This is a long article, so stay with me for critical steps in helping a person on a journey with depression, or any other mental illness.
This past Tuesday morning, I was sitting quietly when I received a Facebook message from a friend in another state. She indicated that while attending a Bible study at her church, she was told that her depression was caused by her own lack of trust in God. In other words, depression was God's punishment upon her for not being spiritual.
The anger that welled up inside me triggered a social media post of my own that has since been shared more than anything I have ever written, and today I wanted to follow up and give you 10 things I have learned from my own personal battle with this treacherous psychological and mental disease, and how these steps have helped me get to a much better place in both my spiritual and physical life.
My approach to this is faith-based. If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, then how this applies to you may be different. But I encourage you to read the truths contained as a matter of my opinion, applied with personal experience, and not with the idea that I am medically, spiritually or psychologically certified to help you.
I am just a man who lost himself, and am on a journey to reclaim what I feel this disease stole from me. If you, or a friend or loved one, are suffering from the effects of depression, mental illness or what I would consider to be a number of psychological and physical warfare against your body, then please allow me to have the courage to attack this topic with candor and authenticity and maybe this, too, can help you.
Without further intro, here are 10 things I have learned from depression...
1. I learned in depression God is faithful.
"The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure." - 1 Corinthians 10:13 NLT
This verse is often used as a foundation for the statement "God will not place upon you more than you can handle." Can we please stop spreading that mistruth about scripture? This scripture does not guarantee that we will not encounter things which we cannot handle. Instead, it re-emphasizes that when we are tempted or affected much above what we can handle, then it is God who is faithful and will make a way of escape!
You don't need an escape unless it's too big for you. And that's where God comes in. God proved to me He was faithful beyond what I could handle.
Depression is never a punishment from God to you for a perceived lack of faith or lack of trust. Depression can be triggered a number of ways, but God is always faithful. He is there at the beginning even if you lose sight of how to find Him, and He will be faithful at the end when your journey comes back to Him.
2. I learned in depression you MUST seek help.
Admitting you are suffering is not even half the battle. You MUST seek help. It was the last week of March when I went into a doctor's office and came clean with my struggle and left nothing on the table. I remember coming home for the first time and my wife asking me the simple question, "but did you tell them everything?" Yes. And that was the most critical step. I had to find someone I trusted to lead me to the proper place of treatment.
Telling a friend you are depressed seems like a big step but it's really just the surface level admission. Broadcasting your struggle on social media looks very much like a cry for attention, whether or not you need to hear that - it's exactly what others watching you are thinking and it's really not gaining you anything but affirmation from people who can't truly help you. This is not some public journey for a pat on the back. This is a raw, real, nasty, ugly truth that has to be proclaimed in the ears of a professional who can lead you to treatment.
3. I learned in depression the right professionals are the real key.
Fighting depression and mental illness will cost money. Your preacher can't cure you in a phone call. A prayer line won't solve your issues. A Facebook message to your uncle Joe three states away isn't the solution. You must take the time to seek the proper help, and when you do, find the people who will listen and handle it the proper way.
Figure this - depression is already costing you money. It's costing you work productivity, it's costing you family time. It's costing you bad habits. So why not invest those costs in the right place so that in six months you are more healthy than ever before?
Here's my process and I hope this helps you. I saw a local doctor and/or nurse practitioner, my endocrinologist (because I am a type one diabetic), a staff psychologist specializing in mental illness and depression, and the help of pastors outside of my area whom I could be honest with and share the depths of my struggle. I was honest with my wife about this journey and I asked her to be patient with me as the treatments were placed into effect.
And ultimately, I trusted God and asked for His help through the entire process. These are tools and people God has trained and equipped to help you. Use them. Will it cost money? Yes. But the proper insurance will go a long way to helping with treatment as well. And anything spent to make you better is well worth the investment.
Dr. V - You know who you are and I owe you my life! You are incredible!
4. I learned in depression medication is sometimes a necessity.
I was anti-medication in handling depression for many years. I was a legalist when it came to mental health. I no longer feel this way. I am now one-month free of medication which I took for just a few months.
Medications can alter your chemical balance, and this does take time and experimentation. Do not give up on a doctor who is treating you, and I was blessed to have a doctor that allowed me to text her occasionally with updates so that we could make adjustments both inside and outside the office. I was blessed that the right medication seemed to work without too much change.
Medication does not make you weak, it may be the single thing that makes you strong. If you have high blood sugar, you would take insulin. If you have a headache, you would take Tylenol. If you have an infection or virus, you would take the proper antibiotics, etc. So just because depression does not have a band-aid, a cast or a runny nose doesn't mean you can't address it with the proper medication from professionals whom have been trained to administer it.
Medication is not a cure all, but combined with additional treatments can be an amazing additive to get you to the right place.
And a bonus: I learned that neuroscience is AWESOME. I loved it. The first time we broke down the brain stem and the chambers of the noggin I was in scientific Heaven. It was brilliantly interesting. I used up an entire counseling session on it.
5. I learned in depression the side effects of medication are fun and interesting.
For our humor portion of this list, I would like to add that days 14-20 of the medication reminded me that an alien was invading my body and I was being eaten alive from the inside out. At least, that's what it felt like. I am not sure the muscles which ached even existed. I found out that sweating profusely is a virtue, and my skin was ridiculously offended at the notion of new medication and let me know with authority. Because the levels of dopamine were increased, I also became more talkative (shocker!) and battled with ADHD in more extreme cases.
Because we are adults, the most difficult thing about many anti-depressants are the side effects. Those side effects often attack elements of intimacy, especially for men. Speaking truthfully with your doctor about the side effects will help them learn how to balance them, address them and ultimately change or reduce your dose to eliminate them.
And if the side effects get embarrassing, send your wife to talk to the doctor. Problem solved. You're welcome.
6. I learned in depression some people love you and some people leave you.
The most important people in this journey are my wife and kids. They know me in the most quiet and secret and intimate of days. So first and foremost, taking their input and effects into consideration were critical. I love my wife and kids and thank them so much for loving me and being patient with me.
If they desert you, you didn't need them. God has said he would never leave you and never forsake you, and your family is going to stick this out with you, too. Find the family and friends that care about you enough to remain through the journey and when you have gained their allegiance, you will have them for a lifetime.
I love what Matthew 18 says about this:
"If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back." - Matthew 18:15 NLT
It then reminds us that the agreement of people is critical to releasing the blessing from the heart of God:
"I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you." - Matthew 18:19 NLT
And let me speak this truth in love. If you speak negative against a person battling depression or mental illness, you are not only hurting the problem and worsening it's effects, but I would dare say that your own sinful pride may be revealing an insecurity in your own life that needs dealing with before you attack anyone else battling the same problem.
Be careful what you say, and be attentive to the wise people who say the right things.
7. I learned in depression my triggers and how to cope with them.
Depression may be caused from a chemical imbalance, but triggering the massive effects of depression can come in many ways. For me, it was a traumatic event that could have resulted in the loss of my life and the life of others around me. Without an adequate coping mechanism, I slipped into a dark and treacherous place that ultimately affected my physical health at every level.
The triggers of depression include, but are not limited to, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger, sickness, disease, tragedy, financial loss, relationship loss, marital problems, job loss or stress, abuse, traumatic events from your past, etc. Finding your trigger is key.
Let me illustrate: If you are a victim of verbal abuse, then your depressive state may be triggered when someone in authority over you speaks in a dominating voice or demeaning way toward you. Coping with this behavior becomes a choice of retreat and cower, or stand strong and hold fast. The person wrapped in depression feels no other choice but to cower. Coping mechanisms teach you how to stand your ground, and how to also be honest with the people and circumstances in your life causing these terrible reactions.
Medication will stabilize your reaction time, and so will treatments psychologically. I used to make fun of those coping mechanisms until my counselor showed me how to "smell the pizza." What does that mean? He said "do you remember that feeling when you walk into a deli or pizzeria and the aroma just hits you, and you want to brush the air up into your nostrils to take it all in? When you are pressed with a trigger, learn to slow down. Find your pizza and smell it in. Relax, breathe and take a moment."
Well pardon my country phrase, but I'll be dog-gonned, it works. Pepperoni and Canadian bacon, by the way, for the record.
8. I learned in depression what "not" to say to a person facing depression and more serious, what not to say to a person battling with suicidal tendencies.
This is so hard to learn. Is suicide a selfish act? Yes! But not always is the person fighting this battle in the right mental state to hear it. Is the threat of taking one's life critically scary? Yes! And being careful to say the right things could mean the difference between life and death. That never occurred for me, but there were times in depression that harsh words destroyed my spirit and my thoughts.
What NEVER to say:
- There's someone worse off than you so deal with it.
- No one cares.
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
- Aren't you always depressed? What's new?
- Just try not to think about it.
- I'll be here when this is all over, so let me know when you're feeling better.
- I know how you feel.
- You are selfish and punishing the rest of us.
- This is all about you, all the time.
- You just need to have more faith (or pray more, or trust more, etc.)
- It's all in your mind.
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
- Why can't you just be normal?
- I don't want to hear it.
- I don't have time to listen to this.
What ALWAYS to say:
- I am here for you.
- You matter to me.
- Let me help.
- Depression is real. I don't understand but I am here.
- There is hope. Don't give up.
- You can survive this and I'm right here with you.
- I'll do my best to understand.
- I'm not going to leave you or abandon you.
- I love you.
- We will get through this together.
- I am committed to do whatever it takes to help you.
- I will listen to you.
- You can trust me and I will keep this private so I can help you.
The Bible says there is life and death in the power of the tongue. Never more is this pronounced than in dealing with depression and mental illness. Be careful what you say, and examine that your words may be critical in someone finding a solution, or seeking the wrong way out.
9. I learned in depression privacy is critical.
Tell your family, medical professionals and the closest friends everything that needs to be told. Leave the public out of it. Don't share your intimate details in the wrong room and in the wrong conversation. You might hurt your family, or later someone might use that story to hurt you.
Until you have conquered this battle, it might be bests to keep some things to yourself: your temptations, your fears, your deepest thoughts, your anger. Learn to channel them in the right way.
Remember, if that person can't help you, they might not need to hear it. Mark that down.
10. I learned in depression the church is desperately unequipped to handle mental illness.
We have to eliminate the stigma. The labels surrounding mental illness have to be removed or repackaged before the church is ever going to have an effective system in dealing with depression and mental illness.
I am not a weak leader because I dealt with tragic circumstances and depression. I am not a weak leader because I am authentic and transparent. And the church should not treat people with mental illness like the plague or leprosy from the Bible.
Why is it we wrap our arms around the cancer victim or the addict or the disabled, but then stick the mentally ill in a corner and call them crazy? Well, there's an easy answer for that. Mental illness and a lack of balance in regards to it has led many people to do crazy things, and therefore it takes the proper system of treatment to attack this disease in the right way.
Some people DO need protection and security. Some people DO need to be removed from a situation. But for the large majority of people suffering from depression, they are normal, everyday individuals being attacked by a mental disease and attacked by Satan through that disease and believing that the very place of hope has disengaged from them the minute they admit their struggle.
I was told I should not be pastoring if I was depressed. I was told that I could not be followed. I was told that I was weak. I was told that I shared too much (and truthfully, I closely examined that). I was also told that this story didn't need to be shared.
Except that my first blog about my journey which has since been taken down by my choice was shared over 600 times, and I received so many messages that I could not keep up with them.
That tells me this is an issue worth addressing. I will say more about that later as I am committed that the church find a way to do this better.
Until then, take these 10 things to heart and share it with someone who needs to hear it.
I didn't tackle everything. I missed some key points. I'm not a professional.
But I got my life back, and if you want yours then there's something in there that will help you find it.
I love you, and these are my thoughts.
P.S. Jen Freeman - you are amazing and I love you with all of my heart. And happy 17th anniversary.
Image courtesy: https://sffoghorndotorg.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/yes-i-can-beat-depression-copy.jpeg?w=672&h=372&crop=1