When Depression Descends

Author’s note: This article should not be used to diagnose or treat clinical depression. If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or attempting suicide, please seek out a medical and/or mental health professional immediately, visit the Lifeline online, or call 1-800-273-8255 (U.S.). A list of international suicide prevention hotlines can be viewed here and here. — Jonathan

It feels like a leaden mantle descending over everything, blotting out the sun, joy, and the belief that there is anything good in the world. It leaves your feet bolted to the floor and your heart frozen in the empty void of black space.

It feels like liquid cement pouring into your body, heavy and thick, slowly solidifying, hardening, restricting movement. It feels like your chest is being crushed. Like a polio victim without an iron lung, desperately searching for the energy to overcome diaphragmatic paralysis. It feels like a suffocation.

It doesn’t always feel like sadness. It might look like incessant weeping, sure, but it just might look like staring at a blank wall for fifteen minutes. Unmoving.

Even if you’re a missionary. Even if you love your wife and kids. Even if you have enough money and love your job. Even if you have a fulfilling ministry, both on and offline. Even if you work with therapists and help pastor a church. Even if you love the Psalms and know about lament and have written extensively about emotional health. Even if you’ve studied depression and sat with suicidal clients (in a counseling center) and patients (in an ER). Even if.

Sometimes, it’s just there, and it is so terribly heavy.

I have been there. And still, after our unplanned transition back to America, our dislocation and eventual resettling, COVID-19, a dark winter, and political chaos, it still threatens. Occasionally I get a whiff of the darkness, and it turns my stomach sour.

If you’ve been there, if you’ve felt these things, please know this: you are not alone.

For me, at the scariest point, I started thinking about ending my life. I never developed a plan (which is a blaring warning sign, especially if the person has the means to carry out the plan), but I was ruminating more and more about death and dying, and it scared me tremendously.

I had started taking an occasional non-narcotic pain medication to help me sleep. In Cambodia, so many prescription medications do not require a prescription and are available in blister packs at the cash register. This can be handy, but it’s also very dangerous and should probably be the topic of a later essay. Anyways, we had neighbors on both sides of our row house that kept very late hours. On one side, it was drunk karaoke followed by the smashing and screaming of domestic violence. On the other side, it was a bit of a house-turned-warehouse where they repackaged boxes for local distribution – think screeching packing tape – until 1 or 2 am nightly. The packaging center was about three feet away from the head of our bed. The drunken abuse was about five feet from the foot of our bed. Bricks and a little plaster and tile were not enough. I wasn’t sleeping well, and I was getting more and more anxious and agitated.

So I started taking this medication.

Looking back, I think the spiritual, environmental, and psychological stresses brought me to the tipping point, and the medication nudged me over the edge.

Incentive to Hide

In any sort of Christian ministry, there can be an immense incentive to hide things like this. If the person who’s asking how you’re doing also has the power to fire you, relocate your family, or detach you, your spouse, and your kids from your church, school, and social support, well, honestly, that’s a ridiculous ask. (I’m not saying that’s a healthy dynamic, by the way, I’m just saying that it’s pretty typical in the missions world. Again, another essay for another time.)

But when it comes to depression, silence could be deadly. And while I certainly understand the reasons for hiding, hiding depression can lengthen your misery, shielding you from help and resources. Depression is very treatable once it’s identified.

Don’t hide, and please oh please don’t feel like you’re a failed Christian or a failed missionary just because you’re depressed. You’re not less than or anything of the sort; you just may need a little bit of extra support for a time.

I did.

I still do from time to time.

How to Respond: Tell Someone

I talked with a doctor. I’ll never forget the day he said, “You know, it’s a rare side effect, but it is a documented side effect of that particular medication.” I went home and threw those blister packs in the trash like they were filled with gecko poop and crawling with giant cockroaches.

I increased the frequency of meetings with two good friends, one of whom was a therapist and one of whom was a pastor. I broadened my support base. I changed my diet, reducing processed foods and sugar, increasing fruits and vegetables. I started exercising more.

If you’re not sure, but you think you might be depressed, please consult with your doctor and/or a mental health professional. Check out our resources page for mental health professionals in your area. You do not have to do this alone.

There are so many resources available, and there are so many treatment modalities that are proven to help (talk therapy, medications, lifestyle changes, etc.). You do not have to do this alone.

NOTE: If someone hears your story and tells you that you just need to try harder or read your Bible more or root out the sin in your life or be more disciplined or some such nonsense, please smile and nod, turn around, and run the other direction towards someone who will give you good advice. Because that person’s not.

How to Respond: Educate Yourself

Sometimes, the depression’s so thick that you don’t have it in you to do any sort of online research or reading. That’s ok. If that’s where you’re at, reach out to someone and skip this part.

But if you can and if you want to, remember that you have access to a whole host of online resources. I typically turn to the Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic for medically accurate information that’s written for non-medical folks. Read their information on depression here and here and chronic depression (over two years) here and here.

The NHS has a short depression self-assessment tool that might also be a helpful place to start.

And now, please don’t laugh, but I REALLY appreciated the material in the book Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies, by Rhena Branch and Rob Willson. Their section on depression has been immensely helpful for me and several friends. Check it out.

Additional Resources

This is the first time I’ve written so explicitly about depression. Here are some musings (and a sermon/podcast) about related things, like Grief, C.S. Lewis and the Deeper Magic, and Hope.

Remember, you are not alone. The promises are true.

You are not alone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

From the Mayo Clinic: When to get emergency help

If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

Also consider these options if you’re having suicidal thoughts:

  • Call your doctor or mental health professional.
  • Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. [Visit their website here.]
  • Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
  • Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.

If you have a loved one who is in danger of suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you think you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.

3 thoughts on “When Depression Descends

  1. Thank you for this.

    The point about the one asking how you are is often also the one who can take away all support can be overwhelming. The pressure of feeling you have to be some sort of ‘model missionary’ is real. In my experience though people have surprised me with their understanding, care and gentleness when I had truely shared my struggles. I hope others experience the same.

  2. This was really very good and I applaud and appreciate your vulnerability. A good pastor gave me a book called Christians Get Depressed Too by David Murray that is very good, as well. Good luck in your journey. God bless you.

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