Supportive friends and medication bring healing to depression
By Michelle Ferguson
I lost myself in July 2003 when the lights went out, and 18 months passed before I felt the warmth of light again. I realized the darkness was passing when a dear friend, who walked alongside me every day of that bleak time, said: “It’s you. There you are. I really missed you.”
I became depressed that summer after a heartbreaking and disorienting disappointment. I had been disillusioned and sad many times in my life, but I had never felt like this before. I experienced frequent panic attacks. I was restless. I was afraid to be alone. I stopped eating. I cried and cried, and most of the time I had no idea why. I had no energy. I could not concentrate. The darkness settled on me like a thick fog—heavy and oppressive.
It was apparent to my roommate, my parents and me that I needed help. I met with a county mental health therapist who, after learning of my own faith commitment, told me he was also a Christian. He could provide me with medication, he said, but I should be able to deal with my depression by having faith and submitting to God. The therapist’s message was clear: Medication is for people without faith in God. I should quit fighting and trust God.
A depressed Christian?
I know many Christians share the opinion of the county mental health professional. They see depression as an indication of some moral or spiritual failure—a lack of faith. Christians, the assumption goes, trust in God and have joy in the Lord. We should not feel such sadness because we have the Comforter. If a Christian is depressed, it means that there is a deficiency in her relationship with God. Most of all, Christians should be able to control their emotions. After all, what kind of witness is it to a non-Christian if a Christian is depressed?
This was not how I understood my experience and certainly is not how I read the biblical text. I was not fighting God, and I was not harboring some secret sin. I was struggling to make sense of traumatic events. Because I see life as a journey of faith, I took my questions and pressed God for clarity and healing and direction for the future.
With the encouragement of family and friends, I next visited a medical doctor who prescribed medication for a general depression/anxiety disorder. But I wrestled with whether or not I should take this medication. Two conversations helped me sort out my need for antidepressants.
Why take an antidepressant
The first conversation was with a friend who said that her father-in-law, who is a diabetic, takes insulin every day because his body does not produce insulin. Why not understand depression and antidepressants in a similar way, she said. If my body is not able to cope with whatever triggered my depression, it is not doing what it should. This warrants outside medical assistance. If my depression is situational, I will be able to discontinue the medication once my body recovers. If the depression is biochemical, medication may be a long-term or permanent necessity in order to counteract my body’s deficiency.
The second exchange was with another therapist. In one of our first appointments she explained the way the body handles stress and trauma. In the same way that stress can cause ulcers or a heart attack, it can also cause depression. This therapist said that in order to process the situation and heal emotionally and spiritually, I had to care for my body in ways that would address the emotional and physical issues. For me, this included medication.
After several weeks of taking the prescribed medication, I was able to better process the hurt and disappointment that triggered my depression in the first place. Healing has been an ongoing process, and I have required the assistance of medication on and off since then.
While the medication aided my physical healing, the love and care of people also helped me to mend emotionally. These people were not afraid to take depression seriously and to consider it holistically.
I still do not know why God allowed depression to be part of my journey. Often in my darkest moments I asked God, “Why?” and “How long?” Though these questions were not answered, I did receive the answers to other questions: “God, are you there? Do you care? Are you able to save me?” These answers came in the people who supported me. Through them I heard God say: “I am here. I care deeply. I may not lift you out of this darkness today, but I will go with you through it.”
The value of fellowship
This reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkein’s story, The Lord of the Rings. Friendship is one of the many themes in this story. Frodo, a hobbit, is appointed the task of carrying a ring of power into an evil land ruled by the Dark Lord Sauron where it can be destroyed. Committed to journeying with him in a fellowship is Sam, another hobbit.
Sam’s heart breaks as he watches his dear friend Frodo deteriorate under the burden of the ring he carries. But Sam persists, giving himself up for his friend so that their journey might be completed. When Frodo is at the end of himself, a mere shadow of the person he once was, Sam offers Frodo a memory of home:
Sam: “Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It will be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom, and the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields. And eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Frodo: “No, Sam. I can’t recall the taste of food. Nor the sound of water. Nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark…there’s nothing, no veil, in between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him, with my waking eyes.”
Sam: “Then let us be rid of it, once and for all. Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”
At every turn Sam chooses to remain loyal to Frodo. He does not turn away from Frodo in his suffering or return to their home in the Shire. Instead, he chooses to walk into the darkness alongside Frodo.
Oftentimes we do not want to remain close to those who are suffering. Suffering, struggle, pain and sorrow threaten us. They remind us that we are not ultimately in control; that life is fragile, that the evil in the world is real and prompts honesty, self-reflection and change. The journey through darkness is risky business. However, offering oneself on behalf of another is a great act of love, one that makes space for healing. Compassion takes seriously the wounds of those within our communities.
I am blessed to have had people willing to walk alongside me. There are so many who do not have such willing people. There are many who are mistakenly told by fellow Christians that depression is their fault, that they do not have enough faith. We should rather open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and ask: How might I love my brother or sister struggling with depression?
Michelle Ferguson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and currently resides in Fresno, Calif. She is a member of College Community MB Church and serves as registrar at MB Biblical Seminary and adjunct faculty at Fresno Pacific University.