On my family blog, I've mentioned depression a few times. I may have mentioned it here too, but in either case, it's been a long time.
I've kind of stopped talking about it because I got tired of helpful advice in getting over it. That, and other health issues have kind of taken the spotlight. The truth is that it's still very much an issue in my life and probably always will be. At the moment, it's something that is under control, but it's something that is there and I have to be aware of it. I have to keep it under control.
As such, I feel compelled to finally just lay this all out here. My experiences, my frustrations, and all that stuff.
I am not a doctor. I am not an expert. All I have to share is my experiences. That being said, I do have a lot of years of experience. I think I've had to deal with depression since before they called it "depression". My parents sent me to a counselor when I was 12 because of it. Since then, I've read a lot, I've talked to a lot of doctors and therapists and councellors, so I know some stuff. But I am not an expert and what I share here shouldn't be taken as "Dr. Allen says so".
What it is and what it ain't.
It's important to understand what depression is and what it isn't. Depression is not sadness. It's not "the blues". Sadness is a normal emotion. God programmed sadness into us as part of our emotional makeup. Sadness is a good thing to feel. When you lose a loved one or hear about a tragic event on TV, sad is the RIGHT thing to feel. Sadness allows you to work out and process what happened, to work through stages that help you put the loss or tragedy into the fabric of your life and then move on. Sad is good. It's a process, and as a process, it's also temporary. Sadness may be a PART of how some people experience depression, but it is not the thing itself.
Depression is also not transitory. It not something you feel for a while, then go do something and feel better, and then go back to being depressed. One of the defining characteristics of depression is that it's THERE. It's like a weight that you are carrying around. You CAN do other things, but the weight is always there.
So what is it? That's not an easy question to answer because different people would describe it in different ways. But many people who suffer with true depression would agree on one thing, it's like someone or something took away all your ability to find joy in anything. You may not feel sad, but you certainly aren't happy. There's nothing that MAKES you happy. Things that used to make you happy seem pointless now. There could come a point where you are just crippled because you don't see a point to doing ANYTHING.
My experience is that it's like this hole. No, bigger than a hole, it's an abyss. Huge, gaping, black. It's this... nothing. I feel nothing, but a big aching impossible to cross nothing. I think this is the kind of depression that people feel when it pushes them to suicide. When it was untreated, my depression was the complete inabilty to feel anything. Not happy, not sad, not mad, nothing. It was impossible to do anything becasue it wasn't even numbness that I felt, it was just... nothing. I think people attempt suicide in an attempt to feel SOMETHING.
Causes and types.
People will disagree with me on what I have to say here. And that's ok. Again, I'm speaking from my experience and what I've learned along the way and not from any sort of training or formal education.
There are many causes of depression, but they all break down into two main categories. Environmental causes and Physiological causes.
Loss, stress, living conditions, the actions of people around you, even geographic location and pollution - these are all potential environmental causes of depression. These things that can affect you physically as well as emotionally to cause you to be depressed. This is what most people, councellors, and others think of when they talk about depression.
Doctors, however, have another definition. While there is no medical test for depression, the theory is that a chemical imbalance in the brain causes things to "misfire". The theory is supported by the fact that in some cases when medication is applied, and no other treatment is used, depression gets better.
The problem is that there is no way to determine whether an individual's depression is caused by environmental causes or physical causes or some combination of the two until they try to do something about it.
There are also two general types. Short term and long term. Left untreated, some people are able to overcome depression by just "riding it out" others seem to be stuck with it. That being said, I feel treatment in every case is NECESSARY! But it's important to recognize that there is a type that people can completely over come with no treatment and never have depression again. I honestly feel that some who claim to have been "healed" of depression without any treatment had this type.
What to do.
If you are reading this and you, or more likely someone you know, is suffering from depression, GET TREATMENT STARTED NOW!
Some of you may be saying. "I'm a Christian, we should let God do it." I'm telling you, as a brother in Christ, don't be an idiot. By all means, call upon your church, pray, rely on God, but GET TREATMENT TOO. God may choose to fully heal you of your depression, He may not. He may be waiting for you to take the first step by consulting someone here on Earth whom He will work through.
Some would say to call a doctor or phsychiatrist immediately. If things are to the point where you are thinking of taking your life, then yes, please, do so. Better yet, don't call, get in the car and go there now. To the emergency room if you have to. Don't wait. Not even to finish reading this. Go. Now.
However, I would strongly suggest starting with a non-medical approach. Partially because it's not healthy to start taking medication that you don't really need, but mostly because the medication is expensive and some can be habit forming.
Get in contact with a counselor. Just someone to talk to who knows about depression. Unlike a phsychiatrist, a counselor cannot prescribe medication and will help you figure out some ways to start recovery without it.
Next, look at your environment. Are you under a lot of stress? Your job? Has something changed lately that may be the cause of your depression? What can you change? I'm not talking about whether you should or shouldn't change, but can you? You might argue that you can't change your job because you need the money or some other reason, but when it comes to your health and well being, what is more important?
If environmental issues don't seem to be the cause, then talk to your doctor. Your doctory might, and probably will, refer you to a phsyciatrist, which is great. Get with them right away. If your depression is from medical causes, then medication DOES help. However, unlike what the pharmaceutical companies would have you beleive, medication should be the last resort and not the end-all be-all. TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR, let him/her decide what is best, don't self-diagnose. There are many different medications out there, some might help a little, some a lot. Others might have dangerous side effects. Ignore the commercials! There is no quick fix, so don't expect one. Finding the right medication may take time.
In the meantime, find something you like. Anything. The worst part of depression is that it steals everything from you. Everything. It takes away everything you love. If you can find something, no matter how small, that gives you a little joy, then indulge in it. Ok, not anything. Obviously, there are things that you should avoid, like alcohol and drugs and porn and so on. But if there is something that makes you feel something, then go with it. Especially if it helps you connect with people.
Back in the day, one thing that helped me at the beginning of my therapy was chat rooms. The Internet was still young then and just about the only way to get online was AOL. I discovered chat rooms and spent a lot of time just talking about random stuff with random people. I don't remember getting into any heavy conversations, but at least there were people on the other end of the screen and it helped.
And, as much as I talk about people giving bad advice in church, going to church helped me. Not the bad advice, but for me the act of worship and learning from the sermons helped. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it was a turning point and has made a big difference in everything that followed.
What NOT to do.
This is really what I wanted to talk about. I want to talk some to those who are suffering from depression, and some to those trying to help those who are depressed.
If you are depressed, or think you may be depressed, DO NOT IGNORE IT. It's hard to tell if you are depressed, because it can come upon you so slowly that you don't realize that's what's happened. Listen to those around you. If they think you need help, don't delay. Don't feel like you can do it on your own or that God will fix you. Get help. Now.
If you are depressed, understand that you are not alone, but also know that your depression may not be like others. Some will tell you that they've over come it and you should too. Others will tell you that you might have to deal with it your whole life. That's them. Understand that your experience may or may not be like theirs. You may be able to over come it permanently, you may go through cylces where sometimes you need treatment and other times you don't, or you may have to be on some kind of treatment your whole life. No matter what, it's ok. Don't let anyone tell you how it HAS to be and that something is wrong with you if their experience doesn't match yours.
To those of you who have dealt with depression: Please, please, please do not assume that because you have overcome it that you have somehow figured out The Cure. By all means, share your experiences because you might help someone else, but don't you dare tell someone "well, just do this and this and this and you'll be cured, if not, then you didn't do it right". I am sick to death of podcasts and talk shows and books from people claiming they've got The Answer. "Throw away your pills and read this book", "Go to my church", "Imagine yourself cured" and on and on and on. Maybe one of these will work for you but THEY WON'T WORK FOR EVERYONE ALL THE TIME! DO NOT ASSUME THEY WILL! Also, make sure you know what you're talking about. Don't act like you're an expert on depression when you never really had it. If you were "depressed" but when you stopped working 80 hours a week you felt better, you weren't depressed, you were tired. If you were "depressed" but you stopped eating gluten and felt better, you weren't depressed, you had a food allergy.
To those of you who have never dealt with depression: to help someone you know, learn about it. Whatever you do, don't just tell someone to "get over it" or "think happy thoughts". Positive thinking can improve your mood, but to someone deep in depression, telling them to think happy thoughts is like telling someone who has no arms to do push-ups. It's like telling someone born blind to imagine the color red. Please, please, please whatever you do, don't say "don't worry, be happy". That's just about the most insensitive thing you can do to someone who is really depressed.
Another really bad thing someone can do, and this may be the worst of all: Christians telling other Christians they have no right to be depressed because "real" Christians have "joy" and "victory and Jesus" and have "overcome" and if you're depressed, you must not be a "real" Christian. This is the
worst thing anyone can do to their Christian brother or sister. If someone has said this to you, I am so sorry. Please, don't listen to them. God loves you. Jesus died for you. None of that has changed just because you are depressed. Maybe others have overcome depression with prayer and fully relying on God. Good for them. That doesn't mean that's what God wants of you. Rely on God, of course. Pray, absolutely. But don't feel like you're doing something wrong just because you're depressed. It's very possible your body is sick through no fault of you or your faith. Please, ignore those who tell you otherwise.
So maybe it's time to share my story. As I've said, my experiences are just that, and they don't make me an expert, but I do feel they make me knowlegable.
I said before that my parents sent me to a counselor when I was 12. Back then, people didn't talk about depression a lot, at least not as a medical condition. I had written a note to my girlfriend telling her that I wanted to die. I don't really remember writing it, or exactly what it said, but I do remember feeling that way. It's like the moment I mentioned puberty, something changed and I've been dealing with it ever since.
I remember only vaguely visiting this counselor. I think he gave up on me too soon, or he really didn't know what he was doing because it was only a few sessions. Most of the time I just sat through without saying anything.
Hindsight being perfect - or at least clearer, I think what was happening was that puberty had changed something in me that started a process that would eventually lead to full blown medical depression. Through my teenage years, though, it would only take me to "the edge" and environmental factors would push me over the edge from time to time. I don't remember being perpetually depressed, I do remember finding joy at one time or another, but it was a roller coaster.
My early 20s were the same way, but imagine the highs of the roller coaster getting smaller and the dips getting lower. I would be angry and violent without knowing why. My theory now is that the anger was the last thing I was able to feel, so I relished it a little and allowed it to come out a lot.
It was in my late 20s that depression finally, completely, claimed me. I don't remember much about that time. I do remember the hospital after a suicide attempt. I don't remember how long I was there, but it was the first time that someone suggested that there might be medical reasons for feeling the way I did and not just me not dealing with reality very well. I started taking medication.
As I mentioned before, I found a little joy on the Internet, and I started going to church. I credit all three, the meds, connecting with people, and church, with kick starting my recovery. Especially church. I can't pin-point any one thing that I learned or anything like that, there was just something about what was becoming a part of my life because of church.
That was roughly 15 years ago or so. I don't remember precisely. I think that's part of my depression experience is that I can't remember some of these things very well. Some things I remember very well, but the specifics associated with the deepest emotional lows just didn't stick. I was so depressed my memory functions were shut down.
So now I'm taking meds. I was under the care of a phsyciatrist that had taken my case while I was at the hospital. I don't remember the specifics, but I do remember that a few weeks into it , it was like a light switch turned on and I was feeling better.
Over the next 5 years and onward I would have times when I felt I had gotten better so I tried to stop taking medication. This is how I found, definitively, that I can't be off the meds. Probably never. Also, with the on/off nature of the meds, my doctor also took the opportunity to try other meds as they became available. Originally, Prozac was just about the only thing out there, but later there was Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and I don't know what else.
Which brings us to the present. I am still taking medication and I'm ok with the fact that I may never be able to be off of them. I am at a point where medication is really all I need and I don't need ongoing therapy. I'm not saying I won't EVER need therapy again, but the whole object of therapy is to give you the tools to deal with things on your own and I feel that right now I am good in that department.
Over the years I've heard it all. I had a good, well meaning, friend tell me he had overcome depression with "happy thoughts". I've had so many people in the church tell me that I didn't have a medical problem, I had a spiritual one. Now, I'm not denying that there may be a spiritual element to depression, but to assume that I was demon-posessed and therefore not a true Christian and really needed to be re-baptized - that just about turned me off the church forever. But I just learned to accept it - or at least bite my tongue - as the words of someone who really didn't understand.
Is my experience like yours? Probably not. And that doesn't make mine right and yours wrong and vice versa. It took me a while to learn that.
For a while I worked at a bookstore and had the opportunity to read many books on depression and the "right" way to overcome it. At first, I got angry, because none of them seemed to be describing the kind of depression I had. And most of them started with the advice to "throw away your pills". I'm not saying they were wrong, I just had to learn that they were coming from a different experience than mine. Which also made me angry because so many people would pick up these books thinking they were getting top-shelf advice and would instead be getting, for them, bad advice.
Also, I am tired of people telling me that The Bible has all the advice for overcoming depression. Now, don't get me wrong, I do believe the Bible. I believe it's the word of God. I do beleive it has much to teach us about life. However, what I have issue with is people reading into it what is not really there. When talking about depression, I think there are things to learn from the stories in the Bible, but I don't think there are cures. Some will say "look!" here's Job. He was depressed, and he got over it! Look! here's King David! His baby died and he was depressed and he got over it. And so on. There are good lessons to be learned from those stories, but I don't think the point of those lessons is overcoming depression. Again, I don't find any examples of depression in the Bible that match what my experience with it.
My sincere feeling is that God gave us doctors and he gave them wisdom and knowlege. Consult the Bible, sure, but go see your doctor.
If you or someone you know is having feelings or depression or suicide, get help now. This is not something you should listen to the advice of anyone else, not even me, except that you should go see a counselor or a doctor. Now. Don't expect a fast cure. Trust those who sincerely want to help you, but don't depend on their advice. Trust your own instincts and when something works, don't second guess it, just accept it and feel better.