(This is a guest post by my brother. He’s pretty smart, so you’d better listen to him.)
A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. —Saint Paul, 2 Cor. 12:7-11
I live with a liar. The liar comes and goes. When he’s gone, it’s easy to forget he was there. It’s easy to deny that he even exists. But it was only when I finally acknowledged his presence that I was able to have some power over him.
The liar is depression. He tells me that I will die a meaningless death. He tells me that I’m worthless. He tells me that my friends only talk to me because they pity me. He tells me that my work is hopelessly inept, that I delude myself when I think I have talent. He tells me that hope and joy are for suckers who don’t really understand life. He tells me that everyone is filled with loathing for me. He brings up every social faux-pas I’ve ever made, every sin.
He tells me that my faith is a lie. He tells me I probably didn’t actually receive absolution in the confessional. He tells me I’m so riddled with sin that I should not approach the Eucharist. He tells me not to let anyone know he’s there, because that would disgust people even more.
Then he’s gone. And I tell myself that I’m fine now and I don’t really need help. After a few days or weeks of denial, it’s easy to pretend that he’s gone for good this time. But he’ll be back. I just don’t know when.
Another analogy. I live in two worlds. In one, I’m a happy, productive person with a beautiful family and a supportive network of friends. I enjoy my work, spending time on hobbies, reading books, activities with my kids. I believe in my faith without much effort. I am “normal”. Then the dark curtain of depression drops. I don’t know what will trigger it. I can’t know when it will arrive. It just does.
In the second world, I am intensely aware of my mortality. When I try to remember what it was like in the other world, it seems like the life of another person. I get sloppy and don’t care, because I am a worthless jerk anyway. Or I become a perfectionist and beat myself up about every small mistake. I talk to myself under my breath about how stupid I am. When it gets really bad, I weep at night as silently as possible so as not to wake my wife.
During one of my weeks-long depressive states I spent each weekend inside my apartment with the blinds closed, eating nothing all day and going outside only once it was dark to buy a take-out pizza. I stopped eating lunch or breakfast during the work week and smoked cigarettes to stave off hunger pangs. Another time I worked for weeks on a freelance project but was too depressed to invoice the company that hired me, followed by a month of existing on rice and eggs because I had no money and wasn’t able to bring myself to apply for any sort of financial assistance.
I could not stop thinking about death. I was afraid of and fascinated by it. I would lie awake thinking about death and mortality, and how everything I did in my life was rendered worthless by the relentless specter of death. Luckily, I didn’t want to commit suicide; instead I was paranoid about dying.
Panic would overwhelm me as I drove on the Bay Bridge, imagining an earthquake had hit. When waiting for a train on BART I would stay as far from the edge of the platform as possible, thinking someone might accidentally push me in front of the train. As I read from someone else describing their experience with depression, “Dying was the very opposite of what I wanted. I wanted to be alive.”
But during all of this, I kept telling myself that I wasn’t really depressed. Depressed people have mental problems, and I was not mentally ill. Too many people claim to be depressed—isn’t that just a trendy way to say that you’re kind of unhappy? And psychology is new-agey bunk, right? Sure, I had some dark moments here and there, but doesn’t everyone? Come on, stop being a baby.
Sometimes I would decide that I was just having spiritual problems. I went and talked with a priest, but he just told me that I should try therapy. I got obsessive about going to confession—maybe if I went over my litany of sins again, this time I would feel good again after absolution. More than once I went to confession multiple times during the same weekend. I sought out deliverance prayers and relics of saints. I went to healing services.
My depression became intertwined with anxiety. I would drive my wife crazy by pacing around the house obsessing over work details. I would sometimes literally pull my hair out while sitting at my desk, or duck out of the office to go and punch a wall until my knuckles were swollen, then lie and tell people my stiff fingers were due to carpal tunnel. I told myself that this was the fault of my job, rather than it coming from something inside me.
Whenever I made changes in my life, I thought it would make the depression go away. I moved to new cities, got married, had kids. But it just kept coming back.
I finally had a turning point. Not one decisive moment, but a number of them. One was hearing a starkly honest homily by my pastor talking about his struggles with major depressive disorder. Another was reading an online article about the stigma of depression in the Catholic world. And the third was experiencing a series of panic attacks that resulted in a doctor’s visit and a trip to the emergency room. I realized God wanted me to get help. He didn’t want me to be suffering like this.
I started therapy a few weeks later.
My depression isn’t ever going to go away. By not facing that fact, I was acting irresponsibly. I was hurting my wife. I was hurting my kids. I was hurting myself. So far, the therapy has helped enormously. I don’t believe the liar as much when he arrives. I step back and analyze what he says to me. I record how I’m feeling. It’s not easy, but I try to tell my wife when the dark curtain is coming down so that she knows that I won’t be 100% for a while. I work on maintaining good habits such as exercise and prayer.
For Catholics wanting to understand psychology and depression, I’d recommend “The Catholic Guide to Depression” by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Fr. John Cihak. It carefully separates the spiritual from the medical, while giving an excellent presentation of what sorts of treatment may be effective for you. Remember that we rely upon faith and reason; there is no Catholic excuse for ignoring effective therapies and trying to treat everything as a spiritual problem.
I know now that I can manage my depression. But I couldn’t without asking for help, without seeking others to assist me in it. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo initially decides that the Ring is his own responsibility, and that it would be wrong to ask for help. But his friends insist on breaking through his false sense of autonomy and Frodo admits that he needs help to bear the weight. Likewise, if you are suffering from depression, you need to drop the pretense that you can go it alone.
I had a hard time asking God for the humility to admit my weakness in the face of depression. But in doing so, I was finally able to access the strength that allowed me to get help. You can do it too.