorder is not about having the proverbial bad day or even about having a season of depression in your life due a difficult thing like a breakup, a death, or a job loss. It is normal to feel discouraged and sad in those times, and turning to medications is oftentimes not the best way to heal. When going through the inevitable sad, discouraging times in life, reminding yourself of the truth, reaching out to safe others, and possibly working through the issue with a counselor are healthy, helpful options. In those instances, prayer brings peace even in the midst of bad circumstances. Reminding oneself that “this too shall pass” brings hope and comfort. Therein lies the difference between normal sadness and the beast that is clinical depression.
Major Depressive Disorder can be mild, moderate or severe, and very often the person suffering from it does so in isolation. Sometimes that is because they simply don’t have the energy or words to convey what is happening in their internal world. Other times it’s because of the shame and embarrassment of being hopeless and unable to “pull yourself up by the ole’ bootstraps”. The encouragement that “things will get better” and that “this too shall pass” is like a 1,000-pound anvil being hoisted upon the chest of one who struggles with clinical depression because there is an all-encompassing feeling that things are not going to get better and that this sorrow will never pass! Being told that there is light at the end of the tunnel just serves to make a clinically depressed person feel all the more misunderstood.
Perhaps worst of all, there is often an intense feeling of shame if depression does not line up with one’s religious understanding. For example, Christians believe that the “joy of the Lord” is their strength and they “can do all things through Christ who gives [us] strength”. So what does is mean when a depressed Christian cannot even peel himself off the couch; when things feel as though they will never, ever change? There’s an added layer of shame and guilt that perhaps a lack of faith is the culprit and that the person himself is to blame for his depression. If that is the case, there can be a sense that even God is angry that the struggling person cannot “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ”. At your most desperate time of need, there can be no greater sense of despair than believing that even God himself is upset with you for not being able to renew your mind, no matter how much effort is spent in doing so.
This line of thinking is never okay. If you are a believer in Christ who is experiencing clinical depression (again, not a depressing day or season) and your church tells you to simply pray and believe yourself out of it, then it is time to run - not walk - to the nearest exit! Blaming people for their depression and making them feel shameful for needing treatment is the height of mental-health ignorance at best and it is spiritual abuse of the cruelest kind at worst. It is completely unacceptable, and it is a woefully poor reflection of how God feels toward the suffering.
At the close of our conversation, Graham repeated that he just didn’t understand but that he was glad to have my perspective on it because it will make him a better pastor. I closed my eyes thinking of all that lies ahead for him to learn and of all the challenges he will go through in working with broken people, all the while feeling so grateful that he just can’t relate.