I clench my sides, tears rolling down my face, my mouth agape as I gasp for air, when suddenly the silence is pierced with the sharp sound of laughter—my laughter. On good days, I am able to find joy in everything: the woodpecker that has infuriatingly chosen to peck at the exact spot outside my window, the mess in the kitchen, having quit a high-paying job only to find myself unemployed during a pandemic. On the days I see joy, I’m like a tourist on the shore, basking in the glory of the sun as I watch the waves gather ominously from a distance. Their growing din bothers me not. The ocean seems such a long way out. In those moments, it’s hard to imagine when or why the dark clouds will form again.
On the bad days, I am drowning—but how I got there, I do not know. Wave after wave collapses upon me, crushing me beneath their weight. Scrambling to lift my head above water, I see the shore. I call for help, but no one hears me. Their happy sounds drown out the cries of my distress. Suddenly, as if yanked, I’m being pulled further under. I try to fight it, try to hold myself at the top for a little while longer, but my energy is waning and I eventually give in. Succumbing to the darkness, water fills my lungs and I’m pulled into the depths. In the deep, my body is heavy, fog clouds my thoughts, tears fill my eyes. I open my mouth to pray but close it just as fast. Paralyzed by self-pity, days go by before I am once again able to see the light break through the clouds.
The long months of the pandemic have been unparalleled in their ability to incite fear, grief, and loneliness within us, but rates of depression have steadily been rising in the general population for years, thought to be spurred on by our generation’s dependence on social media, which broadcasts the splendour of our peers’ lives, making our own seem bleak in comparison. Charles Spurgeon—the English, Victorian-era preacher—didn’t have to suffer through FOMO while scrolling through his friends’ Instagrams, but he wrote of a real sorrow of the soul he “would not wish on another alive.” Spurgeon was the most popular preacher of his time, and he attracted crowds of hundreds to his London church. With the place packed to the rafters, Spurgeon preached the word of God with a trill of tongue that enchanted his congregants. One fateful day, however, when Spurgeon was guest preaching at a sister church, a rowdy prankster yelled “fire!” and spurred a stampede for the exits, injuring twenty-eight and killing seven. Spurgeon never recovered from his grief over the deaths and lives destroyed at an event he led that was meant to praise God. He lived with intense sadness and wrote about it many times over the years.
Spurgeon, in his grief, wrote some of his most powerful sermons. However, while some depression can stem from grief, the two aren’t always interconnected. Grief comes from a loss (often that of a person), and can include a spectrum of responses—emotional, physical, mental etc. Depression, on the other hand, is not necessarily linked to loss. It is marked by persistent isolation and cognitive impairment. Spurgeon wrote that “sometimes we are marked by melancholy from the moment of our birth,” and that can be true of a lot of people suffering from depression.
How do we respond to the soul-longing sickness that is depression? There is sometimes a misplaced comfort in the Church, a turn of phrase we commonly use when faced with an unfamiliar demon: “You need to pray more.” This betrays an incredulous belief that the affliction of depression comes from not being pious enough. We look at depression as a fault of the soul, incriminating us for not being godly enough, Christian enough, or just…enough. And yet the Bible tells us that there is “a time to weep” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Perhaps the noticeable absence of the word “depression” in the Bible leads us to believe it cannot possibly be a valid experience, but in its place the Bible uses many metaphors. In his book The Noonday Demon that chronicles a long battle with depression, Andrew Solomon writes that depression is “…unimaginable to anyone who has not known it” and that its expression “depends on metaphors.” In Psalm 42, we read that David is “downcast;” we read of Elijah and Jonah pleading for God to take their lives (1 Kings 19:4 and Jonah 4:3); and most well-known, the struggles of Job who cried out, “I have no rest, I have only turmoil” (Job 3:26).
Throughout the Bible, we come across those who are wrestling with themselves and with God. Perhaps those are the moments in which we are closest to him; after all, you can’t wrestle with someone unless you are very near to them. I am comforted by the knowledge that when I struggle with my innermost self, with life itself, I have a kindred spirit in Jesus, who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, said that he was “grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). When I am crippled in fear and loathing myself and my lot, I often think of his words as he cried out to God. Jesus said, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). As hard as it is in the moment, I try to change my cries of “Why me?” to “Be with me.”
The torment that precedes my bouts of depression inevitably stems from one thing: the lasting memory of an unhappy and lonely childhood. Having to take care of my own emotional, physical, and mental needs from a young age meant that I had to grow up fast, leaving home as quickly as possible and beginning life anew in another country. I buried my unhappiness, keeping it latched deep within my soul so that even my nearest friends could not spot an ounce of it, only to let it out when I found myself alone once again. The sadness, betrayal, and abandonment I wasn’t able to express in my youth began to control me as an adult. I began to have uncontrollable bouts of anger, of ennui, of sadness. I buried myself in my work and extra-curriculars in an effort to stem the tide of overwhelming sadness. I began to withdraw from friends because jealousy for the seeming normalcy of their lives began to grate on me. I isolated myself in my marriage only to become enraged at the smallest thing, often shouting things I wished I could say to the antagonists from my upbringing.
In a sermon titled “Man Unknown to Man,” Spurgeon challenged his congregants to “allow no ungenerous suspicions of the afflicted, the poor and the despondent. Do not hastily say they ought to be more brave, and exhibit a greater faith…. No…I beseech you, remember that you understand not your fellow man.” So, how are we to respond to a sickness unseen?
Here are four ways to extend grace to those living with depression:
- Honour the space they are in: Genuinely ask and listen to what they are going through. Resist the urge to give counsel or offer empty platitudes.
- Embrace Humility: Counter the urge to control the situation and allow yourself to sit in the uncertainty and discomfort their words might bring out in you. Allow your humility to guide you to empathy—imagine yourself in their place.
- Be a Help: Ask them if you can drop off a meal, or assist with chores. Ask if you can drive them to a therapist’s appointment or pick up medication. Offer tangible care in the form of tasks that can take a small burden off of them.
- Pray for Hope: In the midst of depression, sufferers can feel destitute and that they are a burden on those around them. Oftentimes, God is furthest from their mind. Pray that the light of Jesus finds them and that they may once again feel his love.
Meg is an aspiring writer, a voracious reader, and lifelong Jeopardy fan. She is most often to be found in her kitchen, listening to NPR, as she tests recipes in pursuit of someday opening her own cafe. You can read her writing about food, politics, and social justice at strangeandforeign.ca