Depression is Not Due to a Lack of Faith

Originally posted by Pastor Benjamin Meyer, reposted with his permission.

August 14, 2014

There are a lot of false teachers in this world and there always have been. One false teaching that Christians have always had to battle is the idea that once something comes to faith in Jesus, everything will go well for them. There is an idea that as long as your faith is strong, God will give you health, wealth and happiness. Even though Jesus told His disciples to “deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me,” and Paul wasn’t healed of the “thorn” in his flesh, but instead he was told “My grace is sufficient for you,” there are still false teachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer who tell people that God’s plan for them is physical and financial blessings in this life.

Physical afflictions are not God’s way of punish us, but a result of the fall into sin. However, they can be used by God for His good because when you are weak, you must look to Christ for strength, just as St. Paul did. I think that most Christians understand this about physical maladies.

However, mental illness is another matter. In the church there is often a misunderstanding of mental illness. Some believe that mental illness means that the person simply lacks faith. Some think of mental illness as being mentally weak. However, the reality is that mental illness, like physical illness, isn’t because the person lacks faith, but because the person is corrupted by sin just like everyone else. Mental illness is, like physical illness, due to being fallen creatures who live in a fallen world.

Are Christians exempt from mental illness, such as clinical depression? Of course not.

It is likely that Martin Luther suffered from depression. Some of the greatest names in the history of the LCMS, such as the first president of the synod, C.F.W. Walther, and the great missionary and second president of the LCMS, Friedrich Wyneken, suffered from depression. Faithful and devoted Christians can and do suffer from depression. Getting treatment for these conditions is not showing a lack of faith any more than it would be showing a lack of faith to go to a doctor to have a broken arm set. God has given us doctors for a good reason and Christians should make use of them.

If you know someone who is suffering from depression, please encourage them to talk with their pastor. He can help you find a good mental health professional. If you are suffering from depression or any other form of mental illness, please don’t be afraid to get help. It is not because of a lack of faith that you suffer from this and you shouldn’t try to face it alone.

For more information about mental health issues I would encourage you to check out “I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression.” This blog and booklet were written by a Lutheran pastor who suffers from clinical depression.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:10)

Advertisements

Depression-seeking help

(Note: I wrote this on a flight Monday afternoon—Aug, 12. But I didn’t have a chance to post until today. So this post actually preceded Robin Williams death. As I listened to broadcasters/announcers/commentators on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but wonder: how can they know so little and make at times so uncaring and judgmental statements….?)

How do we help those experiencing what we experienced? Should we speak to the person? Can we speak to the person? What shall we say? Do we become intrusive by even asking such questions?

In one sense, if the experience is too close to what I lived through, my tendency is to back away. Am I reliving my experience through that other person? If so, is it that person’s experience that I want to fix, or my own? And what if I have misread the signs? What if I am projecting my own battles onto someone else?

Seeking help

Most often, this is not my problem. Rather people seek me out because they have read about what I have experienced with depression. That really is better—for me and for the other person. That way, the person needs help and seeks something to deal with the problem. And I do not have to intrude into the person’s inner life. No, this invitation for help is far better.

Over the last four years since I began writing about depression and the Christian life, several people have contacted me about depression. They had been battling it for months or years.

For some the fear is that a Christian should not have a problem with depression. Some view it as a sign of weakness or lack of faith. Others see a continuing rerun of the same thing. For some depression seems to establish a life of its own that seems to never end, rearing its ugly head time after time.

Survival, Relief, or Cure

I know for me, the reaching out for help was survival mode. I wanted to make it through one more day, one more week. I wanted to know if there was any hope at the end of this dark tunnel.

As I lived through medication and counseling, survival gave way to needing relief. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a progression from desperation to a sense that something changed, maybe not even sure what, but it changed.

But what changed really was far greater than my own experiences, greater than the medicine, greater than counseling. These were all necessary and helpful. But something behind and greater is there..

Change behind that

All three (survival, relief, and cure) share the ultimate same change. The change was to know that the God who I thought had abandoned me during the whole tunnel of depression had not, in fact, abandoned me. In my darkest days, the only word I seemed to hear was: Why are you so weak? Why are you giving into despair. I could only agree with those (and many more) accusing questions.

The change was to hear God’s Word for God’s proper work: saving, redeeming, forgiving, restoring work for humans. For me. God’s good counsel of hope, love, mercy, favor were spoken to me, the broken, depressed, forgotten person. Not because I had conquered depression, but because I couldn’t conquer it.

That change I knew intellectually, academically, and could have taught it to others prior to the depression. But in the depths, I couldn’t know it. It was a lost word, a voice through too many other voices, my own in particular.

But God sent faithful people to me to speak his saving, redeeming, forgiving, restoring words, loving words. Repeatedly speaking to me. And in that process God worked the hearing ears to believe what he declared. As our one son repeatedly asked over the past 36 years: “How can you keep loving me?” I was saying those words to God. His answer needed to be spoken again and again. I have shown you how much I love you: look at my Son.”

And this was not “God’s Son” as I imagined him to be, how I wanted him to be. Rather, this was God’s Son revealed in his Word, in his baptism of me, in his body and blood, in his spoken word of absolution. There Jesus promised to be. There Jesus gave concrete evidence of his presence. And that was what I could cling to, the only thing I could cling to.

Day of reflection

I realize that in light of the world events the past few weeks, this is an insignificant memory. 16 years ago yesterday my battle with depression reached an all time low, my breakdown. In some ways it seems like last week. In other ways, 50 years ago. But it is still real.

So, today I am reflecting on what happened, but more reflecting on God’s goodness in the worst times of my life. God is faithful.

The sense of loss and isolation and inability is so real even thinking about it now. That began a change in how I see the church and people in the church. I felt on the fringe, unloved, uncared for, very lonely. And my observation over the past 16 years is that many people feel that way in the church, there, but not really. Wanting to be there with fellow Christians, but scared to death to be with others.

My challenge to all in the Church is to be servants to those on the fringe, no matter how that is defined, no matter how many people that includes. The people are real, their needs are real. And the biggest need is for the Savior who breaks beyond the dividing lines and ministers to people on the fringe. He came to save all, even those on the fringe. Been there, done that, want others to be there, too.

Depression Get over it

 

Have you hugged your porcupine today?

Odd title, huh? Actually it is appropriate for today’s blog: the two sides of living with depression. One side involves the person who is depressed, the other side involves the people who live with the person who is depressed. And the porcupine imagery catches some of the tension and difficulty in living on either side of depression.

English: Photograph of two North American porc...
Hugged a porcupine lately?

One who struggles with depression is acutely aware of pain, suffering, woundedness, etc. When some one close wants to help, through words, or hugs, or just listening, the quills of the porcupine make it painful even for the helper. Often unknowingly the one helping may trigger some reaction (see Depression and Triggers) in the depressed person. It may bring back memories (see Depression and Memory) that cause further pain. The quills are getting sharper.

At the same time, for the depressed person, the quills pointing inward feel much larger, much sharper, and much more focused on the areas of pain. Thus, the helper is reaching out and getting stuck with quills, and may withdraw. Meanwhile, the depressed person is hurting more, and tends to withdraw. It is a catch-22, the depressed person needs more companionship in the best sense of that word, yet the encounter can be painful and self-defeating.

It doesn’t take long for the porcupine effect to close doors rather than open them. Thus, for the depressed person every event becomes intensified. Rejection is more acute, a sense of abandonment lurks behind every relationship. Not a winning combination.

For the person who is depressed, it really comes down to having a few people who will faithfully walk with you, not pressuring, not demanding, but to be there for you. In the darkest days, God was drawing me, even when I wasn’t aware of it. In the flesh, I was blessed with my wife, our son and daughter-in-law, and three elders and their wives. They stuck by me in the very worst of times. I marvel at their patience, their willingness to “put up with me.” And they did so for several years. Always supportive, always listening, always loving.

As I look back, I can see how difficult I was to live with. In the worst days they needed to direct me to do things, every day things that we most often take for granted. If someone has not been down that dark road of depression, it might seem silly to need help with simple tasks. My close circle of family and friends never once gave that impression. They demonstrated Christian fellowship in the best way possible.

Another aspect of companionship is to realize that I as the depressed person wanted to be around some people, but not necessarily participating in their discussion. It sounds odd, but for me I wanted to be a wall flower, listening and seeing others respond, but I didn’t want to speak or interact. It was almost as if I had to learn how to interact with people all over. And I didn’t trust myself on what or how I said things.

I have found that dialog was hard for me. In the slide down and coming out the other side of the depression valley (for me a 4-5 year process for the actual diagnosed depression), I sometimes would speak, but not appropriately. I don’t mean vulgar or filthy talk, but it was if I couldn’t see how my remarks affected others. Even now when the depression battle rages, I have to be careful on what I say; when I forget about that, it can have negative repercussions. Of course, that plunges me further into the recrimination of despair.

There were always two questions people would ask me: 1. Are you okay? 2.What can I do to help? I couldn’t tell whether I was okay, because I had been out of kilter for so many years. And I didn’t know enough about myself to ask for help, or even what kind of help I needed or wanted. The questions showed concern, but as a depressed person I wasn’t capable of providing even an intelligible response. That made me feel bad for a long time. As years have passed, I realize that neither I nor the other person knew what to say… And I am okay with not really answering. Those who care also can accept the lack of answers. Their love and presence spoke more than their questions, and more than any answer I could give.

For me the ultimate place to be with people and yet not be part of it was in worship. The liturgical worship service provides the environment to welcome, embrace, and lead people who are hurting. Confession: I was good at internally… I could beat myself up quite well, thank you. But confession before God exposed the shallowness of my beating myself up. It wasn’t only words and attitude towards others, but towards God that I needed to hear, to face, to confess—most often in my heart, the words not actually forming on my lips. But it was confession nevertheless. I could never tire of hearing that my sins were forgiven for Jesus’ sake.

For me some Sundays I couldn’t sing the hymn of praise (“This is the feast…”). But inwardly I liked being around people who could. The creeds brought me reassurance that not even this congregation was my world; they drew me into the “cloud of witnesses” throughout the ages. The Lord’s Supper likewise reaffirmed the eternity of this reality, being in God’s presence, receiving His gifts. Once again the body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The beauty of family, close friends, and worship comes together to bring about God’s work of pulling a person through even the deepest valleys.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7)

Ten times “comfort” is used in the passage. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And now God has given me the grace and comfort to embrace other porcupines… Been there, done that, and yes, porcupines can be loved. And God wins!

Depression and Memory

My first post on this topic: Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

Our ability to remember is an amazing gift from God. I have always had a good memory; it isn’t something I developed… it was just there. I don’t know whether memory problems are generally part of depression, but here I relate how they were connected in my situation. Over the years I have discovered that memory can be good, bad, or confusing.

Memory: The Good 

From grade school through college, I was fascinated with numbers. My memory allowed me to be both fast and good. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I could do most math problems in my head. In fact (this was in the days before calculators!), in college I took 85 credits of math and 35 credits of physics—and never learned how to use the slide rule. I could write down about every 3rd or 4th step, keeping everything else in my head.

I could remember dates, people, and events very easily. When reading, I could often remember where something was on a page and sometimes the page number. No, I don’t have photographic memory. But memory was of great value. If I have driven somewhere, many years later I can drive through that area and remember exactly where to turn—and I don’t even need to know “that I turn after the third oak tree on the right after the end of the fence posts.”

Memory: The Bad

As a Christian, I have found memory both good and bad. I can easily memorize things, where they are in the Bible, Greek and Hebrew vocabulary/grammar, etc. So what is bad about memory? I can remember details of events, especially bad ones. I can remember sins I have committed years and years ago. Even more, I can remember the hurt and pain I have caused through my sins.

And that is when memory seems to be no longer a blessing, but a curse. While occasionally I can remember someone else’s sin against me, there is not the intensity and continuing rehashing as with my own sin. For several decades the memories also meant that I didn’t (couldn’t) sleep at night. My mind was too busy, going over the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, etc. of whatever I had done wrong.

In the long slide into depression, my memory took on the role of the accuser… Now instead of the wonderful aspects of my memory, the ugliness of myself, my sin, my inner turmoil were my constant companions. I didn’t need someone else to help me on this frantic descent, because I was more than sufficient, and my memory kicked into high gear. Oh, there were others who consciously or unconsciously aided me in this memory deconstruction. Even now, as the worst of the depression has passed, my memory serves me well and I remember… sort of.

Memory: The Confused

Perhaps most surprising for me is when my memory failed me in the final year before my breakdown and in the first two years afterward. There are gaps… During that time, and since then, my wife might mention something that happened, and I would look puzzled as if “what is she talking about?” To me, it never happened. And the confusing part—for me, I was usually the one who could recall events, conversations, etc.

And so, what had been a normal part of my life, a well functioning memory, was no longer “normal.” But the gaps are primarily limited to that three year period of time. Sometimes I get frustrated that I have gaps in my memory. Other times it doesn’t bother me. Mostly it confused me. In one sense during that three year period, it seemed like I was floating along as an outsider to everything that was happening. In that sense I could even imagine my memory gaps related to my floating alonside the action of life and then switching to living in the midst of that life. Mostly that three year period is a confusing time for me because of my fragmented memory.

Memory: So What?

Memory is a wonderful gift from God. And for most of my life, it has served me well. During the darkest days of depression and in the aftermath, memory failed me, delighted me, and confused me. I think the remembrance of sin and its effects stayed with me, and that haunted me the most.

Yet, right there is where God in His graciousness has worked his marvelous, loving work. In Jeremiah 31:34 when prophesying about the new covenant (testament), he writes:

[Yahweh declares:] “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

God in His infinite wisdom and perfection states clearly that he will not remember my sins. That means that with my memory I am trying to “be better than God at the memory game.” My memories of my sins were tearing me apart. Those sins had been forgiven by God, and now even the memories of them were gone! That was overwhelming to me—and freeing. Forgiveness through the Word, through the Lord’s Supper, through absolution was no longer a part of life, it was the heart of my life, a life which would be destroyed by the memories, but is now forgiven, restored, and enhanced by God’s forgetfulness.

Over time, I have discovered that the memory gaps no longer have a hold on me. But even more, the memories of sin have been transformed into memories of God’s faithfulness and His forgiveness and His love. “And I will remember their sin no more.” God grant me that kind of memory.

See God Has Amnesia for more reflection on this grace aspect of “remembering.”

Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

I have battled depression for many decades, and most of that time I was not even aware of it. During that time, to even consider what was happening as depression was considered a sign of weakness—and that could not happen! As I sank deeper into depression, though, the more I fought against that possibility the deeper the hole became. My desire to avoid that, eventually led me to work 18 hours/day, then 20 hours/day, then 22 hours/day. Two hours sleep is not healthy—for anyone. For one battling the unknown depression, it was disastrous. Ultimately, following a dramatic two year slide my body, my mind, and even my spirit rebelled, and gave up.

When you reach absolute bottom, it is not a pleasant place to be. I could neither read nor write. I couldn’t concentrate. And I couldn’t bear to be with other people. I was lonely, yet wanted to be left alone. Lamentations 3:17-20 captured where I was:

My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the LORD.”
Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me.

I received professional help and medicine—notice, I received, I couldn’t even take the initiative to get help on my own. Over the next two years of recovery, as my body and mind rested, I was led to discover and even recognize what had happened to me. But my ultimate help came from God. Again in Lamentations 3:21-24

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.”

In my mind, I did not want to go back to the darkness that slowly strangled me. God’s promises and deliverance were my new home for comfort and peace. And yet…

The Triggers that Surprise

At times I was caught … by that downward slide! What was happening? I thought I have moved beyond this experience. It can’t be happening again! I don’t want it, I can’t stand it one more time!

It took time, but finally I began to recognize that there were triggers around me that caused such a backward slide into depression. The triggers can be events (holiday, birthday, etc.), meeting certain people (who may have had no role in the original depression), or even time of year.

For me, the big trigger was the time of year. Every year from late January to early March, I sense this looming darkness in my spirit. It’s not something that charged into me, but a slow squeezing effect. And that brought back the memories and fears of the worst days of the depression and collapse.

Through this process, I realized that I was going back to the longer hours, if my body would permit it (thankfully, it would not). My approach changed from focusing on more work to focusing on protecting my heart—not an easy thing to do in weakness. During this 6-7 week period, I had to be careful about how much sleep I needed. I found that after the breakdown, sleep was easier for me. I couldn’t physically keep up the hours. And that was good.

Spiritually, I rediscovered how critical the Lord’s Supper was to me. Also, I had to specifically concentrate on maintaining daily Scripture reading, and prayer. For some people, this seems so obvious, “Well, duh!” But recovering from depression meant for me a daily battle, and not always successful. And as difficult as it was at times, I needed to be around people. Their fellowship, even when almost no one knew about my background and what I was experiencing, was critical for my stability. I didn’t even need to talk, just to be around people was important.

It has been 14 years,a and the trigger of winter still rises every year. It is not as intense as it had been in the first 3-4 years. But it is there; the battle has begun anew in the last two weeks.

There are other triggers. Occasionally I will hear a song that brings back the depression in all its ugliness. Other times, it will be a smell that evokes memories. Even glimpses of photos will take me back 50 years… and the battle of depression, unknown at the time, comes upon me.

Once again I am drawn back to Lamentations 3:1-24

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.”