Things I’ve Learned from my Depression Journey

Can anything good come from depression? I think yes.
I’ve learned:

      1. Empathy for those who are suffering from mental illness. I have the ability to relate and offer comfort, because I myself battle against depression. And while each person’s mental illness is unique, there are some consistencies that generalize across diagnoses.
      2. The experience of the Behavioral Health Unit. From my short stay in 2009, I have a better understanding of the chaos and turmoil in a psych ward.
      3. That there is tremendous pain in the world – I’ve had the “blinders” or “rose-colored glasses” removed.
      4. That I have never been walking alone – Christ has been with me through it all. He has supported, encouraged and sometimes carried me, even when I couldn’t see it. “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ ” Hebrews 13:5b, NIV. And just because I couldn’t see His Presence doesn’t mean He wasn’t there. He does not depend on what I feel, or even think, to be true. He is God. He Is.
      5. Emotional intimacy with my husband – we’ve always been good communicators, but there is still room to improve.  Through depression, I was given chances to share my thoughts, feelings and fears with him. Previously, I would hold those things to myself because I didn’t want to “burden” him. But marriage requires sharing the tough stuff along with the good times. And he is a great husband, an amazing man, my best friend.
      6. How God loves me completely, even in my mess. I have a better understanding of His unconditional love, which the Bible tells us is beyond our understanding! “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” ‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭3:17b-19‬, NIV‬‬
      7. The importance of having a good Christian therapist – I’ve had two! They’ve each listened and understood, helped me think things through and make sense of my thoughts, and pointed me back to Christ and my husband for support.
      8. The value of a slower pace – no need to be over-the-top-involved in everything.
      9. An appreciation for naps! And gliders and rocking chairs and swings.
      10. A gratitude for the smaller and simpler things in life.
      11. The need for rest, space, quiet, even silence.
      12. The benefit of solitude and focus and breath.
      13. To not hide my emotions from my children, but to share/teach/show my kids that it’s normal to have troubles and it’s important to ask for help. I hope I’ve shown them God’s faithfulness to us through the hard times.
      14. To be more observant, to talk less and try to listen more.
      15. To pray about everything. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians‬ ‭4:6‬ ‭NIV‬‬
      16. The willingness to admit my weaknesses to my friends and family so they can pray for me. When I’m able to be honest and vulnerable, I allow others to help me.
      17. To serve from a place of brokenness. I had the opportunity to facilitate in a Depression Support Care Group for a year, after asking for 6+ years that God would use this depression in my life to help others. And now I blog, in the hopes that my story offers encouragement to other Christians with depression. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Cor 1:3-4, NIV
      18. Of my absolute need to rely on Christ for everything. I’m growing more dependent on Him. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:10, NIV

The 2 Hour Support Group

The Monday Leader Lady ran another Depressed Anonymous (DA) group, on Fridays – not as structured, and it met for 2 hours instead of one. When I began attending, there were several other people there too, but since it was small to begin with, when folks dropped out, it was noticeable. There were many times that there were only two or three of us. This had a huge impact on group dynamics – it’s hard to have the group’s input if there is no group. These times became more about mentoring. And that was ok – our Leader had lots of encouragement and practical advice to offer.

We’d start the same as Mondays – read the Serenity Prayer, the Statement of Concern, the 12 Steps of DA, and a few general guidelines. Then we’d share our about ourselves in a traditional Round Robin. If we finished before the hour was up, we’d often read from the book we were using to help us understand depression and a 12 Step program, in this case, Codependents’ Guide to the 12 Steps. Then we’d take a short break, refill our coffee, and come back together after 10 minutes.

Leader lady would sometimes use Fridays to offer guided meditation during the second hour. This was one of my favorite Friday afternoon activities. She would paint a picture for us, outline a scene. She’d mention details but not specifics, like “A bird flies overhead,” and in our thoughts, we would choose what kind of bird. We filled in the colors, types of birds and flowers, sounds and smells. It was very focused and detailed, and also incredibly relaxing. She would describe the scene for 15-20 minutes. Then she’d encourage us to gently open our eyes. We’d often share our private pictures with each other, and I was always amazed at how different our interpretations were.

We were not hypnotized. She simply helped us focus our thoughts in a relaxing scene. For me, her words often helped me recall a place or time, like my grandparents’ house at the lake, or an anniversary beach trip. I know that at the end of a stressful week, this was incredibly relaxing. And I found myself picturing the scene during the next week if I needed a mini vacation to calm my anxieties. This was a great way to practice relaxation, I discovered. It was not the same as mindfulness – being in the moment. Quite the opposite – this was enjoying a daydream.

Other weeks we talked about forgiveness, wrote a letter to our future-selves, drew a spiderweb diagram of Step 4 – “made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.” Sometimes, there was just more time for sharing with and encouraging each other, and that was good, too!

From the Friday group, I learned more about sharing in a smaller setting. I learned how a concentrated daydream can bring a real peaceful relaxation – a great tool for fighting anxiety. I learned creative ways to work through the 12 Steps. I made friends with other women for whom I came to care very deeply, particularly the Leader Lady. I recognized that we all have been wounded by situations in our lives, sometimes caused by the actions of others, sometimes by changes in circumstances. Yet I do not have to be alone in my pain when I’m willing to share it with others. We who walk through depression have had very personal, private, and unique journeys. But the effects of depression are something we have in common, and by sharing our stories and our coping skills, we help each other along the way.

The Support of a Support Group

I attended Depressed Anonymous (DA) for almost a year, and I went every Monday with few absences. The group was incredibly supportive. After the first week, everyone knew my name and it was wonderful to be greeted with welcoming smiles. There was such a feeling of relief to walk into the conference room and know that everyone “got it,” had been on a similar journey through depression. I didn’t have to pretend everything was fine. I was in sympathetic company.

I wrote notes earlier in the day of things I might share when it came to me in the Round Robin – helped keep me focused and succinct. I never wanted to be a person who droned on and on or talked in circles, so I kept to my notes. Since everyone at DA understood depression, I didn’t have to work hard to explain myself – I would just share about my week, and my feelings, and the whole room empathized. There was always lots of head nodding and affirming words. It was so nice to be accepted and understood.

We used Codependents’ Guide to the 12 Steps by Melody Beattie, and it was a good format to discuss the 12 Steps as they applied to Depression. Still, I kept wondering if I was co-dependent. Turns out, probably not, at least not in an unhealthy way.

The group was on Step 4 when I joined (“4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.”) so I tried to go back and work Steps 1-3 on my own. I put notes in my DA notebook, but wasn’t sure who to share them with. Unlike other 12 Step programs, this one did not have an emphasis on having a sponsor, so I felt a little like I was on my own other than on Mondays. However, I became friends with Leader Lady, and she provided me with answers and lots of DA information to help me as I worked the Steps.  Contrary to the recommendations of the 12 Step system, I didn’t share much of my work on the Steps with anyone else. I wonder if I should go back and do that part over, if the Steps would keep me more grounded in accountability.

In the DA group, I was able to watch others move in and out of depressive episodes. I hate to say that it was encouraging, but since my diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder – recurrent, moderate to severe, it was helpful to see how folks managed the ins and outs – the ups and downs – of recurrent depression.

While I attended, I actually got better twice. It was amazing to look back to my mood state when I started attending, and my improved mood by the time I stopped, with a little sidetrack in the middle. The other members of the group are a huge reason that my depression went into remission. And they were there to encourage me when I had a bad week, and when I felt myself slipping back into depression. They helped me to tell the difference. They walked with me through that second depressive episode, and I had some tools of experience to take with me when I finally left the group.

I didn’t want to leave. But my experiences with depression, and those from the DA Support Group, lent themselves to the next chapter of my walk in the depression journey. I was invited to help start a Depression Support Group at my church.

 

My first support group meeting

Depressed Anonymous meets Mondays at 5:30pm at the Franciscan Spirituality Center.

At 5:30pm, one of the members closed the door to the room, and the meeting came to order.

Everything I needed to start was on one of the pages that the leader lady had given me. We began by reciting the Serenity Prayer, then reading the Statement of Concern, the 12 Steps of Depressed Anonymous, and the Guidelines, taking turns around the table – read aloud if you want to, or “Pass” if you don’t.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

12 Steps of DA:
1. We admitted that we were powerless over depression – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Et cetera.

That was all easy enough, though I kept thinking that if someone with dyslexia came, or an illiterate person, how humiliating it could be to say “Pass.” Even in this room, what kind of assumptions would be made? I judge myself; wouldn’t others judge?

The leader lady greeted us again, and since we had just read in the Guidelines about the process of the Round Robin, she began. “Hi, my name is _____, and I struggle with (battle against, am defenseless against, am powerless to fight – however you want to introduce yourself),” followed by “It’s been a _____ (good, bad, hard, sad…) week,” and she shared her most recent story. Sharing wraps up, “and with that I’ll pass.”

The whole group responds with, “Thanks, _____.”

One person at a time, the Round Robin came closer to me. I tried to focus on what the others were sharing, but kept wondering what to do when my turn came. My palms were sweating, my breathing shallowed a little, and huge butterflies danced all over my stomach. Do I say anything? What do I say? Wait, I should be listening, not distracted by my own words. The butterflies danced faster. I had jotted down some notes – do I share those? Or maybe I should just listen this first time and “Pass.”

Finally, to my left, “and with that I’ll pass.” “Thanks, _____.”

“Hi, my name is Peggy, and I have depression. I learned about this group from the newspaper, and decided to check it out. I moved here five years ago, and was originally diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder. But I didn’t get better, so it became depression. Last month (February) was a really hard month, especially last week. I’m having a hard time focusing at work and being at Bible Study. I have some anxiety again – it comes out of nowhere and I can’t always just breathe through it.  I don’t cry when I’m depressed , which is really tough since I want to. I feel like if I could just have a good cry, I would feel so much better.  At the end of last week, I went on a three day personal retreat – slept, napped, journaled, prayed, read, knitted. It was so quiet and peaceful. I even took an onion with me to see if I could manipulate tears. I’m glad I’m here. And with that I’ll pass.” Whew!

“Thanks, Peggy.” A couple of people made intentional eye contact and smiled – I felt welcomed, not judged.

We finished our way around the table, then picked up a book the group was using for discussion and read a few paragraphs, with folks commenting their thoughts on the author’s views. This part was a little more “free” – less structure in what was said – conversation bounced around the table a bit instead of going around the room. A bag was passed for donations – not for the first timers, though.

At 6:25, the lady leader said we would stop, we closed our books, stood to hold hands, said the Lord’s Prayer and the meeting was over. Someone opened the conference room door.

 

Walking Into A Support Group

My husband saw the article – a brief blurb in the newspaper telling about the group. Depressed Anonymous, meets Mondays at 5:30pm at the Franciscan Spirituality Center. “Have you seen this?”

I hadn’t, but it sounded interesting. And I was feeling a little desperate, alone, isolated  – “I’m the only one who feels this way. ” So the idea of meeting other like-minded, or like-mood, folks sounded encouraging. Terrifying, but encouraging. I decided to go the next week.

That Monday, I worked later into the afternoon than usual. I tried to plan so that I would have a little time to find my way to the room and look around a bit; I didn’t want to feel completely unprepared. It wasn’t far from work – just down the road, maybe a mile. I drove to the Center, and found a spot to park across the street. I walked up the cement steps to the building and pulled hard on the front door.

The door made a funny swishing sound, and it clicked loudly when it latched behind me. I climbed the inside stairs  – covered in a green-blue carpet – and opened the inner door to a quiet but well lit hallway. To the left was a bathroom (I didn’t see it until the next week) and a wood paneled wall with a small rack to hang jackets. To the right was a large open window with the same wood trim into an office area. There were several desks and filing cabinets, and a couple of older women chatting. One asked if she could help, and I told her I was there for the Depressed Anonymous group.  (How does the anonymous part work, since now someone knows I’m here? But won’t everyone in the room know I’m here? What’s anonymous about it?) She gave me directions to the room.

I wandered down the hallway, up a few stairs, and across the hall from the Rose Room was the conference room. The overhead light was on, and there was a large boardroom table with chairs all around. There was a TV on a portable stand, a podium pushed to the side, and a couple of other small tables with books on them. There were no people.

I was early, and so I walked back down the hallway toward the receptionists, trying to figure out how to kill some time. There were large banquet tables lining the hall, covered in mostly old books, so I perused the titles, picking up one here and there, trying to focus on anything other than my anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I’m not Catholic – will that be ok? The ad did say it was open to anyone. What’s in the Rose Room? How many people would there be? Will I feel out of place? Should I plan to say anything?

I stood at the book table for a long time, and several other people came in, some stopping to look at books too. I heard some greetings from the receptionists, and thought those might be people in charge of the group. A few folks passed me and I watched them walk toward the room. When it looked like several had gone in, I made my way back up the small steps and into the confernce room.

I was greeted with a very cheerful “Hello!” from a lady at the end of the table. She had a small box in front of her, and some papers. She welcomed me to Depressed Anonymous, “or DA, as we call it,” and invited me to sit anywhere. I headed to the right side and middle seat at the table, so as not to stand out as the newbie (yeah, right). Others in the room said hello and smiled.  She told me she had papers for me about the group, and slid the pile down the table. This gave me something to look at as more people came in and sat down, until 5:30pm. Then a large man said it was time and got up from his chair, looked down the hall to see if anyone else was coming, and closed the door. Starting on time. A good indicator of structure. Maybe this would be more than a misery-loves-company complaint session.