There’s a happy looking picture on my phone, one taken three years ago. It’s a selfie. A picture of me and my daughter at a father/daughter event at her school sometime in February. I’m all smiles, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, flowers hung around my neck, my daughter next to me, both giving the hang loose sign with our hands. But my eyes. In my eyes, there was nothing. No life shone through them. Even looking at the picture three years later, I can see that there is no life in my blue eyes. The day before the picture was taken, I had decided I would die.
It was dark; I was dark. Life wasn’t good. I was not living my best life. I was not living a life full of abundance; not getting out of the boat and walking. My savior was not holding my hand, helping me walk, helping me stand. I was deep into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. My eyes clearly showed that. I was in a deep, dark, dank dungeon of major depression. I was already dead to myself. I just wanted to live long enough for my daughter to have this picture taken, not have a father/daughter event where she had no father. Just one more day and that would be it.
Many people have said to me that if I was a true Christ follower, I would have the joy of Christ in me and not have depression. Many people have said to me over the years that if I pray hard enough, fake it until I make it enough, trust God enough, all will be okay. Lies, I thought. All lies. I would tell of my pain until I couldn’t handle the head tilts any longer. The head tilt happens when a person doesn’t know how to respond to a pain they’ve not known and then tilts their head to the left or the right. They look at you with searching eyes, not fully knowing what to say. Often a platitude comes out instead of the real Gospel of healing that needed to be heard.
I had decided I was going to die. But why, many have asked since. Why would you want to? There is comfort in Jesus Christ, comfort we profess from Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Our greatest comfort, in life and in death, is that we are not our own but belong in life and in death, body and in soul, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. Yes. I profess that. I knew that. That comfort is what I yearned for. The comfort not in life and in body but the comfort found in soul and in death. Paul said it well, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). I clung to those words. They brought me a twisted sense of hope. I would have comfort in soul, in death. No more suffering, no more pain. On the other side of the Jordan, on the other side of glory. All this would be a fleeting thought. I would fly away, one bright morning, I would fly away.
I didn’t die though. My life was spared. I felt I failed. I couldn’t even die right. I couldn’t even be in my savior’s arms right. No, I was alive…and I wasn’t happy. My depression worsened. After a while, the treatment helped. I sat with anger long enough to learn that it's name was grief (as C.S. Lewis once wrote). My anger had turned inward. My grief too abhorrent for me to handle. I hurt until it became numb. I became so numb that I hurt.
Depression stinks. It’s reeks of unwashed laundry sitting in the hamper for over a month, left by a teenager. It’s also very real. It’s an illness no one wants to talk about. It is a stigma many Christians avoid. “I’m not depressed, I have the joy of Christ in my heart.” “It’s building character.” “God will not give you more than you can bear.” We tell these things to ourselves. We tell them to others. And we tell them to those who are depressed and worsen the illness.
We in turn treat those with depression as second-class Christians, not able to handle life as they ought (and thus are regulated to being helped instead of serving). They aren’t good enough. Strong enough. Mature enough. If they were, then they wouldn’t be depressed. Right?
In fact, my depression was held against me. The ones who could have walked alongside me shamed me instead. Those who were to aide me, to be Christ in troubled waters, treated me as an outcast, one to be whispered about in back rooms.
Christians do this to other Christians and then wonder why no one is authentic. They wonder why people don’t speak up about depression and other mental health issues. This. This is why. The stigma of not having the joy, of not being a normal real Christian.
I would love to quote statistics on Christians and depression, but I do not have them. Far too many Christ followers hide their pain, mask their feelings, and are tired of being authentic because of how they are treated when they are. The head tilt is the main thing that gets me each time.
Instead, what if we sat in the ashes with those going through depression? They are not suffering as if they are Job or the Apostle John, exiled to Patmos. They are not like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood. They—we—are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the body. When one member of the body goes through pain, all members of the body should respond, not with a head tilt but with compassion and love. Cry with those crying. Mourn with those mourning. Paul says it well: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Yes, it will get better. Yes, the shepherd does walk with them through the Valley of the Shadow of death. But, yes, you are to cry in the ashes of life with them in their depression.
It takes work, trust, and tenacity to sit in the ashes with someone. Yet that is exactly what one needs who is living out depression now. Sit. Sit in silence. Be present. Be Christ.
I am on the other side of things now. The end of Psalm 30 describes it well for me today, three years later. “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever” (Psalm 30:11-12).
I am on the other side of things now. My life still isn’t what it once was. I am different. I am new. I am alive and living my life for Christ the best way I can. I live because I am alive. I am on the other side of it because I had people walk with me, be Christ to me, be the example of the shepherd who walks with us through that Valley.
Lewis B. Smedes, theologian and philosopher who grew up Christian Reformed, writes that in his depression, God met him each morning in a pill of Prozac. Each day, I meet God’s grace, Christ’s healing hand, the Spirit’s movement, in my medication. Each day, I am made new and know I can live and want to do so with the comfort in life and in body found in my faithful savior Jesus Christ.