Depression is nearly impossible to describe. I was looking for a word or phrase that captured the heart of it, and I think I found it in an article written by Dr. John Timmerman in “The Christian Century” dated March 2, 1988. “At the most unexpected moments it slips people its dark poison. One scarcely notices the initial sting. Slowly, insidiously, the poison spreads until the victim finds herself cut off from life by a gray veil. The monster, what Winston Churchill, a long time sufferer, called the ‘Black Dog,’ is depression.” (p. 213)
Since I turned 40 in February 1984 I have had 8 episodes of major depression. By episode, I mean a period of time ranging from 6-24 weeks of clinical (major) depression as diagnosed by a psychiatrist. One episode, the last to this point, lasted for 18 months. Each episode has consisted of feeling overwhelmed, high anxiety, worthlessness, hopelessness, and incompetence. There is also a lack of clarity and inability to concentrate. All of these feelings and characteristics are in direct contradiction to much of what one’s life in Christ can be.
When we think of the first and greatest commandment, we are reminded that it centers on love. We are to love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves. When we think of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the feelings often associated with depression seem once again, completely opposed to what is to be ours as inheritors of God’s grace in Christ. This is part of the burden that the Christian depressed person bears. Sometimes fellow Christians will insensitively remind him of this fact, but certainly the ever present self will remind him of this contradiction. Unashamedly it accuses, “You are a complete phony and a hypocrite.” This is only one of the major causes of pain associated with depression as I have experienced it. There are many more.
The incidence of major depression is high. Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld wrote, “According to some estimates, nearly 20 million people in this country are depressed—twice as many women as men. Many of them have good reason to be sad, but others would appear to be sitting on top of the world. Depression, ‘the common cold of mental-health problems,’ strikes the rich and the poor as well as the young and the old.”
Dr. Archibald Hart, former dean of the Graduate School of Psychology and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes: “Between 17 and 20 % of the population can expect to become depressed in a lifetime.” (Counseling the Depressed, p. 37) “In a typical congregation of 200 adults, 50 will experience depression at some point, and at least 30 are currently taking antidepressants.” ( Dr. Dan G. Blazer, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, in “Christianity Today”, March 2009, p.25)
Still many in the church and society need to learn more about it to lessen the almost complete misunderstanding of it resulting in very hurtful and mythical remarks. For example: “you need to exercise more. Act like you feel well and the feelings will follow. Develop a different way of coping with stress. You are not trying hard enough. You need to think more positively.”
Actually my depression was a chemical imbalance in the brain. No amount of any of these things would help until the brain was cured. For me it was the right medication in the right dosage.
In December 2007 my depression caused me to retire earlier from ministry in the CRCNA than I had expected or planned. I was sixty-four. My ability to function had shrunk to the point that I was no longer capable of preaching or of carrying out other important tasks. Although I was under the care of a local psychiatrist, seeing a counselor regularly, taking medication, and engaging in prayer, and others praying for me faithfully, I simply did not recover. With previous episodes I was always able to recover soon enough to return to my regular pastoral tasks by the grace of God, with the help of modern medicine, and through the prayers of God’s people. The last time the episode just dragged on.
This was a tough time for the church, for me, and for my family with many questions. For the church it was a question of how patient should we be before we make a decision to ask for/demand retirement, or leave of absence or something else? For me I wondered how long do I could keep struggling in the hope and prayer that recovery would soon arrive so that I could carry on?
On reflection it seems to me that more resources need to be available to assist both the church and the pastor at times like these. Maybe it is not only a matter of resources but also a church staff member who is assigned the task of collecting the resources and listing the available programs so that they are readily available. Perhaps there was a less drastic choice available, mutually satisfying to both the church and myself, of which we were unaware.
Upon retirement I began working for my son-in-law and daughter on their large acerage: mowing lawns, raking leaves, hoeing weeds, repairing sprinkler heads and developing blisters. By the middle of 2008, I was better, completely recovered, except for some forgetfulness. My friends tell me that is due to age. I also was blessed with a part time job with CRWRC in donor relations in California. I have been able to preach occasionally for my church and others. I know full well that not everyone recovers and there is no guarantee that depression will not return to me but as for now. . . .
“My heart leaps for joy” (Psalm 28: 7).