I remember the night my clinical depression overtook me. It was an evening in 1998. I had the privilege opreaching at a friend’s ordination service. Later that evening I was to join a group of young adults in my church for an evangelistic camp. After the ordination service I found myself struggling to do the most basic things — going to my car, driving home, throwing stuff for the camp into a bag, giving a friend a ride to the camp — I saw myself moving in slow motion, having to push myself to do everything. I didn’t realise it then but “general slowing down of all motor tasks” is one of the symptoms of depression (Rod J.K. Wilson, How Do I Help a Hurting Friend, Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2006, 77).
The evangelistic camp was a disaster for me. I was supposed to mingle with the folks, building bridges with members and their guests, but I couldn’t bear to be with anyone. All who know me will know this is so unlike me. I enjoy getting to know people and having good conversations with all sorts of people. Instead I hid in my room. The only activity that gave me relief was taking a hot shower. I found myself in the shower for long periods of time. I couldn’t explain it and I still can’t but the hot water pouring on my body gave me tangible relief from my emotional pain.
I subsequently saw a psychiatrist who used to attend my church services. He said that he wasn’t surprised at all that I was experiencing clinical depression. He reminded me that I had gone through a number of major life blows — the death of my first wife, the breakdown of my second marriage, the loss of much of my public ministry because of my marital difficulties, the challenge of being a single parent to my two boys — it had all added up. He said that with counselling and medication I should be out of the worse of the depression in two to four months. But there was to be no quick fix. Antidepressants work by slowly fine tuning our brain chemistry. It doesn’t act on the symptoms straight away.
The psychiatrist was right. I did get over the worse of my depression in about three months. The road to getting all my life energies back would take much longer. But those were some of the toughest months of my life. My sleep pattern was disturbed. I would go to bed at 11p.m. and get up at 1a.m. and could not sleep any more no matter how much I wanted to. I spent most of the time lying down on my sofa watching television but I couldn’t even enjoy the World Cup games that were gong on. (I enjoy watching football.) I found out that another symptom of depression is the inability to enjoy the things you normally enjoy. At that time I was also doing most of the marketing and grocery shopping for the family. Every trip was like climbing Mount Everest. I don’t know how I survived those black months. But I do. The grace of God, much prayer, the love of the friends who stuck by me, and the competent professional care of a good psychiatrist.
I praise God that He has healed me substantially. It has been more than ten years now since that fateful evening when I first entered that dark valley. I am grateful for my healing. And I am grateful that my sojourn through that dark valley gives me some help in walking with those who make that same journey. In a day and age when we know so much more about depression, I am surprised that many of the church communities that I know still know little of depression and how to help those who have been afflicted. I commended a fellowship group that recently asked me to talk about the topic. But the triumphalistic, feel good culture of many church communities mean that few church groups take depression seriously.
Here are some clues that we may be dealing with depression.
. . . a significant number of the (following) eight symptoms for an extended period of time would suggest that a competent professional should investigate for depression.
1. Significant change in appetite, sexual drive, and weight.
2. Significant change in sleep pattern.
3. Loss of energy and excessive fatigue.
4. Feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach, and excessive guilt.
5. Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions.
6. Loss of motivation and enjoyment of regular tasks.
7. General slowing down of all motor tasks.
8. Suicidal tendencies
(Wilson, How Do I Help a Hurting Friend, 77.)
How do we help people with depression? 1 Kings 19 is an excellent study of how God the great physician, helped Elijah through his depression. Note how God accepted Elijah in all his negativism and allowed him to sleep and eat before working with him psychologically and spiritually. Sometimes the worst thing we can do is tell someone in depression to pray more or to have more faith. This only makes the person feel guilty, believing that he or she is in depression because of some spiritual deficiency, driving that person deeper into his or her dark hole.
Every church should receive some basic teaching on the comprehensive causes of expression, how to prevent it, how to walk with people going through it, and when we should involve those professionally trained to help. We live in a broken world and like all of creation we await the final renewal (Romans 8:18-25). In the meantime we know that God walks with us even in our darkest moments. And He calls us to walk with each other.
Years later I found out that one person became a follower of Christ in that disastrous evangelistic camp when my clinical depression first overwhelmed me. God was there.