Six years ago, my sister, Rachel, drifted out to sea — not a body of water, but the dark depths of depression. Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised. Family crises, chronic health problems, and other factors combined for a perfect storm and sent her spiraling downward. Rachel sat for hours, wracked by sobs, her eyes empty and sad. She raged over insignificant things and withdrew from activities and people she enjoyed. Pressures of single parenting added even more weight. Fighting fatigue, Rachel willed herself out of bed every morning, only to repeat the routine.
I grieved for my sister and for myself. I missed our spiritual talks, our prayer times, our silly laughter while mall crawling. And I couldn't understand how a person so committed to Christ could be so enveloped by mental darkness. Despite my prayers, each day Rachel slipped farther out into the emotional deep, while I stood on the shore, helpless and confused.
I wasn't the only one struggling. Folks at church witnessed Rachel's disturbing moods and suspected a spiritual low had settled in her. They offered help. Some urged her to read the Bible more, pray, or listen to praise music. Others tried to cheer her up. One Sunday morning, a fellow member planted herself beside Rachel and announced, "I'm going to sit here till you smile."
What this person didn't realize is what I failed to realize at first — that a person in depression can't just put on a happy face. I decided to get help from a Christian therapist and do my own research, and it was one of the best decisions I've made. Thanks to these, I have learned that depression isn't always easy to comprehend, but we can offer companionship to those adrift on its turbulent waters.
Understand depression. I began by trying to understand more about what depression really is. I've had many down days, brought on by winter, midlife, a layoff. Usually walking, swimming, getting outdoors, praying, or talking to a friend lightened my mood.
However, I learned that more severe experiences, like the death of a loved one, abuse, health problems, or divorce can take someone beyond the blues to depression that can last for weeks, months, or years. Depression is even packaged in some families' DNA, passed on through bloodlines for generations.
A moderate case of depression is like an overcast day, with more clouds than sun or no sun at all. But a severe case of depression is like a stubborn darkness, an in-your-bones sadness that won't let go. A number of people I've known have plunged into their dark sea after a personal catastrophe, and eventually made it through to shore. The crisis faded with time, wounds healed, and darkness lifted, sometimes with the aid of a professional counselor.
But Rachel's depression didn't seem to get better. It became chronic, or major, and has now lasted years. That's when I discovered that not just outer influences trigger depression, but inner ones as well. If the brain lacks the chemical serotonin, which controls emotions and other neurological functions, depression can set in. Medications and talk therapy keep Rachel's brain in balance, much as insulin and diet keep the pancreas functioning in a diabetic. I see that our frail emotions and the brain's need for chemical balance are not oddities, but are part of what makes us "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).
Be careful not to confuse depression with lost faith. At church every week, we're usually surrounded by smiling folks who offer a hug and share what God has done in their lives. But what about a person like Rachel who doesn't smile, maybe withdraws from us, and admits that God seems distant and uncaring? Has she disconnected from God?
I used to think so, remembering King Saul whose disobedience to God led to his emotional collapse and eventual suicide (1 Samuel 18—31). But Rachel has convinced me that depression doesn't always signal a problem with faith. During a given week, she could cry uncontrollably and distance herself from family, but she couldn't wait to get to church on Sunday. She drank in the sermons and sang "Amazing Grace" with tears wetting her face. I gave Rachel a CD of Christian songs, and she played it repeatedly. She worked on Bible study lessons and told those in her support group that the only thing getting her through each day was God. These were not habits of a woman out of fellowship with God but of a woman walking with God through the dark.
It's risky to judge a person's spiritual condition solely by her behavior or words. When Job fully processed the reality of his losses, he cursed the day he was born and struggled to sense God's presence (Job 3:1; 23:3-9). David felt forgotten by people and abandoned by God (Psalm 31:10; 22:1). Jeremiah cried, "I am the man who has seen affliction …. He [God] has driven me and made me walk in darkness and not in light" (Lamentations 3:1, 2).
With God's help, we can discern the difference between faulty faith and the honest cries of human pain. Beneath the heavy layers of sadness, depressed Christians still believe that their Redeemer lives (Job 19:25) and that His daily provision of mercies help them survive (Lamentations 3:22, 23).
Be quick to listen and slow to speak. One Sunday when Rachel let down her guard and shared her feelings with a fellow member, the woman stared at her and responded, "Things can't be that bad."
Another woman quickly brushed aside Rachel's words and offered her testimony of endurance through hard times, then concluded, "I just praise God when I'm down and choose not to focus on the negative."
When she heard the word depression, yet another person saw it as the work of the Devil.
These women's responses reveal a tendency many of us have to speak too quickly instead of listening to someone's pain. Depression creates an awkwardness that leaves us searching for causes and solutions. But offering those, even with good intentions, discounts the feelings of the depressed person. In speaking before we listen, we inflict more hurt.
A sensitive friend of Rachel's followed the advice in James 1:19: "be quick to hear … [and] slow to speak" (1:19). Every week after Bible study, she hugged my sister and asked how she was doing, then quietly listened. She didn't analyze or recommend a remedy. "I'm praying for you," this friend said. One day she ventured a step further and asked Rachel, "Do you ever feel that God has deserted you? I've had times like that." Identifying with Rachel's burden formed a deeper trust and bond of communication between Rachel and her friend.
A quick ear and slow tongue make for an empathetic heart. They grant permission for the depressed person to be herself and freedom to express herself without fear of judgment or correction.
Make your prayers supportive. When Rachel first drifted into depression, I boldly believed God for healing. A compassionate God wouldn't want His child to suffer such mental torture, would He? I claimed scads of scriptures, like Jeremiah 32:27: "Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?" and "A bruised reed He will not break" (Isaiah 42:3). When Rachel's depression worsened, I thought God had met His match and was breaking this bruised reed.
Eventually, however, I viewed God's denials to my requests as redirection of my prayers. Though some are healed of depression, Rachel would not be. But she could survive.
So I prayed for coping skills, that her doctors would find the right combination of cognitive therapy and medications. On her bad days, I asked God to be real to her, that she would see Him on her dark sea (Mark 6:45-51). I prayed that Rachel would know that God identifies with her depression. In her affliction, He too is afflicted (Isaiah 63:9). Remembering Apostle Paul also pled for healing from his "thorn in the flesh" and was denied (2 Corinthians 12:8), I prayed for God's grace in Rachel to withstand depression.
God has answered these prayers. Rachel has accepted her depression as a lifelong battle that forces her to depend on God. Her doctors teach her skills to discipline her thoughts and moods, and antidepressants keep her brain's chemicals in balance. Rachel is showing me that God's power isn't shown only in healing, but in making our worst weakness strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
In the boat. Rachel and I have never regained the carefree relationship of bygone days; depression has changed us. But it's been a good change, forging a deeper bond between us. I've left the shore and climbed in the boat with her. Together we row on the endless dark sea, locked in a rhythm of love and faith.
We're not alone. Beside us sits the Man of Sorrows, gripping the oars and rowing when our strength is gone. A few friends have climbed inside as well. And from where I sit, there's plenty room for more.
Lynne Miller writes from Denver, Colorado. This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Salvation Army publication War Cry. Used with permission.