Five Things You Need to Know When Your Friend is Depressed

At our core, humans are undeniably relational beings. We were created in the image of a relational God and we yearn for companionship.

Depression, a disease of terrifying loneliness, is an enemy of friendship. Having been a friend to the depressed, as well as the depressed friend, I am well aware of the significant struggle it is to know how to respond when you see your friend afflicted with such a bewildering state of being. Both parties become rendered helpless by confusion and frustration from a lack of knowing what to do.friend blog

The first inclination when you struggle with depression is to withdraw from everyone and everything. However, to retreat into isolation only perpetuates the vicious cycle of depression until you are consumed with hopelessness. How do we rectify this problem?

It is unfortunate that managing a response to someone we love struggling with depression is not intuitive. From my personal experience, most people are pretty bad at being a helpful friend to someone who struggles with depression, despite genuinely caring intentions. However, I have a lot of empathy for these people. Before my own devastating, but enlightening, journey with depression, I was not a good friend to the mentally ill. It wasn’t until I was on the other side, that I began to realize the many ignorant and erroneous assumptions, I am now ashamed to admit, I had about people who struggled with mental illness.

Due to this, I have outlined five fundamental and universal principles that every person absolutely needs to understand about their friend who is struggling with depression.

Number one: Depression is not logical. Therefore, listen.

With mental illness, there is no off switch; it’s not a consequence of a circumstance or action. Depression simply exists in spite of a person’s life circumstances, just like any other illness. There is no cause and affect relationship between someone’s depression and a mendable circumstance in their life.

Depression, as a result of a chemical imbalance, causes someone to feel and think negative, hopeless, and lonely thoughts and emotions that have no bearing in reality. Therefore, reminding someone of the good things they have going on their life, what they ought to be grateful for, and even trying to normalize their struggle by reminding them that everyone gets sad sometimes, causes a great deal of harm.

The assumption that their state of feeling needs a logical fix by reorienting their perspective on life, implies to them that you aren’t taking them seriously. In fact, this communicates that you see them as intentionally choosing to be depressed, which can be devastating when you already feel like a failure and burden to everyone around you. Therefore, avoid offering advice and perspective, and just listen. It’s simple, easy, and can actually provide relief.

A great thinker named Dietrich Bonheoffer, who is far more eloquent at expressing the intricacies of life than me, once said, “Christians so often think that they must contribute something when they are in the company of others–that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.” The space you leave with the absence of your words by refraining from offering advice demonstrates more caring and understanding than any phrase of comfort you could offer; you are demonstrating that you realize this is out of anyone’s control. Thing’s like, “tell me how you feel,” “that must be very hard for you,” and “I’m so sorry you are struggling like this,” are easy ways to be an active listener.

Number two: Remind them of the truth, not how they ought to feel.

In lieu of listening and not giving advice, there are some helpful things one can say. It’s easy when someone is sad to try and give them reasons to find happiness again. Granted, we all have something to be grateful for. However, as I’ve said, depression is not logical and fills your mind with lies. This might be hard to wrap your mind around, but your friend can be very grateful for things in their life and still feel depressed.

What your friend really needs is to hear truth. What do I mean by this? Depression is telling them they are worthless, unlovable, and a failure. Remind them of the truth; remind them that they are valuable, loved by many, and of all the things they have accomplished. Remind them of their strengths. Speak truth to them and they will most likely deny the things you say, and insist that they are a mistake and failure, but this truth has power to begin clearing away the cloud of lies that is engulfing their perspective on life.

For every lie, speak the antithesis of truth that will help reorient them out of their tragic reality. This validates that what they feel is real for them, but also helps draw them back into true reality by not causing them to feel guilty about what they can’t feel or be, but simply reminds them of who they are, despite these feelings.

Number three: Fear can be misunderstood as moodiness and anger.

It’s not easy to be there for your friend when they are depressed. Especially when their emotions are literally spilling out of them uncontrollably and they often seem like they are angry and just downright moody. It’s easy to either feel as if you are the cause of their mood or lose patience, especially when you feel like you don’t deserve that kind of behavior from them. After all, you’re just trying to help. You can’t be expected to be solely responsible for this uncomfortable situation, right? If only they would just tell you what you did wrong, this would be easy to fix, right? Yes, you’re right. Both people need to offer a little patience with the other, however, what you might be interpreting as anger and annoyance is really just fear, that has little to nothing to do with you.

Depression causes an overwhelming loss of control, as you become a prisoner to your own mind. You are trapped by your lack of ability to feel and think what is rational and appropriate and you are terrified of losing yourself to this chaos.

Depression causes everything around you to be uncomfortably excessive. Everything is louder, bigger, brighter, and you feel ever so much smaller and pointless. You become suspicious about every person around you, believing they are secretly judging you for being alive. While your friend might seem downright grouchy and rude, I can almost guarantee you they are really just feeling out of place, and ever so frightened. Be patient, they woke up feeling like a stranger in their own body and they feel like they are slowly disappearing into a living death. Try not to take it personally, because that will just cause them to feel even more overly responsible and burdensome.

Number four: Be the first to approach them; they won’t seek you out because they feel unworthy of friendship.

One of the most vicious factors of depression is that when you need help the most, you are least likely to seek it out. As I said before, depression is a disease of loneliness that convinces you that all of your friends dislike you and that the reality of life is that you deserve to be lonely.

You feel like the world’s biggest mistake and you are convinced that everyone knows it. Therefore, the right thing to do is to withdraw because seeking help is a complete contradiction to your new reality.

In other words, depression is a prison and it’s not easy to break down its walls to reach your lonely friend. Sometimes, you have to force your way into that world, but I promise you that it’s worth your effort. You are giving them a reason to believe again that maybe, just maybe, they are worthy of love. While this won’t cure their situation, it will give them relief that can give them enough strength to stay in the race. They may protest your intrusion into their little world, but don’t let that deter you. Most often, this is just a means to test whether or not you really care. This might seem manipulative, but it’s really just a desperate attempt to find hope again.

Number five: Remember that they miss themselves too.

Watching your friend become shrouded with depression is saddening, difficult, and frustrating. You don’t even know who this person is anymore. You miss the “good times” when it was natural and easy to talk, laugh, joke, and just do life with this person.

Now, you are trying desperately to hold onto the memory of what they were and what you know than can be. You are trying to relate to what seems like a complete stranger who has stopped looking you in the eye, seems to always be on the verge of tears, and refuses to hang out, and instead, quietly retreating into lonely, quiet spaces. You miss your friend. However, please don’t forget that they miss themselves too.

Be honest with them about how sad you both are they can’t be themselves. But remind them that your friendship is not conditional on whether they can meet the standard of what you both wish they could be. This is an opportunity for unconditional love. This is an opportunity to show them the face of Jesus. This is an opportunity to give the hopeless hope by giving love that doesn’t require them to meet a certain standard, but takes them as they are in the their moodiness, fear, anger, confusion, and loneliness. This kind of love is a light that will shine in the darkness of their world. This kind of love is one of the best ways to reflect the love that Christ gave to all of us on the cross.

Until next time,

~The Ghost in the Pew

The Glass Coffin

 

What is Depression like? 

Imagine you were trapped in a glass coffin; a tight space where you can’t be heard and are forced to see life vividly without being able to interact with it. No matter how hard you scream, no one can hear the real you.The glass coffin imageWhen people look at you, they don’t see this invisible prison you’re trapped in, and you know they wouldn’t believe you if you tried to describe your tragic situation. “It’s all in your head,” someone might say. But you know it’s real and dread that you will forever be stuck in this hopeless, lonely place, watching life move on, without you.

It doesn’t matter you’re sitting in a classroom full of people; you might as well be stranded on a desert island because this invisible cocoon of despair keeps you feeling completely isolated from the person sitting just a few inches from you. You just hope no one talks to you. It’s so hard to think and you always say the wrong things. You spend most of the time focusing on your breathing, because the anxiety attack is eminent. Why is it hard to breath normal? 

It’s just so difficult to understand what people are saying. You seem to be moving in slow motion, while the world speeds past you and you start to panic because you can’t keep up with the pace of normal life. It’s like you’re trying to wade through the ocean while everyone else is taking a leisure stroll on the beach. You’re so worn out.

Stay away from the crowds. All those people talking, and laughing, and smiling—this doesn’t even seem like real life.  It’s like the volume button in your brain got broken on the highest setting because everything seems so frighteningly loud. Everywhere you go makes you feel oppressed. There world seems so much bigger or maybe you got smaller. If only I could just crawl in a hole and be forgotten. If only the earth would open and swallow me where I stand, maybe I would find relief.

In case anyone asks how you are doing, try and remember social clichés just to get through the day. You know you’re lying with that fake smile, but what else are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to explain how you’re feeling? No one wants to know anyway. And they wouldn’t understand, even if you did try to be transparent. People think depression is something you make up in your head, right? Don’t let them find out you’re one those crazy people. Try to act normal, try to act normal. Ah, I don’t even remember what normal is! They’re saying something to me, but it’s just so hard to understand! That conversation was so exhausting. It seems like it’s you talking, but it’s not. No one knows this is not the real you. You’re trapped inside your impermeable glass box and no one can hear the real you.

You despise yourself for feeling like this. There are so many emotions raging inside you that don’t make sense. It’s so lonely. Can I just stop feeling, please! It hurts so much! Your mind is consumed with such negative thoughts of how stupid and worthless you are. You try to shut these negative thoughts out, but they constantly race through your head and get louder and more real as the day goes on. You can’t help but start believing how you mess everything up and you feel so embarrassed by the things you say and do. Nothing but negative self-deprecating thoughts race through your mind. “STOP,” you scream from the inside, but no one can hear you. You start to realize that you’re a mistake.

What happened? You haven’t always been like this. Sometimes you don’t feel like this and promise yourself that you will never let it happen again. You determined that next time you would be stronger, more courageous, and try harder and that will keep you from falling into this pitiful state of being. But in a moment, and without warning, the real you vanishes and you became the other person, the one you despise and fear. You’re a victim to the cruel game your depression plays by  waiting to turn this switch on and off whenever it feels like; a switch you can’t control.

It’s like standing in a large sunny field enjoying a beautiful day, but then you see a dark, ominous storm approaching and there is nowhere to take shelter and hide from the rain and winds coming your way. You just have to stand there, helpless, and watch the beauty slowly disappear around you, with nowhere else to go. The storm persistently encroaches and you hope this time you won’t get knocked down by its force. You try to fight. You try to stand strong and impermeable to its devastating force. However, as each day progresses, you slowly lose your ability to carry on against the powerful force bringing havoc all around you. You collapse exhausted, desperate, and weak.

Everything that you used to be passionate about seems meaningless. You must enjoy being this apathetic because if you didn’t like it, you would just stop, right? This should be a simple choice. “STOP,” you scream again, but it won’t work.

Hide, just hide. Don’t let anyone see you like this. The tears start streaming down your face and they won’t be stopped. You find somewhere to be alone and crumble down to the floor in ball of misery. “Make it stop, make it stop,” you scream as you rock back and forth on the floor, but this pain inside your head keeps getting stronger the more you try to resist. You clutch your head in your hands, the hot, bitter tears falling harder. The pain is unbearable; it feels like your thoughts are exploding inside you into an unbearable chaos and you can’t remember any reason to live.

Try harder. Pray harder. Do something, you pathetic thing! Your whole body begins to violently shake. “Not again,” you cry. You start hyperventilating until you make yourself nauseous. This is all your fault. “I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry,” you cry out loud in a desperate prayer. You don’t even know how to pray anymore. You are devastated by the belief that you have disappointed God by being like this. You feel like you don’t deserve to pray, you’re so ashamed for feeling like this and not being a stronger Christian.

This is not who you are.  But who are you? You can’t seem to remember. It seems like you’ve been stuck in this bleak, hopeless place forever and feeling joy and peace seems like a distant dream that never really happened. Other people know how to be happy, but not you. You don’t deserve to ever be happy again because you are doing this on purpose. Surely if you wanted to, you could just stop. You are paralyzed by the fear that you will never stop feeling like this.  Why isn’t there any easy way to stop living?

It’s been hours and you’ve run out of tears to cry but you still feel hollow, empty, and trapped. Maybe if you go to sleep, you won’t wake up. And yet, you dread going to sleep because you know you probably will wake up and you’ll have to get out of bed in the morning, and endure this all over again.

Getting out of bed is so hard.

When You’re a Christian Who Can’t Choose to be Happy

Joy is a dominant theme in the Christian message, and justly so. As a Christian, I find the gospel to be distinctly and uniquely joyful. When we realize what God has done for us through Jesus and what a good and loving heavenly Father he is, it’s difficult to find a reason to be unhappy. As a result, we preach the message that Jesus is the solution for a dissatisfied and broken heart.

But what if, as a Christian,  you know how much joy you should feel in your heart in response to God’s grace, want to feel this joy, but can’t. Is feeling the right emotions always a choice? More importantly, does our level of personal gladness and the ability to feel joy indicate the quality of our relationship with God?sad

 

My struggle with depression completely shattered my notion of what it means to be a Christian. Not only did I feel unyieldingly and overwhelmingly sad and hopeless but also guilty. In the early days of this journey, I was incredibly confused. I had no reason to feel so hopeless; my whole life I was taught that Jesus was hope for all! I had no reason to despair; I had so many reasons to feel joyful! I had no reason to feel like I wanted to die; God had given me so much to be grateful for! I had no reason to feel so scared; the bible said Jesus was my courage! I had no reason to not care about anything; life is a gift from God!

The way I felt and thought about my life was a complete contradiction to my Christian worldview. For every negative thought and feeling inside of my chaotic, internal reality, I could think of an antithesis found in my Christian faith that perpetually laid down layer after layer of guilt until I was overwhelmed with shame.

I anxiously read scriptures about finding joy and contentment in the Lord and tried with all the might I had left in my newfound complacent existence to feel and embrace joy in place of my perpetual sadness. As I would read passages in my bible about rejoicing in the Lord, I would squeeze my eyes shut, meditating and trying with all my might to choose to stop being so depressed and make myself feel the way I knew I ought to feel. Regardless of my feeble prayers, it seemed like, despite everything God’s word said, I was unworthy of the joy and peace the gospel claimed to offer. I felt like I was falling apart, in spite of God’s promises.

It didn’t make sense. Was I being gypped? There had to be a reason that I was incapable of choosing the same peace in the Lord like all my Christian friends seemed to be able to have. Everyone else I knew didn’t seem to be plagued by a devastating internal battle to find a will to live, like me. Some days, I could barely get out of bed in the morning. Why was life so easy for them and so hard for me? When they laughed or smiled, it seemed genuine, unlike me. I tried so hard to cope with life and to stop wasting so many hours sobbing in the corner of my closet, consumed by negative, self-deprecating thoughts that constantly told me how worthless I was.

I knew Christ gave my life meaning, but I didn’t feel it. I dug deep into my soul, intently searched the dark recesses of my heart, confessed sins, and prayed desperately that God would forgive me for being such a bad Christian. But nothing changed. So, I began to believe the lie that I wanted to feel depressed. I began to believe the lie that I was intentionally choosing to rebel against the gift of joy I believed God offered me, and even worse, I believed the lie that God was disappointed in me. I was trapped in a living death, when the gospel told me I was given new life.

 At first it seemed, much to my despair, the gospel had lost bearing in my life.

Eventually, however, the gospel became the most uniquely relevant thread of truth that held my fraying pieces together because I began to discover the beauty of the gospel from a completely new perspective. In short, I had been viewing the Christian message all wrong! My struggle to get out of bed every morning found purpose in the gospel because God gives our lives meaning through struggle. In fact, struggling [In this life] is a promise from Jesus. A direct quote, actually [see John 16:33].

When we struggle, it’s because we lack something. When we struggle with the loss of a loved one, we lack the stability their presence gave to our lives. When we struggle with regret, we lack an opportunity that was missed or the chance to undo a choice made. When we struggle with sin, we lack a wholesome grasp on the virtues and character that God loving challenges us to maintain. When we struggle with disappointment, we lack a circumstance or an expectation that was never met. When we struggle with insecurity, we lack confidence. When we struggle with discontentment, we lack gratitude. When we struggle with loneliness, we lack relationship. When we struggle with social inequality, we lack a just a society. When we struggle with illness, we lack healing. When we struggle with hunger, we lack nourishment. When we struggle with hate, we lack love. When we struggle with war, we lack peace.

No matter where we look in this world, we find struggle caused by want, deficiency, absence, and famine. This world lacks justice, equality, and harmony. It doesn’t take long to assess the current state of humanity, in all corners of the world, to realize that humankind suffers from a serious state of lackingness.

In light of the gospel, our struggles do not result in despair, but lead to a clearer view of the reality of heaven and God’s plan of restoration for this world. Those who have surrendered to Christ are eternal beings and the beauty of struggling is that it reminds us we don’t belong to this temporary, dying, and corrupt world. We know that Christ is the fulfillment for every lacking this world endures, but Christ doesn’t belong to this temporary world either. We belong to Christ, and He belongs to us, but we have a short trial to endure on this earth as we eagerly anticipate the day when Christ returns to create a new heaven and earth where we will live in His all-fulfilling presence, forever.

For the blind souls who never experienced the beautiful colors of this life, they will awaken one day in their new life to behold colors so brilliant, that this world will seem black and white in comparison.

For the deaf souls who never heard the sound of a baby laugh, the rush of a waterfall, or the magnificence of a choir, they will awaken one day to hear the sounds of angels singing praises to our God, making anything heard on earth like a clashing symbol.

For the paralyzed child who will never know the rush of running or thrill of dancing, they will run for joy in their new home, and never become weary.

For the cognitively impaired person who will never be capable of living an independent, self-sustaining life or comprehend complex intellectual notions, their souls will find freedom to truly express themselves and be understood, by the God who created them!

Every deficit we endure on this earth, even a deficit of joy, is promised to be fulfilled by our gracious Creator. There were times when I went what seemed like an eternity without encountering any thread of joy or pleasure in my life, but the reality is that a true eternity is coming where I, and the thousands of other people in this world afflicted with the devastation of mental illness, will receive a kind of joy no one has ever encountered on this earth. We are promised that our struggles belong to this world, but we do not belong here.

After several months of endless misery, I finally went to a doctor who performed a test on me that showed that I was not merely deficient, but depleted in the whole spectrum of hormones that impact mental and emotional stability; I wasn’t choosing to feel sad and hopeless. I wasn’t making it all up! My body was sick and wasn’t making the chemicals my brain needs to cope with life. My journey to find physical and spiritual healing brought me to a pivotal realization:

the legitimacy of my Christian faith is not dependent on my capacity to experience the joy of the Lord in this life.

There is a large demographic of people in this world, like me, who cannot rely on their emotions. In fact, these emotions are scary and confusing and there are chemicals in our brain that trick us into believing and feeling all kinds of things.

Depression isn’t always spiritual; depression isn’t a choice or an indication of how well someone is trusting in the Lord.

Going through life devoid of rational feelings can be devastating for the Christian who struggles to understand the inner conflict between their feelings and their knowledge of how they believe they ought to feel. However, this perceived dichotomy only exists because of a faulty perception of the gospel.

I didn’t always have a lot of clarity in the midst of my broken, chaotic mind, but I steadily grew to find courage in knowing that even though I was deprived of every chance of happiness in this life, I knew that I will experience an eternity of heavenly joy so beyond my current comprehension, even my most elated moment in this short life, will seem like complacency in comparison. A temporary life of struggling compared to a life of eternal harmony and beauty isn’t really that bad, in comparison.

This is the beautiful hope for all those who lack something on this earth. This hope promises that if we are found in Christ, we become eternal beings. Therefore, let us learn to think like eternal beings! That doesn’t mean living this temporary life isn’t still hard, but it simply means living here becomes hopeful because we know all suffering will eventually end and it gets so much better, even if you don’t feel like it. This hope means its okay to be sad. That’s the truth of the gospel and this truth should never become a burden, but a sigh of relief.

Not everyone can choose to be happy, but we can all choose Jesus.

Until next time,

~The Ghost in the pew