(REPOST) Defeating Depression: My Story and Solutions

The following is a repost from April 9, 2011. It is from my old blog, and I've had several ask me for it, so I'm making it available again. Thanks for reading!

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(Warning – I discuss some slightly harsh topics in this post. If you are the squirmy, uptight, or cynical type, you might not want to proceed. Also, this post is thoroughly introspective, and I hope that it doesn’t come off as self-aggrandizing. If it does, that certainly was not my intention. If you are here solely because you want to read my own tips for defeating depression, please skip to the numbered points in the second half of the post.)

This post is not a plea for pity — I neither want it, nor require it. Actually, if anyone offers it, I am usually quick to dismiss it and become greatly embarrassed, even ashamed, by it. I am quite content in who I am, but only when viewed through the perspective of God’s grace. I have struggled with depression for many years, and I thought it might be beneficial to share my perspective and solutions with someone who might be struggling through similar circumstances. I’ve thought about writing this post for several years, and am finally getting around to it.

I am a depressive.

I can’t remember the first instance that I felt genuinely depressed, but it was almost certainly between the ages of 8 and 10-years-old. Understand that when I refer to depression, I’m not speaking of sadness or fleeting moments of helplessness. I’m speaking of depression in the clinical sense, defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “depression of sufficient severity to be brought to the attention of a physician and to require treatment.”

Let me be clear: if you have never experienced depression, please do not dismiss the claims or the emotional distress of those who struggle with it — it is real. It can even be annoying to be around a depressive, especially since so many who claim to be “depressed” are attention-seekers searching for a quick hug and reassuring nod. In reality, those who are truly depressed often keep their feelings underneath the surface. They don’t want for you to know.

At a very young age, I developed a harshly self-critical perception, and began focusing almost exclusively on my inadequacies. When I underperformed, whether at school, in basketball, in church, or one of my own personal endeavors, I beat myself up until there was little left in regards to ego. I didn’t need anyone to tell me I didn’t meet a goal: I was already well aware of it. I was a classic INFP (which I was unaware of until I was 25), and had higher ideals than I could hope to achieve. To put it simply, I was a mess. I altered my appearance, my vernacular, my, goals, and even my beliefs.

I had suicidal thoughts first in junior high school, and began discreetly making small cuts on my arms and legs, not because I found the process cathartic, but because I wanted to be able to imagine how badly it would hurt if I actually cut my wrists. I planned my suicide out, from little details like the video I would record to what music I would play as I committed my final act. In all honesty, there were two reasons that I never followed through: one, that it would hurt my family too much, and two, I was genuinely terrified of spending eternity in Hell, despite my reluctance to admit there definitely was a God (I identified myself as agnostic during this time period). I was hopeless, but not heartless. I was godless, but not without a fear of God.

Throughout high school, I struggled with the notion that I would never become what I was “supposed to be,” whatever that meant. Suicide remained in my thoughts, even during the good times. My friends knew that I wasn’t happy, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t know how bad it had become. I wanted out, and I didn’t know how to work up the courage to make it happen.

One night at our church, I stood in the fourth row of pews (not going to church wasn’t an option as long as I lived with my parents) and listened to a missionary couple from Malaysia sing and speak. Bro. Marshall and Sis. Vani would continue to play a significant role in my family’s lives, but the first role they played was that of the catalyst that would draw me back to God. Near the end of the altar service, Sis. Vani crawled on top of the pew in front of me and began to pray, close enough that I was the only one to hear it. She spoke of things that I had never told another person, and she spoke as if God had filled her in on all the necessary details of my life which had me bound since before adolescence. I cried, I prayed, and I turned around. My life was God’s, and I haven’t wavered since.

But my depression did not end with my repentance. One night in Alexandria, Louisiana, I felt something come over me during prayer, and I felt the depression leave my life. I was convinced that I was healed of it, but it came once again around six months later. I was praying, studying, fasting, and loving God with my whole heart, but I could not shake the self doubt and despair that might have originated from my borderline unhealthy idealism. I no longer dealt with thoughts of suicide, but depression was still present — it was just taking a slightly different form.

My perception of depression has been continually re-shaped. I noticed that my best writing and prayer seemed to take place during the more severe bouts. Many of what I consider my best sermons were studied for, written, and preached during those same times. After reading John Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” which asserts that one better understands the joys and beauty of life only after experiencing the bitter lows and darkness of it, I started thinking that my depression might even be a vital and even valuable part of my personality. I can’t say that’s entirely healthy or even correct, but there was some logic behind it.

Over the years, I have successfully combatted depression with understanding, determination, and prayer. It is a daily battle, but if you want to end depression, you have to be willing to fight it on every front.

In between all the rationalizing and confusion, I’ve actually stumbled across, studied about, or instinctively arrived at certain solutions to overcoming depression. I am personally opposed to medicinal solutions (for myself, not for everyone), so I’ve made an effort to remember these and practice them as often as possible:

1. Prayer

This might seem like an obvious inclusion, especially when coming from a student pastor, but prayer and a relationship with God are the two most important steps in overcoming crippling depression. There are temporary solutions, but I can honestly say that my battle with depression has never reached the severity that it had during the darkest times when I had excluded God’s power and authority from my life. Prayer works!

I have not yet fully defeated depression, but I daily fight against it, and most days…I win. But I don’t do it alone, and it’s when I’m most aware of that fact that I feel most at peace. God does not forsake me during the dark times, and He has reminded me of that time and time again. Thank God for His presence!

Prayer can bring comfort, but Godly living also brings consistency and contentment. Every significant character in the Word of God was deeply flawed, but each of them who turned to God and turned themselves over to Him prevailed. God cares about the broken, the underachieving, the lonely, the fearful, and the neglected. The first step towards defeating depression should always be the same, and it should always be toward God.

2. Family/Friends

The natural inclination of introverted depressives to to exclude themselves from social activity.Depression feeds on loneliness.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that my mood shifted from sour to joyful as the result of those close to me. After some of the most gruesome days, an evening spent with my wife, Shari, has lifted me up when my original desire was to stay home and read in a chair, completely alone. Dinner with family on Sunday mornings after church has been a long-standing routine for the Deans and Stanleys, but they’re also therapeutic for me. I love my family, my family loves me, and whether they know it or not, their very presence soothes me.

I’ve been blessed with a number of friends, but particularly so with a smaller number of close confidantes. They know what makes me laugh, and they seem to know exactly what to say or do to put me in a better mood. The funny thing is that they likely don’t even realize that they’re doing it. They might not even know that I’m down (as I said, chronic depressives become good at hiding it).

No matter what your mood tells you, spend time with other people! They’re a blessing from God, and they can help you. Since we’re so often victims of our own minds, it’s good to make sure we’re not allowed the source of the problem to be the only brain the in the room.

3. Read and Study

I can’t recommend a particular book for everyone, but a number of them have helped me. Among them are Unmasking Male Depression and Boundariesthe latter not really being a book about depression, but is currently helping alleviate me of some sources of stress, which is definitely a factor in depression.

You need to understand your problems. You need to know what makes happy, angry, sad, content, and depressed. There is still a certain stigma attached to depression and other disorders — we don’t want to be considered a victim. Well, if you don’t want to be a victim, then find out how not to be! There is a wealth of reading material on the subject, and you would be foolish to ignore it. Speak to a counselor for recommendations.

4. Ask for Help

This, like many other personal battles, is not one that you can win alone. I unashamedly admit to having been assisted by counselors over the years, and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who has faces depressive tendencies. This should not be a source of shame!

Half a century ago, the field of psychology was still derided as something that only the kooks required. Only the mentally disturbed were thought to require psychological attention. Times have certainly changed, and while there are some things that only God can fix, there are many others that I believe He uses godly counselors to help solve. For many of them, helping people defeat their problems is their ministry. They are gifted by God, just as a preacher is gifted to preach the Word, and a music leader is gifted to lead in worship.

Do not be too fearful, skeptical, or ashamed to ask for help!

5. Retrain Your Mind

Depressives often follow a pattern. There are certain triggers that can alter a person’s state of mind for days. You can retrain your mind to react to circumstances. It takes dedication to make it work, but it is possible!

This is where reading and studying about your particular issues come into play. Combine that knowledge with the insights provided with therapy and prayer, and you have yourself a game plan. If you simply try to pray yourself out of it without taking an actions for yourself, you’re likely asking God for help with something for which He’s already provided a solution. Cognitive therapy is almost always successful when properly applied, but it must be applied. Don’t think depression will go away by itself.

This post might have been too forthcoming, but I hope that someone who battles these same issues might find something of value in it. Since my turning point at almost 19-years-old, I’ve continually felt a burden for those who battle depression, particularly young people who little to no idea of how to handle it.