I dealt with depression for the first time when I was fifteen. To be perfectly honest, it started because I felt so guilty. I had snuck outside after all parents were asleep to make out with the visiting missionary’s older, wild, green-eyed son when they stayed with us for a week on a fund-raising tour. He tasted like smoke and his sister kept bugging us to stop. (Definitely weird, but a good way to keep your purity…) I felt so guilty for what I had done that I went into a depression that lasted for months, even making myself physically ill. I listened to a Margaret Becker cassette tape non-stop, singing about how God wasn’t afraid of my honesty. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and tried to smile and act normal around other people, but inside I felt dead. God gave a prophetic word to a youth worker one night in Bible study and she prayed for me. That night my illness went away along with the depression. I felt like a wet, thick, heavy blanket fell off my shoulders. That’s when I realized I’d been depressed.
During my freshman year of college I lived in a girl’s dorm. Horrible, unspeakable nightmares became a regular occurrence. When I woke up in the morning, I was so upset and disgusted that I laid in bed, paralyzed, unable to face other people, unable to look in the mirror. I spent many days in bed crying and worrying that something was deeply wrong with me. I went to the college counselor and she was as wacky as anybody I’d ever met. Among other things, before I’d talked for 15 minutes she told me that my parents were total crap and had done everything wrong. I knew that my parents had done a pretty decent job and while not perfect, were definitely not total crap. I never went back. But I had a dull ache inside and didn’t know what to do to make it better. I fell in love that summer and thought for sure that the ache would go away. I was blissfully happy and sure that I’d be married soon, but even then I knew something was terribly wrong inside.
When the boy I was blissfully happy dating dumped me, the dull ache became a seething wound. I worked at a Tex-Mex restaurant and most of my memory of that year involves all the food I ate. After eating an early dinner, I’d work for five hours, forget the dinner I already ate and eat again. Fast food and Tex-Mex did it’s work quickly and within a year I gained 50 pounds. I listened to country music and cried nearly every moment I was alone. My parents tried to talk to me, but they assumed I was so upset about the break up because we must have had sex. Their suggestion offended me because it insinuated that I shouldn’t be that upset if I hadn’t had sex. Not that I would tell them, but I was still a virgin. I was a mess and the heart-break was the only thing I knew to cry about, but I was crying for the dull ache and the fifteen year old girl and other things I had no way to understand at that point. The wet, thick, heavy blanket was back with a vengeance.
Somehow I managed to graduate from college within the expected four-year time period. I’m still not sure how I did that. I’d graduated high school near the top of my class and in college lost my academic scholarship and feared I might not graduate because you had to have a cumulative 2.5 GPA. I think mine might have been a 2.6? I knew something in my life had to change, so I moved to Nashville after college to pursue music and book publishing.
By the grace of God, I ended up at a church that had a full-service counseling center for their members. My sweet aunt, a psychiatric nurse, listened to my woes and expressed her concern. She suggested I get professional help. I was skittish after my one and only experience with a counselor, but since the church fees were income-based, I decided to give it a try. The counselor faxed me a form to fill out before I came in. The form requested all kinds of personal information and at the very top it said something to the effect of, “If you want counseling to work, be honest. If you aren’t honest, we can’t help you.” Cringing, I filled the form out honestly and faxed it back. I remembered that statement and decided I was going to do it right. But for safety, one of my first statements to my counselor went something like this: “I come from a very good, Christian home. My parents are just about perfect. They did a good job with me, taught me the Word, and I love them very deeply. Whatever is wrong with me is not their fault.”
That was the beginning of six years of counseling. This counselor was a gift from God – down to earth, honest, and extremely talented. Those sessions absolutely changed my life. It was hard work, but I got to the root of my depression and was able to work through it. The seething wound, which had begun to heal a bit with time, cleared up.
I had one more bout with depression near the end of those six years when the man whose engagement ring I wore decided he wanted to date indefinitely. He wasn’t ready to get married after all. I started having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and my jaw ached all the time because I constantly clenched my teeth. My lovely counselor told me about something called an anti-depressant and my primary care physician gave me a six-month supply of samples.
I was still sad and I still cried, but my sadness became manageable. I could get out of bed and get my job done and maintain my friendships. The side effects were fairly mild – sleepiness and a foggy memory. It wasn’t bad, but I noticed at times I couldn’t recall the word I needed or it took me a little longer to figure out simple math. I took it for six months, as my doctor and counselor suggested, and then I quit. I felt like I could handle it at that point. My grandfather passed away within a week of going off it, but even with that I had a normal level of grief.
I found out during my next doctor’s visit that it’s dangerous to go off those drugs cold-turkey. You’re supposed to wean off them. Not doing so can cause serious side-effects. My doctor freaked out when I told him. Thankfully I never experienced any problems.
A few years later when I was in seminary, I had another dark time. I was sad and didn’t know why. I did much soul-searching and wore out a good friend who is a therapist with questions and discussions. I got to the bottom of the problem pretty quickly and dealt with it. When I talked to my dad about it a few weeks after the darkness lifted, he said with compassion, “Oh Kimberly, it’s February.” Huh? He explained that the days are shortest in February, it’s cold and it’s been cold for a while, and the fun of the holidays has worn off, so many people get down in February. Who knew? My problem wasn’t simply the time of year, but that probably didn’t help. Ever since then I’ve been on the look out for that wretched month and do my best to schedule fun, invigorating things then to ward off the blues.
I read something in the book Hiding from Love by Dr. John Townsend a few years ago that has really helped my outlook on depression. He basically wrote that depression is what happens when we get sad and can’t process the feelings. Instead of dealing with the sadness, we get stuck, and that is depression. Sadness is the antidote for depression. When bad things happen, it’s normal to feel sad about them. If we allow ourselves to feel the sadness and deal with it, then we move through it and return to normal. When we don’t deal with it, we get depressed. Sadness is a temporary, difficult feeling; depression is a black swirling hole of muck that tries to suck you in and hold you down.
I had some sadness to deal with, but my experience of the world and normal human relationships was so limited that I didn’t know sadness was the correct feeling. I acted like everything was normal and told myself I was fine. But I needed to feel sadness so I could move on. Instead I felt like the swirling black muck might suck me under. My counselor helped me understand the way things happen in normal, healthy relationships and then helped me face the unhealthy, abnormal things I had experienced. I got sad (and angry) for a while, but then I moved on. I was able to forgive when I understood that my circumstances required some forgiveness and it was okay to acknowledge that fact. In my case, the anti-depressant helped me function while I worked through some extremely sad and angry feelings. Without it I’m not sure how I could have kept going to work and interacting with others. I was thankful for it.
Since reading that information, I have learned to allow myself to feel sadness when sad things happen. I don’t like to cry because I really hate the cry “hangover” – pounding headache, puffy eyes, splotchy face, and blurry vision. I also tend to think I’m strong enough to handle hard things and keep on going. It’s hard to stop and let myself feel the sadness, to cry or scream or punch something. But crying releases the stress and washes away the pain, so I allow myself to cry with a cold wash cloth and 2 Advil. It helps. And I allow myself to rest when I recognize that I’m in a stressful situation. Oh, and I also exercise. Boxing is really good to get out anger and long walks are good for clearing the head. Long walks often help me to stop the tape playing repetitively in my head trying to make sense of something I don’t understand.
The summer of 2009 was blissfully happy. There was no underlying ache. Life was simply good. My relationship with God was thriving. My job responsibilities brought me joy. I had a lot of time with my incredible friends. I even had a personal trainer. I remembered when I got glasses in elementary school. I hadn’t known how clear the world could look until it was suddenly clear and I realized how fuzzy it had been. I hadn’t realized that some people go through most of their lives with this kind of clarity. I savored it while it lasted. The bliss faded as the temporary circumstances I was enjoying came to an end. It was amazing while it lasted and I look forward to more times like that in the future. Now that I know that it’s possible, I’m on the lookout for it.
I know it’s not always that easy, but it’s my hope that throughout the rest of my life I’ll continue to learn and practice more effective ways of dealing with sadness and moving through it. I hope I never have depression again. I hope I never take an anti-depressant again. But if something devastating happens and I’m struggling to get out of bed and take a shower, I’ll go back on them to get through the rough patch. But if there is a next time, I promise to wean myself off them slowly.
I feel that it’s important to mention in closing that my experience is quite different from many people I have spoken with over the years. I’m grateful that my depression has been treatable and manageable. Unlike many others, I responded well to the first drug I was given. The resources that were available to me to get the help I needed were priceless. If you do not struggle with depression but know someone who does, I beg you not to tell them they simply need to pray more or should snap out of it. If you feel it’s an issue of prayer, then YOU pray for them more. If you feel they need to snap out of it, then be their friend and help them laugh and lighten their load in any way you can. But please do not place a heavier burden on them then they already carry. They would snap out of it if they could. If they had the energy to pray more, they actually might. Help them carry their burden and vent your frustrations to God. That’s just my two cents, but of course this is my blog so you know that. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts all the way to the end of this very long entry. I welcome your comments.