A while ago I was asked to write an article on living with depression for a Christian magazine. They decided not to run the article (understandably as people on their holidays are unlikely to want to read such things) so I thought I would publish it here instead. I don’t expect this to be of particular help to people but simply share it as an example of my own experience.
We often hear people talk about ‘depression’: Their job depresses them; their friend tells them a story that makes them a bit depressed; or even, boring food for dinner on a regular basis is ‘so depressing’. Perhaps even we have referred to ourselves as ‘depressed’ when really what we mean is that we feel a bit sad. In real terms, however, depression (by which I mean real, clinical depression) is something so invidious and all-pervading that to be ‘a bit sad’ would come as relief to those who suffer it.
I had recently gotten married, moved to a new area of the country and started a new job as a teacher in a secondary school. My wife and I quickly settled and became involved in a local church. Before long, I found myself regularly working 7:00am – midnight without breaks. It became apparent there was a problem when I began waking up at 4:00am every morning (with no prospect of returning to sleep), my usually healthy appetite decreased considerably and I began to act with increasing anxiousness towards events that would have otherwise passed me by unnoticed. At first, we simply assumed this was the onset of stress and, as time went by and coping mechanisms kicked in, these symptoms would pass. Far from passing, however, I soon stopped sleeping altogether, my appetite failed completely and anxiousness gave way to panic attack.
It is a strange feeling when you are forced to see a doctor but you don’t understand why you are there. I knew my symptoms were real but I thought them far too insignificant for the doctor, expecting him to send me away with a flea in my ear. Instead, in December 2008, I was diagnosed with ‘clinical depression’. I continued in my work for some time after this diagnosis but as I tried to ‘keep calm and carry on’ my symptoms worsened further. I found myself in floods of tears over nothing, would shake uncontrollably with anxiety and saw insurmountable problems everywhere I turned. I felt worthless, useless and ashamed finding no point in anything. I became desperately suicidal to the point of making two attempts on my own life.
I couldn’t concentrate on any conversation, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t follow television programmes, I couldn’t sit still but I still couldn’t achieve anything either. Many well-meaning folk tried to help but, in reality, only made problems worse. I would often have panic attacks at the thought of seeing anybody struggling to see my parents and, on occasions, even my wife. Many told me of their struggles with depression in an attempt to share in my suffering but, almost to a tee, their experiences were far removed from mine and they simply did not seem to understand the real problem. Worse than this, however, all the medical professionals seemed to make the problem worse too. When the drugs I was prescribed didn’t work the doctors couldn’t understand why and when ‘talking therapies’ were ineffective it seemed I was blamed for their failure. I increasingly felt that nothing could help me.
Eventually, some drugs were found that did produce some results. Whilst they by no means solved the problem they did indeed lift my mood a little and provided at least a glimmer of hope that things wouldn’t remain forever as they were. I also found a counsellor who helped in an altogether more beneficial way than others. Moreover, my wife and I moved to a different area of the country where one of the Elders in the church we attended happened to be a psychiatric consultant. He agreed to see me privately, in his own time, and slowly things began to improve for me. I still suffer some of the effects of depression and remain on medication. Nevertheless, I have continued to improve and what was a faint glimmer of hope gradually became a realistic prospect such that I am now able to function on a relatively normal level.
If anyone is familiar with depression they will be aware of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The principle behind CBT is to track negative thought patterns and to counter-balance them, not with platitudes that have no meaning in reality, but with statements of truth which we can test our often factually incorrect thoughts against. If we believe the Bible to be true, where better to seek the statements of fact necessary to offset our erroneous thoughts? It was a help to me when I was shown factual statements from the Bible that showed my thoughts about myself to be untrue. This provided me with a solid basis of truth against which I could weigh up my incorrect thoughts. I would be lying if I said this made me feel better but it certainly made me think better and stopped me from acting on my false thoughts.
I am not trying to offer trite truisms to what is a serious and most difficult to understand problem. Job never discovered the reason for his suffering and many who experience depression may not find reasons why they suffer either. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul writes ‘all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).’ Whilst we may never fully understand why the Lord allows us to suffer we can know that, if we love Him, it will work ultimately for our good. Whilst such truths may feel so distant we can know that they nevertheless remain true.
I understand that many who read this will have had entirely different experiences and I hope that this will not be read as the definitive depressive experience. Also, those who are not Christians are bound to feel differently about depression. I certainly do not want to suggest that the answer to this fundamentally medical problem can simply be found by ‘turning to Christ’ or through merely reading the Bible. Depression is first and foremost a medical issue and I hope that nobody will read this as a crass evangelistic effort. It is certainly not meant in this way – I am only seeking to document my own experience which I fully recognise will be different to the experiences of others.