[I’ve written a longer, more comprehensive reflection on depression. You may want to start there.]
Dealing with depression in my life is more or less constant. I don’t mean that I’m constantly depressed, but that there is almost never a time when I don’t need to worry or think about it at all. It’s always there, always lurking, always chipping away. I have to keep vigilant. I always have to maintain the healthy practices that keep me on top of the ball, rather than having the ball roll over me.
Sometimes that, in itself, gets exhausting. Even my mental image of it, running on this huge ball to keep the ball from running over me, can tire me out.* Giving in to this discouragement poses one of my biggest dangers, letting the war of attrition wear me down and knock me off of my healthy rhythms. When I do, when that happens, I start making really poor choices. I’m seeking to feel momentary relief, whatever that takes, which almost always means numbing the pain. Most of the pain-numbers are not life-giving for me. Most of them make it harder to pray, harder to feel at peace. In other words, most of them increase the pain once the numbing wears off. You can guess where that leads.
My alternative to seeking the numbing agents is trusting in the disciplines, trusting that continuing to do the things I’ve found life-giving and centering will give me life and keep me centered. But that isn’t easy.
First, it’s not easy because it means standing in the pain and trusting that doing the healthy things will lift me back out. Usually, that goes slowly. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, even when I’m doing all the right things.
Second, it’s not easy because it doesn’t always work. I’m sticking with my healthy eating, my efforts to get good sleep (as much as I can), my exercise and all my praying/reading Scripture/journaling spiritual stuff. But the hole keeps getting bigger and I’m falling and nothing gives me traction, nothing holds me up and I’m just feeling it go, feeling the bottom drop out. It’s hard to have faith in something that doesn’t always work.
I’m not referring to faith in God here. I mean trusting that doing the helpful things will help. I know that if I stop making healthy choices, the ball will plow over me. I don’t know for sure that if I continue, keeping balance the very best I can, the bottom won’t drop out, anyway.**
I know God is always with me, but as I’ve described before, I’m under no illusion that God always lifts me up and makes me feel all better when I ask. I believe God is always with me in my pain. For reasons I can’t explain, and frankly have given up trying, sometimes when I pray I stay in the pit. I don’t think that means I’m praying wrong or that I’m still guilty of some unrecognized sin which causes God to hold out on me.*** Others might disagree, but at this moment I believe that thinking God would heal me if only I would do things right takes the power from God and gives it to me. That doesn’t actually happen, of course, but it’s an illusion some people prefer to an all-powerful, sometimes inscrutable God who doesn’t answer to us.
God is faithful. God’s faithfulness doesn’t always look the way I would want, but God is God, not my preferences nor the settings on my tablet. He doesn’t always do what I want, how I want, when I want, even when I think I have good arguments that he should. When we believe that we don’t get healed because we lack faith (or think this of others), we set ourselves up to feel like we’re failing ourselves and God. “I’m not doing my part well enough.” This suggests God opposes us until we fix ourselves. That trajectory of belief doesn’t end well. Grace means God doesn’t wait for us to get it right. Grace means we don’t earn healing. But again, this can appeal to us because the truth might be a lot more complex and inexplicable.
Ultimately, then, I have confidence in the things I know will help me to stay above water, but not absolute confidence. I have faith that God will bring me through whatever waves wash over me. But that’s easier to say when I’m standing on the beach than when the waves are crashing down on my head, when I’m slammed under the water so hard I can’t tell which way is up. It matters more when I’m getting pulled under. Theoretical faith is theoretical. Faith counts more when I’m surviving by it than when I’m comfortable and don’t feel I particularly need it–but am certain I’d lean on it if I did. “I would trust God if I were hungry” rings very differently than “I am hungry and I trust God.” Likewise, “I know God would help me if I were depressed” means a lot less than “I’m depressed, God; help me.”
One of the few things that really jolts me out of the depression cycle is playing sports. This will sound like a non-sequitur, but bear with me: I was feeling myself sinking down, then went to play basketball and came back in a completely different place emotionally and was able to start writing this piece. When I mentor young adults who face depression, I urge them to find “that thing,” the one that reliably helps them feel sane again. It might be playing drums or reading a great novel or dancing or taking the dog for a hike. “Cheap therapy,” we call this. I believe God wires us to love certain things and getting to do them restores us. If you feel too depressed to do “that thing,” it’s probably twice as important that you do.
For me, playing ultimate or basketball doesn’t cure depression, but it 1)Gives me a break from feeling it or spinning in my brain while I’m running hard, 2)Helps me stay on top of the ball, including boosting me back up when I’m starting to slip. I consider this both a gift God has given me and a good choice I can make.
If you’re struggling with depression, or know someone who is, I truly, earnestly hope this helps. It’s no magical cure–nothing that I’ve found is–but it’s how I look at the big picture. It’s how I stay in balance. I need to do what I need to do every day, sometimes every hour. I use my cheap therapy when I can. I trust God to be with me and help me, especially when I can’t find the strength or hope to do what I need to do. I can make all the right choices and sometimes it isn’t enough yet God is here, with me, not waving a magic wand but never abandoning me.
Write me if you want to talk.
*Someone will ask, “Well, Mike, why don’t you choose a less exhausting mental image.” Uh-huh. The mental image comes from how the reality of living with this my whole life feels. Being a writer, I just think of things in mental images and analogies. Thinking of it as sitting at the beach with my toes in the sand wouldn’t change my internal reality, it would only add to my internal dissonance. I know this is a footnote, but I’m going to say something serious here: telling yourself what you “should” do or be when you’re depressed doesn’t cure depression, it adds to it. In my experience, anyway, trying to shout or shame or scold myself out of feeling what I feel or not being as functional as the much-higher-functioning person to whom I compare myself, you know what that does? Right. Depresses the hell out of me. So I try not to do that anymore.
**Yes, I’m using several images here. To be clear: what I can do to stay healthily functioning and out of depression I describe as keeping on top of the ball. When I fall off the ball, that means I’ve stopped or faltered in what I can do to help myself. I describe the depression itself with various images, falling, having the bottom drop out, etc. I use different images because, while these are connected and have much interplay, sometimes the depression hits regardless of what I’ve done or have not done.
***I’ve been a Jesus follower long enough to know exactly what holding onto my sin and refusing to repent feels like.