My heart is breaking for the Warrens today, Rick Warren and his wife Jan, and their many family members and friends. Their 27 year old son Matthew took his own life on Friday. He had struggled with depression and in the end, the darkness of it overthrew him. I am going to ask my fellow Christian leaders and thinkers, who might at this point dismiss depression as a form of spiritual darkness or weakness from which Christ can deliver, to resist the temptation to reduce it to that.
Depression is complicated, capricious, incapacitating and in most instances associated with chemical imbalances in the brain that, in a good scenario, can be “managed.” Many wise pastoral counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists have stopped pretending people can be cured of depression; best simply to set the goal at managing it. It actually helps the depressed person to hear this: he or she is released from the burden of “getting better” or, at the very least, pretending to get better simply because everyone in his or her community feels she must. “Managing” is much more doable and you feel better about getting through it when the dark clouds descend.
And yet the darkness is so deep. It is full of foul smells and noises that clamor in your head convincing you your existence is a tragic mistake or, worse, a cosmic black joke. You think you should take a walk to shake it off. Maybe you walk, maybe you don’t. In any case, you decide not to answer the phone. You look out the window at (in my case) the cold blue waters of the Atlantic and think you could swim — it would feel good to wade in, begin to turn numb (the northeast Atlantic is always cold, even in July), and swim and swim and swim. You could swim until you can’t swim any more.
Then, a small corner of your disordered mind summons you. You hear yourself say, You’re falling. You hear yourself reply, Yes, you’re right. This is what happens when I fall. Some sane part of you has heard you and wakes up, and you do what you must to stop the fall. You talk yourself through it and hang on. And once the ship is righted enough so that you can think and act with a measure of composure, you get your feet back under you and step into another dawning day. Whatever demons were hounding you, for a time, have been dispelled. Or maybe they haven’t been, but you step into another dawning day in spite of it. You can’t, for the life of you, account for how the dark turn comes, broadsides you, and then turns around, just like that.
The problem is, many good people — Christians in particular — find the use of any anti-depressants and/or seeing a mental health professional, a sign of spiritual abdication and weakness. I sat in the church service once and listened as the pastor preached about how only Jesus gives us peace. He said, ‘401ks can’t bring peace, only Jesus can bring peace. A therapist can’t bring peace, only Jesus can bring peace.’ The more he said it, the more people said ‘Amen’. ‘Medication can’t bring peace, only Jesus can bring peace.’
The vexing part of this particular scenario existed in the fact that that pastor was my husband, and I was in personal crisis at the time in no small way related to issues in the marriage. When you are the wife of a pastor who upholds the pretense of spiritual authority and ‘normalcy’, a therapist is the only thread you hang on to so as not to go off the deep end. Jesus, blessed though he be, was not giving me peace. If I hadn’t forced myself to go to a therapist, who knows where I would have been by then? I was taking medication for depression, which Jesus, in all of his grace and goodness, was likewise not helping me with.
I took antidepressants then, when my 24-year marriage collapsed, 10 years ago, and will probably take them the rest of my life. I am not ashamed of it. I thank God for it. The medication saved my life. It also saved my father’s life. My dear father was so broken down at one point when I was young he underwent nine Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) treatments. He recovered and lived out his days in blessedness (on medication).
In these hard days, in this fast and unforgiving world full of bombardments, false promises and impossible standards, let us not judge one another. Let us take one another by the hand and help. God knows all things. And God is kind. Let us not presume to know all things. But let us, like God, be kind.
God bless all the broken people who can’t walk straight in this crooked world.