I’ve struggled with depression for over ten years. I think I’ve had more than a dozen different depressive episodes, some much worse than others. In my hopeful moments, I begged God to not waste my pain, to allow me to use it to help others. But mostly, I couldn’t see anything good in my suffering.
For those of us who struggle with mental health, it’s very isolating. There’s still so much stigma surrounding mental illness: people don’t understand it. How could I be a Christian, let alone a leader and Bible Study teacher, and still be tormented by these feelings of uselessness and hopelessness? What kind of witness was I to my friends and coworkers? A failure! I felt very alone, even at church.
I didn’t want church friends to know – I didn’t want to be judged as sinful. I didn’t want work friends to know – I didn’t want to be judged as weak. But as the illness progressed, it became more and more obvious that I was unable to do my jobs. Others had to start picking up the pieces I dropped. Not to mention the days I didn’t have the strength to go to work or Bible Study at all, so I’d call in “sick.” I always felt horrible, knowing they would have to scramble to cover my responsibilities as well as their own. But I couldn’t help it. I was unable to leave the security of my bed and the safety of my home. I couldn’t face glaring lights, traffic, or people.
I didn’t know how God was going to redeem this, make anything good come from my pain. And as I got deeper into the illness, it became harder and harder to hide from the people around me.
So I thought God might work through awareness, as my friends saw me struggle. Perhaps I could give them a glimpse, an understanding, of what depression is and does. Maybe that was how God would use my pain for others’ benefit. Maybe, by being ill and unable to hide it, I could reduce stigma. “See? It can happen to anyone!”
In the darkest times, though, I didn’t care if others understood, or what God might do with my struggles. I was simply trying to survive, to hang on through another day of excruciating mental pain and feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, with physical manifestations of weariness, head and body aches and stomach pain. I dreaded going to bed because it just meant another day of the same tomorrow. Unless perhaps I wouldn’t wake up…the thought was appealing. I begged God for the Second Coming – the only way in which I could see my pain ending. That or death, which I was too afraid to try, though I thought of it often.
Depression is that way, trying to get me to think that no one understands, no one cares, and it will never end. In the very darkest times, I even wondered where God was, and felt like He’d abandoned me in my dark cave of negative self-worth.
But God had not abandoned me. Jesus was right by my side, and He wasn’t tapping His foot and telling me to “hurry up and get better.” He was sitting alongside me in my pain, comforting me and reminding me that He loves me so much. He was crucified for me, and for the pain of depression. He had died on the cross to give me eternal Hope. And as I sl-ow-ly emerged from the darkness of depression, God gave me the opportunity to serve Him with my illness.
Fresh Hope is a peer-led support group for people with a mental health challenge – and their loved ones. Just this week, I was part of a team which started a Fresh Hope Group at our church. The organization is about creating a community where we learn to live a rich, faith-filled life, in spite of having a mental health challenge. It’s for anyone who struggles with mental illness – depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, PTSD, schizo-affective disorder – and for anyone who loves someone who is hurting in this way.
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28, NLT. He’s doing that for me through this Fresh Hope Ministry – working all my pain from depression for my good and for others. In Fresh Hope, we’ll encourage each other, and comfort one another with the same comfort we’ve received from God (see II Corinthians 1:3-4).
I have suffered, and therefore have the privilege of understanding. Of having gone through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerging on the other side. I can relate to the hurting who come to the group. God is using my illness to help others. And further healing me in the process.