Everyone at some point in their lives suffers with depression because of life events. The depression may last for a few hours or a day or even a few days. Depression that lasts for many days or even weeks, however, is cause for concern.
Depression has been described as a common mental disorder, characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration.1 Women are “twice as likely to suffer depression as men.”2
My journey with depression began in 1996. A year seemingly no different from any other year in my life, with its share of challenges, joys, and sorrows. Except it was the year I would tumble into a dark place.
It all began in 1985 when I lost my firstborn son, Joseph, Jr., at the age of 4. One bright and beautiful Caribbean Sunday morning Joey, as we affectionately called him, was attacked by a dog and died in the hospital within hours of the attack. That day life changed for my husband, Joe, and me. We walked “through the valley of the shadow of death,” but it was also during that difficult time that Joe and I formed a true and lasting relationship with Jesus Christ for the first time in our lives.
Eleven years later, however, a series of events occurred that reached into my past memories of Joey’s death and triggered my depression. It was a year I will never forget. My bottle of pain tablets looked so enticing and seemed to promise peace and an end to my emotional and physical pain. When I attempted to take the tablets, my husband found me at just the right time, God’s perfect time. My husband is the one who gently but firmly suggested I seek help, and I did. That was the beginning of a new journey, my journey to joy in Jesus.
Two things were most important in my recovery. The first was to get the right medication to relieve the sadness that engulfed my life. Until that sadness lifted, I was unable to motivate myself to exercise, eat right, pray, read my Bible, or even make the good choices that would help me recover. After a period of six to eight weeks on medication, the darkness began to lift. It was like walking out of a dark room into the bright sunshine. Everything looked bright and hopeful.
Finding a good doctor was the second most important thing in my recovery. I found a psychiatrist who told me, “For every period of high in your life there will be a corresponding low period.” She warned me not to take it seriously, that it would pass and that during that time I should not do things such as shopping or making major decisions. I have taken that advice seriously, and I feel better prepared for those low periods when they come.
Once the darkness lifted I was able to turn to my Bible again, and there I found my strength in rejoicing in God. During my depression, when I had no desire to read the Word, and my only words to my Father in heaven were cries of help, others were interceding on my behalf. That’s why I tell my friends, “When you feel depressed or discouraged and cannot pray, reach out to someone and ask them to pray for you.” God hears the prayers of those who plead on our behalf, and comes to our aid. I know this to be true.
Has my depression gone away? Not quite, even with medication. As with many other people, my struggle with depression is complicated by a lifelong struggle with chronic pain, which, combined with fatigue, at times overrides my medication and results in depressive episodes. As a Christian, however, I know there will be an end, and I know there is hope.
Now here comes the cliché statement that some may choose to disregard. But because I have lived it I know it is true: God gave me back my joy. I don’t mean the laughter and happy feelings; I mean a state of mind that gives me hope, even when I’m sad.
During this journey I have received much unsolicited advice, which has been both interesting and frustrating. Some well-meaning soul would advise me to read my Bible more, pray more, praise more, even sing my way out of depression. I tried, but it didn’t work. Some days I could not pray, and life seemed so hopeless, empty, and dark. Could they not understand how I felt?
With all the information available, the Christian community is still not very good at dealing with those of us who are depressed. We immediately assume depressed persons have a weak Christian experience or no connection to God. We assume that the problem of the mind is a problem of the heart; and in some cases that may be true. With my own limited experience in talking with believers from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds, however, I’ve found that the cause is usually an event or a series of events that happen in our lives.
The stigma attached to depression in the church must be removed, but to do so we need to educate our church members about mental illness. So as I travel the globe I share my journey with depression with others, and tell them of God’s gift of strength and joy. I do this because I believe that each trial is a testimony to the goodness of God in our lives. Paul writes that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
I remember the day after Joey died. I found myself searching my Bible for words of comfort and hope. Yet all I could find were verses that talked about joy and rejoicing, praise and gladness. I was in no mood then to read about those things. My heart was breaking, and I wanted peace and comfort. But God knew that 11 years after my son died I would need to know that word “joy.”
Heather-Dawn Small is director of Women’s Ministries for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, a position she has held since 2001.