This post was written by Becca Lafferty, a high school English teacher in Singapore. You can read more from Becca on her blog.
I have struggled with diagnosed major depressive disorder (MDD) since my sophomore year of college, but I know that I began wrestling with seasons of depressions starting during my adolescent years.
However, I never knew what the seasons of grey-ness were. I didn’t know why suddenly sunshine and happiness felt as thin and transparent as tissue paper. I didn’t know why the only true and solid things in my life were sadness and despair and pain. I guess the reason I couldn’t figure all of that out is because there weren’t people in my life that were speaking out about depression.
I want to speak about my struggle with depression because I wish someone had given a voice to my feelings when I was 14 and slumped over in my bed crying and not understanding why I felt so hollow and empty even though I loved Jesus.
Oh. There it is. I remember feeling like Christians couldn’t feel sad or shouldn’t feel sad. I remember hearing “the joy of the Lord is your strength” from well-meaning people. I remember wondering why, if Jesus loved me and I loved him, I couldn’t seem to be happier, lighter, and more full of joy.
My sophomore year of college I started to feel the sophomore slump. Suddenly I cared less about school and more about sleep. I started staying in my bed for a ridiculous amount of time and I would skip classes. I even started failing academically (like, literal F’s). This was not me, but I chalked it up to exhaustion and a shift in priorities (sleep was more important than school). Then I also started distancing myself from my friends and I wasn’t hungry but I was gaining weight. I kinda dropped out of church activities and locked myself in my room over the weekends. I knew I was unhappy with where I was (my major in school, my own despondency) but I felt totally and completely incapable to make any real decision or take any real action. After a couple months of being unable to crawl out of my pit, I finally got up the nerve to talk to my parents. I don’t know why I was so nervous to voice my suspicions to my (incredibly supportive and godly) parents. But I was so scared to tell them that I thought I was depressed. They responded as I should have known they would, with genuine concern and love and by making a doctor’s appointment.
I went to the doctor and he ran blood tests and asked questions about me and how I was feeling and for the first time I was 100% honest. I was sad and listless and tired all the time. I had zero interest in the things that used to interest me and found myself crawling into bed and being unable to leave. He basically told me I was textbook MDD and recommended a low dosage of the anti-depressant Lexapro and to see a therapist. Both of those things I did with the full loving support of my parents.
Do you know how uncomfortable it is to be on anti-depressants and seeing a therapist in a conservative Christian community? I was so scared to tell my friends that I was taking medication and seeing a counselor. I was afraid they would question my faith and would look down on me.
Why do we have this aversion to taking medication for mental/emotional struggles? I don’t really have the full answer to that, but I think that we separate physical and mental illness in a dangerous way, particularly in the Christian community. We think that prayer and worship should heal our emotional selves, but when it comes to physical healing we would never just tell someone to pray about their Diabetes but not to go see a doctor and learn how to regulate their insulin. That would be foolish and misguided and dangerous!
I would argue that the same principle applies to depression/anxiety/etc. Jesus came to HEAL. He addressed the physical and emotional and spiritual needs of people – he is interested in the whole person. So too should we be. He came to redeem a fallen order and a fallen world (John 3:16-21).
As I began to come to grips with my medication and therapy, I realized that this would be an ongoing battle in my life. However, it wouldn’t be one that I would be required to fight alone.
Medication helped me back on my feet. Therapy helped me to sort out my triggers and gain coping mechanisms that were Biblical and soaked in truth.
I still struggled with WHY I struggled with depression. I was frustrated and annoyed that it was part of my story.
Then I started talking. I started telling people and sharing my story of feeling caught in the blackness but recognizing that chasing Jesus’ light was still possible (even on meds), and I started meeting people who struggled mightily with similar issues and who felt totally alone in their fight.
Isn’t that exactly what satan wants? There is a quote said by Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that goes something like this: “Well if I were You-Know-Who, I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.”
I cannot tell you how true that is to someone who is struggling through depression but is also a Christ-follower. Satan lies to us and tells us that we can’t love Jesus and also be depressed. But that simply isn’t true. I began to truly see why vulnerability and honesty is so important in our lives. I started being real and honest with people around me: that I loved Jesus and I wanted to chase him. That I was depressed and felt pretty hopeless sometimes. That I went on medication and saw a therapist. That I was angry and sad but also so full of joy and peace. It is an inexplicable contradiction. But isn’t that life? Even in the midst of my darkness and what I thought was a lonely battle, Jesus showed me that his light cannot be defeated – not by depression and not by fear.
I still struggle with depression. It isn’t a “one and done” sort of deal. I’m not on medication currently, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t go back on it in the future if a season comes about that knocks me down so far that I can’t get back up.
In fact, this school year I experienced my first real bout of depression while teaching and it was absolutely one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. There were days when I didn’t feel like I could get out of bed in the morning and days where I laid my head down on my desk and just cried because I felt so unable. It got pretty awkward because my students started noticing. In those days, I felt Jesus whispering “chase light” into my soul. I listened to Relient K’s “I Need You” over and over: “Please shine a light into the black/Wade through the depths and bring me back.” It was the cry of my soul. I felt so shrouded in darkness but over and over, scripture reminded me “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5), “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1: 5), “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Thankfully, through using the coping mechanisms I learned in therapy, accountability in community (asking for help), and through listening to Jesus’ whisper through his word, “Chase light,” I was able to climb (slowly, painfully) out of the pit of depression.
I spoke to a couple individual students when asked about why I seemed so out of sorts and their responses were so amazing. They wished someone had told them that this was a normal thing to struggle with before.
So. That’s what I’m doing. I’m writing this for my 14 year old self and for the amazing students that I get to interact with daily. I want them to know that being depressed and anxious is okay and that seeking help is good. God does not desire for us to continue feeling beaten down by our own minds.
LISTEN: There is nothing wrong with going to the doctor and seeing a counselor or even going on medication. There is no shame in that at all. In fact, the Gospel frees us to these things – we are not held captive by the prisons of our minds and emotions (Romans 8:1-6).
Basically, I am writing this post to open up a conversation. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, but are scared to admit it, I want you to know that I have been there. If you are scared to go on medication, even though the doctor has recommended it, I want you to know I have been there. I want you to know that Jesus can use your story to impact the stories of many others. That he uses us in our pursuit after him, no matter how many valleys of the shadow of death we walk through. The important thing is we keep walking, that we keep chasing light, and that we keep being honest about our struggles.
That’s why I got this tattoo on my foot (my third tattoo). I want the reminder with me always – when things are gloriously bright and joyful: Chase light. When things are dull and boring: Chase light. When your heart is broken: Chase light. When the darkness is so thick, you can’t see your own hand in front of your face: Chase light.
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”” – John 8:12