The news this week about Rick Warren’s family tragedy has made me delve into some dark places in my own soul, places I don’t like to admit exist. The places we, as Christians, like to pretend are not real or are simply spiritual warfare. For some strange reason, many Christians think we should be immune to mental illness.
My own struggle began as soon as I stepped foot on the mission field. I had moved to Canada to be a youth minister, and I felt alone and isolated. Add to that a family history of depression and mental illness plus an open invitation for spiritual warfare and it all turned into a perfect storm. I was never taught this might happen, never told to be on the lookout, so I laid down my sword and let the enemy overtake me. But the enemy, it turned out, was my brain.
My brain is sick, broken. For the longest time—and I mean years—I thought that it must be spiritual, that there was some sin I had not confessed or I had not prayed enough or been diligent enough in my devotion. Years of tears and confession, years of altar calls and prayers, and I was exactly the same.
One day a Godly man, a seminary professor of mine, took one look at me and said, “You need to go see my wife’s doctor.” Apparently his wife also dealt with major depression, and he could see it in me. Something about having a Godly mentor give me permission made me go to the doctor and regain my life.
Even under a doctor’s care, the journey is difficult. Life is hard enough when you’re on an even playing field, but when you feel like you’re lagging behind, it can be deadly. Literally.
Now, looking back on my life, I realize there are several lessons I’ve learned through depression and anxiety:
1. Be yourself. Don’t try to hide your struggles; it will only lead to frustration and more depression. If people don’t like you for who you are, then you don’t need to be friends with them.
2. Try not to be affected by the
stupid things people say to you. You’re not sitting around “feeling sorry for yourself” and if you “pray more fervently” it won’t go away. Nod and smile and know that they have no idea what they are talking about.
3. Know your family history. I did not know that this issue was in my family until after my struggle began. It would have been so much easier if I knew this was normal for some of the people who shared my genes and to know I wasn’t totally crazy.
4. It’s okay to seek help. Counseling is not a cop-out. A Godly counselor can help you dig through things and figure out where things may have started.
5. It’s fine if you need medication. It took me years to be okay with trying medication, but two weeks after beginning, I was kicking myself for not doing so sooner.
6. There’s no room for judgment. You don’t judge your mother as unspiritual for taking medication for her diabetes or your pastor for taking Lipitor so his heart doesn’t explode on a Sunday morning, so don’t judge yourself (or let others judge you) for taking that little pill.
7. Find a friend who truly understands. Life is so much easier when you have someone who sincerely knows your struggle and can identify with you on a heart level.
8. But also, find a friend who won’t let you languish. You need both friends, one to commiserate with you and one to say “Get out of your dang house.”
9. Your mental illness is not isolated to you alone. There are so many people who struggle silently right along side you, you just don’t know it. We’re all hiding because we’re all afraid of being judged.
10. Use your mental illness as a way to grow closer to God. Realize that this is who you are and it forces you to totally depend on God, which is right where you need to be.
Do you struggle with depression or other mental illness? What do you wish people had told you?
Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass