(Guest Post) Depressed Catholics: God Wants You to Get Help

(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.

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12 Responses to (Guest Post) Depressed Catholics: God Wants You to Get Help

  1. Not really my experience as a Catholic with a past of severe depressive illness.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jackie. I’m wondering, how would you say your experience has been different?

    • John Herreid says:

      Depression can take many forms. For example, many depressed people I’ve talked with or read accounts by have had strong suicidal ideation patterns. I never have. I guess that’s kind of lucky. I’ve also read some of Allie Brosh’s account of depression, and a lot of it is very different than my experience. The overall similarity is the uncontrollable mood / outlook.

  2. Actually on reflection maybe I can relate. 🙂

  3. Sheila says:

    Thanks for this post. Several people close to me suffer or have suffered from depression, and I wish there were some easy way to convince them all: Get help. Tell us how we can help. Keep fighting. We love you, we want you to be happy, and we NEED you to try. Lean on us if it helps at all. Take pills if pills might help, and don’t be afraid of them. Talk to a professional. Whatever it takes, because you are important to us and we need you at our sides.

    Love, those who might not entirely understand, but do entirely love you.

  4. Claire says:

    Jackie, not my experience either, unfortunately. I have sought help many times but every time for different reasons it did not work out. For instance acupuncture really made a big difference. I really would need a series of 10 sessions, but do not have the $700 it would cost. I found a great therapist and four weeks later my insurance changed and I was not able to see her again. It’s been like this for 20+ years. So now I think that it is the cross God wants me to bear. (I am not suicidal at all, btw, just affected by clinical depression along the same lines as the writer.)
    Blessings to all.

  5. BB says:

    Really, really love the statement “I live with a liar.” That is it, in a nutshell. And the liar is insidious. And the liar is relentless. And the liar is secretive. And the liar is harping.
    And the liar makes suggestions, self destructive suggestions, and catching the liar in the act is SO difficult. But catching him in the act, and rebuking him, makes him retreat. Guardian angels seem to help out a lot in these cases.
    But I have found, in my struggles with this same Beast, that calling out the lie makes him flee a little, or at least fall back. Like the lie that the pain will end if I kill myself, but I say, YOU ARE A LIAR, it will LAST FOREVER! Like the lie that I AM A WORTHLESS PIECE OF SH*T, but I say, YOU ARE A LIAR, God willed me to be here and now, to be alive, and I intend to continue doing HIS WILL.
    So one thing that works for me, at least somewhat, when the Tempter is lurking, is to repeat my baptismal promises: I renounce you Satan, and ALL your works, and ALL your empty promises. And then the Creed. Sometimes I’ll say the renunciation multiple times, especially when I feel myself beginning to go down the slippery slope into the dark, and begin numerous Hail Mary’s, and sometimes I bounce out before I go too low.
    But I have learned TO FIGHT! TO FIGHT! I will not let this darkness overtake me without fighting. I’ll tell others I need help. I’ll rat him out, this liar, this thief of my joy.
    To hell with him!
    Thanks for this article. We who suffer from this need to hear the honest reflections of others with this malady.
    God bless.

  6. BB says:

    Just wanted to add, to be clear, I am not suggesting depression, mine or anyone else’s, is merely the devil’s temptations. But it is my way of fighting this “demon”. Therapy did not help at all. Prescriptions helped a little, especially at first, but then, dark and weird dreams and feelings of doom, so those had to go.
    But my message is to fight. To be determined to live. To DO the opposite of what I feel like (get up, take a shower, dress nicely, comb my hair, go outside, go about my day). I may hate it, but I do it. It usually doesn’t make me feel much better, but at least at the end of it I must admit my day was better than a day in bed, wallowing and anxious.
    And prayer, the kind I mentioned, really does help, and so does reminding myself of Catholic truths that are contrary to the intrusive negative thoughts.
    I fight.

    • John Herreid says:

      That’s the thing about depression: there’s no one remedy for it. Some people work well with therapy, others with a combination of medication and therapy, some with a more spiritual approach, some less so. The brain is a funny thing, and trying to excessively standardize treatment isn’t ever going to work.

      Thanks for your comments on this!

  7. Joey Prever says:

    Really wonderful. Thanks so much.

  8. Pingback: 5 things we are getting right in our marriage. | Life, Liberty and Absolute Crap

  9. Mom of six says:

    Thank you so, so much for sharing! Mine is back, but it’s triggered by being sick during early pregnancy. I also suffer with postpartum as well. I’ll remember you in my prayers and hope you can remember me and my family, who has to deal with my illness.

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