A cartoon stick figure carrying around a droopy balloon. A morose-looking woman sitting in the corner of a room. A man unable to laugh at the dinner table with the rest of his family.
We’ve all seen these commercials, the ones depicting people who suffer from depression as mopey, dreary beings. The people are melancholy and tired, always too sad or lethargic to participate in things they once enjoyed. However, after a quick dose of the latest antidepressant, the shift is immediate and significant. The gloomy are made new again, the tired are energized, and all act as if nothing was ever the matter.
While depression can reveal itself through lethargy or sluggishness, these commercials offer a one-dimensional view of what this struggle truly feels like. Sometimes depression can show up as anger or frustration. It’s not uncommon for it to look like a surge of energy — some people retaliate against depression by trying to do as many things as possible. Even an increase in bitterness or sarcasm can speak to a tendency toward an anxiety disorder.
Because depression can look so different for each person who experiences it, I knew in writing this article I needed to interview others. When I asked what depression felt like to five people, their responses varied so much it seemed as if they had each been asked about a separate disease. The only thing I could conclude is that depression can feel like anything — or everything — or nothing.
Depression feels like you’re not in control of your own mind — and then being angry with yourself because you cannot control your own happiness. Many people think depression is just being sad all the time, but it’s more than that. It’s being mad when you should be sad. It’s being sad when you should be happy. It’s feeling every emotion and no emotion at the same time.” –LuToria B.
I spend my life feeling empty, feeling some animosity toward the people leaving me alone, and even losing interest in my own personal pastimes and hobbies. It’s a feeling that builds upon itself, so I have to force myself to get out and engage with people.” –Matt C.
Depression starts as a thought in the back of my head. Very small, almost insignificant. On good days, you notice the sunshine, the people who love you, and you get through it without that thought growing or taking over, but it’s on the bad days that it starts to take over. When someone looks at you funny, you get hurt, or people just rub you wrong, something happens inside your head. That thought starts to get bigger and bigger, until it’s the only thing happening. It engulfs you, drowns you.” –Audrey J.
Depression is a beast within. Years ago in the midst of a depressive episode, I sat on the living room couch during the twilight of the day. Outside, the trees were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The depression beast ate away at where emotion and purpose should have been found within me.” –Ellen M., via Ellen Exploring
Depression feels as though someone is holding onto my brain and occasionally squeezing it in different directions. Sometimes they will squeeze the emotion completely out, until my brain has been drained; I cannot move on.” –Beth C.
Like those I interviewed (and approximately 18 percent of the adult population), I too have an anxiety disorder. Depression’s determined and skillful hands gripped my life when I was 12 years old. Even then, I compared the word “depression” to a curse word. In my experience, it’s those within the walls of the church who struggle to accept depression as a real, powerful disease, and I found myself in this group. However, after battling it for years, I realize I can no longer underestimate it, but I can learn more about it.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has done a great deal to legitimize the struggle with anxiety disorders and provide statistics that speak to their widespread, pervasive nature. In browsing this site, I took comfort in learning that women are twice as likely to struggle with anxiety or similar disorders when compared to men. Even something as small as this statistic made me feel less alone.
In my battle with depression, I’ve found many others who are fighting or have fought it. The coping mechanisms people use are as varied as the stories they represent. Just as depression manifests itself differently in each person, it can and should be treated differently as well. Some people may rely fully on antidepressants, a number swear by therapy and encouragement from others, and a few sadly self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to escape their emotions.
A Challenge to the Church
At our worst, the church can further isolate those who have an anxiety disorder like depression. Some struggle to believe depression is due to biological or chemical imbalances in the brain. They may insist that depression is circumstantial, and therefore they pass on easy fixes. A few even attribute depression to a neglected spiritual walk, a lack of faith, an inability to trust God or a reflection of sin. When we associate mental health disorders with an error in our faith, the common answer to depression is to simply “Get right with God” or “Pray harder for healing.”
A lack of faith may not be the catalyst for a person’s depression. But for those who’ve never experienced the debilitating effects of an anxiety disorder, it may be difficult to sympathize with others in this situation. In these instances, I would encourage us all to try harder — listen in an attempt to hear, ask questions that emphasize your love, not judgement, and be willing to lay aside your spiritual admonishments for another time.
At our best, the church can serve as a safe haven to those who are searching and seeking, to those who are struggling. We can point to the one true Source of hope — hope that isn’t founded on this world and doesn’t depend on our broken bodies. We can pray and sympathize and be present as the hands and feet of Jesus. We can potentially make the difference in this war against depression.
Where depression seeks to isolate, let’s come together. Where anxiety seeks to whisper lies, let’s be known for proclaiming truth. Where stigmas and shame keep people from admitting their own struggles, let’s cultivate an environment that celebrates weakness, because when we are weak, we are strong.
Copyright 2016 Anna Allen. All rights reserved.