Monica A. Coleman, Ph.D. is an AME minister, seminary professor and author of the book Not Alone: Reflections on Faith in Depression. She blogs on faith and depression at www.monicaaparker.com.
Many people describe depression as a kind of intense grief. It is a deep sadness. It’s like heartbreak, agony and despair all at once. I think depression is worse than grief. Grief usually has an identifiable cause. There are stages. People understand why you are sad. It eases with time.
I find that depression is more like death. In every depressive episode, something is lost. Sometimes it’s the belief that I’m not that sick. Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes it’s a concrete plan or goal. Sometimes it’s who I desperately wanted and expected myself to be. Sometimes it’s a harmful lie I’ve told myself, or that someone told me. Sometimes what dies, needed to go. Most times, it seems I would have been perfectly fine without the loss. I would smile more. I would know how I spent the hours in my day. I would see fewer doctors. When people ask me how I am doing, my response of “fine” would only be a lie thirty percent of the time. Like most people, right?
I have lived with a depressive condition since I was a teenager, although I didn’t have a name for it until my 20s. I don’t know how many lows I’ve had — excluding the two suicidal bouts. I don’t count how many times I’ve been sad and desperate for months. I don’t make a list of what I’ve lost.
I do, however, remember when I lost my faith.
Like many people who are raised in a religious environment, I was taught to believe that God loves me and protects me. I was taught that God punishes sin, and rewards those who are faithful. I learned about my religion by studying Holy Scriptures. I prayed. I worshipped. This was supposed to strengthen my faith. It was supposed to make me happy.
For many years, it did. I cherished Sundays spent in church — singing, kneeling and feeling inspired by the words of the preachers. My friends were made up of the other people I met in church. We volunteered at Vacation Bible School for the children, the food drive and tutoring programs.
Meanwhile, I prayed for peace. In my sleepless nights, I asked God to save me, help me and rescue me from my sadness. Just make it all better. I also heard the messages that my faith told me about depression: that I was be too blessed to be stressed; that depression was a lie from “the enemy”; that suicide is an unforgiveable sin. Somewhere between my unanswered prayers and the realization that I could not worship myself into happiness, my faith died.
I kept going to church. I kept saying the words of the prayers. I still sang the songs. I’m a minister — I have to. But I was a fraud. I stopped talking with God. What could I say to the One who was not delivering me? What praise did I have? I could list my blessings, but I could not feel gratitude. I hid my faithlessness like a bobby pin in an updo. Everything looked composed on the outside, but I was barely holding it together. I was not faithful or pious. I felt abandoned and alone.
As my depression worsened, I learned more about it. I read books. I found doctors who understood my condition. I stopped fearing medication. I met other people who struggled like me. We learned to hear sorrow in one “hello,” and how to sit with each other without words. I began to believe that depression was not a personal weakness or failure. By accepting it, I began to manage it. When I felt joy, I appreciated it all the more. I started to trust the healing process. But I missed my faith in God, religion and worshipping community.
Oddly enough, death is the purview of the religious. We call chaplains into hospital rooms. When someone dies, we go to the altar. Mourners bend their backs and wail. The spirituals express deep sorrow. We gather together with large meals. We don’t pretend like people aren’t in pain. In those times, we understand when people cannot praise God. We only ask people to be honest with God. And we don’t leave them alone. This is exactly what my depressed self needs: tears, music, good food, raw honesty, community. The same faith that demonizes my depression also teaches me how to have faith in the midst of it.
I lost the faith I once had. I stopped believing that God only loved me if I was happy and peaceful. I also gave up on the idea that depression was punishment or isolation from God. I can’t enjoy the same songs. I cannot bear the same sermons. That faith is gone. Just like the hours, weeks or months I lose to melancholy. And my incomplete plans. Or the image I’d like to have of myself.
In these moments when death prevails, I appreciate that so many religions have an understanding of life after death. Regrowth, reincarnation, resurrection. They all understand that there is a finality to death. We don’t get back what we lost. We get something or someone new.
My new faith is a deep trust that God is present with me and understands how I feel — especially when no one else can. I no more blame God for my sadness, than I credit God for happy days. This faith tells God how I really feel knowing that an offer of my true self is worship. I appreciate songs of sorrow more. I dance only when joyful. I am upheld by church community that can linger in pain without moving to fix it.
This faith is different than what died. But it’s just as holy.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on October 13,2012.