On depression (again)

My twitter timeline and blog reader is filling up with stuff on depression at the moment. One young pastor (just a few years younger than me), who suffered from mental health issues, has just killed himself. World Suicide Prevention Day has just been and gone (largely unnoticed by most people). This three year old post by TGC is trending again and Justin Taylor has shared an edited excerpt from Mark Meynell’s book on depression.

I have never made any great secret of my struggles with depression. I had my first episode in my first year at university. At the time, I had no idea about depression – never really heard of it and knew nothing about it – but I knew something wasn’t right. I started feeling incredibly low, wasn’t really eating or sleeping and could barely cope with going out of my room for several months. At the time, I never thought to go and see a doctor. I figured everybody feels a bit low, gets a bit teary, now and then. It didn’t strike me as anything especially wrong at the time, just a low period that would eventually pass. And, as it happens, it fortunately did pass.

That three month period felt like nothing more than an unfortunate blip that – once it had passed – seemed ultimately unimportant. When it went away, I put it out of my mind (still knowing nothing about depression and not thinking to ever call it that) and got on with things again. For about three years, I wasn’t bothered by it again. I was, after all, a student. There really weren’t many trigger points or undue stresses for me to worry about. I lived in a house with friends, I studied a subject I enjoyed and (for good or ill) found that I could do reasonably well without busting a gut. That is not to condone my lack of effort, or to show off that I could do alright without working very hard at all, but to say I really didn’t have any great stress on me which, very possibly, kept things at bay.

I wasn’t bothered by depression again until, having completed my first degree and then finished a PGCE, I got married, moved to a new area and started a new job. Within about three months, the wheels started coming off. There were various – not insignificant – problems at work. Some of them were relational, some of them operational, most of them particularly difficult (by anybody’s reckoning).

I didn’t realise anything was wrong when – entirely out of character – I would find myself welling up with tears at various things. I still didn’t realise there was a problem when I stopped eating, managing only a small portion of my tea each day. I didn’t realise anything was wrong when I found I wasn’t sleeping many hours on top of all that. I only began to see there might be a problem when I found myself driving to the school I taught at, on a section of dual carriageway I still find a little troubling, and thinking to myself – perfectly coldly, calmly and rationally – I could just swing my car across the lanes, into those barriers and not have to go in and face the day. And I didn’t realise there was a problem the moment I first thought that, it was after increasingly seeing it as a credible way out, every day for a week or more.

Sadly, things didn’t improve from there. Whilst I never swung my car across those lanes, I was frog marched down to a doctor who diagnosed me with depression. I then found myself on a cycle of drugs, each of which took 6-weeks to start working, some of which did nothing at all and others of which made me feel worse. Whilst I pressed on with my job for a short time, as the depression grew worse, following one particular issue and a particularly awkward conversation with a deputy head, I was sent home on sick leave and never quite made my way back.

Still, the depression rolled on, showing no sense of abating. I was so agitated I developed Restless Leg Syndrome, couldn’t sit still but couldn’t concentrate on anything either. The brain fog was so intense, I could have a conversation with somebody and not be able to tell them what we talked about even a minute or two later. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t pray because my thoughts were all over the place and I couldn’t even focus on TV programmes because I couldn’t retain anything about them.

As the depression became worse, suicidal thoughts increased. At its weirdest, I was awake in the night and could swear a crowd of people were shouting and jeering outside our house. I went to the window to look out but nobody was there. Fortunately, it was the only psychotic break I ever had – and it wasn’t among the more horrible I hear of – but it was weird and made me think I was going utterly mad.

Suicidal thoughts soon gave way to suicidal plans. I investigated means of killing myself frequently. I trawled through websites finding out how to make a noose to hang myself. Fortunately, our home didn’t lend itself to that. I scoured the house for as many pills as I could find so I might OD with a bottle of whatever came to hand. We have always only bought painkillers as and when we need them, so nothing was ever to hand. My wife soon took to (literally) hiding medicines and sharp objects, fearing what she’d find when she came home from work.

Plans soon turned to actions. I decided jumping off a local bridge would be a good plan, but my wife followed me and stopped that. As it happens – being mental and all – I didn’t clock that the bridge was clearly too low to be a problem and I’d have just gotten a bit wet in the river below; no more, no less. On another occasion, in the middle of a deep snow, I decided to go out in a pair of shorts and see if I could off myself with hypothermia by lying in the snow in the park. I stayed for hours but, in the end, just went home wet and feeling like a failure that I couldn’t even manage to do myself in.

I also tried some extremely reckless behaviour. I decided to start goading local teenagers, maybe one of them would pull a knife on me or something. Only, as it happened, I didn’t live in South London where that might happen. I lived in a very well-heeled market town in a shire county where I suspect I just traumatised some very middle class children in a haze of depression. I also tried driving extremely recklessly too, but again, where I lived was not a busy place and rarely was anyone around for it to have the desired effect.

In the end, I had a visit from a mental health team. I was offered some “help” and told, if I was planning to kill myself, to ring them. They seemed puzzled when I suggested, if I was going to kill myself, I wasn’t likely to ring them so they might come and stop me. That simply did not compute. They proceeded to ask if I would come up to a day hospital, what most of us would understand as the mental wing, to check in every day. I asked what would happen if I said no. They said they would section me. I wasn’t stupid enough to want that, so I agreed.

I travelled up each day, filled with dread each time. Worse, I had to spend my days with clearly deranged people (obviously failing to recognise I was one them!) I was then offered ‘therapy’ in the form of art classes, like pottery and that sort of thing. That was extremely annoying. But worse, I was pushed to go into ‘group therapy’. I could have done without that at the best of times, but the first session – as a teacher who had just been signed off work – I had to listen to a group of other people whining about how awful all their teachers were and how it fed into their current travails. As it the wont of those with severe depression, I began to feel guilty as though I was the teacher who had ruined their childhood. Group therapy did not help.

During this period, I was given some CBT. But terribly delivered CBT. Every ‘statement of fact’ by which I was meant to assess my feelings was so open to interpretation it was laughable. I was being told to feel better with reference to things I had already, in my own mind, used as the exact means of berating myself. CBT offered little relief.

Eventually, I was told I was better (I didn’t feel any better) and discharged from the day hospital. I still had all the symptoms of depression and all the insidious, desperate thoughts I was having before and could not get rid of. However, in time, I was offered some antidepressants that finally began to do something. They brought me to the point where I could actually engage with talking therapies and such things.

Soon, I found a counsellor who was more helpful. And, shortly after, by God’s grace, we moved across country for my wife’s work and – still not well – landed in a church with an elder who was a psychiatric consultant. He agreed to see me privately and was hugely helpful to me. He did a biblically based CBT with me, which I found much harder to ‘misinterpret’ as the statements of fact we were dealing with. Over the course of a year or more, I slowly began to see light at the end of the tunnel, that became brighter and brighter, until eventually I was out the other side.

We moved again and got stuck into another church. I remain on antidepressants to this day but, with them, function happily. I still have periodic blips of depression, but have never had anything quite as dark and long-lived as that two-year period I faced around 10 years ago. By God’s grace, I suffered that serious bout of depression long before I had any thought of entering ministry. I can (honestly) see how the Lord was using it for the very purpose of getting me into ministry. I can see that he was doing a good work in me and I can see how he was using it as his means of moving us to the different places he would have us. It is even clear how he was using it so that I might be prepared for the ministry he has given me here.

I have frequently found myself in pastoral meetings with people who have suffered severe depression and other mental health issues. I have been in more than one meeting with people who have attempted suicide and I have been with more than a few people who have faced psychotic episodes. Whilst I can’t say I know exactly what it is like, because nobody’s experience is the same and the circumstances are often different, I can sympathise to some degree.

But I write this to offer some hope. I haven’t given all the details above to be sensationalist. I write them to say that, though you may not see how, it is possible to get through that deepest and darkest of tunnels. I would not have imagined I would be in ministry at my worst. All I imagined was waking up with the Lord, free from all of the pain, perversely driven on by my belief that I belonged to Jesus and would be with him if I simply ended it all.

But if we love Jesus, we know that he doesn’t want us to harm ourselves. We may feel as though it would resolve our problems, but we have to ask whether we believe Jesus or our feelings more. When God says, ‘do not murder’ that includes ourselves! When Jesus says I will never leave you nor forsake you, we have to choose to believe it more than we believe our feelings. When we read Romans 8, we have to choose to believe it more than we choose to believe what we are feeling right now. Most importantly, we have to believe this:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us… And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:18, 28, 31-39

We need to choose to believe the Lord Jesus, the God who created the universe, more than we believe our feelings. And we need to see – though it may not feel that way now – there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark it may seem. The Lord is always with you if you are his, because he tells us it is so. And the Lord is using this – even this – as part of his plan to work all things to the good of those that love him.

Our feelings are liars at the best of times. They are certainly not our friends in the midst of depression. But Jesus – the only sinless one – is no liar. And he promises to be with you though you don’t feel he is there and to work this for your good though you see nothing good in it. But if we are going to believe anyone, believe him.