One of the reasons for this is the difficult news about Robin Williams' depression, substance abuse, illness, and suicide, and all the discussion (most of it, I think healthy) which has followed it.
This has kicked up dust around memories ... of friends who have committed suicide, and even of my own (mercifully brief) period of depression, back in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college.
I haven't shared my experience with a lot of people, for one thing because of the stigma, and for another because in many ways it was not nearly as bad as many other people I know who have gone through depression a lot longer and deeper than I did. I never even sought professional help, or took medication, or anything like that; I merely sought some adjustments in my personal life, and prayed they would help. Along with the encouragement of friends and loved ones. And by God's grace I survived.
So I don't feel like I have a whole lot to contribute to the discussion. But, nevertheless my experience has shaped me (and my empathy for people who do go through depression) in certain important ways.
A Wake-Up CallMost people's freshman years at college are a wake-up call. Or at least mine was. You have made a major transition out of a home you shared with parents and siblings, and now you share your life with a roommate (someone you may not have even known before) and fellow students. You have to work a lot harder at schooling. You have new challenges to your social life. And new financial challenges. In short, you are suddenly "adult" and have to figure out how to start acting like one.
I'm pretty Type A, and my response to some of these challenges was to burn the candle at both ends: Work harder, study later, get less sleep than I needed. Before the end of my freshman year, these bad habits contributed to me coming down with a serious case of the flu, one which I had a tough time healing from due to the pit of exhaustion I had dug myself into. I was still sort of healing from that, about the time finals occurred, in all their nastiness. Then school was out and I went back home for the summer. I went from a mad, careening kind of existence to a very slow-paced, lounge-around-the-house, do some yardwork, not-know-what-to-do-with-yourself kind of lifestyle. The transition really threw me for a loop.
Something snapped. By "something," I mean I now realize some sort of chemical reaction occurred deep in my brain which affected my sense of well-being very negatively, and plunged me into the depths of a black depression. It was sudden, it was something I had never before experienced. And it was absolutely and utterly terrifying.
The fear of it had a unique taste or a smell (sort of ... it actually wasn't either, but that's the closest way I can explain it) which was overwhelmingly unpleasant. This sounds subjective, but it was very objective to me. I remember one day I was driving my car up this street in my hometown and approached a signal, which had turned green. I was crossing this major intersection. As I entered the intersection, everything was fine. But something descended on me like a cloud of lead right as my car was traversing the intersection. And when I came out of it, several seconds later and 100 feet further north, I was in a black pit of despair.
And there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. It was utterly terrifying.
I tried to reach out to those I was closest to in the world ... my mom, and my girlfriend (who is now my wife). Both were sympathetic, but I knew with terrifying clarity that they didn't REALLY understand what I was going through. How could they? When someone tries to describe what I just described, what more can you do other than look at them with pity and lay your hand on their hand and assure them of your love and prayers and that everything will be okay. Which is what they did.
And I'm sure it helped ... but it wasn't enough. For I had the utter conviction (caused by whatever chemical imbalance was going on in my brain) that the demon that had descended to smother my used-to-be-peaceful-and-normal life would NEVER leave. When I was in the blackness, I could never conceive of being out of it again. It's hard to conceive of light when you're surrounded by total darkness. It was as if I was paralyzed and floating face-down in inky black water, holding my breath as the seconds ticked by and my lungs screamed out for air. In those moments I could not conceive of ever feeling normal again.
And may I say that, even after I did (after a few months) finally feel "normal" again, I could still taste or smell that lingering fear just behind the frontal lobes of my brain somewhere. It hasn't completely left, to this day, nearly 40 years later.
Lots of QuestionsSo, I'm sure you have questions. What helped? How did I come out of it? Did I ever consider suicide? What role did my faith in Christ play?
What helped? How did I come out of it? I did make a decision, which I now feel was the right one, to change venues. I discovered that someone associated with Biola was looking for a housesitter for the summer. The house was an hour away from my parents' home. It was a fearful decision to take such a move, which looked a little like isolating myself, but it really wasn't. I did stay in good touch with friends and family, plus added a layer of new friends, my fellow students at Biola who were sticking around town for the summer and working on various projects. I got a summer job at the school working on just one such project, and busied myself with that ... but not TOO busy. (I had learned that lesson from earlier.) I made sure and left plenty of time to breathe deeply and smell the roses.
I ate nothing but my favorite foods (I practically subsisted on watermelon and bean soup), cleaned up after myself, earned money, enjoyed my new friends, and suddenly began to realize I could be a productive member of society on my own as an adult, out from under my parents' supervision. (I'm not blaming my parents, mind you -- they were wonderful and supportive. There just comes a time when you need to do life on your own. God wired us that way.)
And, I got lots of rest, which I really needed. I'm not talking about sleep-in-til-noon rest, but sit out in the sun and get a tan and enjoy watching the hummingbirds kind of rest.
And slowly I began to improve, and I rejoiced in that improvement because it meant my previous feelings (that I would never get better) must be a lie. I realized (and cherished the realization) that whatever was afflicting me was not primarily demonic, or spiritual, or a result of my own sinfulness ... it was physical, it was chemical. As Jim Daly said in an excellent Focus on the Family article today, "A Christian is no less susceptible to mental illness than to diabetes." (Now that I have diabetes, nearly 40 years later, that struck me as particularly apt.) But even then, I realized my depression was a (mercifully brief, although it didn't feel that way at the time) mental illness.
The Temptation To End It AllDid I ever consider suicide? No, I don't think so, at least not seriously. I've always believed the fundamental truth that God gives life, and God alone has the right to say when it's over. Someone else I read recently made the important distinction between depression (and other forms of mental illness), which are amoral (just like diabetes), and the actions we might be tempted to take, which have entirely moral implications ... like intentionally hurting ourselves or others ... even things like lying, which you might be more prone to when in the throes of some mental illness. I'm sure there are people with sexual addictions that might be caused by some hormonal imbalance. The tendency itself is not sin, just like temptation is not sin. It's the act of yielding to the temptation that's sin. As someone once said, "You can't stop the birds from flying over your head ... but you can decide you're not going to let them build a nest in your hair."
Nevertheless, one of the things my experience did for me was create a significant reluctance to judge someone who does succumb to the temptation to take such actions. I had a friend at church who committed suicide following a very painful brain malfunction and mental illness. Because I've been there (just a little bit), empathy makes me very hesitant to judge someone who has been subjected to a level of pain I will never know. You would obviously have to be very desperate to do what Williams did, to end it all because you cannot see a way out (and on top of that are paralyzed by the fear of an incurable physical illness which is descending upon you).
People say, "Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness," and that's probably true. But I'm not sure a person in that level of pain sees it that way, at the time. Mental illness prevents you from seeing truth clearly, from holding right attitudes.
But, while I don't want to judge people who may be in that situation, I also don't want to encourage others who may be confronted by such pressures to consider suicide as an option. I do take comfort (and believe it is true for all people at all times) in the Scripture which says: "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it."
I'm so grateful that God knew exactly where I was in my mental illness, and provided a way out. Claiming His promise helped me hold on.
The Role of FaithWhich leads to the final question: What role did my faith in Christ play?
That to me is one of the most interesting questions. While there were certain lifestyle choices that I had made (like staying up late studying and not getting enough sleep) which contributed to my condition, I honestly believe there wasn't a significant "spiritual" component to my illness. My life with Christ was as strong or stronger than it had ever been, when I entered my depression. There wasn't any huge hidden unconfessed sin I was struggling with. That's one thing that made my depression so terrifying at the time, there really didn't seem to be any reason for it that I could identify. Life was good. Why was I so anxious?
Something very interesting happened after I began my housesitting assignment. In the midst of my illness I had been trying very hard to keep to a regular "devotional" schedule, reading the Word and praying. But every time I opened the Bible, it just felt like homework, and it made me feel literally sick. So finally I said, "I'm sorry, God, this is just not working" and I stopped (temporarily) opening the Bible. Instead I just focused on pouring my heart out to God. "Lord, I definitely want to hear from you about this ... but right now, I'm just in a lot of pain, and I need to know You are listening, that You understand."
Amazingly, when I stopped reading the Bible, my prayer life actually improved immensely. Then, in a month or two, after my healing had really taken hold, I slowly began picking the Word up and reading it again. This time, it seemed full of life! God began speaking back, slowly and gently. And my healing progressed. (I remember some points, later that summer, when I could barely stop reading the Bible!)
This all led me to a conclusion that has since been reinforced by many other life experiences. The Christian life is not formulaic, it's not about finding the right structure. A personal relationship with God really is that -- a personal relationship. While it's principle-driven, it's going to look different at some times than at others. Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord all night, until finally Jesus wounded his hip! That's not exactly normal devotions, is it?
(And, by the way, it's exactly this kind of "wrestling" event, about eight years later, that really pointed my life in the direction God wanted it to go, when I was in the midst of a crisis of another sort. But I'll save that for another time.)
Well, please just let me end with a couple of conclusions that I hope will be helpful ...
- Mental illness can strike anybody at any time, just as physical illness can. We all live in a fallen world and are all susceptible. As compassionate people of Christ, we should respond accordingly: With compassion, praying for healing.
- When suicide occurs, it's extremely UNhelpful to talk about whether the person committing suicide is "going to hell" or not. I've heard Christians claim that because "suicide is a sin you can't repent for," it's unforgivable. Such arrogance has no foundation in Scripture, and in fact belittles the grace of Christ. Jesus has already forgiven all our sins, past and present (with the exception of "the unforgivable sin" which is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, repudiation of the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ). The Apostle Paul was a forgiven murderer. I fully look forward to seeing my friend, who took his life in an act of desperation, in Heaven someday. We will praise God together for our total healing and deliverance from pain.
- If you are struggling with depression, be smarter than I was and seek some help! Professional help is most advised. There are so many God-given paths to healing nowadays that can come through a good Christian counselor or psychiatrist. At least talk with a trusted pastor or friend. Don't let the stigma hold you back.