This week’s post is by Karen Neumair, a literary agent and mom who describes herself as “a lover of God and a lover of words, especially when those two things come together.”
“You need to recognize that depression comes as the result of a failure in self-control and self-discipline. … Depression comes when we fail to handle the blues, the disappointment, the perplexity, the guilt, or the physical affliction God’s way.”
I read the ancient 1970s pamphlet over and over as I sat across from a lay Christian counselor I had met just a few minutes earlier. I was speechless. Less than 48 hours earlier I had slipped into postpartum psychosis (a bad reaction to medication, I learned later) and had spent the majority of the day convinced that the government was spying on me, and worse, I had been daydreaming about all the ways I could kill my 3-month-old daughter and myself.
After reading those words in the pamphlet, I promptly chose not to tell the counselor about my psychotic episode, and especially not about the suicidal thoughts that were constant both before and after the psychosis. Because, according to this pamphlet, my depression was all my fault.
It’s no wonder suicidal Christians rarely reach out for help.
For many people struggling with depression, admitting your participation in the downward spiral (perhaps drug addiction, poor choices, inability to cope with abuse, etc.) is critical to recovery, but to point the finger at me as my toes still hung over the edge of the cliff and the slightest gust of wind would end it all?
Is that the timing Jesus Christ would use?
Or would He first walk to the edge of the cliff, tenderly grab my hand and step back a few feet, then embrace me warmly until I stopped sobbing long enough to breathe again? Only after I felt safe and secure, knowing everything was going to be okay even if it wasn’t in that moment, would I be strong enough to look back on the path I took that led me here.
But in my desperation to want to live again, I decided to do what the pamphlet and the counselor suggested, and for a while, doing things “God’s way” worked and the suicidal thoughts subsided.
Until they didn’t. I kept doing what I was doing, but suicide once again became all I thought about, all day every day. And still, I kept silent. Because good Christians don’t get suicidal.
A few desperate months later, it took only two visits with a licensed psychologist to send me straight to the local mental health facility, where I stayed inpatient for five days. There was no judgment or condemnation from this lovely Christian woman, only compassion and a prompt response to the immediate need. And I needed to be admitted, because I just wanted to die.
Once in that place, I looked myself in the mirror (or rather, in a shiny piece of metal, since mirrors aren’t allowed near those on suicide watch). What I saw was ugly. “You are a failure, as a wife and as a mother, and especially as a Christian. You are unlovable. Your family would be better off without you. In fact, you’d really be doing them a favor. Your husband will remarry a woman who can love him and your daughters better than you can. They’d look back and know you made the right choice, the loving choice.”
But in that place, with no interruptions or distractions, God gave me the strength to finally talk back to that face in the mirror. “Am I unlovable? It feels true, but *is* it true? Would my husband bring our daughter to visit me in a mental hospital as often as three times a day if he didn’t love me? Would God cram His all-powerful self into a human body and be violently murdered in order to save me from death if He didn’t love me?
“No, I *am* loved, even when I despair of life, even in a mental hospital, and even when I feel unlovable. I am loved.”
Perhaps doing things “God’s way” didn’t mean I had to fight this battle alone. It took a psychiatrist and the right medication, the right licensed Christian therapist, the right combination of vitamins and minerals, running and exercise, prayer and, of course, lots and lots of help from my husband and immediate family for me to feel normal again. And only then was I strong enough to look back at the factors (and yes, even a few sins) that led me to that dark night of the soul so I could learn to make different choices in the future.
And still, I stayed silent. I stayed ashamed.
But my story burned inside of me. A few weeks ago, a blogger and author friend of mine requested volunteers to guest post for her month-long series on depression in the church. I uncharacteristically asked her if I could write a post about suicidal thinking, and she responded that she would love that, because it’s something she has struggled with too.
You mean, I’m not the only one?
No, I’m not the only one. Not only was the response on her blog significant, an online Christian magazine picked up the post, where it was promptly shared by more than 1,200 people on Facebook alone. The positive responses I received were overwhelming.
“I could have written this, friend … and I couldn’t admit it in the church, so I suffered in silence. Thank you for being brave.”
Christianity as a whole has come very far when it comes to depression. It is suicide that is still taboo, however. Most people in the church can accept that Christians also get depressed from time to time. But suicidal?
I’m not alone. I know that now. Every single time I muster up enough courage to mention something about my struggle, I am amazed to find myself face-to-face with another friend saying, “I have been there too. Please help me.” I am so thankful that they don’t have to do it alone.
It’s time to start talking, especially in those places where no one takes the time to talk about suicide because no one is “supposed” to be struggling with those thoughts anyway. We are. And when we talk, we will encounter people who want to list all of the reasons it’s our fault, or we might just be amazed at how many people from all walks of life come out from every direction to say, “You too? I thought I was the only one. Let’s walk together.”
Start talking. Keep talking. Get the conversation going, because if we don’t speak up, who will? If we don’t speak up, how will others know they aren’t alone? If we don’t speak up, how can we show our love (and God’s love) for them in a time they feel unlovable?
It’s time to take one another by the hand and wrap our arms around each other, saying, “It will be okay, even if it isn’t right now.” And when they ask, “How do you know?” We will say, “Because I’ve been there too.”
Note: For more well-rounded reading on depression and Christianity, I personally recommend Edward T. Welch, and I also highly appreciated “Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness” by Dr. Matthew S. Stanford.