The florescent lights illuminated the medical degrees and a plethora of Ole Miss paraphernalia that I had practically memorized. I get it. Hotty Toddy. But really, Ole Miss golf club head covers on the stirrups? The paper crunched under my legs and my bare feet dangled from the exam table. I sighed a heavy sigh and swallowed. Nope, still there. That annoying ball of relentless tears was still there. They had taken up residence in the back of my throat. I pushed my feelings down again as I heard the light rap on the door. My sweet, slow-talking, Southern OB-GYN entered the room and immediately asked how I was doing. “Fine.” Only I wasn’t fine. And he knew it.
For weeks after our youngest daughter was born, I had been struggling. I thought it was just the “baby blues”, but four months had passed and I only felt worse. Gah! Stop! Don’t cry! Too late. I burst into a mess of blubbering sobs. “Something’s wrong with me! I should be happy, but I’m so sad!”
Most men would be left fumbling, but my doctor took my outburst in stride. He had seen this before, probably multiple times that week. After I collected myself I rattled off my symptoms: fatigue, anxiety, no desire to leave the house, weight gain, irritability. This is totally normal, right? I had told myself that all of this was because I worked my full-time job before teaching a night class until 9:00. That it was because I was sleep-deprived. That it was because I was potty training my two-year old while bouncing my infant through her fourth hour of colic. This is completely explainable. This is normal.
But y’all it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t normal to rather sleep than play with my daughters. It wasn’t normal to think of any excuse to not attend a BBQ with friends. It wasn’t normal to always be hungry, yet never satisfied. It wasn’t normal to cry daily. To never want intimacy with my husband. To be numb.
That’s how depression works. It consumes you, stretching itself across your entire being: physical, mental, and even spiritual. And the worst part…it’s invisible. There’s no tell tale fever, no infection, no abnormal blood work displaying a clear diagnosis. It’s so obvious yet so illusive. It’s so deafeningly loud yet so eerily quiet. It challenges you fight for your freedom from its grip, yet softly beckons you to stay still as it washes over you like a heavy blanket.
In one breath you tell yourself it’s ok. You’re just tired. Stay in bed a bit longer. But in the next breath your insides are screaming, “SNAP OUT OF IT!” I wanted to get better, but had convinced myself that it was simply a lack of faith that was keeping me from getting well. I only needed to pray harder, study longer, seek the joy, dry up the tears…get over myself. So I knew I was depressed, I just didn’t want to say it aloud.
My doctor agreed that I was probably suffering from some sort of mild depression and offered to write a prescription to help with the symptoms, while also suggesting I reach out for counseling if I felt I needed it. Wait, what? Medicine? But, I can’t take medicine. Not for this.
And that’s what I told him. “I can’t take medicine for this. I’m a Christian.” I can’t recall his response, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of the Southern classic…”Do what?”
“I can’t take medicine for this. If I have Jesus, that should be enough. I can’t say that I have Jesus and be depressed at the same time. What would that say about my faith?”
His response resonated with me in a way that I will never forget. He asked me very simply,
“Lauren, what would you have me to do if you had the flu?”
“I’d want you to give me medicine.”
“And would taking medicine for the flu mean you had a lack of faith?”
“No. But if I had the flu, I’d actually be sick.”
“You are sick.”
You see, like so many others, I too had believed the lie that mental illness wasn’t REAL illness. That it could be controlled with will power and discipline. That all a person needed to do was get over it. But I couldn’t get over it, and it was only getting worse. I needed help.
So what is a Christian to do when he or she has been diagnosed with a mental illness?
Counseling is so very important when you are facing a mental illness. Trained professionals are available in most communities through local hospitals, mental health clinics, YMCAs, churches and schools. Many employers also offer an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) where employees can receive professional mental health care confidentially, and at no cost to the employee. Reach out to a trusted clinician who can properly diagnose your illness and provide the appropriate care. Statistics show that in any given year, one in four Americans will experience some sort of mental illness. The problem is that all too often, a person will wait months or even years from the onset of symptoms before seeking help (NAMI, 2013).
Medicine Can Help
As a Christian, I fully believe that God can heal me. But I also fully believe that God has blessed us with modern medicines that can bring healing. There are many medications on the market that can help with the symptoms of mental illness. And for that I am grateful. Medication has been an effective solution for me, but it took some trial and error to find the right prescription and dosage. Talk to your medical professional about your options. Take your meds as prescribed. And be completely honest about how you are responding to the medication.
I’ll never forget sitting around a dinner table with some girlfriends when somebody made a comment about their anti-anxiety medicine. A few seconds later, another friend chimed in about her “happy pills” as well. Wait? They’re struggling, too? It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t alone. And neither are you. And sweet reader, you can’t do this alone. Find support among family, friends, your Bible study group, or a support group in your community. My husband couldn’t always understand my depression so I was thankful to have supportive friends who could provide a safety net of care through a listening ear, a pepperoni pizza and good wine.
Healing takes time. Lots of time. And for many people, myself included, depression and anxiety can be cyclical. I may go months and months where I feel good and don’t need medication. But then there are those seasons when the heaviness returns. And as the feelings of self-doubt pile on I begin to wither and retreat. My husband can usually spot the symptoms before I can.
Give it to God
You’ll have to ask God to take the burden every day. Every day. The scripture tells us that His yoke is light, and that we are to cast our burdens upon Him. Pray. Meditate on His word. Go to church, even when you don’t feel like it. Sit on the back row and let the tears fall. His sanctuary and His people will bring healing and comfort that the medicine can’t reach. That’s a promise.
As I’m writing this piece, I am one week into my treatment for the anxiety and depression that has once again shown up at my door. The symptoms started in August. Work is hard. Church service is hard. Parenting is hard. Loneliness is hard. So I met my wise friend at Starbucks for Bible study, and she let me spill my guts. I invited another family to our house for soup and Kentucky football. I called my doctor, made a follow-up appointment, changed my diet, and increased my exercise. I started taking medicine again. And I’m spending some concentrated time at the feet of Jesus, fully expecting him to help me endure another cycle.
So with a little Wellbutrin and a whole lot of Jesus, I’m gonna show this depression where it can go. For I know that:
“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Psalm 34:17-20
If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, don’t wait, and don’t suffer in silence. Seek professional help today.