I was sitting in a seminar about depression when it occurred to me that what the speaker was describing was precisely what I had been experiencing for some months. That was an unexpected and significant realisation for me. I had known something was wrong but it needed someone skilled to connect the dots for me. It was like a light coming on.
Until then I had some pretty ill-informed ideas about depression. I had been taught that depression was internalised anger and I believed that any medication for depression was just mood-altering stuff that was probably a way of avoiding dealing with the real issues. There had been a significant number of people suffering depression in my pastoral care over the years previous to this light-bulb moment. I can only pray that God will make it up to them for the ham-fisted way I went about advising and praying for these folk.
Just before I realised I was in depression I was disappointed in myself over the way I had come to have little energy or enthusiasm for spiritual disciplines. My habit had been to keep a daily journal, read some scripture and part of some other devotional book and pray at certain times each day. All this went by the board. Feelings of guilt rose up, but I couldn’t be bothered to respond to them. I just felt flat. While thinking I could cut corners in my inner life and probably get away with it for a while I tried harder than ever to kick-start myself into ministry activity. Everything was a real effort, even the things I normally enjoyed doing. All I really wanted to do was escape from people and sleep. Preaching was especially difficult.
I remember one Sunday morning I went down to my office early to go over my sermon. I felt really down, but was sure that what I had to say was right and important. As I prayed it through I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I had no idea what was happening, but guessed that I must be really moved by my topic “Redeemed By the Son”. Thinking that I had got the tears out of my system I got up to preach, but the tears came again, stronger than ever. I tried very hard to control myself but couldn’t. In the end I gave it up and someone else closed the service. Some people thought that “the Spirit was really moving on me” or that I had been convicted of something or was moved by compassion for the unredeemed in their plight. There were some very creative interpretations! The sad thing is that no-one actually asked me what I thought was going on. I could not have told them but it would have been nice if they had listened instead of assuming from the beginning that they knew what was going on. That’s another story. I spent a couple of days reflecting on it and concluded that I was in trouble emotionally and had better back off. A few days later I found myself in Archibald Hart’s seminar about personal growth for ministers, and his talk on depression. Great timing! I read his book, ‘Dark Clouds, Silver Linings’ and found it tremendously helpful.
After accepting that I was in depression, that the form of depression I was experiencing was a normal reaction to loss and that it was meant to be a time for healing, I relaxed about my condition, deciding to let the depression take its course. And God, far from pestering me about not putting enough effort into prayer and Bible reading, seemed to be very understanding. I felt loved by him totally and unconditionally. He was watching over me, giving me time to grieve and to adjust. This could be a risky way to relate to God long term, but it was just right for that period.
Words from Psalms 42 and 43 rang true for me:
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him,
My Saviour and my God.
This expresses well the inner conversation that was going on within me. I was indeed asking myself the question, ‘Why are you downcast?’ I needed to figure out what losses had contributed to my condition so I could bring them to God for comfort and healing. And I was reminding myself to rely on God and look forward to the day when I could once again praise him with heartfelt emotion. I was a long way from feeling any spiritual vitality at that point, but I clung to the hope that it would come back again in time.
Hart wrote about how one sort of depression was a reaction to loss. This was what I could relate to. Over the previous year and a half I had two of my colleagues in ministry leave the church – one had caused tremendous difficulties for me before he left, the other was a very good friend and a great loss to the church and to me personally. Several other friends and supporters had left the church, almost all of them to take up ministries in other places. This was what we had been empowering them for, and I should have been delighted and fulfilled, but it just hurt to say goodbye.
With all these folk leaving extra responsibility was falling on me. As a consequence I had to decline an invitation to serve a term as President of our denomination. Even though it would have taken considerable time, I would have enjoyed both the role and the recognition and honour that came with it. It was my choice, but I’d had several influential members of the church suggest I should pull out, putting considerable pressure on me. I still think it was the right move under the circumstances, but I was disappointed that others did not appreciate the sacrifice I was making. Perhaps it should not have been as big a deal for me as it was.
Another other loss I was dealing with was less specific yet it saddened me profoundly. It was a sense I had that God was saying “It’s over”. What this meant to me was that the golden era of growth, creativity and community impact that my church had been experiencing for ten years had come to an end. I cried many tears over the thought that the church I had loved and benefitted from so much would never be the same again. All churches go through these cycles, and I knew that it was necessary for old things to pass away so that new things could come. But this knowledge did not comfort me.
Although it seems a bit silly I also felt in all of this a loss of youth. As I was approaching 40 years of age it could be said that I’d lost my youth some time before. Well, that may be true, but these were honestly the thoughts that were in my head as I considered the losses which had contributed to my reactive depression.
The turning point came when I read Philippians 3:7-10 with this new concept of depression being linked to loss. “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Those words helped me more than I can express. I’d read them many times and preached them too, but Hart’s book gave me a new lens to see them through. I talked about these things with some close friends and that was a great help. They acted as my counsellors, listening and asking good questions.
My time of depression became a time of rich learning. Not only did I come to understand more clearly what depression is, I began to identify with my fellow-sufferers. I learned not to be demanding of others or myself when depression comes but to be gentle and patient. The lesson was reinforced for me that I should not assume I know what is going on for someone before I have thoroughly listened to him or her. I learned to watch out for warning signs in myself and to take seriously the concerns of those closest to me. Above all, I learned in a fresh and deep way about the beauty of God’s grace, kindness and understanding.