The week following my 30th birthday, I hit an all-time low.
I was single. I was unemployed. I was living in my parent’s house — with them.
Good old, docile melancholy was leading to more frenzied emotions — like anxiety — and they all threatened to combust like a grade school volcano science project. I felt isolated and alone and quite frankly, abnormal.
So much had changed since I had recently come back from Liberia, a war-torn, West African country. Friends had gushed with news while I was gone and had followed through with their plans upon my return (“I’m dating!” turned into engagement. “I’m engaged!” turned into wedded matrimony. “I’m pregnant!” turned into a newborn baby.)
Their news, although delightful, just reminded me more of my miserable place in life. All I could think about was those people who annoyingly insist that being single and being married are equally satisfying. I cried every night for nearly two weeks following my 30th birthday. I didn’t even understand why I cried. I just felt like it.
I couldn’t sleep. And then I would sleep too much. I didn’t feel like going out. I struggled to find something to look forward to every day. I felt something I’ve never felt before in my whole life — even through two heart-wrenching breakups:
I felt a little hopeless.
Ah, I cringe inside to write that word. How can a Christian feel hopeless? With God there always is hope (Hebrews 6:17-19). And His hope is the kind that doesn’t disappoint (Isaiah 49:23).
I’ve long believed those words, but I didn’t feel like I believed them in those dark moments. I was in one, big emotional funk — and it was difficult for anyone to pull me out of it.
My father tried.
What’s the matter? Do you have a headache?
Does your stomach hurt?
I was afraid and ashamed to voice what I thought might be wrong with me.
My mother piped in: “I think your iron is low. That’s why you are so tired.”
Later, I confided in my mother. I told her I was very sad, and my mood wasn’t improving. I wondered if all I really needed was a little vitamin B-12 — or if I needed something more.
The word “depression” should be used carefully. Plenty of people get sad, but they aren’t clinically depressed. Clinical depression is thought to be a result of genetic predisposition, life stresses and an imbalance of neurotransmitters — chemical communicators with the brain. If you have depression, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a normal person. More than 20 million people are thought to experience depression in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. I had many of the signs of being depressed: insomnia and excessive sleeping, appetite loss, lack of motivation, anxiousness, pessimism that wouldn’t go away, a feeling of worthlessness, relatives who had dealt with undiagnosed sadness.
No one really knew how to help me. I didn’t exactly know how to help myself. I struggled to tell my friends that I was sad. I felt ashamed to give a name to an emotional phase in my life that I thought I should be able to fight through solo.
But I continued feeling badly. As the days past, I grew increasingly restless, agitated and even angry.
I thought about what I could do to change my circumstances in the short-term, hoping that those decisions would lead to my long-term happiness.
Immediately, my friend Anna came to mind. When she didn’t like her job, she looked for a new one. Upon approaching her 30th birthday last year, she was determined that she would embrace it. She collaborated with her friends on a fun birthday bash. When she wasn’t finding good boyfriends in her social circles, she gave online matchmaking a try and found Sam, a man whom she has been dating for nearly a year. The point of this story is that Anna took responsibility for her happiness. She changed the things she didn’t like. I admire Anna for that.
Anna is a woman of action. I thought about how Jesus also was a person of action. He made the right moves at the perfect times in His life — all with determination and conviction and humility. He knew when it was the right time to leave, and He left without questioning His decisions or feeling guilty or looking back. His confidence most surely came from His close relationship with His Father. He was completely surrendered to God and trusted the Father’s ways regardless of trying emotions.
I wanted to be more like that.
But in the midst of my emotional funkiness, I didn’t feel like I had a close relationship with God — certainly not like Jesus had with the Father in the midst of personal crises. I felt a vacancy for God. I don’t know if that was my fault or was just the way it was. But I didn’t feel like God was hearing me or responding. While in Liberia, I knew more people to die than I have ever in my life. I actually stopped praying for people because I figured they were going to die anyway.
That is shocking for a person like me to write. I’m naturally an idealist who makes cynical reporter-types cringe with my sugary philosophy for becoming a journalist: I thought I could help change the world. I still do.
“When tragedy hits your life, you don’t just lose a thing or a person. You lose the way you used to see the world,” a friend wrote on his Facebook page recently. I felt that way about Liberia. I felt that I lost the way I used to see the world.
Christian author Jenny Schroedel writes in “From Despair to Dawn” that when we feel an emptiness in the midst of personal suffering, we may be experiencing “despair.” Despair, she writes, is “the death of hope.” Jesus experienced “something like despair” as He hung on the cross:
Jesus felt abandoned. Some of his best friends, with their freshly-washed feet, the taste of bread and wine still on their lips, pretended like they never knew him while he was being led away. Even God seemed to withdraw — offering no solace or comfort as he hung on the cross, just a shattering, expansive silence.
Jesus’ anguished question echoes through our own moments of despair, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
In the midst of feeling so lost, I decided to get away. I got in my car and drove to Washington, D.C., where I had lived before leaving for Liberia. I wanted to be with my friends. I wanted to have fun. I didn’t want to endure another week of joblessness, singleness, and newly-thirtyness squeezed between another Monday through Friday. I knew that without God’s guidance, any big changes I made to make myself feel happier were really just Band-Aids.
But I also felt like something had to change.
As night spread out over the Virginia countryside, the symbolism of my journey couldn’t have been clearer. My headlights flashed through the blackness onto signs bearing the names of towns such as “Locust Grove” and “Wilderness.”
I didn’t understand why I was so sad. But I remembered that Jesus had experienced deep sadness, too.
He had lived, after all, in the “wilderness” most of His life. Jesus is described as a “man of sorrows” in Isaiah (Isaiah 53:3). He said his soul was grieved “to the point of death in Matthew (Matthew 26:38). His tears fall in John and in Hebrews (John 11: 34-36; Hebrews 5:7-9). He felt alone and rejected on the cross.
At least Jesus and I had something somewhat in common.
I also remembered that I had been called to enter the “locust groves” and the “wildernesses” of my communities and my world.
The Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that
the minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and make that recognition the starting point of his service. Whether he tries to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by suffering about which he speaks.
Perhaps my “service” couldn’t be authentically received unless I got stuck for a little while in the muddy emotions of my life.
I didn’t know. I questioned everything. My headlights beamed bright and yellow onto the dark terrain ahead of me.
I wondered: Would I find my way out?
* * *
“Digressing into Depression? A Journey Through Common Sadness” is a five-part series based on author Christina Holder’s bout with intense sadness following several upheavals in her life. It is a glimpse into one woman’s struggle with sadness and is not meant to be a resource for those facing clinical depression or to replace counseling from licensed mental health professionals.
Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling with depression or mood disorders and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.
Copyright 2010 Christina Holder. All rights reserved.