Honesty, Courage, and Depression
January 16, 2021 | by: Shea Oakley | 0 Comments
Posted in: Follow Up From Sermons
“He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains.” -Psalm 107:14
Not long-ago Jess Francis, with great courage, spoke out in one of our podcasted services about her ongoing struggle with clinical depression. The result of her honesty was a beautiful time of confession, both during the public service in the accompanying chatroom and privately during the following week, by many in our church who fight not only depression but other forms of psychological and emotional disorders as well.
But in the specific area of depression I felt a deep kinship in Jess’s words about how the condition, for her, had not yet ended with complete and unbroken victory. This is because I, too, have known long periods of what author William Styron once described as “Darkness Visible,” and I knew it during many years as a follower of Christ.
Some of you know my testimony from a public video the church produced a couple of years back about my own depression-induced conversion, on Christmas Eve of 1990, from what had once been Atheism to faith in Jesus. It was a video that seemed to end in triumph over the darkness, and indeed it was in the most important and eternal sense.
However, the story of that bright night of my soul did not go on to describe the “dark night of the soul” experiences that seemed to be my nearly constant companions for many years after 1990 as I continued to grapple with an ongoing depressive state which had very clear genetic, psychological and spiritual roots. I know all too well how long the battle to overcome what was once called "Melancholia" can be. For me it involved approximately 15 years of my adult life.
After Jess’s courageous transparency that Sunday morning I thought about her battle and remembered my own, and out of those difficult memories came a desire to share with you who have also known the grip of depression what finally gave me a great degree of triumph over it.
There were three primary components, and all were grounded in the boundless grace of our God being brought to bear on the problem in different ways.
The first of those ways was that of ongoing, long-term counseling by a Holy Spirit-guided professional Christian counselor. During my 20’s and 30’s the late Paul Staup was my constant human representative of divine grace. He listened to me and came to know me at my best and also at my very worst. Yet he never gave up on my recovery no matter how I must have taxed his considerable patience. For the 50 or so minutes we were together every week he mostly gently, and occasionally firmly, helped me dig beneath the depression to find the anger that underlay it (depression has been called, with some truth, “anger turned inwards”), but he did not stop there. There was something that lay much deeper than my anger with the circumstances I had dealt with during some extremely difficult formative years.
That thing was pure, unadulterated loss.
You see I had lost my childhood to a combination of things: a once-wonderful but suddenly-terribly-conditional relationship with my earthly father, being put in the center of the disintegration of my parents' marriage (of which I was the only product), and a decade of unrelenting emotional and sometimes physical abuse from my peers, a period that stretched from elementary school to the year I graduated from high school. All this was followed by nearly four years of unhealthy self-isolation at a college 1,100 miles from home (it is not surprising that I was literally at the end of my rope in 1990, hospitalized just a few short months after getting my degree and starting a promising career in aviation).
With my counselor’s help I was able to purposefully, and prayerfully, enter a visceral experience of the deep grief that accompanied finally feeling what I had lost long before. Going through the emotion wrought out of me during the roughly two years I did intentional “grief-work” was very difficult. It was also transformational. It involved not only the experience of grief, but also the dawning of a felt ability to forgive those who had hurt me, and to know the hope that comes with that process. It was a painful time, but it was also deeply cleansing, and my once constant depression began to lift in very noticeable ways. I began to feel less like I was just surviving and more like I might be beginning to thrive as God had always intended me to. My counseling did not stop there, but the fruit of it was never more apparent than during that period in my life.
The second catalyst for my “overcoming” was anti-depressant medication. There is a very physical aspect to this condition that involves brain chemistry. With the before mentioned genetic history of clinical depression -- not to mention other types of mental illness -- on both sides of my family, I was basically “wired” for it. All that was needed were the circumstances I have described to activate the condition, something that involved a steep drop in Serotonin levels in my brain. Serotonin is a natural brain-chemical vital to emotional wellbeing.
A Christian Psychiatrist was God’s gift to me in this area. He and I spent a long time experimenting with the right combination of medications to achieve the maximum benefit. The fact that I remain on these effective medications today, many years later, does not greatly trouble me. Would I like to live without them eventually? Admittedly, to at least some degree, yes. Will I condemn myself if I am, like a diabetic needing insulin, required to stay on them for the rest of my life? No. (In fact I think that one of the things that has most bothered me about taking these medicines is my own wounded pride in “having” to take them at all, and you know what our Lord has to say about pride!)
Last, but infinitely not least, was the purely spiritual aspect of my recovery. First I know that it is only by the grace of God that counseling and medication have worked at all. Beyond that I have availed myself of deliverance and healing prayer sessions through the years and have always sought to maintain some degree of vital spiritual disciplines no matter how I have felt. Just as importantly many, many times, during my worst moments in the 1990’s and early 2000’s I cried out to God for His sovereign mercy upon my soul. No matter how literally “beyond help” I often felt during those years His grace always provided me a way forward, up, and ultimately out of chronic depression. To say that the Lord was my “Bottom Line” throughout those years is, to me, a truly massive understatement.
At this point you might be wondering if I have been completely delivered of any form of depression at any time. The honest answer to that is also no. I do have moments during some days, and occasionally even for a few days, in which I experience a milder form of that visible darkness, but it is nothing compared to the depth of the seemingly constant pain I knew during my 20’s and 30’s. Where I am now is light-years beyond where I was then. Now felt depression is the exception, then it was the rule.
You may also ask the question as to whether God has used this difficult experience for good in my life and the lives of others. The answer is an unequivocal yes! I have spent the last 18 years writing extensively about the deep challenges and blessings of the Christian life, in both print and electronic form. Virtually all those articles came out of what I learned from my struggle. I can say the same about the last nine years spent first doing real-time online Christian crisis coaching, and then joining the pastoral team at our church in my current mentoring and coaching capacity. This, too, I could never have done apart from what I learned in the crucible of suffering.
For those of you who are in this battle with depression today I want to affirm that the same recovery process I have undergone is one all you who know Christ as your Lord and Savior can experience as well (and quite possibly in a much shorter time than it took for someone with my background).
So I want to end with a reaffirmation of Jess’s decision to share her struggle with her sisters and brothers at True Life. If this article helps any of you, in any way, you can thank her because her act of courage inspired this article. I sincerely doubt I would have written it if she had decided to keep silent instead of giving the Holy Spirit the opportunity to inspire all of us through her honesty and vulnerability.
May God both bless and completely heal you, sister….and thank you.