I was cleaning out a bookshelf when I found it: “What Do You Do When You Become Depressed?”
I dropped it the second I realized what it was.
I’ve had this pamphlet since I was 14. I’ve read it maybe three times, but much of the advice is imprinted in my brain and I have unconsciously tried to follow its advice ever since.
The advice is toxic.
This picture was taken around the time I was given the pamphlet. Whenever I am too hard on myself for believing what I did, seeing a picture of myself back then helps me have grace for myself. I was too young to realize that I deserved better.
When I began writing this post, I was going to suss out the healthy thoughts from the toxic ones line by line. The more I read, the more I realized how tricky that would be.
The toxic thoughts are so tightly wound around the truth, the truth is almost smothered.
The following quotes are taken from this pamphlet. I am doing my very best to not take them out of context, but I am more than happy to loan the pamphlet to you in person if you would like to read the whole thing. I don’t want to post pictures and infringe on the copyright. All emphasis is mine.
Your depression can be overcome, not only now, but for good.
[The advice] you will read is not complex, does not require a long time to achieve, and it never fails.
The way [to overcome depression] is neither my way nor the way of another human being– it is God’s way.
Depression can be defeated by God’s directions and by the power that God gives through His Spirit to enable those who know Him to follow His Word.
Although depression is a terribly debilitating problem that is far too widespread among Christians as well as among those who do not know God, it is not so difficult a problem to solve as at first it might seem to be. What you need to recognize is that depression comes as the result of a failure in self-control and self-discipline.
The depressed person is one who when he is down also gives out.
God so constructed us that when we fail to handle responsibilities properly, our consciences trigger bad feelings [which can lead to depression]. David looked at depression as a merciful warning sign from God intended to goad him to repentance and a change of art or behavior. (Psalm 32:4) The guilt that underlies depression comes from the failure to handle the problem or setback God’s way. Therefore, any failure to heed this warning, or any attempt to silence it by shock treatments, the use of antidepressants, by home brew, etc., constitutes an additional failure that only compounds the guilt and increases the intensity of the bad feelings that stem from it.
Depression comes when we fail to handle the blues, the disappointment, the perplexity, the guilt, or the physical affliction God’s way. It comes from whenever we allow the bad feelings that are associated with these problems to hinder us from carrying out our duties. When we do follow our feelings instead of following our obligations to God and to our neighbors we are guilty and this makes us feel even worse.
Depression comes from handling a situation, in which you feel bad, wrongly.
The key to warding off depression, then, is this: do not follow your feelings when you know that you have a responsibility to discharge. Instead, against your feelings, you must do as you should.
At the end, the author gives a summary of his advice:
1. Confess your sin of failing to assume your responsibility along with any other sin that you may have failed to confess.
2. Begin to do whatever it is that God wants you to do in order to please Him, regardless of whether you feel like it or not.
3. Deal biblically with any particular sin that may have triggered the bad feeling originally (the feeling may not have originated in sin however).
4. Avoid pity parties, blue funks and gripe groups. Schedule your work, then follow your schedule, not your feelings.
Earlier, he elaborates on the pity parties: “hanging on the phone with a neighborhood crony or spending all morning complaining over coffee about how bad things are when you ought to be at home working.”
Friends, I believed every word of this pamphlet. My depression was from sinning and I just needed to repent and obey; I needed to just stop sinning. I shouldn’t talk about my depression because that would be complaining; I needed to stay silent. Taking medication was a sin against God and meant I was trying to shirk the responsibility of fixing myself.
God wasn’t someone I could go to for help because he was disappointed I couldn’t pull myself together. I had the Holy Spirit, after all. He should be enough to make get better.
For the most part, the spiritual leaders in my life affirmed these things. In fact, I received this pamphlet from well-meaning Christians I trusted. In their defense, I’m not sure they had previewed the contents. I know they loved me, but what they said and did really hurt.
All this advice worked, for a while.
Four depressed episodes and one crash-and-burn later, and I finally gave up.
I was defective. I was having problems because I wasn’t strong enough to obey. Through those episodes, I always felt like I was a bad person.
Disobedience was the root of my suffering, not a chemical imbalance or being taught lies about myself and God. Certainly it was all my fault.
I was talking about this pamphlet one time with some friends, and one recommended I rewrite the whole thing with advice that I needed to hear.
I needed to know taking medication is not a sin.
I needed to know medication can sometimes help.
My clinical depression was not and is not my fault. By accepting this, I have been able to make progress because I am taking responsibility for what I actually can control.
I cannot control the fact that my brain doesn’t have enough serotonin or dopamine or any other chemical that’s imbalanced.
That is not my fault.
My responsibility is to find one small thing I can change in my life that might alleviate pain, create a strategy to make it happen, then start putting it into action. When that one small action isn’t so difficult, I’ll add another small thing to it. When those things are easier, I’ll add a few more things until all the balls I’m juggling are staying in the air.
I can go to a doctor and check for a vitamin deficiency. My body might not have the nourishment it needs. I could have adrenal fatigue or an issue with my thyroid. There are a number of physical problems that have depression as a side-effect. Saying this is entirely a spiritual issue is actually wrong.
I can take regular walks up and down my street to release some natural dopamine: endorphins. For some people, that is enough to help them feel better.
I can talk to a counselor for professional emotional support. I can hear an unbiased perspective on my situation and be taught a variety of strategies to regain my footing.
I can find support from friends and family by telling them how I feel and specifically how I need their support. When I need to talk, I can talk. When I need someone to help me distract myself, they can help with that, too.
I can wake up every day and decide that I will keep moving, even if it means I move slowly and that I don’t go as far as I want.
I can redefine success to accommodate and challenge my abilities: I cannot stop myself completely from having self-loathing thoughts, but I can tell myself “God loves me” every time those hurtful thoughts appear; it doesn’t stop the thoughts completely, but it is a small, solid step in the right direction.
On the days I just feel low and worthless, I can focus on surviving the day. It doesn’t matter how well I survive so long as I survive. I don’t focus on doing everything as well as I want, but instead on just getting the job done. On these days, any effort is enough. It has to be. If I know I can’t be good enough, I won’t bother to try; I will give up.
Any momentum forward is progress to celebrate. Moving backward is part of the process, too, and should be accepted with grace and self-compassion.
Perfection doesn’t matter; persistence does.
Any persistence, even a little bit, is enough because it leads to more persistence.
Most importantly, I can tell God how I feel. I can fling every heavy emotion at him and know he is strong enough to handle all of that and more. I can be completely broken and messy and know God isn’t angry about any of it. I can ask for help, comfort, and peace. Those things won’t always or often cure me, but they do help.
My point is this: I agree there are things a person can do that can help her depression. I agree a person needs to make an effort to do something, but I believe it can be as small as continuing to eat and breathe. I do not believe disobedience or laziness always cause depression. I do not believe they often cause depression. Making a schedule will not cure depression every time.
And for God’s sake, stop saying taking an antidepressant is a sin or a failure because that is cruel. The medication I take every morning makes going to college possible. It makes going to church possible. It makes being with my friends and family possible. Could I live without it? I suppose. I did for 18 years.
I also had five depressed episodes in four years, whereas I haven’t had any since beginning the medicine two years ago. You tell me which situation sounds better.
For me, the only way I have been able to follow any of the things I have mentioned above is thanks to my antidepressant. It helped me get back on my feet so I could start making changes in my life. I praise God every single day because of my medication. My antidepressant doesn’t negate my faith in God; it makes life more possible. It doesn’t take away from God’s mercy. It is God’s mercy. I don’t deserve it, and I think there are people in worse pain who need it more than I do, but I’m so thankful.
Although I don’t agree with everything John Piper says, his opinion on antidepressants helped me feel less guilt when I first began to take them.
Christian George from The Spurgeon Center describes Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, as most likely having depression. If Charles Spurgeon was constantly serving others and preaching the Gospel, why was he depressed? At the risk of sounding shrill, I would like for the author of that pamphlet to look me in the face and say Charles Spurgeon’s depression was because he “failed to handle [life’s problems] God’s way”. If depression truly were from a lack of self-control, then Spurgeon, one of the most prolific pastors who ever lived, could never have felt depressed.
I promise I’ll get off my soapbox, but only after I say this:
In the book Blue Genes, Paul Meier, M.D. compares wearing glasses in the 1700s to taking antidepressants in current times. He describes the following situation:
When Benjamin Franklin discovered bifocals, some ignorant people called them “devil eyes.” In those days, people who wore glasses were often criticized. They were even told by Christian legalists that if they had enough faith in God, He would heal their poor eyesight. This heaped false guilt on people with poor vision whether they wore glasses or not. The same kinds of people today say similar foolish things to people who suffer depression, [etc].
I really like what Chandra Pierce, a Christian comedienne with bipolar disorder, adds to this topic: “If someone ever shames you about the medicine you’re taking […] tell them to take their glasses off and drive home.”
Amen and amen.