This week is Depression Awareness Week.
There is a bittersweet irony in this for many depressives are incredibly adept at keeping their depression quiet, for two reasons: stigma, yes mental health problems are still regarded as character defects (they aren’t – in fact depressives score highly in terms of stamina and resolve), and the impact of the disease itself. As any depressive knows social isolation and retreat into our innermost recesses are classic symptoms of depression. Sadly, we can also be very good at disguising our retreat, at least until we get to the point we feel so crap that our continued absence from community becomes obvious even to the most inept of observers.
Depression is awful, truly awful. I know because I have suffered from depression. Whilst my condition is largely held at bay, I know that I am susceptible to attack. Suffering from depression can be particularly problematic in communities of faith, aren’t we after all supposed to have responded to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ? Well, yes we have, but………
So what can Christian depressives do? And, how can non depressives stand in solidarity?
I can only talk about the strategies that I have, and continue, to use.
- Recognition that depression is systemic. It is a condition effecting mind, body and soul. It is a physical, mental and spiritual condition. It is, in fact, ‘proof’ that we are holistic entities. Learning to recognise where I feel depression bodily (neck, shoulders, back and bizarrely forearms and wrists) has been incredibly useful. Often I feel my depression physically before I experience it mentally and spiritually. Awareness that I am beginning to ruminate on a problem, or situation, is a sure fire mental clue that I am in danger. Spiritual manifestations are harder to identify, but I think that a continuing sense that ‘I’ need to be in charge, to do something to remedy the situation, is akin to a rejection of trust in God and, others. The important thing in managing my susceptibility to depression is breaking the negative discourse between body, mind and soul. The really good news is that this can be done both proactively (managing the condition) and reactively (treating the symptoms of the condition). Prayerful meditation using the body scan is one of my preferred methods. Bible verses such as physician heal thyself (Luke 4, 23) and come unto me all who labour…….(Matthew 11, 28) are used as stimuli. I could not manage my condition without a meditative process that specifically invites the Divine into the healing process. Also try and include gratitude and thanksgiving in your mediation, even if you don’t feel like – sometimes I have to fake it to make it.
- Exercise – my wife oftens says fresh air is good for cuts. Fresh air is also good for our mental health. Go to the gym, go for a walk, get the oxygen flowing. Make this part of your preventative discipline and when you know you are suffering make yourself do something.
- Be realistic – just like alcoholics recognise that you are always vulnerable In the past I have been encouraged to ‘claim my healing,’ I prefer to take the words of St. Peter to heart: brethren to be sober be vigilant your adversary the devil is on the prowl seeking whom he may devour….(I Peter 5, 8-9). Prayerful mediation, exercise and the other strategies discussed below are part of an ongoing healing process. I have discovered that bouts of depression come and go, but over time they can become both less frequent and less aggressive.
- Use a metaphor descriptive of your condition. I have found this invaluable; the metaphor creates a sense of space between me and the condition allowing me to reflect objectively on my depression. My preferred metaphor is the tomb of Holy Saturday – it is dark, damp and gloomy and yet shafts of light are evident and there is always the hope that the stone will be rolled away. Metaphor is a representation of reality not reality itself. Knowing that I am not, cannot be reduced to the metaphor, is vital. In using the metaphor I am sometimes able to discern the nature of the stone keeping me trapped in the tomb (most recently fear).
- Talking about the condition. Depression likes nothing more than darkness. Its preference is to remain in the tomb. Just letting a few people know that your are suffering is important: lighten our (my) darkness we beseech thee O Lord. I have two or three close friends I know I can call and simply say ‘I am beginning to feel depressed.’ But, avoid those who want to fix you; they can’t. When I am vulnerable all I want is solidarity and friendship (and maybe encouragement to get on and do something). I don’t want a critique of my prayer life, a prophetic word, a strategy for healing or a crass remark such as ‘I know how you feel.’ What I want is your friendship – I want to borrow from your bank of strength and sensitivity.
Eighteen months ago I could see no way out of the tomb; I really didn’t care whether I lived or died. Now I do care, I want life in all its fullness. Grace, healing, friendship, solidarity, exercise and above all prayerful-meditation have been the key ingredients in my ongoing process of healing.
Could they become part of yours?
If anyone out there is interested in developing a Christian response to living with, through and beyond depression please do get in touch.