To My Christian Friends From a Therapist on Depression, Anxiety, and Suicide
This morning I woke up with consistent, low grade anxiety. I felt it in my chest as soon as I became semi-conscious. Of course, it didn’t help that my alarm alerting me to rise and shine was a five-year-old switching the light on and off, on and off after putting her face directly in front of mine, greeting (read—DEMANDING) me to “Play with me, Mommy”. These were the first words I heard today.
I breathed slowly in and out of my nose, feeling the air travel down the back of my throat, filling my lungs like the comforting, steady ocean waves at the beach. I know my daughter. I know her tenacity. I know it will be a fight to make her wait. I start the coffee. I open the blinds, inviting the sun to stream into our lives (a daily morning ritual). Then I play with her for about 15 minutes before I do anything else. We sit on the hardwood floor and, at her lead, move the dolls around the Melissa and Doug three story dollhouse.
When the time seems right, I let her know that I am hungry and I want to make our breakfast. I spoon out some strawberry yogurt and top it with granola, per her request. After setting her food on the table, I drop some frozen waffles into the toaster for my son, who is always the first one awake and is upstairs occupying himself with his xBox. I sprinkle turmeric and cinnamon into the bottom of a mug that reminds me with its message on the outside to “Be Brave”. I pour coffee into the grounds, allowing the weight of the liquid brown courage swirling into the motivational cup to do the job of stirring for me. I add some skim milk.
At some point in time I read or heard somewhere that cinnamon helps control blood sugar and that turmeric alleviates inflammation. So, you know. I’m trying it. Why not.
I sit down with my cereal. My oldest daughter comes out of her room. She makes her own breakfast without saying a word. Peanut butter and syrup on waffles. She sits down beside me. We eat in silence. As she walks back to her room I ask for a hug. She obliges, allowing me hold onto her for the length of a deep breath, as she knows I always do.
I sit and notice the anxiety is still in my chest. With my tenacious five-year-old occupied by her youtube video, I pick up my coffee and, after putting away my cereal bowl, I open up the front door and sit down in the shade on our front steps. I just sit there. I hear birds and bugs and an airplane fly over my head. The mailman drives by and puts a package in our mailbox without looking in my direction, which is fine because I am still in my pajamas. I am sure the package is the new book by Rachel Held Evans I ordered a couple of days ago. Gotta love Amazon Prime.
I sit and listen. I breathe. I pray.
I don’t know if the anxiety will lift. I have learned not to start attaching thoughts to the anxiety. A dear person in my life helped me realize that often we feel the feelings FIRST…and then start attaching thoughts to the feelings whether they are connected or not. Attaching thoughts to our feelings often gives more credence and power to our thoughts than they deserve.
Sometimes we just FEEL. There aren’t thoughts attached to them. We feel…and then we don’t. Sometimes we see a why or a connection or a trigger, but not always. It could be hormonal or a smell or the way we slept.
Forcing understanding or an explanation is our own “fix it” and “self-help” attempts that are sometimes an act of violence against our heart, mind, soul, and body.
Room. Sometimes we just need room.
The waves come in. The waves go out.
Sometimes the feeling waves knock us over…even when we know how to surf and swim.
Usually…more times than not…we get back up.
We come to learn and experience and KNOW that we WILL GET BACK UP.
When Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died as a result of suicide I was haunted, once again, by the truth that success and smiles do not protect a person from darkness.
I looked at their pictures and watched videos of their work. I read articles about their lives. I imagined their last moments and cried deeply over their despair. Whatever the situation…and I know there are stories about the why’s and who’s and where’s…there always are… whatever the context of their pain…I grieved for the depth of it… and their obvious feelings of powerlessness against it.
I was angry that no one was given the chance to hold their hand, to sit with them, to look them in the eye, to tell them…sternly, perhaps…this isn’t the end. It doesn’t have to end like this. You can wake up tomorrow. There can be better days. Promise. Promise. Promise. I was angry that no one was given the opportunity to say (or maybe the opportunity was there but not used) let’s find the better days together.
I felt gratitude for the gifts of their creativity and light to this world.
I mourned the premature ending of those gifts.
I watched on social media as friends, acquaintances, and colleagues responded with their own grief and disbelief.
I also read some of the most painful posts on social media I have seen in a long time…and in this day and age that is saying a LOT. There were posts that took my breath away…posts that made me furrow my brow, adding more wrinkles to the space between my eyes, and mutter out loud: “No, no, no. PLEASE, don’t say that, friend. PLEASE. Oh my goodness. NO. NO. NO.”
And, most of these posts? Made by my dear, fellow Christians.
I need to talk to you, friends. I HAVE to talk to you. As a therapist, as a fellow Christ follower. I HAVE TO TELL YOU SOME THINGS.
It is never ok to equate depression with a lack of faith or knowledge of Jesus.
Never. Never. Never.
Or anxiety. Or PTSD. Or an eating disorder. Or bipolar. Or suicide.
Never. Never. Never.
Worshipping Jesus MIGHT bring a high, but the daily FOLLOWING of Jesus puts us square in the range of humanity…prone to the full spectrum of the human experience including emotions and thoughts and drives and desires…as well as illness…physical, mental and otherwise.
I grieved the pain and suffering of Kate and Anthony. I also ached for the people who have wrestled with depression and suicidal thoughts…people who desperately try to be good, do good, and, yes, follow Jesus and have faith…I ached for them and what it must be like to read posts in response to the mental illness and suicide of these celebrities…posts that said things like: “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace.”
Can we just throw this trope into the trash can? For the sake of all that is good and holy and right in this world…PLEASE?
It ISN’T a true or honest or even kind statement to make. It isn’t even cute. I don’t care how clever you think it is.
Go read Jeremiah and then come back and tell me if he would agree that being close to God ensures peace and delightful tiptoed walks through the tulips.
Statements like this one are some of the most biblically ILLITERATE statements I ever hear.
No, no, no.
I am sorry if I am coming across as too direct or aggressive or mean or whatever you feel as you read through my words here, but you have to understand something.
This isn’t about some cute and clever play on words. This is a matter of life and death.
There are people who HATE themselves for their darkness. There is so much shame. So much self-loathing.
And, the shame, sadly, often is found, in my experience, within people who simultaneously are depressed AND within a faith community…trying desperately to pray away the pain.
My dear friend, as someone who works with people on a regular basis who struggle with depression and anxiety…whose realities at ANY given moment drop into pits of dark despair…sometimes without any real rhyme or reason…people who love God and want to be and do the right thing so very much…as someone who has struggled with my own days of anxiety and depression…these comments wrench my heart. I thought of all the people reading those words on social media…all the people who at that very moment felt flat and hopeless….who love Jesus and people…who read those words equating depression and a lack of maturity or faith in Christ…people who now feel shame and will decide to hide and isolate within their communities even more…thereby increasing their risks of self-harm.
I thought of them and I plead with you.
No. No. No.
No more shunning the human experience as anti-Christ. THAT is anti-Christ. Jesus wept. Jesus grieved. Jesus CHOSE to embody the messy and complicated life of a human being.
We are at our MOST honoring of Jesus and the work God is doing in our lives when we are HONEST about our humanity. Honest IS honoring. It is being real and authentic and vulnerable. It is risky and requires that we care less about our image and more about our integrity.
It is the KINDESS of God that draws us near to Him.
And, these statements aren’t kind, dear friends.
They just aren’t.
They aren’t even biblical.
So stop it.
Kindness. Curiosity. Humility. Respect. Empathy.
Let’s start there.
I think that is where Jesus started…where He still starts.
And, I think we are trying to follow Him.