My Journey through Depression to Happiness

"Why you smiling, Miss?" I turned to see who was speaking. I was volunteering with high school students, and one of them looked at me expectantly, waiting for an answer.

"Because I'm happy," I replied, my smile widening. As the words left my lips, I almost cried. I wanted to add, "Because it's been six years since I began struggling with depression, and I'm finally happy. I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life! I'm happy to be volunteering here, and I'm happy to be alive."

Six years later, I'm happy to be alive.

When I first experienced depression, I had a lot of ideas about what the cure was. Most of them were wrong. Today, I still have a lot of ideas, and though now I'm better informed, I admit a lot of them are probably still wrong. We only know in part, and we see as in a mirror, dimly.

Six years later, I'm trashing my formulas for happiness and discarding the empty claims I know what "holistic healing" is. As I look back, here's what I notice.

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Therapy counts.

Stubbornness tends to run in my family, and pride tends to run in me. This combination resulted in a three-year refusal to consider seeking professional help. A breakdown (or five) after a difficult summer in Cambodia led me to a counselor's office, where I finally found hope in the face of suicidal thoughts.

In therapy, I learned how to process emotions. I experienced grace. I met Jesus in a new way.

However, though therapy brought me a long way, I still floundered in waves of depression, especially with transitions to and from life overseas.

Observation: Therapy has literally been a life-saver. It brings perspective and fosters humility. It can facilitate major healing. It requires hard work mentally and emotionally. It is often the first step in breaking down stigma and pride. Though it's thought of as a practice reserved for "people with problems," therapy can benefit everyone. We all have problems, after all, whether we admit it or not! Perhaps the only difference between those who go to therapy and those who don't is the humility and courage to recognize and own our problems.

Bottom line: Therapy can do wonders for health! It is not a guaranteed cure for anything.

God can bring breakthrough.

At the beginning of the year, I found myself at a weekly gathering with friends from church. As the sound of piano keys and voices filled the house, I remembered how earlier in the day the Lord had nudged me to ask for prayer for depression. I didn't understand why. Over six years, I'd prayed and asked for prayer more times than I could count.

Yet in obedience, I approached Alexa, one of our leaders and now a dear friend, and tapped her on the shoulder. Her eyes met mine with a smile. Nervously, I explained I was experiencing depression and asked if she would pray for me.

"Yes," she replied, "I actually would love to because I've experienced depression myself."

Surprised and grateful, I closed my eyes as she prayed over me. She prayed for me to experience whatever breakthrough she had experienced.

The next morning, I woke up with hope surging in my chest. I felt 85% better! The Lord had brought breakthrough.

Observation: It's important to realize healing doesn't come as a result of actions or disciplines themselves. This is why "read your Bible" and "pray more" are dangerous solutions to give someone who is depressed (not to mention the propensity to come across as insensitive and judgmental). Even though these practices can connect us with God, these actions cannot heal us. Prayer, reading the Bible, Scripture memory, worship, nor repentance can heal us. Furthermore, God does not promise to heal us from depression or relieve our suffering, even if we do ask Him!

Bottom line: God can heal in an instant. His desire is for His children to come to Him with our burdens. He does not guarantee breakthrough, and spiritual disciplines are not cures.

Medication can be effective.

Shortly before asking Alexa to pray for me, I began taking antidepressants. It was somewhat of a last-ditch effort, as I'd always been in staunch opposition of medications. My reasons ranged from, "I don't want to be dependent on anything" to "They don't actually work" to "I'm weak if I take them."

When I finally visited a doctor, the first medication I tried actually made my depression worse. I'm thankful my therapist recognized and addressed this. When I switched to a different pill, I slowly began to notice positive effects: more energy, fewer suicidal thoughts, and an overall elevation in mood.

Since these effects occurred so closely to the prayer-sparked breakthrough, I wondered if the medications truly did anything or if it was simply the prayer. When I asked the Lord about it, I felt I should continue the meds. Later, a dose increase resulted in more positive effects. In fact, I went from feeling 85% better to 95% better!

Observation: In my head, finding a spiritual answer (prayer) to depression was more attractive because I thought a physiological source meant there was something wrong with me. Additionally, physiological depression can't be proven by a simple test or lab result, so there's ample room for questioning and criticism. This can be the hardest treatment choice for church-goers because it can be seen as a lack of faith.

In reality, taking medications shows incredible courage, resilience, and incredible humility to admit we are not in control of our minds. This lack of control is true for all people, but the facade is often forced down only in those of us with mental illness. Many times, people who take medications are meeting God in a new way, with humility and a recognition of how little we know about our brains and how little we control. If righteousness includes "right thinking" about God and how we relate to Him, then the humility involved in taking medications can bring about a form of righteousness.

Bottom line: Medications aren't for everyone, but the biological component to depression should not be dismissed. Medications can help. They are not a guaranteed cure.

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Circumstances matter.

Situational depression is real and I probably experienced some with reentry, but for now I'll focus on general, ongoing life circumstances: the places we live, the jobs we hold, the social circumstances surrounding us.

When working as a nurse at the hospital, I experienced extreme stress. I felt pressure to be enough—perfect, even—and struggled to keep up with these expectations. The high-stakes and often-harsh environment was rough on my heart and my soul.

For a long time, I categorized my job as an unchangeable part of my life circumstances. I also mistakenly believed resigning from a career meant I was a failure, weak, and not good enough. I viewed quitting a job as a cop-out.

A few months ago, I made the choice to quit nursing in favor of health. After the initial shock of quitting the career I received all my training in, I walked into a season of great joy. I not only made the jump from feeling 95% better to 100%, but I'm happier now than I ever have been in my life! I didn't even know happiness this great existed. Wow, am I grateful!

Observation: Changing careers symbolized a surrendering of my will and sense of security, a courageous step of obedience and trust, and a commitment to what was best for me, even if it wasn't popular. I did (and still do) receive questioning when I tell people I willingly walked away from nursing, but this consequence is nothing compared to the unbelievable happiness it brings me every day.

Bottom line: A stressful circumstance is not to be underestimated. Unhealthy and stressful circumstances can have immense repercussions (like severe depression), but changing them is not a guaranteed cure.

Overall Lessons

Many possible solutions to depression exist, but none are guaranteed. I used to think if I altered just one of these factors enough, I would find happiness. I thought if I prayed enough, if I just kept going to counseling, or if I took the right pill at the right dosage for the right amount of time, I'd be better. The truth is I had to alter all four aspects of my life before I found happiness.

The only guarantee to come with each step I took toward health was a humble questioning of my biases and beliefs.

What do I really believe about depression?

How do I believe it relates to spirituality?

Do I assume others are weak, lazy, or fearful because they won't seek the same treatment I do?

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When the Words Won't Come

It’s been a little while since I've been able to write a complete post. It’s not that I haven't been trying. The words just won't come. I’ve started writing on half a dozen topics in the past couple weeks, only to minimize the documents on my screen and eventually click out of them one by one, as my passion or conviction or interest fades away and the words stop coming.

This is, I suppose, writer’s block.

A few months ago I was trying to decide if I should jump into an online writing course by author and writing coach Ally Fallon. I don’t usually buy into online courses, much less purely-for-pleasure online courses, but Ally won me over.

You see, Allison used to offer an online course but permanently closed it long before I picked up writing again. Several months ago, I entered my contact info on the "just in case I ever re-open the course" page on her website, and when Ally decided to offer the course again last November, she sent personal emails to everyone who had indicated interest. She asked if I had any questions and invited me to enroll.

I was on the fence about spending money on a writing course (especially since I was about to quit my job), so I asked if the course would help with writer’s block. That was my biggest challenge. As promised, Ally emailed me back the next day. Her response was intriguing. She said, “I say that sometimes ‘writer’s block’ is more likely ‘life block’ and what we really need is to find clarity and direction.”

“Sometimes ‘writer’s block’ is more likely ‘life block’”
    -Allison Fallon

Her insight was spot on and a brand new idea to me. During the months preceding that exchange, I had waves of creativity and seasons of absolutely nothing. When I looked at the whirlwind of lessons I was learning in life during that same time period, I noticed the waves of creativity often came at the tail end of personal breakthroughs. She was right.

Right now, I’m once again in a place where the words just aren’t coming the way I would like. They come in sporadic, short-lived spurts to tease me before dissolving like marshmallows in hot chocolate. They float on top in easy access when I start sipping, but before I'm halfway finished they’ve completely disappeared and can’t be recovered.

However, this time around my perspective has changed (not on putting ‘mallows in my hot chocolate. On writer’s block.).

First, I have a little more grace on myself. Right now it’s not just writer’s block I’m up against; it’s life block. Living life is a big task, after all, and we all need time to figure it out. Though it’s possible to struggle with writer’s block alone and not life block, I find nine times out of ten they occur together. (I use writing as an example, but really the same applies to any creative endeavor.)

Second, I shift from focusing on decreased productivity to focusing on what’s going on inside of me. Sometimes decreased productivity—in writing, teaching, and other parts of life—is a reflection of decreased mental, spiritual, and emotional health. When I’m not feeding my soul, my creative energy also wanes. (This, I believe, signifies something about the connection between the Creator and and our ability to create.) When I get too caught up in churning out enough quantity or quality, I miss the root cause of the creativity famine. I miss the life block.

Though it’s tempting to file this chapter of my life away along with my unfinished blog posts, instead I want to hit pause and look around in this moment in life. This in-between, stuck-and-don’t-know-how-to-get-out, feel-like-a-stalled-vehicle moment.

When I stop in this moment, I notice how impatient I am. I’d rather arrive at the revelation or epiphany marking the end of life block and writer’s block and any other kind of block and move on with life. I’ve tried everything: talking about it, reading books about getting unstuck, reading books completely unrelated to distract myself, texting friends about it, and praying about it. Yet try as I might, I cannot force it. Breakthrough simply cannot be forced.

Whether we like it or not, we all spend some portion of our lives in this place of in-between and waiting for breakthrough. Maybe not a huge portion (though currently it feels like it to me), and maybe not an exciting portion, but a portion nonetheless. And since this blog is all about writing about what our stories are really like, this seems to fit. It’s always nice to know someone else is (or has been) in the same spot we are, even if it’s a rather dull and irritating spot.

So this post is for all those who have waited for breakthrough. It’s for those who are still waiting patiently. It’s for those who are frustrated and worn out and are trying to force breakthrough. It’s for those who face life block at any time, for any amount of time. It's for all of us. When we  pause for a moment—just for a moment—and look around, we realize:

It’s okay to feel stuck. It happens to us all. 

Our souls and hearts and minds may need some extra care during this season.

We’re not alone. Plenty of people around us are at points in their journeys where they feel stuck. 

When we look around ourselves for a moment—just for a moment—we find a strange, unique sense of community with all those who share the experience of life block. We find a strange, unique sense of community with everyone. 

In this community, we can wait with each other and commiserate together and encourage one other. And when the life block—and writer’s block—finally ends…we can celebrate each breakthrough together.

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