Secrets. We all have them. We live with them and hide them under layers of life. This is my purging of a private struggle in the hopes that it will help all who read it. My prayer is that it will ultimately help you and enlighten others overcome the guilt of depression.
I am a happy person…annoyingly so. I don’t know if it is a choice, or just who I am. When stress and struggles come, like they do to all of us, I tend to pray about it and then sweep it under an emotional rug. If I don’t see it- it’s not there, right? If I start to feel sadness coming on, I over-compensate with (what I think is) comedy and I stay happy in my deceivingly perfect world. Life is good! Over a decade ago, I learned that this is was a bad idea.
When another trial approached, I grabbed my broom to sweep it away under my well-worn rug. Apparently, with so much garbage already swept under, it became a health hazard. One day, as I was walking with a spring in my step, I tripped over the bulging pile of rubbish, and I could not get back up. I was stuck there sinking in my pile of horrors and nothing would get me out! I continued with my happy-go-lucky persona and adopted the idea of “Fake it ’til you make it!” After time it became exhausting. I had to pretend from morning until night. I told myself, “You’re just in a funk, you need to get over it!” I read all the articles about how thinking LESS of yourself, more of others, pray more, study more, trust more will help those depressed… and I felt guilty. Nothing was working. I couldn’t shake it. Was my faith too weak? I’m a bad Christian. I remained a semi-functioning person though… going through the motions, at home, church and work. I avoided the casual “How are you?” questions, by just smiling and saying, “Good to see you, how are you?”– no one noticed. But I dreaded getting up every day because it was just too exhausting trying to pretend I was still me. Yes, my husband asked countless times if anything was wrong. And I thought I was being truthful when I said, “No, nothing is wrong.” Because there wasn’t. I didn’t know WHY I felt like I did so I didn’t know what to tell him. He was soon to be going on a mission trip to Honduras, and whereas normally I would be sad at such a separation, I was looking forward to it! I thought, “ I can finally use that time to stop trying to hold it all in, to just allow myself a good cry, then I will be me again by the time he returns home!” He left. I closed myself in my room at every opportunity and cried…and cried… and cried. Day. Night. I let it go, but then I couldn’t turn it off. I was hoping for the nice, empty cleansing feeling after a “good cry.” It never came. I tried to think about my great life: my loving husband, my beautiful children, my dear church family… my innumerable blessings— but I couldn’t make myself care! I felt that I cried my heart out, and now there was nothing left. It was scary, it was not me, and I felt absolutely helpless to change it. One day while I was laying by the pool watching my sons play, I tried to imagine them drowning right then- hoping to create a spark of feeling. Life without them- my CHILDREN! I felt nothing. Zilch. I somehow lost the ability to care for my own family. I went through the motions. I found myself daydreaming about running away from home! I don’t know where I wanted to go. Just go. Away. For good. It was a very strong desire that tormented me daily. On the rare days I would drive without the boys in the car, I would have the urge to just let go of the wheel on a sharp curve. “They aren’t with me- I won’t hurt anyone but myself.” “My husband deserves a better wife, he can easily find one when I am gone.” “My children will be better off without me, with someone who will really love them.”
I reveal all this so you will understand the true state of my soul. I was hollow. I felt nothing. I couldn’t find myself and I was just too tired to try anymore. No. I never acted on ANY of those disturbing thoughts. Despite how strongly I felt, the knowledge of right and wrong was still there, and that is the ONLY thing that kept me from being another news story. Fake it ’til you make it… day by exhausting day.
One day my sister called to plan her annual summer visit. At any other time in my life, this is the highlight of my year! When she offered a date to see if it worked on my end, I asked if we could postpone it a month. (The idea of trying to fake it around my sister—who knows me way too well—would have taken a Herculean effort and I was running on fumes.) She saw this for the strange request it was and pressed the matter further. “Why?” “What’s wrong?” I tried my normal humorous brush-offs, but she was not to be detained. (If you know my sister, you are not surprised.) “Kris, what is it?” My tears were pushing against the dam. It cracked. I started blubbering like an idiot and let it all out. I mean… all of it, shamefully admitting that I didn’t think I loved my family anymore, church was meaningless and God abandoned me. She listened (for I don’t know how long, poor thing) and then she calmly, simply said, “Kris, you are clinically depressed.” She tells me to hang on and then a few minutes later returns and shares a list with me… it was sounding too familiar. I almost scored a 100% on the check list. Depressed? No, depression is a choice— the result of seeing the storm and not the rainbow. It is self-pity unleashed… and a strong Christian would never succumb to that trick of the devil! Right? But I couldn’t deny the shameful checklist. I WAS depressed.
It was a shocking revelation to me. My weakness was confirmed. I was not a good Christian, my faith was weak. The devil won. Kathy tried to talk me into going to my doctor. That is her job. She is my older, OVER protective sister. I could not promise that… but I did finally concede to promise to talk to my husband. And I finally did… however somewhat sugar-coated. (Does he really need to hear, “I don’t feel I love you anymore”?) It was hard. He was worried. He, a little more insistently, encouraged me to go to the doctor. I reluctantly made the appointment.
I saw my nurse practitioner and she prodded gently with questions until once again, my soul was bare. She didn’t look at me with horror or disappointment. She didn’t suggest Bible verses to strengthen me and prayer; she simply prescribed a pill! Uuuggghhh. What a cop-out! I did not want to be one of “THOSE” people who take a pill rather than deal with their problems. A weakling who would rather pay for a “quick fix” than to find strength from within and above to overcome the problem. She explained medical talk about Serotonin and how it affects the brain. She said how we all have it, but with extended stress, we can actually deplete the brain’s supply and like a valve shut off, it is suddenly gone. Even though it sounded like she was trying to sell me on a quick-fix drug, desperation made me agree to the prescription (with much shame and wounded pride). Before I left the office, she told me that one day I could use this for good and encourage others who suffer. Um….yeah, right. No way! This is our little secret.
I shamefully took the pills. Within 3 months, I had gained 30 pounds! (yes, 30!) But just as suddenly, it seemed, the valve of my emotions was turned back on! I LOVED life, truly! I loved my family and the church! I could once again sing, “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus.” I was ME again.
Clinical depression. It is real. It is not a self-induced pity party. It is a simple chemical problem in the brain. I feel HORRIBLE for my assumption of others who I heard were “depressed.” Although some people do feel depressed because of self-pity, and it can be helped by prayer, study and focusing on the needs of others, there is also legitimate clinical depression. This does not mean your faith is not strong enough. This does not mean your character is weak. This means your brain needs some help, and there are options to provide your brain with that help. I was fatter than I had ever been in my life—but I was happy! I was ME… just a little rounder. (***Not all pills have the same side effects, and not all effect everyone the same…please do not allow my weight gain to sway your decision to seek help!)
Unfortunately, old beliefs are hard to overcome. The idea of depression was still shameful to me, and despite the medical knowledge, I still viewed it as a weakness. Upon feeling “normal,” I would soon quit taking the pills and a couple years would pass until the next “episode.” Then I would be embarrassed and find a different doctor (because I was too ashamed to tell my nurse practitioner that it was me again, with the same problem). I would take pills. Feel better… and stop. Within 10 years, I sought four different doctors.
This was not healthy either. I’m not sure if this was because of that, or if it is it’s own monster unto itself, but six years later I began having irrational panic attacks. I knew it made no sense. I knew it was dumb… and I couldn’t make it stop. My right hand would tremor, my heart would race so fast it made me hot, and I would feel a crazy insane urge to run away and hide (which I did do several times). Crowds were hard. Strangers made it worse. I found myself hiding in bathrooms, even when only surrounded by friends, until the panic abated. I could see myself becoming the crazy hermit lady who stayed home and talked to her 27 cats. When I realized that actually sounded great, I conceded that I might have a problem. Really? Another problem? I just want to be NORMAL….well, as normal as I can get! Another doctor. Another drug. Then we moved out of state.
My new doctor heard my history, and wanted to gradually change up my drugs. It was a bumpy ride, but I held on. I have finally (mostly) gotten over my pride and just concede to the fact that my brain needs some help coping on occasion. I consider this “ mental maintenance.” No more prideful pill drops. Not only have I not had an episode of depression, and have managed the panic attacks, my list of little “quirks” some would call OCD is shrinking! I am feeling happy, healthy and in control of my life!
For those who find my story to be too close to home:
Having an issue with mental health is no different than any other kind of illness. It does not make you weak or weird (we can be weird on our own!). It does not mean your faith is weak. It just means you need medical help, just as you would when you suffer any other physical difficulty. Please seek treatment, sooner than later, before it gets too hard to keep making the right decisions. Give yourself this checklist test:
If you are more than just momentarily depressed, feeling blue, call your doctor today. You can overcome this, and you will be kicking yourself for not acting on it sooner. And yes, even maybe one day, you will be ready to help others. Seriously, you will.
For those of healthy mind (for now anyway):
If you hear of depression in a family member, friend or co-worker, don’t outwardly encourage them and inwardly condemn them. (This is what I did. It was wrong of me. I was so ignorant.) Reserve a little compassion for those seemingly horrible people who simply abandon their families without apparent cause or selfishly end their own lives. Believe me, they really THINK they are doing everyone a favor, but they are not themselves! Also, do NOT take their illness personally. It really has NOTHING to do with you! There is nothing you could have/should have done differently. It is literally all in their head, regardless of their good life and health.
The brain is a complex and funny organ, but it is nothing to fear. Mental health is often just a physical balance of chemicals that sometimes requires tweaking. We should all be proactive in protecting our brain- as imbalance can happen to anyone. Studies have found some things that helps with the production of Serotonin:
-Soak in some sun! There is an interaction between bright light and the serotonin system.
-Get some exercise. Research suggests that exercise increases brain serotonin function.
-Need a serotonin boost? Take vitamins with Tryptophan.
I am not a medical professional. I don’t write this as an authority figure. This is simply my story that I share with trembling fingers. “What will some people think of me?” “This is really too private to share.” “But what if someone needs this and without it, they give in to those nagging urges to give up?”
It is what it is. My secret is out. If you want to discuss it, please do so only privately, I’m much braver that way. My prayer is that this may squash any unjustified shame you may have and fill you with confidence to ask for help and for us all to have a better understanding and greater compassion for those who struggle in this way.
By Kristy Woodall
Kristy lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her husband who preaches at the Northeast church of Christ. She has two near-perfect boys: Lee and David. She enjoys spending time with her family and friends, teaching children and teen girls’ Bible classes, hiking, camping, interior design, and has a hobby of cake decorating. As her boys are getting older, she is considering being a nurse… “when she grows up.”
**Note this article is not meant to replace the help and advice of a medical professional!