When you have depression everything changes. The way you interact with any group or activity will be changed, and for me dramatically so. Every aspect of my life, including my experience as a Christian, has been altered. Prior to depression I could connect with spiritual things emotionally and was constantly encouraged by others to feel God’s presence. I had a joy that lead to happiness and a comfort that lead to peace. I could feel the presence of God. Not all the time, but regularly enough to have special moments and memories because of it.

And this is part of the reason why depression sucks. It ruins the way that you perceive reality. It twists everything you see and feel in such a way that you can no longer discern truth. I am not talking about becoming psychotic here (although that does happen), but rather that depression makes you second guess the world. You lose confidence in your ability to understand what is going on. This happened to me.

Peace deserted me. I was surrounded by only angry thoughts. My go to feelings were terror and pain as anxiety consumed every thought. Out of desperation I would translate these into anger. An emotion I was more familiar with and perceived as ‘stronger.’

I couldn’t pay attention in church anymore. The talk drove me crazy with boredom. The congregation gave me anxiety. The singing we did seemed only to cater to people with feelings. People who were called to be happy, or at least faked it well enough. I wasn’t jealous necessarily, I was just angry about everything. When I looked around I saw people with smiling faces, people connecting to God in the way I used to. It is ostracizing.

I would have rather died than go to church. Bearing that in mind it seemed like going to church wasn’t really worth it. I knew it was good to be going along, but at what cost? I feel like I was let down by the church. I got almost no support in my depression from my church for almost two years, when I needed it most. A lot of people reading this may have had similar circumstances but they may be worse. Two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things and I have been lucky that the church helps me out now.

But that is why this is being written. It is ok to be a Christian with depression. In fact, it is a theme that occurs in multiple places in the bible (Check out Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms etc…). Hopefully this post will give a bit of and insight into what being a Christian with depression is like. It isn’t fun, it isn’t beautiful, and we don’t always deal with it well.  This is what depression is like, not how we should do it in a perfect world. In an unexpected bout of wisdom I have outsourced this topic to a friend. She has written about her experiences below, which echo a lot of my experience.

Ever since I have written this blog people have been really good about buying me chocolate, which I imagine is why Zoe wanted to do this in the first place, so go buy her chocolate if you are in St Andrews.

Zoë

zoe

I have been a Christian my whole life, and have had diagnosed depression and anxiety for a chunk of that time. In my experience as a depressed Christian, I’ve seen that there is this common view, even voiced by some, that Christians have their lives together and are devoid of problems, this is not the case. In fact, some Christians in my life have contributed to the stigma surrounding depression, hence making it worse, rather than helping it. In this blog I want to give a small glimpse into what it is like to live as a Christian with depression.

When I first began to recognize my illness and sought help, the individual I told advised me against going to the doctor, adamant that it was the wrong decision; saying that I would likely get diagnosed with depression and then not ever be able to get a job. Not only did this prevent me from seeking help early on,  but it made me view depression as a shameful thing that I shouldn’t tell anyone about as it would hinder me in later life; for a long time afterwards I had false ideas of the implications that mental illness would bring to my life. Telling someone not to seek help is one of the worst things a person could do, it adds enormously to the stigma surrounding depression and preventing help can even worsen the illness.

Another Christian individual, on hearing of medication I had received, made me feel like I was doing the wrong thing by taking it. I felt very guilty. I felt like I wasn’t a proper Christian and that I wasn’t trusting in God enough to not take medication. In reality, medication merely helps balance out the chemicals that are unbalanced in your brain. Because of how other people responded to me taking medication, I began to feel as if it was a “bad” thing, and that I was a “bad” person for having the symptoms that required this medication. I still feel like it is a shameful thing, whenever I tell anyone, like I am doing something wrong. Medication for depression is not “bad” or “evil,” it is necessary for recovery or even just to maintain your mood.

Every action I undertake is affected by and changed because of depression. Praying in silence or in my head is hard when my attention span is so short and there’s so much going on in my head, or I feel overwhelmed with despair. Sometimes, prayer at its best might be me throwing a bunch of expletives at God. It’s hard to focus on anything other than yourself when you are in such a state of sadness or resentment. In my homegroup (weekly bible study group), we always split up into groups to pray for one another, and frequently I simply don’t want to pray for anyone else, as I’m too caught up in my own misery. It’s often very hard to bring the focus away from my own troubles and pray for someone whose problems seem so much less significant in comparison; I find it extremely difficult to pray for others due to the resentment I feel towards them and their struggles, e.g.: essay deadlines or relationship struggles.

These seem unbelievably trivial and unimportant when everyday you’re plagued with thoughts of suicide, or anger, or self-destruction. Praying for others often makes me very bitter about my situation, and bitter that others should be allowed to have complaints when their worries are so small. I know that this is not me being resentful towards others, but my brain. Sometimes I feel like it would just be easier not to go to homegroup, as I feel like I’m being a burden if I have a breakdown. I feel like I’m being an inconvenience and everyone would rather it not happen that needing to help me.

zoe homegroup

I feel like I have little to no time for God as prayer, bible reading, church, homegroup and people are draining. Speaking to people and building relationships is hard to do genuinely. I may be able to put on a facade, by asking people how they are and maintaining some sort of conversation, but inside I am crippled with anxiety and wanting to leave. I might go to church and make small talk with one of the real adults, but this is thoroughly exhausting. It’s even more exhausting if they ask me how I am and I have to say fine to prevent myself from having some kind of breakdown which would be probably very awkward.

Sometimes I will go to church and not take a single thing away as just being there is so much effort, let alone be able to do sung worship. For a long time, I thought worship was merely sung praise and it made me feel worse that I couldn’t worship in the way that everyone else was. This is a problem with going to church- I feel I am expected to worship in the conventional way; by singing and celebrating. In my experience of churches, there is only this way that is acceptable for people to come to church and worship. Worship for me might be easiest sitting in silence, or writing, or reading the bible, or done by serving others.

A few weeks ago when all of the homegroups met together we sang this song and I could feel myself becoming more and more appalled at what I was singing.

“When we see You

We find strength to face the day

In Your presence

All our fears are washed away.”

I thought, “No, my fears are not washed away, I am constantly a ball of stress and anxiety, and in fact I don’t feel the slightest bit strong, I feel the exact opposite. So why am I singing this? “Songs like this make me feel like a fraud and like I am being fake. Why am I singing about the strength the Lord gives me when I can’t really see any in my life?

Recently, I was very confused about whether or not I should keep going to church. In the last few months especially I reached the point where it was almost unbearable to be there. I’d go and sit, paralyzed with anxiety, wanting to run out and not come back. I would not pay attention (my attention span is very limited), but would sit and be resentful of God and of all the people around me who were learning things and singing songs and meaning it. Why did they deserve to enjoy church when I found it excruciating?

Despite the problems that church imposes, it is ultimately a good thing. We may not want to, but we should still try and go. We can’t survive on our own. Neglecting it is bad for our relationship with God. Church is important for spiritual connections with people. Sometimes if you’re depressed, you can’t go to church, but you should still get involved as much as possible. Finding small reasons to go helps me. Even if the reason for going isn’t particularly a biblical one, like I’m going for some of Mairi Martin’s homemade cookies. It’s to be there even if the reason that brought you isn’t particularly profound.

cookies

Churches should do more to help people with mental illnesses. For example, acknowledging it as a real illness. In the past, people often seem to view my mental illness as some kind of “teenage phase.” Churches seem to have stereotypes of what people with mental Illness look like, or what they should look like. If people don’t think I make the cut, they will not take me seriously and give me stupid advice like, “just pray about it” or “pray more.” I don’t want to trivialise prayer, it is very important, however it is possible to over spiritualise depression, which may stop people from getting medical help. A combination of prayer, physical treatment and psychological treatment is ideal for some kind of maintenance of mood or even recovery.

Ideally, there would be more sermons, seminars and testimonies on mental illness to educate the congregation and reduce stigma. I feel like mental illness is still, to some extent, a taboo topic within church. This should not be the case as ourselves, or people we know, will be affected by it. We should not avoid talking about mental illness, but confront it, without doing so people suffering will continue to suffer. Church is a family and each individual is a “child” with different needs. Each person needs to be treated individually and their needs should be met, even if it is not totally comfortable for everyone. Encourage people to seek medical and psychiatric help, don’t over spiritualize it.

A view I’ve encountered more than once is the idea that I shouldn’t be sad or angry or scared or anxious if I have God in my life. I think some people have the misconception that if you suffer with mental illness you’re not a “proper Christian.” Some may argue that you’re not praying enough or you don’t have enough faith. This attitude adds to stigma, which can worsen mental health problems and prevent people from seeking treatment. The stigma surrounding depression that I was exposed to made me, and still makes me even now somewhat ashamed of opening up to people about my depression. It’s important that people recognise as an actual physical illness, not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. I think Christians have fear of mental illness, maybe because of the lack of control it presents you with, suffering is hard to grasp. Christianity should be an easy path on this understanding.

Christians who have not suffered with mental illness should be wary when offering advice to those who do suffer, for example, saying “pray harder,” “let Jesus in,” or “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” may not be the best things to say. Quite frankly, that would make me feel worse. “Anxiety” in this instance is not referring to the medical condition of anxiety but rather worrying.

Alternatively, find ways of helping them, ask how you could make life easier for someone with depression. Offer to help in a way that’s appropriate for their needs. Living with any illness is hard, and trying to accommodate for a person’s illness is spendificent. For example, you would help them if they had broken their leg by giving them lifts places. Always be willing to listen, don’t be pushy but ask questions that probe gently, encourage them to speak and be open. If you notice someone is sad or moody or doesn’t talk to you as much as they used to, then DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.

Having depression/any mental illness makes you question the goodness of God. In one counselling session with a Christian counsellor I was asked how I think God views me, and that just made me think of God watching me each day as I endure pain. I instantly thought how unkind it was that God could see me, yet he didn’t seem to be doing anything to change my situation.

“How can he see me and not help,” I asked. “How can he see the pain I’m in and not make me better?” That one question effectively ruined the rest of the session for me, I was so angry at God. Anger can be a symptom of depression. However, it shouldn’t be something that you try and hide; you should always bring your anger to God as He wants you to tell him. Being in situations like this can cause me to question God’s character and his goodness. It causes me to be filled with rage towards him. It’s hard not to view him as a sadistic monster.

Often I find myself thinking thoughts such as, ‘I don’t care if I die. I don’t care about that person, whether they live or die, I just really don’t care about anything. I could just walk right off the pier. I could walk in front of a car.’ Even less extreme things like ‘I don’t want to eat anymore, I don’t want to get dressed. I don’t care enough to finish this essay. Or go to this tutorial. They can just kick me out of Uni.’ the thing that stops me from doing some of these things, or the thing that makes me get out of bed and eat is effectively God. Even if it’s not in a happy, “I’m saved’ kind of way. Even if what’s stopping me from walking off the pier is guilt of what will God think of me, guilt of what a selfish action it is.

I don’t understand how God could allow depression. If depression hurts your relationship with God, why doesn’t he just take it away? Isn’t he meant to be good? This is something that has always been a given. But the idea that He’s good is sometimes very hard to believe when there doesn’t appear to be any proof of it in your own life. How can something that’s meant to be so good coexist with something so bad? God did not produce depression. God hates depression, it is a symptom of a broken world. He doesn’t want it. A broken world results in broken people. It’s not God’s fault depression exists. He didn’t produce it. He’s working to get rid of depression.

Having depression doesn’t mean that I am free from responsibility to others, in fact I have the same obligations that everyone has. A part of me thinks this is ridiculous, what responsibility should I have to those around me, when I feel so bad all the time? I surely shouldn’t have to do anything for others when I can barely do things for myself. Why should I help set up church for others when I really don’t want to be there; my depressed brain doesn’t care about any of the congregation. This, of course, isn’t a good mindset to have, I know that. I think it’s important to recognise that in and through depression you may have ways of helping people that maybe those without depression don’t have. Depression doesn’t (always) render you completely useless. It is important for me not to beat myself up over this, but to recognise that it is my mental illness causing these thoughts to a degree.

Not everyone in the bible has it all together, which is something that I feel I’ve only recently realised. The bible never says happiness is required, only joy. And they are not the same thing. You can have joy and still be depressed. Happiness is just something temporary that can be achieved by anything. Money might make me happy, but it will not bring me joy.  You can be unhappy but still be joyful. While happiness is an emotion, joy is an attitude of the heart.

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Job 10:1 “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.”

Psalm 69 “I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed. My eyes have failed from looking for my God.”

Psalm 88: “…I cry to you…incline your ear to my lamentation. For I am full of trouble; my life is at the e brink of the grave…I have become like the one who has no strength…you have laid me in the depths of the Pit…you have put my friends far from me…I am in prison and cannot get free…I have called upon you daily; I have stretched out my hands to you…I cry to you for help…Lord, why have you rejected me?

But Also

1 Corinthians 10:13: “…God is faithful, He will not let you be tested beyond your strength…with the testing he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Something Christians need to do to reduce stigma is give an accurate representation of joy in the bible, and not link happiness and joy so readily. Alternatively, it would be better to also show characters in the bible who find joy through pain. This would make it easier for individuals struggling with illnesses (mental or physical) to be open in a church environment about being weak, and may be more likely to seek help.

Conclusion

And Noggy is back, you are stuck with me again, apologies. Hopefully this post gave you some insight what it is like to a Christian with depression. A lot of what happens in this post can be reflected, in terms of the stigma or isolation, in any other social group or situation, not just church.

The Christian community is called to be a family, so must be at the forefront of helping people with their needs. This includes everything from poverty to politics. However, with mental health there is a particular need to be vocal, open, and proactive when dealing with these issues. The current stigma that leads to secrecy, guilt, and shame could be significantly lessened if churches set an example of modeling weakness and normalizing mental health struggles.

The church doesn’t exist for good and healthy people, and is totally bereft of anyone like that. The church exists for people who struggle with life. I fall right into that category, not just because of my struggles with mental health. This post isn’t here to condemn the church, but rather to share some perceptions so that we might understand each other and encourage each other more meaningfully.

I was recently quite incapacitated with mental illnesses. I wasn’t feeling particularly anxious or depressed about anything, but my body wanted to one up my mind. I struggled to breathe, stand up, and I couldn’t even remember how old I was (although forgetting to check the Newcastle scores was a blessing). It wasn’t an ideal time. Luckily I was surrounded by brilliant people who set a really great example of how to look after someone like myself.

I moved into my brother’s house for 10 days, he dropped everything and looked after me. His flatmates looked after me and let me stay in their house, making me feel welcome. I had friends come round, bringing chocolate and food. Others would just sit there and relax, but I greatly appreciated their presence. Apparently writing this blog has paid off, so if anyone is reading this feel free to bring round more food and chocolate. This was what a Godly community looks like, and I was very blessed to have these people in my life! My church is very supportive of me and many others. I can’t do life by myself, none of us can.

As always let me know what you guys think, or if you have any questions or feedback. Please share it as much as would be useful. This is very helpful for me to write (and probably Zoë too) but get in touch if you have any questions or feedback or advice for us. And if you have depression don’t forget to get professional help, and to reach out to those around you, it is important, and may lead to people bringing you chocolate.