Depression and Answered Prayer

I’ve struggled with depression for over ten years. I think I’ve had more than a dozen different depressive episodes, some much worse than others. In my hopeful moments, I begged God to not waste my pain, to allow me to use it to help others. But mostly, I couldn’t see anything good in my suffering.

For those of us who struggle with mental health, it’s very isolating. There’s still so much stigma surrounding mental illness: people don’t understand it. How could I be a Christian, let alone a leader and Bible Study teacher, and still be tormented by these feelings of uselessness and hopelessness? What kind of witness was I to my friends and coworkers? A failure! I felt very alone, even at church.

I didn’t want church friends to know – I didn’t want to be judged as sinful. I didn’t want work friends to know – I didn’t want to be judged as weak. But as the illness progressed, it became more and more obvious that I was unable to do my jobs. Others had to start picking up the pieces I dropped. Not to mention the days I didn’t have the strength to go to work or Bible Study at all, so I’d call in “sick.” I always felt horrible, knowing they would have to scramble to cover my responsibilities as well as their own. But I couldn’t help it. I was unable to leave the security of my bed and the safety of my home. I couldn’t face glaring lights, traffic, or people.

I didn’t know how God was going to redeem this, make anything good come from my pain. And as I got deeper into the illness, it became harder and harder to hide from the people around me.

So I thought God might work through awareness, as my friends saw me struggle. Perhaps I could give them a glimpse, an understanding, of what depression is and does. Maybe that was how God would use my pain for others’ benefit. Maybe, by being ill and unable to hide it, I could reduce stigma. “See? It can happen to anyone!”

In the darkest times, though, I didn’t care if others understood, or what God might do with my struggles. I was simply trying to survive, to hang on through another day of excruciating mental pain and feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, with physical manifestations of weariness, head and body aches and stomach pain. I dreaded going to bed because it just meant another day of the same tomorrow. Unless perhaps I wouldn’t wake up…the thought was appealing. I begged God for the Second Coming – the only way in which I could see my pain ending. That or death, which I was too afraid to try, though I thought of it often.

Depression is that way, trying to get me to think that no one understands, no one cares, and it will never end. In the very darkest times, I even wondered where God was, and felt like He’d abandoned me in my dark cave of negative self-worth.

But God had not abandoned me. Jesus was right by my side, and He wasn’t tapping His foot and telling me to “hurry up and get better.” He was sitting alongside me in my pain, comforting me and reminding me that He loves me so much. He was crucified for me, and for the pain of depression. He had died on the cross to give me eternal Hope. And as I sl-ow-ly emerged from the darkness of depression, God gave me the opportunity to serve Him with my illness.

Fresh Hope is a peer-led support group for people with a mental health challenge – and their loved ones. Just this week, I was part of a team which started a Fresh Hope Group at our church. The organization is about creating a community where we learn to live a rich, faith-filled life, in spite of having a mental health challenge. It’s for anyone who struggles with mental illness – depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, PTSD, schizo-affective disorder – and for anyone who loves someone who is hurting in this way.

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28, NLT.  He’s doing that for me through this Fresh Hope Ministry – working all my pain from depression for my good and for others.  In Fresh Hope, we’ll encourage each other, and comfort one another with the same comfort we’ve received from God (see II Corinthians 1:3-4).

I have suffered, and therefore have the privilege of understanding. Of having gone through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerging on the other side. I can relate to the hurting who come to the group. God is using my illness to help others. And further healing me in the process.

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Replacing Anxiety with Peace

I got news yesterday that concerned me. No, more than concern. It brought worry and anxiety. My mind raced eighteen steps ahead in my worst-case-scenario storyline. It was not pretty.

Anxiety presents itself in my body in both my belly and my lungs. My stomach feels hollow, and it’s hard to catch my breath. It’s an actual physical manifestation of an emotional response. My midsection hurts and I can’t breathe.

I haven’t had anxiety for a long time, other than a single moment a few weeks ago. But that flash of anxiety was just that – a flash, momentary. It lasted long enough for me to recognize it, but my thoughts immediately turned to God’s truth, and the anxiety was gone – snap! – that fast.

This time, it’s lingering. I’m worried about something in the future that I can’t control. That’s where anxiety looks – ahead. Depression looks back. This is why it’s so important to stay in the current moment – so as not to entertain anxiety (future worry) or depression (past regrets).

Anyway, this fear for a future moment is for an inevitable event; I just don’t know when. And the not-knowing scares me.

I hugged my husband tightly last night when he got home, and told him I was scared – he didn’t even ask about what. He knows what worries me, even though I’ve been careful not to dwell on the future or to even express it. As if saying it aloud could make it happen – which it can’t. But the fear is too tangible to speak it out loud.

The sermon on Sunday was about peace, the antithesis of anxiety and worry. I’ll go back and review my notes, because I need them right now. I need the peace that Jesus brings. He says, “I leave the gift of peace with you—my peace. Not the kind of fragile peace given by the world, but my perfect peace. Don’t yield to fear or be troubled in your hearts—instead, be courageous!John 14:27 (TPT)

In other places in God’s Word, it says:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Colossians 3:15 (NASB)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians‬ ‭4:6-7‬ ‭(NIV‬‬)

I was thinking about that word “guard.” God’s peace will guard my heart and my mind – will protect it, keep it from being attacked by outside forces. By anxious thoughts.

And both of those verses exhort me to be thankful. I have much to thank God for – I need to keep a grateful heart, no matter what my future may bring.

At this time of year, we celebrate Christmas – I’m thankful that Jesus came into our world as a baby. The Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). The angels who sang at His birth declared, “Peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14 (NLT)

May He reign in my heart and yours. Because we all need His Peace.

Christmas when Depressed

I’ve read several posts lately, encouraging folks who are struggling with depression in ways to manage this season. I began to think of one of the Christmases when I was depressed, probably the worst one. I’m going to look through my journal from that time, and see what steps I took to manage my emotions then.

I had just recently been released from a short stay in the psych ward (December 6-10). My parents live in NE, my sister in MO, and we were in WI at the time. So my family hadn’t seen me, and only knew how I was doing based on what my husband was sharing with them. But God had known that we would need to be together, so my sister invited us to come to her house for the holidays. Quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine Christmas at our house – I assumed it would be as miserable as I was feeling. I didn’t know how I would manage the drive (I ended up sleeping most of the way in the backseat of the van), but it really appealed to me to be someplace other than my home for the holiday. Besides, my parents would be there, too, and they’d all get to see first-hand how I was doing. I hoped that would bring them some peace.

I distinctly remember taking a lot of naps. Like one in the morning and another one in the afternoon! I needed rest – sleep – not just a break. But I needed respite, too, from the commotion of three families in one house, so I escaped to the bedroom a few times just to get some silence. I had an anti- anxiety pill that I was taking to help alleviate the shaking hands. Shoot, my whole body was shaking as I was adjusting to new medications, so I regularly had to excuse myself and go take my meds.

I remember after a nap, sitting on the couch in my sister’s living room, a room away from the TV. It was quieter there, more peaceful. My mom sat with me on the couch and I shared a little of what I remembered from the hospital. My voice trembled as I told her of the surroundings, the activities, the doctor.

I know we watched TV, but I recall finding it hard to concentrate. Several times, I got up and moved to the kitchen, where I could hear the TV but not see the bright lights from it. I sat at the kitchen table and drank a soda, and tried to focus on the conversation with my sister.

My husband helped shield me a lot, and kept an eye on me and my mood and energy levels. He probably made excuses for me when I had to leave the room. I’m grateful to him for running interference for me.

The trauma of me being in the hospital subsided for my kids a bit as they were distracted by their younger cousins, and reading entertaining books. It was good for them to be away from our home that year.

As always, my sister took care of delicious meals – she is an excellent cook – and my brother-in-law did all the dishes. I don’t remember doing any work of any sort – not that I was capable of it, anyway.

We didn’t stay long – just a couple of days. I know my family would have liked us to stay longer, but I could only manage a few days before I needed to get back to the safety of my own bed.

My journal reveals that by the time we went home, I was only taking one anti-anxiety pill a day. Seems like the family visit was just what I needed.

So my suggestions for how to handle depression this season, from my own personal experience? To the best of your ability, surround yourself with people who love you. But don’t be afraid to take a break from them – give yourself a time-out when you need one. Nap if you have to. Eat well. Rest. Take your meds as prescribed. Don’t be over-stimulated. Don’t overcommit. Give yourself permission to a slower, quieter pace.

It takes time, but it will get better. Even in deep depression, there are moments of lightness. Enjoy those.

And did I mention taking a nap?!

Giving Thanks

It’s good to pause and give thanks. We should all do it more often than just on the fourth Thursday of November! God calls us to make it a lifestyle: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians‬ ‭5:18‬, NIV‬‬.

Gratitude has been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. And while it may be hard to be thankful in the middle of a dark valley, it’s good to make an effort.

Give it a try. Just one little thing that you’re grateful for. Like your breath. Your pillow. Your cozy blanket. The quiet. The dark. Your pet. Your kids, or spouse, or sister, or parents. Pick just one thing, and think on it – what makes it special? Why do you like it? Tell God “Thanks” – for that one thing.

That’s the start of gratitude. One thing. Maybe the next day, or a few days later, you’ll be able to think of two. Or more. But no pressure – just one will do.

I’ve been thinking about gratitude lately, probably because the holidays bring it to the forefront. And I realize that I have lots to be thankful for! Kind of like this video: https://youtu.be/BSxPWpLPN7A

For my husband. My kids. Friends far and near, old and new. My home. My cats. My Bible and journal. Physical and mental health. Sight. Hearing aids. The freedom to worship. The freedom to vote. Food. Coffee. Chocolate.

Once I start looking around, I see all kinds of things to be thankful for!

And that doesn’t even touch on creation – like sunsets and beaches and streams and tall trees and wildflower fields with paths. And waterfalls and canyons. And goldfinches and foxes and bison. And gentle rain and big snowflakes and sunny afternoons.

I’m so grateful – yes, thankful – to be in an emotional place where I can see and (try to) count my blessings. “Lord, I do give thee thanks for the abundance that is mine. (LIDGTTFTATIM)” – Don Blanding, Today Is Here.

Try reading this talisman for 12 days – LIDGTTFTATIM – and each day, while reading it through, meditate on the different words of the phrase. You’ll find deep comfort and inherent gratitude as you focus on them.

Oh, thank You, great God, for the good gifts You give.

The trouble with medicine…

Ugh!

It’s almost 3am, and I’m sipping Sleepy Time tea and writing this blog. Because I’m wide awake! I’ve freaked myself out, and need to calm down before the Sandman might dare to reappear.

When I woke up this morning – I mean yesterday morning – I felt a little off. A little funny in my skin, but I didn’t really know how to describe it. But by bedtime, it was a raging all-over-body itch. Like I’d just rolled in long grass and my skin was tingly-itchy, even inside my mouth. No visible rash, but definitely needing a scratch. As we were going to bed, my husband said, “Maybe it’s a withdrawal symptom.”  And I’ve been freaking out ever since.

Last week, I discovered that I had missed the “expiration date” on one of my medication refills, but figured it wouldn’t matter, since I was seeing the doctor on Friday, and I would tell him then. I mentioned during the appointment that I was going to run out, but neither he nor I grasped the potential significance of that statement. As I knew he would, he wrote me a new prescription, then gave it to one of his staff to send in – I get my meds by mail. That was Friday.

I got a notice today – Thursday – almost a full week later – that the prescription-filling company has received the doctor’s order and they are processing it to be filled and sent on its way.

In the meantime – two or three nights ago – I ran out of those pills.

No biggie, they’re on their way. But wait, I’m heading out of town on Saturday for a week, so they’ll arrive while I’m gone. Again, probably no biggie – it’s just a med I take to help me sleep.

I’ve been on a very low dose of this med for 10 years.  Tonight I learn that it’s a benzodiazepine – a central nervous system depressant. (Shame on me for not exploring this sooner.) My original psych doc first prescribed it when I was struggling with the anxiety portion of my depression, and I was having trouble getting to and staying asleep. He assured me that there was no problem taking the med at such a low dose. And I needed the sleep in order for my brain to heal from the depression and serotonin toxicity.

That was 10 years ago. Two psych docs since, and I’m still on this med. No one ever mentioned any concerns with it. Over time, I’ve considered coming off of it, but why? It works so well, I’m sleepy within 20 minutes of taking it, and I rarely struggle with insomnia; I can usually get back to sleep pretty easily if I wake in the middle of the night. I have no ill effects in the morning – I can get up just fine without any residual tiredness. On a couple of occasions, I looked into the process of coming off the med – just reading “how to” on the web – and saw several stories of horrific troubles with reducing the dose. But I figured my dosage was so low, when it was time, it would be no problem.

But here I am. Itchy all over. Woke up after an hour’s snooze and can’t fall back to sleep. So I googled this medicine and withdrawal symptoms. And there are all those scary stories again. Itchy body is very mild, when you consider hallucinations, loss of appetite, return of depressive thoughts, panic attacks, insomnia, muscle tightness, headaches, seizures – I think pretty much everything that could happen, could happen! And the process for weaning off – with a doctor’s supervision – is very slow – like 6-12 months to get off 1 mg. And I’ve accidentally gone cold turkey!

I’m honestly not sure what to do, besides call my psych doc first thing in the morning. I’m not sure what he can do for me, as I already have a prescription in process. Will I be allowed to have a few pills to tide me over? Will he help me get off this horrible drug, weaning me off properly?

Will I sleep at all tonight? Can I pray and breathe my way through my increasing anxiety as I consider the potentials while I’m out of town next week, without this med?  The “what-ifs?” are so scary at night, anyway. And they just got more terrifying as I read all about this med on the web.