My name is Jeremy Timothy and I suffer from depression. It’s taken me a while to get to where I can say that easily. I blogged my experience years ago when the pain was all very fresh here, here, here and here. I had some friends and family who felt they couldn’t read it. It was “too personal.” Somehow I don’t think they would have felt the same way if I blogged about having cancer, or lupus, or diabetes, or osteogenesis imperfecta or shin splints. Yet, I really like finally being able to say it. It’s freeing. It’s not some deep dark secret I will need to carry to my grave.
I’m afraid depression still carries a heavy dose of stigma in our society. This goes double for people of faith. We are so focused on joy, love, faith, hope that we can really start to fear negative emotion. If we feel depressed, it “must” be because we lack the spirit. There is a certain line of thinking that suggests if the gospel is true, depression simply can’t exist in it. The gospel has to be the cure or hey, what good is it? In this mindset depression becomes truly threatening. Clinical depression is even worse. More than sadness due to a situation, this is sadness, numbness, heaviness due to a physical and psychological condition that you have absolutely no control over. The question becomes, “Why would God allow such a thing?” Because it is a malady of the mind, in our culture for some reason, the question becomes even more threatening than the question of why God allows leukemia or sarcoma. Because the problem lies invisible, in the seat of our consciousness, it is so much easier to believe God can flip the switch and depression can melt away.
While I believe this religious mindset definitely needs an adjustment, many critics of the church add fuel to this fire as they insinuate that our Mormon culture is oppressive and the “cause” of depression. Whether the culture needs change or not, this kind of attack merely reinforces the idea that depression is a symptom of a sick and wrong society. Most offensively, they trot out statistics on suicides and antidepressant use as evidence. In doing so, they turn this very complex, very human condition that is every bit as much physical as it is mental and spiritual, into nothing more than a rhetorical device.
Whatever unhealthy cultural factors may lead to a toxic perfectionism that serves to beat one down, this criticism only serves to drive the problem underground and isolates those suffering even further. To attack a culture at the core of one’s identity is to attack the person themselves while at their most vulnerable. This will only raise their defenses, maladaptive as they might be. This isolation is dangerous and ultimately unnecessary. The bottom line is that depression is a fact of life. The Book of Mormon teaches that depression simply has to be, and needs to be experienced to some degree by everyone.
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility
–2 Nephi 2:11
I come at depression from many different angles, as a patient, as a physician, and as a committed religious person. The physician angle is the coldest one of all. In medical school we are given a descriptive language to help us recognize a clinical condition and ultimately distance ourselves from it. It turns out that people of faith are certainly not the only ones who find depression threatening. The language is sterile and cold. There is anhedonia- the complete inability to derive enjoyment from your activities. Fatigue-the bone weariness that weighs you down and makes even small tasks monumental undertakings. Psychomotor slowing- the inability to move at a normal speed, like slogging through the mud everywhere you go, with muddied scattering of thought as well. In a doctor’s note these words hang meaningless and detached. There is much more power in borrowing from the words of my faith to describe exactly what depression is, a malady of the soul.
I can say without a doubt that I have gained much spiritually from my experience with depression. Yet I fear even as I say this I am trivializing what is a truly hellish experience. Having lived through it, I can honestly say I truly understand why it is that some people going through depression take their own life. That part is easy. For me, the real mystery is that so many of those who come through to the other side state they learn more about themselves, about life, and they go on to live life more fully than ever before.
Please understand this idea of clinical depression changing one for the better simply cannot be grasped or comprehended while suffering in the throes of active depression. Don’t try it. In proclaiming any benefit in suffering, it is far too easy to trivialize that suffering. The agony of such depression is real and defies any easy description to the uninitiated.
Here is what makes clinical depression so difficult. People who offer encouragement or state what a wonderful person you are, get rebuffed. In my depression, I was convinced that I was an impostor, a truly worthless creature. Any good or worthy quality others saw in me was a mirage, and to know I suckered someone else into seeing worth in me, created only more guilt. In fact, excessive guilt is a defining feature of depression. My ability to enjoy religious practice of any sort at all plummeted in the middle of my depression. I hated church. I found no comfort in prayer or in scriptural study. Of course, this inflamed guilt and self-loathing all the more. I know from direct experience that depression cuts off spiritual feelings. You end up feeling alone and abandoned.
Clinical depression is paralyzing. People who try to drag you out into activity also create more guilt. Others may tell you that the sun is shining and that it’s a nice day, asking you to go out and enjoy it. Intellectually you know it’s beautiful outside and a nice day, but that feeling, the emotion of joy or appreciation is completely shut off. You lack the capacity to feel, and again beat yourself up for not being able to enjoy it. In a real, physiologic sense the body’s response to positive emotion is shut off in depression. The mind loses an intimate and critical connection with the body. It is as if the soul itself is rent in two.
One of the powerful lessons this disconnection has taught me is what an indescribable gift our body is, connected fully and seamlessly to our mind. I remember, weeks into taking medication, the first glimmer I had of the long forgotten sensation of pleasure in reading a book. I had no idea how dead I was, until I experienced the medical miracle of waking up again.
Joy, peace, serenity, the thrill of insight, these are all felt inside, physically. You can have the same intellectual experiences without the feeling, but without positive emotion, hormones, chemical reactions, they lack any significant power.
Through depression, I have gained a new understanding of another Mormon scripture which states that all those who have moved beyond this life, currently awaiting a physical resurrection, look upon life as spirit without body as bondage or prison. The reuniting of spirit and body, resurrection, is eloquently summed up by President Joseph F. Smith.
Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.
Doctrine & Covenants 138:17
In Christianity, we believe that Jesus Christ, as God, became fully human, the “Word made Flesh.” It is amazing through the centuries how deemphasized this radical idea has become. There are powerful implications to the idea of an embodied God.
Mormon Christianity compounds this emphasis with its Plan of Salvation. We teach that all mankind existed as spirits with God prior to birth, and that one of the main purposes of mortal existence is embodiment. There is something powerful we all must learn in gaining a body, so important that God himself came down to receive it.
A Prophet in the Book of Mormon taught that part of Christ’s mission was to experience mortality directly, and necessarily by doing so, to suffer, stating
… he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
In this way, Mormonism teaches that anything we experience, God understands. I don’t know that this makes suffering okay, but it does make one feel a less alone. That’s not nothing. At some of my lowest points it was everything.
The danger of glorifying and even fetishizing suffering can lead to some frightening and disturbing extremes which have been seen in the history of Christianity. I do not wish to give anyone the idea that suffering in itself is ever a good thing. Suffering may be an inevitable part of life, but suffering for suffering’s sake is pointless. To call such suffering something good is perverse. I cannot believe in a God that wants me to live in a living death. Yet I can say from experience that depression is, in fact, a living death. It has helped me to realize that depression is a death to be worked through to find life on the other side. I believe that through the mystery that is the atonement, Christ does know what it means to suffer depression, alone and bereft of joy. At his lowest point, on the cross he cried out,
“Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani”
which is to say- “ My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
Brigham Young taught that this phrase was uttered at the very end of the atonement. In taking upon him the sins of the world, God withdrew his spirit and Christ knew for perhaps the very first time what it was to be alone. Coming through that valley, he gained insight into all of us, connected in a real and tangible way.
Many who live through depression come through with a heavy dose of compassion for others. No one knows better what it is to suffer. If depression does nothing else, it enlarges our capacity for empathy. While suffering is not a good thing, neither is it necessarily an evil. Suffering seems in many ways to be a fact of life, one we are taught in Mormonism is necessary for growth and development. In the Pearl of Great Price, the prophet Enoch stood dumbfounded as the Lord God, Elohim, the Father, looked down at the suffering we his chidren inflict on each other and he simply wept. Enoch’s baffled response shows he was also under this same false impression- that to be Holy, to be filled with love, mercy, power, means you cannot feel sadness. The truth is more complex. To be infinitely filled with love, mercy and power requires a complete and infinite familiarity with sadness, grief and pain. Opposition in all things.
It seems Christ also, in order to rise to the greatest heights, had to know the greatest depths. He had to swallow the mortal experience in it’s entire whole in the mysterious thing called the atonement. For me, life giving spirituality is exactly the realization that we don’t have to move to God, to spiritual highs, peace and serenity, but that God moves to us. I don’t pretend to fully understand or comprehend the atonement but I feel unmistakable power in it. There were bouts of depression early in my life that this power, this love, this empathy from a source completely external to me, were what literally kept me going. There was also a time later where, when I truly hit bottom, that this love was completely gone and I too felt to cry Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani. Being in the throes of depression in a way is the least spiritual thing I have ever done. God is absent. Faith is absent. The spirit is withdrawn. Yet in my own small mortal way I have gone where God himself went for the sake of us all. In my own small mortal way I found something truly glorious on the other side.
Traveling through the valley of the shadow of death meant I had to work hard to let go of the old ideas that did me harm. I had to do the work to physically, spiritually, emotionally and not just intellectually learn that I cannot earn my Father’s love, I already have it. I cannot be perfect without him. I don’t need to be. I do not have a duty to follow God’s path perfectly. As I am filled with love, that path is more and more opened to me. I am allowed to look at my accomplishments as well as my faults and may even need to spend extra time with the good I have done after a lifetime of downplaying it. I don’t need to worry about the future. I don’t need to endlessly tear myself up over the real or imagined mistakes of my past. I need to be present, because now is where my actions are and to live before or after is to miss life entirely. Now, on the other side I have a greater comprehension of joy because I am so familiar with it’s opposite. I have a greater compassion for suffering because I too, have suffered. I have less fear of misery because I now know it is not all there is. That enables me to drink it in, experience it and know it will not always be so, instead of shoving it in a dark hole until it festers and grows and blocks out all light. These are just a few of the things I gained through loss.
If this is tempting your eyes to roll, please be kind, indulge me. These are my accomplishments and I need to remind myself once in a while. That way, the lessons don’t fade too much the 2nd and 3rd time around because it seems no matter how much we think we know something, we can always know it better.