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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Reentry: Still on the Road

It's no secret I've had a rough time in reentry the past few months. I washed my clothes by hand and hung them up to dry for weeks, and I binge-watched Netflix and drank Dr Peppers by the case to make up for the time my favorite soda and I were apart.

Now, several months (and seasons of Bones) later, here I am.

Life in Waco is falling into a pleasant rhythm, and for the most part things have calmed down both externally and internally. However, every once in a while waves of grief and feelings of missing Cambodia hit me rather suddenly, like a flash flood with no forecast of rain. I'm still learning to navigate these surprise storms. Recently during one of these waves of grief, I heard a song my friend Marc wrote called "Heading Home." The song begins, "There’s a groaning, an aching in my bones/There’s a longing in my heart to find a home." As I listened, it seemed to gather up within me leftover remnants and threads of reentry--the values I've learned, the pain, the hope, and the lessons I'm still learning now--and place them in a bundle right in the center of my heart.

The lyrics didn't tie up the loose ends or weave the threads into a stunning tapestry. No, they simply brought all the frayed fibers to one place so I could see them. All of them, in their varied colors, sizes, shapes and textures, all at once. The hurts and hopes and tears and shouts, all at once.

All of them, all at once, were beautiful. I no longer felt the need to tug at this thread or change the color of that one. With all their quirkiness and shortcomings and distinct characteristics, they were beautiful.

Stock photo from Adobe

Stock photo from Adobe

While I quieted my soul and listened to this song, I realized a few things. First, even though I'm settling down into life in Waco, I'm still heading somewhere. For a woman with an unshakable travel bug coursing through her veins and wanderlust written on her heart, knowing I'm still traveling is a comforting notion. (However, I am excited for no more reentry processes when the journey ends!!)

Second, the place I'm heading is to be with Jesus in person. To have more of Jesus, to spend more time in His presence, to know Him more. This lines up with one of my greatest prayers and desires lately, which has been to want Jesus more than I want a country, and for my loyalty to be to Him and not to a culture. Home is a Person, not just a place.

Third, I realized the journey home can be beautiful in itself. A road trip by myself through the Texas countryside is one of my favorite things. More than getting to the destination, I enjoy simply driving, soaking in the landscape and praying or listening or singing until my throat hurts. I may be homesick, and reentry may be hard, and I may not truly arrive home for a while, but the journey home can still be beautiful and is uniquely qualified for enjoyment.

As I sat examining this bundle of threads and these lessons learned, I stopped struggling for a moment. Instead of trying to reconcile two very unique cultures and countries, I simply began to thank God for each lifestyle and cultural difference as it came to mind.

Thank You for the communal way of living in Cambodia, and thank you for the individuality of American people.

Thank you for rice and fish and the Mekong. Thank you for microwaves and refrigerators and ovens and pre-packaged food.

Thank you for my students in Cambodia, for the church, for the rhythm of life there; thank you for the job I have in the States, for my coworkers, for healthcare here.

I could keep going for hours, but the point is gratitude humbles me and reminds me how beautiful this world is, even with its pain and frayed edges and tangled up threads. In some way, all those worn out threads create something beautiful in their messiness. I cannot and will never be able to make sense of the disparities between countries and the heartache that hits every time I leave a country. Yet when my focus is on the Maker of cultures rather than on the cultures themselves, I find rest. I don't have to stress about reconciling the differences and similarities and roughness and tangles—because no matter what, I'm still on the road, and I'm still heading home.

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