A Personal Review of Depression

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways we can experience a depression and the different forms it can take. How difficult it can be to recognize a depression for what it is, even when you’re the one experiencing it. There are different ways to heal, different lessons to learn. For myself, I have had three, perhaps four, distinct bouts with depression, and they have taken on different forms. These are some of the things I’ve learned from my various depressions.

The first one was the worst. It came when I was 15, a fairly common time for mental health disorders to show up, but I wouldn’t say that it was purely genetic. There was a boy that I blamed my depression on because he began to bully and torment me when I was about 14. At first, I was angry at him and I told other people how much I hated him and how mean he was. But no one believed me. They told me I was the mean one. It took me years to understand how this happened, but he was saying things about me too, and they believed him over me.

After a while, I learned to keep my mouth shut. Trying to talk to people about it only got me in more trouble. They told me I was too sensitive, I needed to let it go. I was too naive, if I knew more about boys, I would understand. I was too selfish, I needed to think about things from his side and stop trying to pull him down. I started to believe them. I blamed myself for everything and I was stupid, worthless, and horrible.

By the time I was 15, I had bizarre physical pains in my stomach that did not have any diagnosable source that the multiple doctors I went to could find. But I was also severely depressed. I was sleeping all the time, refusing to leave the house, watching TV for hours, unable to read, but also obsessed with solving puzzles. I would also fantasize about dying and committing suicide.

To many people, I was still a selfish girl who wanted attention and my illness was not real. I just needed a firmer hand, some believed, a push out the door, and my mother was being too soft. My mother just wanted me happy again. She took me to a counselor and a psychologist and kept trying to help me. My medications and the counseling started to work. I did start feeling better and oddly enough, all of the pain and hatred I had for myself started to turn outward again. I blamed that boy and all the people that believed him instead of me.

From this depression, I learned several things. One, emotional pain will sometimes manifest itself physically because the body does not know how to interpret it or fix it. There is a connection between the physical and the emotional that cannot be denied though it’s also not entirely understood. Two, my mind and body shut down as much as possible when depressed. I need to be vigilant in noticing the warning signs of when I feel the desire to turn-off. Three, anger is felt on the way into and on the way out of a depression but is often not present during the darkest part of the depression. Because depression is often a desire to shut down, it is characterized by very low energy emotions—apathy, lack of focus, disconnection, despair—and anger is a high energy emotion which can be a good sign though it’s also important to not stay in anger for too long.

Unfortunately, the bullying and abuse that centered in this depression occurred largely at church. One of the best things I did when my depression was bad was to stop going to church, and one of the best things I did to complete my healing was to go back to church. When I was doing better, getting back to my angry self, my mother told me that if I thought there were bullies at church then there would be others that felt the same way. “Go look for them,” she said, “be with them, believe them, and they will be your friends.” She was right. The others I found that were being marginalized and bullied became some of my best friends. I also remembered the spiritual feelings I had when depressed (see “A promise of light” for one example) and realized that if I liked praying, reading scriptures, and going to church because they brought me the Spirit, I shouldn’t let someone else keep me from being where I wanted to be. If God wanted me at church, who were they to kick me out?

Anger carried me for quite a while, but it couldn’t fix everything. I went with a desire to be there and a fear that someone would notice I was an imposter. I tried to sit in some unnoticed corner, I had panic attacks, I spoke very little. I realized that I loved the Church, but I didn’t much care for other Mormons. It took a long time (not until the end of my mission truthfully) before I felt comfortable with other Mormons without fearing them.

My second depression came after my mother’s diagnosis with cancer. My fear of losing her and being alone was profound and I again started sleeping a great deal and wanting to watch TV. I went to counseling sooner and found a psychiatrist. I was able to keep up with my studies at school, but I didn’t attend church as much. Those at church that knew about my mother’s diagnosis were very nice and supportive, but I didn’t really let them help me much. I did have fabulous friends at school that helped me a lot. Lessons from this depression: don’t be afraid of medication and counseling, take it, the sooner you do the better it goes and let people help you, you are not a burden to your friends, they care enough to sit with you even when you’re sad.

I struggle to call this next one a third depression because it did not go to the extent that I needed counseling and medication, but it was difficult. I was with a companion as a missionary that I could not leave, we needed to be together all the time, and she had very exacting standards. I started to feel that I did everything wrong, that I was not good enough to be a missionary, I cried a lot, felt tired all the time, and wanted to go home. Being mostly isolated as we were, there were few options for finding support.

Our Mission President had given everyone a talk from President Benson entitled Beware of Pride, and in this talk I found my coping mechanism. I thanked and praised my companion for something every day. When I did this, she was nicer to me. I don’t recall her thanking me or praising me in return, but she was less critical, and doing this for her made it easier to do it for myself. I will not lie and say this was wonderful—it was hard. I don’t think I could have done it if I had not known that we would only be companions for a few more weeks, but it did work.

I learned from this experience that I need to be nicer to myself. One of the reasons her criticisms were so hard to combat was because she did not say anything to me that I did not already say to myself. To have it confirmed by another person made it ten time worse, but I began to ask, why was I so critical in the first place? She and I were similar in one regard—we were both perfectionists. She is what I now call a high energy perfectionist, someone who can pay attention to the details and follow through with her grand ideas because she has enough energy for it. I am what I call a low energy perfectionist. I see the details, I have grand visions of what I want to do, but I don’t always have the energy to do it all which is why I always fall short of what I want and always feel like a failure. I used to wish I had more energy to go with my perfectionism, but my experience with her has taught me that moving that fast often leaves you blind to the things around you. I prefer my slower pace now; I see that I can do more than what I’d originally envisioned because my vision is broader. It is now my goal to fight off my perfectionism and be kind to myself.

My last depression was when we lived in Michigan, far away from friends and family. I was going through several intense struggles (see Problem 1, Problem 2, and Problem 3 for more details) and began to hate myself, God, and the people around me. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I did not recognize it for what it was. I was tired all the time, but I blamed that on my new baby. I started off with anger and it wasn’t until my anger started to turn to despair and I began to fantasize about leaving, shutting down, that I realized I had a problem. I went to God and took my healing seriously, but I didn’t seek counseling and medication. I can’t say why, this was a poor decision, and I do not recommend it. Perhaps it was because I kept blaming other things and thought I just needed to fix this or fix that and then I’d be fine. It’s possible I didn’t trust that anyone else would understand. Maybe I was afraid that people would blame me again or be dismissive about my pain. For whatever reason, I didn’t think of this as a depression until years later when I was finally out of it enough to see clearly.

One thing I learned from this one was the need to talk to other people. I think my husband knew I was depressed before I did, but because I saw him as one of the problems that I needed to fix, I wasn’t listening very well. I got mad at the people at church because they were more concerned about my husband than they were about me. They wanted to answer his questions and help him feel welcomed at church, all very good. But there is no magic answer or silver bullet for someone like him and friendship does not equal belief.  Meanwhile, as I was feeling very lonely and questioning my future, no one asked me if I had any questions or whether I needed more fellowship. Neither my Home Teachers (male ministers) nor Visiting Teachers (female ministers) ever came.

I began to get a bit resentful. I felt invisible, taken for granted, and far less important than my husband. I remember trying to make a friend by going to a Relief Society dinner and then crying the whole way home. I started to think of them as shallow, stupid people. And my panic attacks came back in full force. Just like when I tried to go back to church after my depression as a teenager, I would panic in Relief Society, sit by myself in Sacrament Meeting, and say nothing in Sunday School. I loved the Church, but I hated Mormons.

When I look back on this depression, I think my biggest lesson was that forgiveness is the final healing. I needed help desperately but because I hadn’t really forgiven those first Mormons who had hurt me as a teenager, I didn’t allow the ward members in my college ward to help me, and then I didn’t trust the people in my Michigan ward.

I can’t say that I was wrong to avoid church until I was firmly on the road to health. I needed separation from the ones that were hurting me. But holding on to anger also held me back from finding new allies. I’ve been working more on forgiving those that didn’t understand and didn’t see what was really going on. I think I understand them better now and it’s helped me find new allies but also to be a better ally for someone else.

I learned these lessons from battles with depression, but I think they’re useful for everyone. Our bodies and spirits are connected, let them strengthen each other and don’t ever build one at the expense of the other or they will both fall apart. Deal with your anger, it can be very useful, but don’t use it for too long and don’t hide it away or it will destroy you. When you feel yourself turning off find ways to connect and engage. Slow down and be kind to yourself. Find those people that will support you and forgive those who don’t know how.

I’ve met a lot of people who don’t understand what the big deal is. Everyone needs to have good friends, so why is that so hard for depressed people? I had a lot of friends before I was depressed, afterward I had one. Friendship is not easy for me, it’s frightening. But because I’ve struggled with it and worked at it, I think I know more now about how to be and find good friends than those for whom friendship is easy. Because forgiveness was hard, I know more about it. Because my mind and my heart are sensitive, I’ve studied how to take care of them. People who think these things are easy may mistakenly believe they’re stronger or smarter. But I warn you, we who have struggled are wiser and stronger than you realize.

Don’t stop fighting, it’s worth it.

Book Review: Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson

Silent Souls Weeping is a wonderful book both for those that have suffered, or are currently suffering, from depression as well as those that haven’t but would like to know how to help. I particularly love her descriptions of the disease and those who suffer. There is much about mental health that is confusing—there are situational, environmental, and individual factors—but, first and foremost, Jane Clayson Johnson emphasizes that it is a disease with a malfunctioning body part just like diabetes or cancer. How and why the brain is triggered into a depression varies according to the individual. Some of us have more of a genetic tendency, and the depression can come out of nowhere. For others, it is prolonged exposure to threatening experiences that has caused a system overload. And, as with so many things, the truth is a bit of both. I have learned that certain situations and environments will lead me into a depression when for others they might not. Those situations are extremely stressful, and would be for anyone, but I seem to shut down and respond in ways that others don’t. For a long time, I thought it meant that I was wrong, I was broken. My favorite part of this book was how Ms. Johnson separated this disease from the identity of the sufferer. I am someone prone to depression who has to monitor and care for my body just like someone who has diabetes. I am not weaker than someone who’s never had a depression.

This book is filled with stories and examples from others that have suffered and the different strategies they have taken. The greatest benefit to someone who is suffering is that they will realize they are not alone. I found some of my strategies described in this book, but there were times when her descriptions and examples gave me pause. I’m grateful that she reiterated how individual each experience is and states that her book is not for self-diagnosis or for self-help. If you are suffering, get help and don’t use every strategy in this book. Only use the ones that seem right at this time. Another strategy might be useful later, but not right now, or it will never be a good strategy for you. There were some I use constantly, some I have used but only under certain conditions. Others I love and rely on heavily, but I understand that others struggle with them, and some that scare me and I don’t know how anyone could possibly do it, but it obviously works for them. 

I hope that someone who has never had a depression and doesn’t understand it could find compassion and clarity from reading this book. Through out her entire book, Ms. Johnson speaks about depression coming with a sense of isolation and its cure is connection. I believe she’s absolutely right and I applaud her articulation of depression as a disease that can be helped by our society as we work together. The stated scope of her book is to “raise the blinds” on depression and ease the stigma. Too often people are too embarrassed to talk about their depression and this only enhances their feelings of isolation. If we could reduce the shame people feel and speak more openly, then we could start to see the disease become less severe and our communities as a whole would be greatly benefited. 

She focuses on the stigma around depression in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in so doing, points out a few things within our culture that contribute to this stigma. We are a society of “do-ers,” she says, we love to serve and be constantly working. We take the Lord’s commandments seriously, including his invitation to be perfect. I wish she would have done more to dispel the misconceptions around these principles, but I understand it was not within the scope of this particular book. I still think we have a lot of work to do to be more inclusive, compassionate, and spiritually intentional in our communities and in doing the work of the Lord.

As a whole, I loved this book and wish that everyone would read it. It has given me a lot of food for thought, both with my own depression but also about how our society deals with it.

My final thought at the end of reading it is that our culture has become stronger than our doctrine. People that are prone to depression are not weaker than others. We do not need a lower standard or a different set of requirements. We need people to listen to us. Someone with diabetes cannot eat the same things that a healthy person could, but a healthy person could do quite well to eat a little more like a diabetic. I don’t have diabetes, but I still shouldn’t eat sugar all day long. Likewise, someone without depression could continue to live as our culture demands but that person would not be as connected to the Spirit or to the doctrine. If we were to listen to those who have had to fight depression and have done so with help from the Spirit and faith in the gospel, we would learn things we would be blind to otherwise. Depression makes us more sensitive to problems that others do not notice, and like canaries in the coal mines, we can be your warning voice that something has gone wrong. Building connections together will help the depressed person and will help the healthy person. We can all be made stronger together. 

No Self-Hatred Necessary, Welcome Home

God is so smart. I expected lectures and condescension when I got mad at Him and questioned His reasoning. Instead, the Spirit helped me remember my own past experiences. He gave me space and showed a tremendous amount of patience. Looking back on it now, if He had tried to send me a message about why my mother needed to die while my step-father got to be healed, I would not have responded well. 

My anger against God for the death of my mother did not stop my attending church. Rather, I attended with challenge in my heart. I practically dared God to comfort me with cliched platitudes, or to say that His ways were higher than my ways. In my mind, this would prove He didn’t know or care about me personally and that He was purely manipulative. When nothing came, I felt both vindicated and disappointed. Eventually, I came to crave the comfort, even if it was a platitude. I just wanted something.

I decided to go back to the temple. There was no grand sin that made me feel unworthy to be there, but rather the embarrassment of talking badly about someone behind their back, they over hear you, and then you have to go to their house and ask them for a favor. I definitely had my tail between my legs, head hanging in shame. An entire apology with generous amounts of self-flagellation was scripted in my head before I began.

I was worried about going into the Celestial Room—this is the one place I know for sure I will always feel the Spirit and I love how peace washes over me as I walk through the door—but what if it wasn’t peace this time and I met anger instead? I braced myself for a rebuke knowing that I deserved it. 

Before I could sit down and offer my prayer of self-recrimination, I felt the presence of God and His words, “Welcome back, Christen. I’ve missed you.” I felt loved. And that was it.

I sat down and tried to pray but nothing else would come. The words I had formulated beforehand disappeared and could not leave my lips. God, it seems, did not want me to rake myself over the coals. He simply wanted me to sit and relax. He did not try to explain Himself, He just let me feel loved and safe. 

We don’t need huge reasons or grand intricate plans before we accept others, ourselves, or Him. We simply need to feel loved and know that we are safe. He is infinitely patient and understanding. You don’t have to explain it to Him. He already knows what happened, what you were thinking and feeling.

He knew all the nasty things I thought about Him and He knew why. His feelings weren’t hurt, and He wasn’t out for vengeance. He just missed me.

He misses all of us. He will help us understand, show us the things we overlooked, teach us how to move forward. First, we need to let go. Be still, know that He is God, and God is love. 

Sometime after this, again at the temple, I offered an apology without self-hatred, just an acknowledgement of what I didn’t want to do again. As if sitting right beside me, He said, “Yes, we need to work on your conviction, and we will do it.”

I understood that we were a team. He did not abandon me because I was such a useless failure. I still had a purpose, a mission to fulfill, and we would do it together.

Act with Purpose

As an overwhelmed working mother, I thought only of my to-do list, and how I fulfilled my duties determined my self worth. If I didn’t do the laundry, I was a bad mother. If I didn’t get results from the experiment, I was a useless scientist. If I gained weight, I was a horrible woman.

We live in a world that assigns value to things on a constant basis. We even assign values to people. And for some reason, we often accept another’s evaluation over our own.

Perhaps someone has hurt us and we start to think that we deserved that ill-treatment. Or another has something we want but can’t have and we think that is a reflection of our own worth as well. We become so entrenched in our societies’ economical systems that it can be difficult to step aside and learn a new way to see value. 

In Michigan, I taught a youth Sunday school class for 12 to 13 year olds. We read the first verse in 1 Nephi that reads:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parent, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

I can’t remember my original purpose in reading that scripture, I only remember that as we read it, the Spirit told me I was highly favored. And I didn’t fully believe it. I honestly asked those young teenagers, “How do you know if you’re highly favored of the Lord?”

They started complimenting each other’s hair. Then mentioned their families. Then said they were grateful for the gospel. 

I’m sure that beautiful 13 year old girl with long blonde hair did feel blessed because of it. She complimented everybody’s hair regardless of color or style. But what about bald people? Or people that hate their hair? Are they still loved?

Nephi also felt blessed because of his parents, but Laman and Lemuel had the same parents and did not feel favored of the Lord because of it. Too many of us have bad parents that make critical mistakes, aren’t we loved? 

The gospel is important. However, we must be careful not to think we are better for being in one religion over another.

There is nothing wrong in being grateful for what you have, but when we think of these as measures of love, we might run into some trouble. Nephi says that he had afflictions but “knowledge of the goodness…of God” is what he focused on. This is available to everyone. I realized I was loved—I was just looking at the wrong measure of it.

Once, when I was a teenager, I felt miserable but also thought that the Lord wouldn’t help me because I wasn’t going to church. I was desperate to feel the Spirit and my sorrowful mind believed that I was too bad to talk to God. He wouldn’t listen to someone like me. 

I figured that if I could start doing better and show Him that I could be better, then maybe He would hear my prayer. My depression logic came up with one week of nightly scripture study for one heard prayer. As I read, the number of nights I needed to earn a heard prayer started to come down. Surely, five nights will be enough, a few verses later, maybe after three nights. By the end of my reading, I realized I was allowed to pray and the Lord would hear it. I felt the Spirit and I felt loved.

Commandments are not chores we do to earn nickels and dimes we can spend at God’s General Store of Blessings. Because society can only see the outside, it is society’s value system that determines love by what we do, how others treat us, and what we have.

The Lord sees our hearts. Commandments are God’s invitations to come and be with Him. Our obedience is our way of inviting Him to come be with us. We are loved regardless of what we do. The invitation stands even if we don’t accept it. If we do invite God to be with us, we will know how much we are loved.

What we do is important. We are always making choices even when we are passively trying to avoid making choices. The purpose behind those choices matter. We don’t need to earn love as much as we need to act to show love and accept it. When the purpose is true, our actions have power, even if they’re not perfect.

The Soul: Body and Spirit United

Depression is, at its core, a condition of separation. Its cure is connection. A depressed person is at war with herself and thus retreats from everyone else. 

This is a part of the physical nature of the disease. A depressed brain has become incapable of sending proper signals often due to biological or environmental stressors. Perhaps caused by a chemical imbalance or even a change in hormones, depression can happen to someone with a seemingly idyllic life. Or, if someone’s life has been extremely stressful, the brain can deplete the reserves of transmitters necessary for dealing with stress. Either way, a depressed person is only processing a portion of what is truly before them.

When you make a mistake there is no encouraging signal to allow you to process what you did right or even what you could do better next time. You get stuck, so fixated on a minor failure that it becomes a catastrophic collapse. An unkind voice becomes the only one you hear. No other voice or thought is able to get through.

This can be hard for a depressed person to understand or accept because our brains, our thoughts, are so intricately linked with our perceptions of ourselves. We think we are in control. If there is a failure, it’s my fault. If I can’t fix it, it’s my fault. I’m weak. I’m broken.

When my therapist began to prescribe a medication, I did not want to take it. I thought that if I, Christen, was not strong enough to be happy, and I needed to be Drugged-Christen to be happy, then the drug just confirmed that I was defective. He described some of the signaling of the brain, specifically dopamine and serotonin, and said that in my case my brain was using these signals faster than it could make them because of my current circumstances. The medication would support my brain in making these necessary transmitters.

He also pointed out that my body was working hard to support me through some intensely difficult things. My body was strong, pushing through and doing everything I asked of it. It was time for me to support my body.

When depressed, we develop habits, physical and spiritual, that numb the pain. Unfortunately, numbing is not the same as restoring and these habits often leave us worse off than we were before. Separating ourselves from what we’re feeling and thinking also leads to separation from others and the depression deepens.

As a teenager, I obsessively watched classic movies and did puzzles, solitary activities I always did alone. In Michigan, I obsessively read cheap kindle books. I joked that I was a book-aholic, until my daughter wanted to play with me, and when I put her off she quietly answered, “I don’t like book-aholics.” That’s when I realized avoiding my problems was making them worse.

I wasn’t listening to my body when it said I was tired and needed sleep, because I was too busy trying to numb my spirit and stop the negative thoughts. I was too exhausted to think and thus also unable to hear my spirit ask for those things that would bring true relief.

There is a unique doctrine in the restored gospel that the soul is the body and spirit of man (D&C 88:15) and the two inseparably connected bring a fulness of joy (D&C93:33). I find a lot of power in this unity.

The body is not evil and weak—a thing to control or suffer through until your final freedom. Your body is a part of your eternal identity. The experiences it brings you will teach you things that are impossible to learn in any other way. To care for and listen to your body will strengthen your spirit and increase your capacity for joy.

On the other hand, your body is not the only determining factor of your identity. Your biology does not dictate your life. When left to itself, the body has no view beyond the present. It easily falls to appetites that cannot be satiated and the resulting constant pursuit leads to destruction.

Together, spirit and body united, you can find joy and truth. Either one in dominance at the expense of the other is living only half a life. Both bring awareness and connection to the world around you. 

I tried to stop reading so much and realized I first needed to reconnect with myself—to listen again to what I was feeling. When was I tired? What made me feel rested? When was I hungry? What made me happy?

One thing I love about my daughter was that she never said she wanted a cleaner room, or better food, or a prettier mom. She just said she wanted me. When I stopped avoiding the thoughts running through my mind and instead focused on actually being with my daughter, I was better able to tell fact from fiction.

Slowing down to fully feel and connect physically and spiritually was the first form of unity that helped me wake up and truly see myself.

A Promise of Light

This post is a part of “my story” which begins with “Finding Purpose”

When I say that I was frozen with fear in that small graveyard (full story in “A Light in Darkness”), it’s not inaccurate, but it’s not a full description either. It was fear, but not of anything physical. It was shock, but not from seeing blood. It was the fear of picturing myself in his position. It was the shock of a formerly depressed and suicidal person seeing an actual suicide. 

I was not detailed in my suicidal fantasies when I was a teenager. I remember feeling completely powerless. Frustrated that no one would listen to me, I wanted a powerful display that they couldn’t ignore anymore. But, I also realized that if people thought everything was my fault in life, they would do the same in death. I wanted to make people listen. I wanted to be understood so that I could understand.

I can now definitively say that suicide is not an eloquent expression of feelings. It’s messy, stinky, and awful. Death doesn’t enhance your voice, it silences it. 

When I was depressed, I lived and breathed because of Alma the Younger. He was my favorite prophet because he knew what darkness was. Although Alma the Younger was raised by a righteous and powerful prophet, Alma the Elder, he pulled people away from the church. An angel appeared to him and Alma fell into a coma-like state for a few days. In chapter 36 of his book in the Book of Mormon, Alma tells his son that he “was racked…with the pains of a damned soul” until he remembered his father preaching of Christ. When he remembered this, he cried to Christ for mercy and was filled with joy. He says:

And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.

I knew that this was my promise. One day, I would receive light as intense as was my darkness. 

Alma went on to have more joy through his missionary work. I also discovered my full light and an immeasurable joy in being a missionary, lifting and serving others. I found my voice in helping other people through the darkness. God kept his promise.  

Words cannot express how I have wished that we could have found that man earlier. He fought with intense darkness but, in the end, was not claimed by it. I find hope in this—there truly is no darkness so thick that Christ cannot banish it with light. But, I also feel deep sorrow. I can only conclude that his darkness was such that he isolated himself from those that would help him until God sent two sister missionaries that could connect with him while he was too weak to push them away. 

There are still too many that die alone. Too many that believe the lies of depression that they have no power, no one will listen, no one cares. The truth is that you have incredible power. The truth is that you are the only one who can tell your story, and there are people waiting to hear you. 

We all pass through sorrow in our own way. We all discover our light. I think those of us that have survived darkness, perhaps especially suicidal thoughts and depression, have a duty to say there is light and joy. The night does end. The light is equal to your darkness. So, if you’re feeling especially dark, your light will be that much more amazing. Just hold on.