Last month I was invited to take part in a teaching series my church has been running on mental health. Each session had looked at a different aspect of mental health from the perspectives of scripture, a mental health professional, and a testimony from a church member. I was invited to be the testimony for the session on depression.
I was actually very excited to speak about this, as being open about my mental health is really important to me personally and in terms of creating a space for others to talk about it too. You can listen to the whole teaching slot here (search for ‘Living With Thorns’), featuring myself and a therapist from the congregation being interviewed by the preacher as part of the talk, but here is my testimony itself:
In your darkest moments what is it like for you to live with depression?
I found this first question a bit difficult as I’ve had two experiences of depression, one severe in my teens and before I became a Christian (I was actually spontaneously healed when I fist met Jesus!), and more recently a spell of mild depression, mainly through 2016, though I’m still very much walking through recovery from that now, it can be a bit of a process. So the lows are all very much past tense, and day-to-day now it is pretty mundane. Maybe that’s helpful to note in itself?
Depression takes many forms. Back in my teens I had severe depression and it manifested in suicidal thoughts, hopelessness and emotional numbness. My recent, mild, illness has been more like a crushing lack of energy and motivation and a tendency to feel so overwhelmed it paralyses me, only occasionally spilling over into low mood. But it’s all the same illness, it presses down on you as a heavy weight. For me, recently, the bad days have felt like a spiral out of control; my thoughts assail me so heavily it feels like being beaten round the head and knocked down. Thoughts of failure, of not being enough, of inadequacy, and on top of that, of all the myriad things I ‘should’ be doing, and you can imagine how upsetting is would be to have someone have that sort of rant at you – it’s like that, I break down in tears and can’t easily separate out what really needs to be done now from all those ‘should’s under the weight of it all. So – I get stuck, end up lying on the sofa, having an uphill battle to even make myself drink a glass of water…
So that’s the worst of the current beast I live with! Most days now it just manifests as a lack of energy, a frustratingly low burn-out point, despite my hope and joy and love of life.
But the darkest I’ve known previously has felt like absolute hopelessness. It is dark and terrifying to be unable to see any hope or potential for change. Depression can lie so convincingly that there is no hope it feels like an objective fact that no-one else could ever possibly understand from outside. But having come out the other side I can tell you it is a lie, and that there absolutely is always hope, in God’s big picture that is bigger than us and our lives if nothing more, and as long as you are breathing you can live for that and be part of it.
We know you have faith in Jesus so could you tell us what it is like to follow Jesus through depression?
Positives and negatives; because my illness lies to me it can be harder to hang onto the truth, I easily find myself projecting my own insecurities onto God (ie in my case I first realised I wasn’t well when I noticed I was starting to wonder if God had a place for me or had just made me ‘for decoration’ without a real purpose in God’s plan… in truth, finding my place and purpose is not easy. I’m struggling with that myself. But that’s not God!). Faith is also potentially an area I can beat myself up over, for example when I want to read the Bible but don’t for whatever reason – it’s normal I think to feel bad about that, but when depression weighs in on it it can feel really bad (I can start telling myself I’m a bad Christian…).
On the other hand, I’m more aware of my need for God, even if God feels distant or silent sometimes. Sometimes God has felt extremely close in the silence. And there’s been something special and important about giving God some very raw prayers, rants, tears… Sometimes, when things have felt very dark and I’ve lost hope for myself, I’ve seen God’s light and the big-picture hope of God’s Kingdom coming shine so strongly in contrast to it that it takes my breath away! Without the dark I couldn’t see how strong and bright that hope is. That’s been very good for me. So too has seeing God using my experiences to help others – that’s been an incredible honour and I know God’s been using me there.
What were the best and worst parts of being part of church during times of depression?
It’s made me flaky (even in recovery!). I struggle to commit to things, have to take things one day at a time, pull out of things if I don’t feel up to it (I can easily get overwhelmed, I’ve less capacity, and things get on top of me easier), and can struggle with motivation (ie to go out, or to do certain things). All this makes it very hard to get more actively involved in church, and get to know people and become part of the community (it makes it very hard to arrange to see friends too…). That in itself can feed back into the illness as it doesn’t feel good. Church/homegroup is particularly hard if it feels like everyone else is doing fine and has their life in order! On the other hand church/homegroup can be a supportive and safe environment and somewhere I can get out the house and most importantly seek God and truth.
What helps you to cope?
Talking about it. Depression thrives on secrecy, but getting it out in the open lessens its grip, whilst also helping you to find help and support from others, solidarity with others also going through it that helps you feel less alone, and also helps you find others you can walk alongside too.
Prayer. Honesty before God. God is big enough to handle our rawest emotions, let it all out.
Self care. It’s not an easy ‘just do this and you won’t be depressed’, but it genuinely does help to be more intentional about things like exercise, healthy eating, socialising, doing things you enjoy(ed) of find/found relaxing.
Work. Having a job with a lot of structure and regular hours, and supportive colleagues and a good mental health and wellbeing culture, really, really helps.
Perspective. I need the big picture hope narrative of the Bible to pull me out of myself and keep reminding me that whatever happens in my lifetime, God’s Kingdom is coming and love wins.
Therapy. I’ve been to a CBT course, it felt frustratingly like being taught how to walk – but if I’d had a debilitating accident and lost the full use of my legs I would need just that, so why expect different of my injured mind? It’s been helpful. I’ve also been seeing a counsellor to try tackling my underlying issues.
Switchfoot! I’m only semi-joking; admittedly I am a megafan of theirs and was already before I got ill, however, the work of Christian artists who are grappling with this stuff can be a real help and support. Switchfoot is one such band and certainly do a lot for me, but there are other musicians and other forms of artists whose work explores depression and mental illness at times, and I recommend finding artists who can give words to what you’re experiencing and point you towards hope.
Here’s the vid of the interview that we recorded as a back-up in case I couldn’t speak in person on the day (featuring a feline cameo!).
If you’re struggling, or just not feeling quite right, please do try to get help – it isn’t always straightforward, but help, and hope, are out there. For a start, try this if you are in the UK, and this might be useful wherever you are.