Depression and The Dark Night

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For a long time in my late teens, I championed the testimony of one who had experienced a bout of depression but had miraculously been delivered of this mental affliction. However, there would come a time when I would stop sharing this testimony; because how can one testify of an experience that no longer holds true? In other words, what happens when the depression you think you’ve been delivered from comes back?

I still remember elements of my initial experiences vividly. I have flashbulb memories of my sophomore year of high school in which I began to feel enveloped by overwhelming thoughts and emotions. There were some real-life causes to the fear, anxiety, and sadness that quickly overtook me but there was also a lot of perceived issues that were most likely the byproduct of adolescent developmental angst.

Everything in my life seemed to be suffering, and I couldn’t tell if it was suffering because of the depression, or if I was depressed because it was suffering. I had terrible migraines all the time. I was putting on weight. I flunked English and had to go to summer school, and my other subjects weren’t much better. I was also removed from ministries in church because of my school performance. There were other, more personal, issues going on, but, in general, everything just felt like shit, to put it bluntly.

During the worst moments of this period, I contemplated taking my life. I was tired of feeling the way I felt. I was sick of being tired. And I was easily overwhelmed by everything. I couldn’t see past the day in front of me, and when I could, I only saw more cause for worry and sadness.

Eventually, I found my way out of the “fog” I was in, and it was as if there was a great calm for many years before the actual storm began. I made it through the rest of my teen years into early adulthood with relatively few upsets. Even when I went through a period of unemployment shortly after returning from my first overseas missions trip, I still had a resilient and optimistic attitude about my life. Even in this time of financial and career uncertainty (which lasted about nine months) I never succumbed to the level of anxiety or depression that I had previously.

Shortly after turning twenty-four is when my depression resurfaced again. I experienced a series of events that would lead me to question my faith and my core values as a Christian. This was something I hadn’t dealt with previously since I had only viewed my depression as a spiritual issue and not as a psychophysiological or, otherwise, mental problem. It never occurred to me to question the worldview I was given. I made sense of my first experience within the context of my religious beliefs and mainly pointed the finger of blame at myself for my sadness.

Now here I was nearly a decade later, and life felt like it was caving in again, but this time I was less inclined to blame myself. This time I couldn’t make sense of things solely within a spiritual context, or at least the one that I was given. So, I had an epistemological breakdown.

Essentially what I had was an existential faith crisis otherwise known as The Dark Night of the Soul. I began to question the integrity of who I believed God was supposed to be. This had a domino effect causing me to question many of the other religious beliefs within my community.

I had spent much of my life in James Fowler’s stage three of faith development – Synthetic Conventional. Faith at this juncture is strongly influenced by an authority figure or the majority within a community, and acceptance is based on conformity. I had convictions but I never critically examined them as asking too many questions was discouraged. So, in addition to the depressive symptoms and trying to figure out what I believed, I felt I had to hide what I was going through from the people I was closest to.

The last four(ish) years have seemed like a ceaseless battle in trying to hold a conviction that is truly my own and not based on a poor literal translation or accepted with the purpose of fitting into a particular group. I just want to feel closer to God, but instead, I feel more like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, and perhaps this pursuit along with everything else is vanity. Everything is meaningless. Everything is hevel.

I think it was George Carlin who once said, “inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” Much of my struggle comes from trying to find meaning in the life I’m living. I went from a proverbial worldview of black and white, right and wrong, wisdom and folly, to an ecclesiastical view of still recognizing and pursuing wisdom and good deeds but understanding that, regardless of my pursuits, there are no guarantees. Life is just a vapor, there one moment, gone the next. It’s hard not to feel disillusioned and a tad cynical by this understanding.

There are days when life just doesn’t make sense to me. I wake up only to do the same things over and over. I get panicked at the thought that there just isn’t a purpose or a meaning to what I’m doing or a purpose to this life. I try to appreciate the good and the beauty in the world but, like a vapor, it can’t be grasped.

And in the midst of trying to find meaning in my life and my spiritual beliefs, I still deal with depressive symptoms at times. I know what it’s like to feel so anxious, and tired, and afraid that you can barely leave your bed some mornings. I know what it’s like to be consumed by your thoughts and emotions that you feel like the only way to shut it all off would be to end your life. I know what it’s like to feel alone, and misunderstood, and unable to share or explain these feelings; even with a great family, and friends, a spouse, even a therapist there to support you.

You won’t hear me testify and tell you I’ve been delivered from depression anymore because it’s something I still cope with. You won’t hear me tell you that God exists to take away our mental health problems because I don’t believe that’s His function. What I can tell you is, having depression, whether it’s related to spiritual doubts and crisis’ of faith or not, doesn’t make you less of a person than someone without it. It doesn’t make you less of Christian or a faith believer in general.

Growing up, Jesus was always portrayed as the be all, end all, solution to any problem one might face. Plus, there was always this correlation between joy and Jesus. I used to think that if you were depressed, that meant either Christ had abandoned you, or you messed up somehow and had been irrevocably cut off from His love, joy, and peace. But maybe joy isn’t the only place God resides. Today I believe Christ stands with us in the dark nights too.

Life may be a vapor, but try to grasp it anyways. Our dreams may seem vain and meaningless, but pursue them anyways. And if you should ever reach a point when you feel you can’t continue, don’t give into the futility or the cynicism. You’re not the only one trying to find meaning and purpose in life. Trust that you are loved and know that you’re not alone.

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