I didn’t know what I “had.” All I knew was that I was in one big emotional funk.
I had recently returned from living in war-torn Liberia for about a year, where I had experienced great sorrow, witnessed sickness, watched as friends died, and even had my own life threatened through an armed robbery. I had returned to the United States only weeks away from turning 30 and moved back in with my parents. I was unmarried, unemployed, boyfriendless, childless, and a whole lot of other “un-” and “-less” words.
I was anxious and sleepless and cried a lot. Disappointed because I was a writer who loves to describe all things, all I could call myself was a generic “sad.”
I struggled to communicate to my friends how I really felt. I attempted an e-mail description that was hardly poetic or helpful:
I don’t know what my deal is, but I need to change my scenery. I’m determined to get out of this rut.
I decided to leave my hometown for a little while and embark on a road trip to Washington, D.C., where I had lived before Liberia. (See Part One of this series, “Did Jesus Get into an Emotional Funk?” for how that all began.) I wanted to see my friends and get away from feelings of isolation and sadness.
I felt the need to talk to someone — to somehow express what I was feeling without feeling ashamed. I had been discouraged by my efforts so far (I felt like I babbled and couldn’t communicate clearly) and some of the responses I got when I tried.
Although well meaning, two people told me that whenever they get sad, they think about how worse off people are in other parts of the world. There’s not much of a rebuttal when someone tells you that there are people who have circumstances worse than you. How could my sad feelings compete with malnourished children or rape victims?
But they also shouldn’t have to compete. My emotions, no matter how light they seemed on the world’s suffering scale, were still my emotions. My sadness and anxiety and grief and frustration were all real. I couldn’t ignore them just because other people might be hurting more than I was.
That was part of the reason I went to see a counselor.
I had done it before about two years ago when a serious ex-boyfriend and I had broken up. It was the most difficult emotional trial I had been through, and the breakup felt like a mini-divorce. I had gone to see a counselor with both feelings of hesitation and shame — feeling defeated that I couldn’t handle things on my own and feeling embarrassed that I had to pay someone to listen to me pour out my life story. I had never been comfortable with people who talked about their therapy like they would talk about the weather, and so I mostly kept my counseling sessions a secret between me and my close friends and relatives. I worried about what people might think of me if they found out.
Since then I’ve concluded that there isn’t any shame in professional counseling. It helped me move on as a healthier, more confident person. I was willing to try it again.
The best part about professional counselors is that they are neutral people who are trained to make you feel comfortable and unashamed.
On the second day of my week-long trip to Washington, D.C., I set up an appointment with a counselor I’ll call Liz.
As I sat on a comfy couch in her office, Liz told me a truth that I hadn’t let myself believe.
“It’s OK to be sad,” she said.
Liz told me that I was being really hard on myself. It’s one thing to be unemployed and not looking for a job. Or to be living in your parents’ house and not working on a plan to move out. But you aren’t doing these things, she told me. You aren’t being irresponsible.
It’s also OK to grieve that God hasn’t brought you a partner and that you feel alone, she said.
I felt a little better. At least it was good to hear someone else affirm my feelings and speak some truth.
But I also knew I needed more than a comfy couch, a box of tissues and a feel-good counseling session. I felt like something deeper and more complex was going on inside of me.
Liz suggested that I might be dealing with some post-traumatic stress from my time in Liberia. I had faced intense emotions — witnessing suffering and sickness and death — and it was difficult to reconcile all I had experienced with the life I returned to in the United States.
Her advice to me was to let myself feel those emotions without feeling guilty but to continue working on a plan — with God’s guidance — that would improve my life. She also suggested that I keep my hope and confidence in God.
Now that was difficult advice to follow. Sometimes I have to force myself to hold onto hope.
But I remembered that Jesus didn’t live with just suffering or just hope. He knew how to live with both suffering and hope.
He wasn’t ashamed of expressing Himself. You knew when He was mad (Luke 22:45-47). You knew when He was sad (John 11: 33-36). You knew when He was suffering (Matthew 26: 41-42).
And he wasn’t ashamed of what he felt.
Perhaps Jesus wasn’t ashamed of his emotions because He was confident that the Father knew Him through and through. There wasn’t anything that God didn’t know about Jesus. They were bound to each other. Jesus had surrendered Himself completely to God. It would be impossible to keep His emotions from His Father.
But in the midst of expressing those intense emotions, Jesus also knew something quite unique. He had hope in God’s plan. He knew that God’s will was a perfect will — and that God’s will couldn’t be spoiled.
I think there is an important distinction between our feelings and our actions. Sometimes the sadness or fear we feel is natural. We can’t stop it, and I don’t think we should be ashamed.
But at the same time, I think Jesus’ example shows us that there always is hope. He is asking us to trust Him. He will step into the midst of utter despair and brokenness with us. We must fight to remember that He is a God who is loving, just and in control.
“Why all this commotion and wailing?” Jesus told those who were mourning the death of Jarius’ daughter. “The child is not dead but asleep.” (Mark 5:38-40)
And arise, she did.
Jesus is standing in the midst of our trials. He is standing with us — even when it doesn’t feel like He is there. He wants to create life out of death. He wants us to arise, as well.
And we will.
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“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.