‘How are you,’ Or even worse, ‘how are you doing’ are questions that can set the mind of those of us who suffer, or have historically suffered, from depression (and / or anxiety) running.
If we are not feeling relatively stable the mind starts ruminating and, one of the depressive’s most dangerous characteristics kicks in. Rather than simply answering the question we are prone to ask questions like:
Have they guessed that I am feeling depressed, down, anxious or whatever?
Do I look out of sorts?
Why can’t they just leave me alone?
And, worst of all: ‘should I be feeling down?’
You see ‘we’ can talk our way, through rumination, into the depths of despair and, anxiety. Sometimes, even if we are feeling generally okay, we find it difficult to understand that what is being offered is a genuine question, a social nicety.
For Christians depression can be especially difficult to deal with: it can give rise, even for those who at theological level of analysis, would want to reject some form of prosperity, ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ gospel message, to feelings of ‘I shouldn’t feel like this.’
After all as Christians we are all aware of the comfortable ‘come unto me’ words and, the promise that all who believe will be given the fullness of life. We have also read the wonderful accounts of Jesus’ many healing miracles. So, there is a tendency to start thinking ‘why not me, why can’t I be healed’ which can, of course give rise to doubting the veracity of our own faith.
I told you we are really very good at ruminating!
The Psalmist, with his description of being rescued from the ‘pit,’ ( Pslam 40 2 for example) provides an interesting and alternative way of looking at things. The Psalms are, of course, part of Scripture’s ‘wisdom literature.’
Depression (and anxiety) of course are not just one thing. There is a spectrum of diss ease, which may range from the suicidal to the melancholy. I have suffered, at different times, with symptoms across the spectrum. I frequently feel down and in the past have laid on my bed each night asking God to either let me die or take away the pain of living, and not really cared one way or the other. I have shed enough tears of anguish to fill an indecently large baptistery. And so have many other Christians.
The problem is that when you feel at your wits end, you think you are the only one who feels that way. The temptation is to think that not only are you a freak, but that you are a weak-freak, someone whose faith is simply not strong or robust enough.
When we ruminate we start listening to and believing the inner lies; and they are lies. And, so one of the skills those who suffer from depression can learn is a new approach to prayer.
I don’t want to suggest that I have found a miraculous and generally applicable answer. And, I absolutely don’t want present prayer as an alternative to therapeutic and psychological interventions, both of which I have benefited from.
All, I can do is point out something that has worked for me and, something that draws on the tradition (I can’t be creative or ex-temporary when I am feeling depressed.) I start by acknowledging how I feel, whilst at the same time insisting to myself that I continue to hope. I use a very simple prayer:
‘I will trust in you in trials and praise you in deliverance.’
And, I repeat it slowly over and over again: I positively ruminate on it.
I also pray the night collects (whenever I need to – night is a wonderful metaphor):
‘Lighten my darkness I beseech you O Lord, and in your great mercy defend me from all perils and dangers of this night for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.’
Again this prayer seems to me to express the reality of the situation: I am in peril or danger, but I can pray with some form of hope; even if I feel hopeless!
I would stress that I am not praying for a spontaneous miracle, but for the process of healing, for the easing or lightening of my burdens. And, sometimes, mostly, it works. It works because I can stop, even if only for a short time, focusing on the negative and destructive questions and, instead turn towards Jesus. Prayer has the therapeutic effect of drawing me out of myself, of allowing me to ‘come unto Him.’
So, without trivializing depression (how can I) I have come to the conclusion that prayer can be an effective antidote to rumination and, negative internal questioning.
As a Christian, I believe passionately in the power of prayer and, the Church as place and people of healing. I take huge comfort from the early stage scientific evidence that meditative prayer does alter the chemical balance of the brain. I am pleased that neurotheology is an emerging field and discipline. Is it too much to suggest that modern science is giving new insights into St. Paul’s cherished concept of ‘renewal of the mind?’
I also think that the Church (in general) needs to think about its healing ministry, especially in relation to mental health, which is the disease, of our times. It is something I am currently grappling with and would welcome any thoughts or insights.