Sometimes when you think you’re an expert on a subject, you experience a humbling moment when you realize there’s far more to learn.
I’ve fought with severe anxiety and panic attacks since I was a seven-year-old boy. I thought it was safe to assume that if there was one topic I could be considered a master on because of first-hand experience, it was depression.
I remember a normal childhood suddenly interrupted in the second grade by extreme bouts of panic and anxiety every night for nearly a year, often lasting for several hours into the early morning and accompanied by intense nausea.
I began to learn to cope with major depression and panic attacks through a long, slow process. I didn’t deal with it well at all for a number of years. It took a long time – well into my 20s – before I was able to admit to myself that I actually had a problem.
I went through college, through stressful jobs, and through a handful of relationship crises with severe struggles. When my most intimate relationship ended and I was completely blindsided by an unexpected custody battle for my baby daughter, I entered an incredibly dark place.
Only by the love and support of family and friends and the extravagant grace of God was I able to come through that hard time. I was battered and scarred emotionally, but I’d been broken and was able to let go of myself and begin to heal in the truths of who I was in Christ and how God truly feels about me.
I learned how I’d unknowingly been complicit in many of my most difficult moments by harboring and allowing negative thought patterns to fester in my head and heart. I learned that the way I thought about myself and about life were incredibly important factors influencing the quality of my life.
Once I hit my 30s, I slowly began to find real peace. I still screwed up severely several times in life, but I began to understand what real repentance is and how to forgive myself.
So, as I said, if there’s one topic I felt I could be considered a master on, it was depression.
This is the context in which I found myself driving to work this morning when a thought occurred to me that I attribute to God: oh, wow, I’ve been in a low-grade base depression for most of my life, haven’t I?
I had been thinking about how good my life has been recently and remembering my recent struggles with finding meaning at my job. I hadn’t been able to solve the puzzle about why I’ve had such a hard time finding the motivation to fully invest myself in my work, and – as I seem to frequently entertain several fleeting trains of thought in near-succession – I casually remembered my daughter playfully giving me a hard time about staying up too late playing video games when I experienced an “Aha!” moment.
Lack of motivation. Distracting myself from reality (video games; also reading and writing). A subtle weight to just going about my everyday life, a weight I’m accustomed to but one that nonetheless is present when I actually pay attention, that makes me tired both emotionally and physically.
Shoot. Sure enough, that’s depression.
That’s one of the tricky things about depression: it takes on many shapes and forms. Often – as in my case – you may not even realize that you or people you interact with are experiencing it. For me, it was incredibly easy to miss because, well, it’s more or less how I’ve been experiencing life in general for as long as I can remember: this is normal for me, so why should I consider it to be depression?
Because the symptoms fit the definition. Because I’ve known for a while that something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t place my finger on it.
Because I remember how I felt when I first started working as a youth director at my church when I was 21 and how full of life and energy I was, and I remember how – in no small part due to my own immaturity and mistakes – that feeling slowly left me until I lost myself and ultimately walled off that time of my life in shame, sorrow and regret.
I had been more fully alive once, hadn’t I? I did know what it was like to feel empowered and excited to do something I loved. I’d allowed the accumulation of experiences – many of which I’ve received healing from, but as with most things, likely only in part – to block my heart from finding that place of freedom I once knew.
I’d bought another lie without knowing it, hadn’t I? How could I let my heart return to that place when it resulted in me messing up so badly?
The truth: because it wasn’t due to my heart; it was my immaturity and several other factors, but not my heart.
Depression can affect each of us in so many different ways, both extreme and subtle. It can come from lies we’ve internalized; it can come from chemical imbalances in our brain; it can come from emotional and physical wounds and trauma we’ve experienced.
It’s often not something that a single conscious decision can overcome, but rather something that takes a long haul of healing to slowly work through. That healing comes in a variety of different forms that all have their appropriate place: counseling; prayer; medication; therapy.
It’s not a solitary journey, but one that requires family, be it by blood or by choice. It’s also a fight that may ebb and flow for the length of your life.
But the first step is being able to recognize that depression is present. Even when it’s the last thing in the world you expected to find.