As you may know, this past weekend, one of the most influential and visible religious leaders in America suffered a great loss. Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in California, is mourning the loss of his 27-year-old son, Matthew, who committed suicide on Friday. Upon hearing the news this weekend, and reading the message Warren sent to his staff about it, my heart was very heavy. I admire the grace Warren displayed in his message, lauding the courage of his son, who even after expressing the depths of his pain ten years ago, kept living and kept fighting.
I still feel heavy about it, honestly. Perhaps because it hits close to home. Perhaps because while I saw gracious and courageous responses to their pain, I also saw and heard despicable ones. Perhaps because it’s an issue that effects 26% of Americans in a given year and that 17% of Americans have been diagnosed with depression in the past.
And so my question is this: Can we start talking about this? Can we start talking about depression? And suicide? And anxiety? Like really talking about it?
Not enough people talk about it. And perhaps most importantly to me, the Church isn't talking about it. The place where people should walk in and have chains and shame come off, feel welcomed, esteemed, valued, loved -- doesn't talk about these dark things, like depression and suicide and anxiety. And so droves of people looking to religion or faith to alleviate their pain sometimes suffer in silence.
I realize that I am making a sweeping generalization when I say “the Church.” But too often, when the evangelical church talks about these things, it is retroactively. Stories are told of "suffering from…" and then "overcoming" or "defeating" depression/anxiety/any number of other things.
I greatly respect people like Perry Noble, Carlos Whittaker and others for being honest about their struggles with depression and anxiety. I appreciate Ed Stetzer and Rebekah Lyons and Relevant Magazine and Q Ideas writing about mental illness, depression and counseling. But, I still long for our pastors, leaders and mentors to be honest and to talk about their struggles… as they are in them. I long to hear people talk like Paul did, “that I don't have it all together... but I am well on my way...” I long to hear people admit openly their failures, their fears and to narrate their stories as they are living them. And I long for grace and empathy to be so present in our churches and in our families that when people share such stories, we laud them as heroes and lift them up as champions, rather than just pray for them and hope they can recover or move past it.
I want the Church to start talking about it. But I am the Church. I am part of this amazing body of believers. And so if I want to see the Church talk about it, I will start talking about it. I will own my story, and tell my story, the best I can.
Nearly two years ago, I started talking to a therapist every week. Nearly 104 weeks and a considerable amount of dollars and minutes later, I still talk to her once a week. Why? Because I've endured some crappy things in my life, because I am very broken, in need of finding, and because depression is something I've become well acquainted with.
I don't really remember when it started, but depression has been something I've dealt with for a long time. I thought maybe it started in high school, after I went through some experiences that altered my life forever. But if I'm honest, and extremely thoughtful and introspective, it's been around for much longer than that. I'm an introvert, a melancholy, and a number 4 on the Enneagram, and so perhaps I am more prone to it than some. But depression has been a close acquaintance of mine, on and off, for years. Sometimes it’s lasted just a few days, sometimes a few months, and in the hardest season of my life, it seemed like it lasted forever, and would never lift.
In my darkest of moments, in the depths of despair, I've had thoughts of death. I remember in high school, lying in bed at night, and just hoping that somehow I wouldn’t wake up the next morning, feeling that not existing would ease the inexplicable pain, heartache and isolation I felt.
Then, four years later, in my senior year of college, I was driving home from a campus ministry meeting one night, and as clearly as I would hear someone speak out loud, the thought came to me of how easy it would be to drive my car into the light of the oncoming traffic, and somehow end the darkness that enveloped me.
The thought frightened me... And I gripped my steering wheel a little harder, and cried and shook the entire way home. I walked into my house, sat down on the floor of my roommate’s room, and cried and told her what I had just thought and felt and where did it come from and would it ever end? I wanted to live... But not like this.
A few months later, I opened up to a pastor about all that had been going on internally. And that began a several year process of me looking at my past, exploring things that have happened in my life, being more vulnerable with friends than I have ever been, and talking to a therapist.
I’m three years removed from that fleeting thought in my car. But even this past year, in January and February, I had to fight to stay above the fray. It felt like I was walking around in a cloud... Or as Anne Lamott puts it so well, like I had an x-ray apron on my chest. I’d sleep for hours at night, and still find it impossible to get out of bed in the morning. I’d cry at the drop of a hat, and not just once a month. I could be with my closest of friends, and still feel alone. Work was hard, but really resting was even harder.
It took another conversation with my therapist to realize and own what was happening... That I was mildly depressed. I’d been here before, and yet I was here again. I was doing everything I knew to “fix it” or ease it. And yet it wasn’t going away. And my resounding question was Whywhywhywhy?
The thing is this: I still don’t have an answer for that question. I don’t feel “fixed” or “healed.” Depression doesn’t go away just because I have faith or because I pray or because I pay someone to help me process my emotions. I feel better than I did two months ago, and I am thankful for that. But I know that a wave can come again, and that what keeps me going and keeps me afloat is not a simple thing. It’s a mix of things, a combination of faith and friends, exercise and hard work, therapy, being honest, praying, crying, eating well and at times even medicine.
And yet most vital to my journey the last three years have been the promises of Jesus. Even in my darkest moments, when I could not see anything, I clung to the still small voice that promised me: this is not how it should be, that one day all will be made well, and that He is present with me in it until then.
There was nothing quick-fix about these words. Nothing that would solve what I was experiencing. Yet these promises are what have held me up and sustained me.
I want the Church to start talking about depression and anxiety and the dark things of the soul. And so I’m talking about it. I hope you will feel free to talk about it too.
Over the next few days and weeks, I’ll be posting more on depression, mental illness, and the church.