Below the Valley - a Personal Experience of Depression
Below the Valley
The darkness of the evening was tripled by the blinding storm. Construction had turned the highway into a dirt road quickly becoming a snowy, slippery swamp. The front of the lorry ahead of us attempted to go straight while its load started to twist. Angels must have kept it and us on the road. I was an ultra-sensitive kid. Master worrier, despiser of separation, and easy to discipline. Just one look or my name said with ‘that’ tone and it was instant waterworks. Normally the dangerous journey would have brought up a flood of emotion. I don’t know how old I was, maybe not even double digits. Yet, it’s a scene indelibaly impressed on my mind. Not so much for the treacherous conditions themselves but for my reaction. I wasn’t worried. And so began a foundational life theme. Through times of pain and tremendous loneliness also came God’s abundant forgiveness, grace and Paul’s reminder to the Philippians to not worry about anything, pray about everything and to thank Him for His answers.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” ‘VALLEY?!? What valley?’ I thought to myself. ‘In the valley you can at least see hilltops exist. You can still see the changing of days even if you’re unable to see the sun. There is no difference between night and day in the chasms underneath the valley. And there is certainly no light at the end of the tunnel.’ Another kind of darkness had come, seemingly impenetrable. At first it wasn’t a conscious choice. I just kept going and going... and going. Some people overwork and burn out. I overworked to cope. The weight loss wasn’t a disappointment. I was just told how tired I looked all the time.
It was ironic and yet revealed the often common lack of personal acumen. I was taking a psychopathology class during some of the worst times. But it still wasn’t sinking in. I couldn’t see I was reading about myself. Well connected to a large and growing church community I poured myself into various ministries: youth and young adults work, small groups, retreats, missions committee, to name a few. With having a supportive family, a dedicated prayer partner, reliable work, traveling opportunities, being a successful university student, and more opportunities opening, by all accounts it would have seemed the world was my oyster. In the midst of it all, I fine tuned the art of withdrawal and isolation in a crowd.
It had been a few years since we had last seen each other. DTS was a fond and already distant memory. We were reuniting for another traveling adventure, this time on my home continent. Despite having the shortest distance to travel to our first destination, it was nothing short of a miracle I even got out the door. My ability to concentrate, or lack thereof, made the smallest tasks seem to take forever. I had to sleep in the car en route that night because I was so late in leaving. It was worth every hour of discomfort to see the old crew again. The time away, however, didn’t slow me down. After full days hiking I was still running, sometimes the literal kilometres back to the trailheads. One night around our campfire I received the very truthful words said in love as only dear friends can. “We’ve noticed you’ve changed.” The tone told me it wasn’t a compliment.
My experience of Major or Recurrent Depressive Disorder (MDD) didn’t fit my stereotypes, what I see in popular media or what I’ve seen others go through. I’m guessing some of the symptoms that would have first come to mind if I had been asked fifteen years ago to describe clinical depression would have included crying all the time, extreme levels of worry or anxiety, not getting out of bed, weight gain, suicide. For some people that is the reality of depression. But, I wasn’t crying. It wasn't just low mood, it was no mood. It was as though I didn’t feel anything. We had some pretty intense family times. But, having seen God work in incredible ways, there was no way I could peg those or other circumstances as reasonable triggers. I can’t believe some of the schedules I kept and had equally crazy rationale for times I hit a wall. Anhedonia - the loss of pleasure - was pervasive, however it was my norm. I could not recall the last time I had actually laughed. As the trip with the DTS crew unfolded I felt it. I felt.
A small and monumental shift. I wish I could tell you God healed me that very night as they prayed. Awareness, however, began a sensitization to the pain and the journey towards healing that has taken many years.
There isn’t space here to do justice to dispel erroneous theological explanations I’ve heard, including MDD is because of sin (remember Jesus’ response to peoples’ inquiries about the man born blind in John 9?) Or Christians shouldn’t be hopeless. (I’m willing to bet Job had days when he was surviving one breath at a time). How about the unspoken ‘Christians need to appear happy and have it all together’ front so common in some cultures, in some churches that keeps us from genuinely connecting with one another? (We could learn from David’s laments!) Or the misconception MDD is either similar to or always accompanies the painful felt absence of God termed by St. John of the Cross as the ‘dark night of the soul.’ We could talk about how it can be a tool of the Enemy, individually or generationally. We could delve into the differences between endogenous, exogenous and MDD subtypes, the use and abuse medication debates, minimum psychiatric education standards for general and front line medical staff, what not to say to someone who discloses his or her diagnosis, etiology theories, various treatment approaches, family and friend support tools and more. Reality is, it’s complicated. We best not be too quick to oversimplify.
Jesus’ reason for the man born blind was “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3) so let me instead use this space to provide just a mere taste of God’s wondrous care.
I’ll start with the obvious. I’m writing this article in 2012. Had I not had a relationship with God I don’t honestly know if I’d be here to write.
I’m thankful for life. I’m thankful I get to live it for God.
I’m thankful for the friends who brought awareness to what I couldn’t see.
I’m thankful for the doctor who took the time to listen and help me understand heritability and the endogenous (internal) nature of my case.
I’m thankful for the invaluable, small but safe community of people God provided and their willingness to walk (or crawl on) the bumpy road with me.
I’m thankful for the courage to finally start talking.
I’m thankful for how the Holy Spirit often reshaped my perspective, from not wanting to see another day to embracing the next step, while journaling.
I’m thankful for greater understanding for how God has wired this vessel he’s created for me, the diet and exercise it needs, and what to monitor. I’m thankful for growing strength despite the damage I did to it with prolonged, elevated cortisol levels.
I’m thankful for a Christian clinical counselor who would listen to God with me.
I’m thankful for how much I forget. Even in those embarrassing moments with reminiscing friends, it reminds of God’s grace.
I’m thankful for a family who kept loving me.
I’m thankful for hope, for healing.
I’m thankful for rest.
I’m thankful while happiness can be elusive, joy cannot be stolen no matter what’s going on around me or inside me as long as I remember salvation in Christ is complete (Ps 51:12). Joy is Christ’s gift, the Holy Spirit’s fruit and the Father’s delight in me.
I’m thankful our Shepherd will sit with us below the valley.
I’m thankful nothing can separate us from His love.
The nocturnal fairytale was like a dream within a dream. How could a man this amazing love me? It was an easy decision! We were engaged quickly. Although a celebratory event, the dream was dark and quickly filled with sorrow when I found out I was seriously ill. Thinking he couldn’t possibly want to marry me then, I called off our engagement without even discussing it with him. When I saw him again I expected anger. He had every reason to be furious with me. Instead his reaction was full of compassion, disappointed I could ever think such a thing of him. He slipped the engagement ring back on my finger and held me close. Few words were required for such unconditional love.
So far, I’ve only met one other person whose depression experience is similar to my own. Hearing his story reduced the isolation. This is my very first public attempt but I don’t think I’ll ever find the words to describe the agony of MDD. Appreciating the loss of insight or clarity, the lack of hope for any change, I can understand why people can come to choose suicide. I’ve been doing well for several years yet still cried just attempting to remember pieces of my own story in writing this article. Knowing the destructive alternative, I now let the tears flow freely. And if this falls into the hands of just one person who now knows he or she is not alone in the chasm underneath the valley, every tear is worth it.