A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It was a diagnosis that took a long time in coming. As I look back now, I can see that I’d been carrying this burden for many years. When I was a missionary I kept a journal and as I look back at some of those entries, I see the Big Black Dog. It was seasonal, always worse in the winter, and would usually manifest itself in anger. I coped, but it wasn’t very pleasant for those closest to me. My wife and kids caught the brunt of it. But I was in denial about it. I had all kinds of other reasons for my emotions and behaviour.
In 2018-2019, it became worse. I had moments at home where I would suddenly break down in tears. Around this time I heard about a pastor in another Reformed denomination who took his own life. Before this I was already dealing with dark thoughts at times, but this tragedy amped it up to another level. It really spun me around. Given that my mom struggled with depression and took her own life, all of this quite scared me. Thankfully, God gave me someone to talk to about it and the spiritual strength to squelch these thoughts.
Towards the end of 2019, I wrote something about what I was feeling:
I want it to go away.
It feels like a weight of sadness, not only on my mind, but on my whole body. It feels like an urge to cry, a sadness that wants to express itself through my eyes. It feels like a sadness that could explode into a rage. But it comes and goes; it is not constant. If I focus on a task, like preaching or exegesis, it seems to lift and I can do what I need to do. It comes at night in my sleep sometimes. In one instance, there was a dream like being in a pit of darkness and I wanted to scream but couldn’t. It is worst in the morning.
Thankfully, I can still read my Bible and pray. I took comfort from the message I preached on Sunday afternoon about Christ as a compassionate and sympathetic High Priest. No preaching I’ve done has ever reached my own heart while preaching like that did.
That captures some of what my experience of depression was like when it was at its worst. Others may experience it rather differently. In some cases, it can be so bad that people can’t get out of bed.
I had never talked about this with a doctor. In January of 2020, we were camping with some friends here in Tasmania. Usually my depression would lift in the summer. However, this year it didn’t. I was an emotional wreck, treating the people around me poorly. One day I went to go pick up some pizza for our dinner. The restaurant said the pizza would be ready at 6:30. I showed up there at 6:30 and it wasn’t ready. I wasn’t impressed and it showed. I stood there behind the counter and I must have had the wickedest scowl imaginable. One of the employees looked at me and she asked, “Are you okay?” That question asked right then was when I realized I wasn’t okay. I needed help.
As soon as we got back from camping, I made an appointment with my doctor. He could see right away what I was struggling with. He’s a fellow Christian. He kindly encouraged me with prayer and Scripture. He prescribed me to read John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence. But my doctor also prescribed me Sertraline (a.k.a. Zoloft), an anti-depressant. Within 10 days I was feeling much better.
I’ve been on the anti-depressant for a couple of years now. It continues to work for me and everyday I’m so thankful to God for it. It’s made a huge difference. I don’t have dark thoughts and my anger is under control, as are my other emotions. I realize that medication doesn’t work for everyone the way it’s worked for me. But for some people, it can be a life-changer, maybe even a life-saver.
I write this for two reasons: first, if you’re experiencing depression I want you to know you’re not alone. And there is help available. If you haven’t already, go and speak with your doctor. Second, perhaps someone you love is experiencing this and doesn’t yet realize what they’re up against. Fits of anger, unexplainable sadness, dark thoughts – all of those things can be symptomatic of clinical depression. It sounds like a cliché, but sometimes your loved one just needs you to say, “Are you okay?” Encourage them to see their doctor.
Clinical depression is a mental illness. Through my depression I wasn’t struggling with my faith. What I preached during those times I preached from my heart with sincerity. During those dark times, I was reading the Bible (devotionally, for myself) every day. I prayed every day. I’m quite confident it wasn’t a spiritual issue, but a medical one. I’m thankful that, for this medical issue, God gave me a loving doctor. Through that kind doctor, I received from God’s hand the medication I needed to stabilize my mental health. And so before, during, and after my depression, I have been able to say that God is good, all the time.