As I reflect on my struggle with depression, I realize I’m in good company. Charles H. Spurgeon’s depression was so profound that he said, “There are dungeons beneath the castles of despair.” Martin Luther is a well-known sufferer of depression that came in bouts throughout his life. So dark was Abraham Lincoln’s depression that his friends hid his knives and razors from him. Just thinking about all these godly, virtuous-but-bummed-out people makes me feel a little less . . . depressed.
There’s a difference between depression and grief. Grief is normal sadness felt in response to loss, and an important part of a well-rounded life experience. A time of sorrow is healthy—it’s sobering, deepening, and refining in its effect. For people who are concerned with developing a beautiful character, grief is a friend and not a foe. Depression is a related but different animal. It is characterized by prolonged rumination over an event or loss, leading to compromise in relationships, work, and hobbies. Grief is healthy and normal, but depression is neither. Whether sadness develops into this chronic and debilitating form of illness can depend upon how we process loss.
Like a figure skater’s jump, the beauty of sadness lies in the recovery. Lincoln mourned, “I am now the most miserable man living. . . . Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forbode I shall not.” But he did get better, and went on to become president of the United States. Our inquisitive natures lead us to ask, “How did he do that?” To go so low and yet resurface speaks of the resilience God has placed in the human spirit.
There is a right and wrong—a healthy and unhealthy way—of processing loss. I’ve done it both ways. While never formally diagnosed, I’ll admit that I’m probably one of the more than 20 million adult Americans who have wrestled with a mood disorder. I’m also a practicing mental health counselor, so I’ll address this topic from multiple angles—personal, clinical, and academic. Try not to get dizzy.
The Sad Saga
I believe the foundation for my depression was laid in adolescence. Dad was transferred when I was 10, and the move to a new city brought abuse, rejection, and loneliness that became festering wounds as I attempted to manage them without help. Just when I was starting to thrive socially, an infatuation and breakup sent me back to Hades. Young and innocent, my ego defenses were undeveloped. Rejection dug into me like a saber into soft flesh. Neuropathways of depression were deeply etched during these formative years; my brain was literally shaped by grief. Science confirms that the earlier the onset of depression, the more chronic it is likely to become.
I couldn’t even label the wound in my brain, much less heal it. It felt as if a thunderhead of sadness loomed over me. I had no idea when it would break, or what would happen when it did; I just lived in constant fear of disaster. I developed unconscious strategies designed to deflect pain. I acquired ego defenses, callouses over unhealed wounds. Unresolved insecurity was compensated for through a carefully crafted armor of pride. I was young, I was wild, I was smart-mouthed and bold, and no one could touch me.
That armor was shattered on my personal Damascus road. Jesus said, “Whoever falls on this stone will be broken” (Matt. 21:44).* I was broken. Conversion left behind pieces of my former self, as if my personality had been disassembled like a toy. People who met me as a new Christian thought I was a quiet person, but really I was a fairly extroverted person in a lingering state of shock. I had encountered a blinding light in Jesus and I was stunned and speechless. It took a few years for my personality to be refashioned in Him.
Things were much better after that. The depression seemed cured. The security of a bond with One who would “never leave . . . nor forsake” me (Heb. 13:5) leveled my mood. My fascination with what was dark and obscure in nature was replaced with an appreciation of all things bright and beautiful. I finally had the heart to enjoy sweet flowers, sunshine, and warbling birds. Nature’s cheer no longer mocked me. The Holy Spirit’s electricity had formed strong, new pathways in my brain, latticed over the old pathways, overriding old impulses. Bible truth, with its thoughtful form of optimism, restructured my thinking. Relationships were built upon Christ instead of escapism, and so were sane and stable. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Some years later I confronted my old demons. I believe this was God’s doing. We know that He filters our trials (1 Cor. 10:13) and coddles the weak (1 Cor. 12:23). This means that life’s hard blows are God’s backhanded compliment that we can take it. But I surely didn’t feel that way when I confronted the depression demon as a more mature Christian. I felt like the Unerring One had, in this one instance, miscalculated.
When I get depressed—I mean really, seriously depressed—suicidal thoughts pop into my mind involuntarily, like mushrooms on a damp summer lawn (I’ve never considered acting on those thoughts, but I’m well acquainted with the emotions that fuel those who do act). Suicidality is not something a Christian wants to own. Even now it’s hard to admit that as a believer I’ve struggled with such things! My darkest days were made darker by this shame. The worst part was that I was an Adventist who observed a lifestyle proven to help me live “six years longer.” I didn’t even drink soda or eat hot dogs. And I was thinking I wanted to die? How un-Adventist is that?
We clinicians call this type of thing “secondary disturbance.” People become disturbed, then they become disturbed about the disturbance: “I’m not supposed to be sad (anxious, angry—you fill in the blank)! I’m a Christian!” But as I said before, God was allowing me to face my past demons, who were jangling my old synaptic pathways to the tune of their ancient diabolical dirge. In confronting my most long-established tendencies, I was forced to depend more fully on Jesus.
I don’t like magic formulas. “Overcome Your Depression in Three Easy Steps” is not my general approach to life or clinical practice. But God did help me, and it did involve a process. This article allows for only a boiled-down version. Here are three things I did that have made all the difference:
I got over myself. Secondary disturbance is a primary problem, because it betrays a perfectionistic self-image. (I personally think perfectionism should be an entry in the Diagnostic Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Its description would read something like this: “The essential feature of perfectionism is a clinical course that is characterized by the inability to process, and subsequent denial of, human weakness.”) A perfectionist’s self-concept is too brittle to allow for imperfection, and so personal flaws are put in the petri dish of denial where they multiply. Perfectionists always have an elephant in the living room—a mammoth problem they’re blind to. The problem grows because it’s unchallenged. I finally stopped allowing perfectionism to rule my life when I became willing to admit I had some character weaknesses that, if allowed to reign, would become full-blown psychological disorders. OK, OK, I said. I’m imperfect. I’m a believer who gets discouraged. Now let’s get on with becoming better.
I got out of my own way. A funny thing happened on the way to healing—I realized that I was prolonging the agony. The way I was doing that was very subtle, and probably unique to a melancholy temperament. People who have battled depression will know what I mean; I had a certain loyalty to the dark side of the road. If I could sum up my unconscious reasoning, it would sound like this: “In order to be honest, I must live in the pit.”
In psychology we call this a “negative bias.” Out of fear of denial I literally wallowed in the bad stuff. What I finally realized was that this negative bias was, after all, a bias. As I reflected on the gospel, I saw a call to lay aside all biases and look at truth as it is in Jesus. And that truth features both negative and positive elements, ending with and magnifying the good news—all without denying the bad news. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I learned the art of managing my own thought life, moving my distorted thoughts into a gospel-based symmetry. Even as I did this, I developed methods of helping clients manage their own thoughts. I must admit I have benefited greatly from my own counseling practice!
I got busy. It’s interesting to me that my deliverance from depression came right about the time I started officially treating people for it. I was finishing up my graduate studies, practicing as an intern, helping people with similar problems to my own. My depression faded as I fought for my clients. Some of this was the result of the effectiveness of counseling methods, but I believe this effect was augmented by what might be called “service therapy”: “Doing good is a work that benefits both giver and receiver. If you forget self in your interest for others, you gain a victory over your infirmities . . . The pleasure of doing good animates the mind and vibrates through the whole body.”
Playing the role of helper, or resource person, helps us transfer our identity from the problem to the solution. It also turns us into a channel for the grace of God, gracing us in the process of gracing others. I like this arrangement a lot better.
Of course, I must insert a disclaimer here: None of the information in this article is intended to replace treatment. If you think you may have a mood disorder, see a qualified professional. While grief and sadness are normal, and may be helpful in building character, depression is not—and expert help should be sought. The Wonderful Counselor has nothing against us lesser counselors. The best of lesser counselors will intelligently and effectively help people receive help from Jesus, our tree of life, in whom is “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer is a practicing mental health counselor, author, and musician based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Originally published in the Adventist Review, used with permission.
1. In Spurgeon: A New Biography (1985) Arnold Dallimore wrote, “What he suffered in those times of darkness we may not know . . . even his desperate calling on God brought no relief. ‘There are dungeons,’ he said, ‘beneath the castles of despair.’”
2. “Feelings of unrest and homesickness or loneliness may be for your good” (Ellen G. White, Our High Calling, p. 259).
3. From Abraham Lincoln’s letter to John T. Stuart, January 23, 1841.
4. R. C. Kessler, W. T. Chiu, O. Demler, E. E. Walters, “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of Twelve-Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, No. 6 (June 2005): 617-627.
5. Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People, p. 209.