Depression & Christianity

Growing up fundamentalist, we didn't believe in mental illness. We believed in trusting the Lord. Period.

I think a lot of Christians have trouble admitting they struggle with depression because we know it's not the image we want projected to the world. A depressed Christian isn't exactly good marketing material, right? Joy! Peace! Love! Now, that sells.

But depression? Yeah, not so much.

So, lotsa Christians feel this obligation to REPRESENT, y'know? Like "put on a good show for the sake of the Lord." Because depression? Who wants to get saved for that? But nobody, that's who! 

A depressed Christian is sorta an embarrassment to the cause. I know this because I used to think it was impossible to be a Christian and be depressed. I had this simplistic view that depression was the result of only two things: unconfessed sin or simply not "trusting the Lord" enough. 

To make matters worse, I also believed that Christians shouldn't go to therapy. Like a lot of fundamentalists, I thought counselors were full of "Psychoheresy".

But dude! No wonder it's hard for Christians to admit they're depressed. It's because we'll be asked questions like: "Have you been reading your Bible? Have you been praying?"

The subtext of those questions is nothing short of an accusation. The accusation, of course, is that if the depressed person would just get right with God, their minds would instantly heal. It was all so simple, really.

ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING!

For the record, I think that's just crap. Attitude is important. But it's not everything.

There's this deeply embedded idea that Christians can just pray away the depression. And maybe some can. (How awesome for them!)

I wish to God it was that easy for me. But it's not. Praying helps, yes. But I need rest, nutrition and exercise, too. And maybe even medication.

I have discovered that there is compassion and remarkable grace outside of fundamentalism (surprise, surprise). I found it in liturgical churches. There just seems to be a broader acceptance and understanding for the frailty of our humanity. Maybe being spiritually safe has finally freed me to take a closer, more honest look at myself.

It's become increasingly clear to me that it takes MORE humility to admit I have a problem than to keep pretending I don't. I could easily spend the rest of my life putting on a great show for everyone to see. In fact, I would PREFER to do that.

But I won't. 

My therapist used to tell me that I'm such a survivor that I fight and fight until I've guaranteed a safe spot for myself and my loved ones. Only when all is well do I finally break down.

What this means is: I'm a good friend to have on the battlefield. I know how to fight, baby. I know how to kick them bastards down. 

But it also means that it took me SEVEN years of silence before I finally started writing about my fundamentalist past. Yep. That's because I was busy re-building a new life for myself and making sure my children were safe and free before I ever started dealing with my own issues.

I don't say that to brag or to say that it was superior to going straight into therapy. It was just how I dealt with it. The only comparison I can think of is battle-worn soldiers who come home from war and refuse to talk about it. That's how it was for me. I went silent for awhile. OK, for years.

Here's the thing: most people have no idea what it's like to be raised in a crazy, abusive church. Maybe it's a bad analogy, but it really is like a soldier trying to explain to a civilian what combat warfare is like. There's just no way for people to understand the reality of it because it's so outside their frame of reference. 

So, for the most part, I just shut up. I really wanted to be normal. To build a fresh life for ourselves.

Looking back, going silent probably was not my best idea. I would probably be farther along if I'd been less afraid of looking squarely in the eye of my issues. But it is what it is. My journey out of that mindset was on its own timeline. And anyway, I'm here now. 

My point is, I'm finally at a place in my life where I have nothing left to lose. I'm safe and I'm free. I know the love of God. 

Maybe that's why I'm finally willing to look this grim beast called Depression in the eye and acknowledge him. I'm willing to root out the causes. I'm willing to be weak.

I'm even willing to write about it.

  • http://shelli-proffitt-howells.blogspot.com Shelli

    You were wise to build a safe place first. I don’t think you would have made much progress without it. I personally believe that Christ’s sacrifice was not to save us from the challenges and ugliness in life but to help us get through it. And to come out better.

  • Aaron

    I’ve sent this to a friend of mine to read. By sharing your words and experiences, you end the normalizing of this religious non-sense.

    I also like that you are focusing more on who you are becoming rather than who you were. I often wonder if my life had gone one way instead of another who would I be? (I’m adopted)

    From reading your blog, I can tell that you are still being vigilant, as if you are standing on your front porch with a shot gun; however, I do get the another feeling from your blog that your defences don’t have to be on Red Alert anymore.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    My background isn’t really anything like yours and I won’t pretend like I understand what it would be like to grow up in a crazy, abusive ‘Christian’ fundamentalist church. But my childhood is crazy enough in its own way that I’ve found that most people can’t relate to it at all. (My wife always says she’s amazed I’m as sane as I am. And she’s still surprised sometimes when I’m talking to her or to someone in my family and mention an occurrence she hasn’t heard before.)

    It’s hard, isn’t it, to give you children something like a normal childhood when you have no real idea what ‘normal’ is? But well worth the effort and mistakes along the way.

    When I was depressed, I didn’t have the particular ‘Christian’ baggage you describe. But I did delay seeking help even when I recognized that I was depressed. My reaction was more along the lines of: “After all I’ve been through in my life, I’m depressed *NOW* when things are pretty good?!? Come on! Snap out of it!” Of course, the hardest thing about depression is that you can’t just “snap out of it” even when you’ve recognized what is going on.

    (In my case, anti-depressants helped break some of the crush but made me loopy in other ways. Over the course of a few years, discovered my depression was linked to a combination of sleep apnea and long-active, but undiagnosed celiac disease. The VPAP was plenty for me to get off antidepressants and end the particular behavior changes they caused in me. A year gluten free now has me almost feeling normal once again.)

    I’ve never really understood why so many Christians have such a strange attitude toward mental illness. But thanks for writing openly about it!

  • http://www.elizabethesther.com Elizabeth Esther

    Thank you so much, Aaron. Three cheers for ending the normalization of religious nonsense! (loved that, btw). And you’re right. I’m still being vigilant. But I’m not on Red Alert anymore. THANK GOD. My adrenal glands are thankful. :)

  • http://www.elizabethesther.com Elizabeth Esther

    Thanks, Shelli. It was sort of “triage.” There were bigger and fresher wounds to deal with; ie. getting everyone out and safe. Now that we’re good, I can deal with my own wounds. :) And I love your insight. YES! Becoming a CHristian didn’t make me happier or wealthier! But my faith is indispensable to helping me get through. Great comment. Thank you!

  • mary ann

    Elizabeth,you are very very honest.I believe that there is much hope,forgiveness, and love in God’s word to help with depression and despair but I believe that things can accumulate over time and cause one to have a really hard time.We aren’t meant to always put on a smiley face.I think you are too hard on yourself and really just need to accept who you are.You have a sensitive nature which is precious in God’s eyes.Look at the saints and some of there personalities.Were they perfect people?(I think not)
    I have found that simplicity in your life will help a lot.Just concentrate on the necessities(God’s word,feeding everyone,being close to your husband,ect.)while going through this difficult time and don’t expect to ever heal completely.Do people ever get over the death of a child?No they don’t.You have to lve every day with some pain.WE all do.God be with you.

  • JCF

    I think it is really hard for Christians to admit to a variety of “sins” or struggles, lest they be met with the Bible and prayer question. Depression, homosexuality, etc. don’t come up a lot, and it seems that Christians don’t know what to do with those topics when confronted with them.

    That being said, my brother struggled with depression, drugs, and alcohol for years before committing suicide a couple of years ago. On one hand, my family got support and love from people in the church throughout it all. On the other hand, we received criticism and overly simplistic “solutions” from others. I desperately hope that some good can come out of his life and that maybe I will be able to help people who are dealing with similar issues to what my family dealt with, but I guess that that time is years away from now. I’m nowhere near emotionally stable enough, nor have I worked through my own grief enough to be able to delve into anyone else’s on a regular basis. Sometimes this feels selfish, but mostly I think I need time to heal.

  • http://www.megmoseley.wordpress.com Meg Moseley

    Elizabeth, I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while, but this is the first time I’ve commented. Thanks for being so honest.

    I’m pretty sure that what I labeled as “new mommy fatigue” twenty years ago was actually postpartum depression. I had been taught that depression was rooted in sin, and that belief only added guilt to the mix. Thank God, it doesn’t have to be that way!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/thatguykc ThatGuyKC

    EE – thank you so much for sharing. Coming from a chemically imbalanced and somewhat of a mildly fundie family your honesty and vulnerability are encouraging.

    I’ve been to counselling before and it helps so much if for no other reason than to have someone really listen to your wounds and worries while challenging your perceptions of self and reality.

  • http://fromthepulpitofmylife.blogspot.com/ Ruth Ann

    I simply want to add my voice to those who are supporting you as you write about how you are dealing with depression. Something to consider is that even in liturgical Churches there was not always the attitude that now exists. Attitudes towards mental illness 50 years ago were similar to attitudes of the fundamentalists you describe. These kinds of attitudes were born out of ignorance and suspicion of psychology and psychotherapy. Modern means of therapy are now more mainstream and accepted. I think writing about your experience of depression and how you cope and how you are healing gives hope to others. Speaking as someone who was clinically depressed for five years when I emerged from my teens—decades ago, there is hope. You can go on to live a normal life. And even more hopeful, there are much better treatments today.

  • http://www.mamabean.ca Mama Bean

    I’m a Chiropractor. I’ve had patients cry on my shoulder because their Christian friends tell them their continued pain (from a work injury, from a car accident, from childbirth) is because they’re not praying enough. Or they need more faith.

    It breaks my heart. As a Christian. And as a doctor.

    It doubles the work, fighting to heal against the actual illness, *and* against love-less, compassion-less theology like that.

    I’m so glad you’re writing.

  • Jennifer

    Hello Elizabeth, I am glad you are writing about depression. I have struggled with it off and on…mostly on…for the past 6 years (since my oldest son was born), and maybe even before that. It took me a long, long time to admit that it might be a problem in my brain and not just a spiritual problem. I prayed for God’s healing, even while secretly hoping that I really did have clinical depression so that I would have an excuse for “checking out” of my life on a daily basis (sleeping too much, not caring about anything, etc.) In January of this year I finally admitted that I really wanted to get better, to LIVE life and give my kids a better mother. At my husband’s urging, I went to the doctor and started taking antidepressants, just a very low dose but it has helped me so much. Not that I feel all happy and smiley…I’m a quiet, reserved, rather melancholy person to start with…. but now when I hear the negative thoughts taking over my brain, or feel irritable or sad for no good reason, I can be more objective about it, talk myself through it, and feel better in a day or two. Anyways, that’s a lot about me, but I just wanted to say that I can really relate to what you’re writing about and I appreciate it.

  • KatR

    I think you hit on a misconception some people have about antidepressants. As you said, they don’t make you chemically “happy”. For me, they just cleared out the fog so that I could experience all emotions, instead of being overwhelmed at the idea of putting on a pair of pants.

  • mary ann

    Im so sorry,Elizabeth if I sounded too simplistic.
    I do believe that if a doctor diagnoses someone with a chemical imbalance that they should get help(possibly meds if needed)That is between that person and their doctor.Sometimes the depression has been going on so long that that may be what’s needed,if only on a temporary basis.I was just trying to say that past traumas take time to heal and sometimes we are too hard on ourselves thinking we shouldjust be normal when in reality,we may never be normal again no matter what we do.

  • Jen

    Thank you for your posts. I have two parents who struggle with depression, and I’ve dealt with it since high school (I’m 34 now). It comes and goes without warning, and it can plunge me into the pit of black despair so fast, like I never saw it coming. Hormones are definitely involved for me. But I, unfortunately, have a pastor (of an evangelical Anglican church) whose answer to struggle is typically of the “you should pray more” or “you should serve more and get the focus off yourself” variety–ugh. The doozie recently was during a Lenten sermon when he said that if you despair, then you’re just like Judas. Judas! That guaranteed I would never, ever go to him for help with my own depression issues. I don’t know why it’s so damn hard for Christians to have compassion for this. You’re right, so many just want everything to be happy, happy, joy, joy. Depression is just too messy. It’s nice to find kindred spirits, even though I sincerely wish you’d never had to go through anything like it.

  • http://www.elizabethesther.com Elizabeth Esther

    Dude, what?! He compared it to being like Judas? Man oh man. I’ve run into that same attitude where it’s like: “Well, if you’re gonna be like that, just go!” Almost like: if they can’t fix you, they’re not gonna try, either. So discouraging, right? Blerrrrgh. Thank you for sharing your story, here.

    We can scrape our boils together. Like Job. :)

  • http://www.elizabethesther.com Elizabeth Esther

    No worries, Mary Ann. I took your comments in the best light possible. :)

  • http://www.elizabethesther.com Elizabeth Esther

    I really think you hit on something, Mama B. It truly DOES double the work when you’re working against the depression + the lack of compassion.

  • http://pastorleanne.wordpress.com Leanne

    Ridiculous – that pastor needs to read his Bible more. Has he ever heard of Elijah? David? Paul? All these heroes of the Bible that we look up to had some very melancholy moments…when I was going through a particularly rough patch, I kept crying that I wanted to be triumphant and mighty and anointed…like Elijah, but I was so weak and depressed, having just come out of an extremely abusive church. And then God reminded me of the passage where Elijah’s two jobs were to eat and sleep and be ministered to. And that’s what I did. I ate; I slept. I woke up; had a snack [a chocolate chip cookie and some hot chocolate]; and then went back to bed. It was one of those weird spiritual moments where I literally felt God tucking me in at night. I had a long way to go [still do!!] to be completely healed, but that night, God gave me hope that it would happen.

    So please, please, please…do NOT listen to anyone who would compare depressed people to Judas. Because God used plenty of people in Scripture who were depressed.

    Start with the Psalms – they gave me permission to cry..to get mad…no, to get downright pissed!

  • http://becoming-becoming.blogspot.com/ heather

    So well said! And I love the Psalms. Pure, raw, emotion. God can handle who we are. Even when we are at low places.

  • http://catholicmomsjourney.blogspot.com llmom

    Thanks for being so real. I hope I can write about my journey through anxiety, depression, and church abuse sometime soon. BTW, it’s not just a fundie problem. I am an ex rad trad( i.e. Traditional Catholic–pre-vatican II)but still a faithful Catholic now. I have started a new blog for Catholics hurt by extremist Catholics, similar to some of these fundies. http://thechurchfanatic.blogspot.com

  • Jen

    EE and Leanne, thank you for your encouragement. It really means a lot!

  • Julie

    I thank God every day you are strong, brave, and compassionate enough to write about it. Thank you so very much. Your words have touched my heart and are changing my life and the life of my kids, little by little. I feel so much less alone now that you’ve written the thoughts of my heart down on “paper”. I wasn’t in an abusive church as a child, my husband and I chose one early in our marriage and brought our kids into it. Through horrible actions of the pastor’s family, we finally saw “the light” and left. It has been a long, painful process and like you, I think we’re finally safe enough that I can look at my own healing. Man, it’s hard to know we chose it – I feel so foolish and weak, but I’m grateful each and every day that we left before our lifestyle destroyed our kids. They were so young, they remember very little.
    So again, I am grateful beyond words for your strength, grace, and openness. I imagine you and I having long chats in Heaven. :O) Isn’t this internet world strange? To have a kindred spirit in someone you’ve never met. A gift from God, I think.

    Julie

  • Julie

    P.S. I forgot to mention we are fellow multiple moms. We have 6 year old triplets. :O)

  • Debra

    Have you read “12 Christian Beliefs That Can Make You Crazy” by Cloud and Townsend? Good stuff. I think you’d like it. They are Christians who are Psychologists. Fancy that.

  • http://iambelovedofgod.blogspot.com/ Beloved

    EE.. it is so humbling to ‘read’ you going through all this, truly. Thank you for sharing. My life is so different to yours, but I relate to the whole going deeper and dealing thing. Not easy, takes guts and looks like you have plenty of that to go around. BTW I’m just finishing a masters in child therapy and I totally believe that God led me to do this so MY issues could be dealt with through therapy too. It has changed my life and God has led and helped me every step of the way, in tandem with my own psychotherapist.

  • Susan

    thank you for this. I grew up evengeligal fundimental. Not a cult, but lots and lots and lots of rules. I struggled with stepping away from my family and their beliefs and then struggled even more when infertility hit. But this post touched me and my husband and I are now in a litergical church, he grew up catholic, and it is freeing. But it is still hard sometimes to seperate myself from my spiritual condition and my occasional depression. May God grant us peace.

  • http://fivewalkers.com Christina

    I struggle with this so…thinking (of my own messed up whatever…nothing I was “taught” that I can remember) that if I were just a better Christian, more disciplined, etc, I could get over the depression when it comes. Obviously, if you are studying Scripture and turning to God for help, then you will feel closer to Him, but why the lies in my head?! Someone shared Psalm 88 with me once a long time ago, it is a Psalm that does not end with praise or a hopeful word, like the rest of the crying out Psalms. It was comforting to me that that was in the Bible…as others have said, a very emotional, despairing moment (or longer?) and God can handle that. I don’t know what I’m rambling about…just touched a chord, I suppose. :)

  • http://www.thejoyofhome.blogspot.com Dianna

    I definitely think Christians can get depressed. The Bible, especially Psalms, is filled with depression and crying out to God to deliver from the awful pain. I have a good friend right now who just found out her husband is not who she thought he was and also has been cheating on her. And you know what? She is depressed and in a lot of pain, and that is okay. For any church or individiual to say that you need to be happy all the time is crazy. What is the answer? I think most of the time it is biblical counseling. Whatever your problem is Scripture has a lot of say about it. Yes, I do think medical intervention is sometimes necessary. There are definitely physical problems that can cause emotional/mental issues as well.

    Elizabeth, I think you are brave to let people know of your struggles. Christians aren’t perfect and happy all the time. We struggle and have hard times too, but Jesus didn’t promise an easy life, but that He would be with us.

  • http://mecerone.blogspot.com Mary Beth

    Elizabeth, this is completely unrelated to your post in every way, but I’ve started reading this other blog and I just thought it would make you laugh for some reason..

    http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/

  • http://outofthesilverchair.blogspot.com/ Julie

    hi, Elizabet, just wanted to say “THANK YOU!!!” I love your blog…I came out of a severe fundamentalist cult…can relate about the depression and waiting till everyone’s safe before letting myself feel.

    In June I celebrate three years out… would love to have you as a guest poster on my blog “The Cult Next Door” if you are interested…if so my e-mail is: toxicsheepnomore@yahoo.com

  • http://papuagirlindallas.blogspot.com/ Kacie

    I just wrote another comment on your exercise post… and am thinking about that same situation here. As a group of friends meant to be an accountability and encouragement for each other in the setting of church, dealing with severe depression is pretty confusing. If we were dealing with infidelity, we would know how to respond. But when this guy is severely depressed, how can we respond, particularly since we are also the main support for his wife? She is essentially being emotionally and verbally abused daily by her depressed husband…. how much of that do we treat as something he is personally responsible for (as a sin?), and how much is because he is truly sick right now? If he were single we would be able to support, support, support….but how much do you support when you watch the wife daily waste away?

    Sorry I’m venting, it’s just constantly on my mind these days as we struggle to know how to respond, and here you are talking about it. :)

  • http://www.ecalpemos.org Gordon

    I feel your pain. I have been there and after many years I decided to write my story:

    http://www.ecalpemos.org/2011/02/christian-churches-depression-and.html

    My long term solution came through interpersonal therapy with a psychologist. If I had relied on the church or on Christians I would undoubtedly now be dead.