I wrote this out as an interview for Selah.sg a while back, but one of my recent reflections with God brought this to mind. Posting the interview in its entirety here; may it encourage those of you who read it, bringing a message of hope from the great Author Himself.
- When and how did you realise that you were suffering from depression and loneliness? (Perhaps you could elaborate on the root causes and triggers, and if the two (both depression & loneliness) overlapped in your journey.
I was 13 when I was officially diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, but I think it started two years before that.
When I was in Primary 5 and studying in Singapore, I offended one of the most popular girls in my class. Subsequently, she turned the entire class and all of my friends against me, painting a big red target on my back. Since it was an all-girls school, there was never a physical element to the bullying: it’d be more subtle yet still wounding actions like whispering and pointing behind my back, creating an invisible bubble around me in the assembly hall and pretending I had some sort of disease, and using file folders to “barricade” my desk in class to try to quarantine me. I felt terribly alone and ostracized. The bullying continued for quite some time.
Around the same time, the group of neighborhood boys I’d always played with after school also decided they no longer wanted a girl in their group. The ringleader of the gang decided to instigate all the boys against me: they’d come by my house to vandalize it when I wasn’t around, or beat me up when I came home. My younger brother happened to be on MC and resting at home one time when they came; he ended up having to fend them off with a laundry pole. They also went to my next-door neighbor’s house and vandalized his expensive car badly, then pinned the blame on me. Again, this went on for quite some time, so I felt like I was fighting a war on multiple fronts.
I was utterly miserable. When I went to my mother to tell her everything that was going on, she told me, “Get over it. It’s just bullying.” As a young child, I wanted to heed my mother’s advice, but had no clue how. The only way, I thought, was for me to not feel the pain at all.
And so I started building walls around my heart, wrapping it with layers and layers of statements like, “it’s best not to feel any emotions,” or “you have to protect yourself, because no one will protect you.”
But what I didn’t realize was that there was a whole slew of other lies I also began to believe – lies like, “You are a mistake.” “You were never meant to exist in the world.” “You are not important to anyone.” “You will always be alone.”
These lies followed me even when I moved back to the United States when I was 12, poisoning the few friendships I managed to form and forcing me into deeper and deeper isolation.
- Personally, I know of friends (also believers) who are struggling with depression and loneliness but due to various reasons and factors; they can’t be open about the matter or bring it to light. Why do you think this is the case and was it tough for you to come to terms with depression and loneliness?
There’s an unfortunate stigma against both of these in many Christian communities, and I think this is in large part because of our own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness whenever we encounter such strong feelings. We genuinely want to help, but have no idea what people with depression are going through or how to respond to them. As the body of Christ, we tend to go to a few extremes:
- We tell people that the Bible says to “rejoice always” and “count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds,” (James 1:2)
- We tell people that they have so much to be thankful for and therefore they shouldn’t feel that way,
- We tell people that they’re depressed because they don’t have enough faith.
- We tell people that they’re depressed because they haven’t been listening to God.
There are so many more of these that I’ve heard over the years. Most of these were friends or churchmates, so I know they had good intentions. But these statements generally left me feeling as though it wasn’t safe to express my sadness and anger in a church context. In our zeal to help, we’ve inadvertently created an environment in which only certain kinds of feelings are allowed…and people feel as though they have to hide their pain in order to be accepted.
My case was compounded by the fact that I already believed that it was better for me not to feel any of my pain, and that people would be afraid or burdened if I showed them how I really felt. Hearing all of these statements simply left me feeling even more hopelessness about my situation.
For this reason, I had to choose carefully the people I shared my struggles with…and these individuals were few and far between. I am very blessed, though; those few individuals through whom God showed me how much I was loved and protected remain my closest friends today.
- How did you manage to cope on a day-to-day basis, and overcome depression and loneliness? (You could share practical steps.)
By being in relationship with God and learning to love myself the way that He loves me. The root of depression is hopelessness, so if I find myself sinking into that place, I try and get reconnected to what the God of hope is saying to me. I allow Him to love on me even in my darkest times, and when I can’t do that, the friends He’s placed around me help Him to remind me how much I am loved. I choose my closest friends carefully and over a long period of time: for me to consider them a close friend, they have to consistently demonstrate that they value the whole of me (and not just the part of me that lives up to certain expectations) – because God values the whole of me.
Practically speaking, I structure my life so that I filter out distractions, choosing to focus on His heart for me above what all the other voices are telling me. For instance, I regularly journal all the things weighing on my heart and listen for what I hear God saying to me. If I encounter a negative situation, I tune into what God is saying about that circumstance (and He always leads with peace, so if I feel anxiety or dread, it’s a clue that I’ve stepped out of that connection with the good Shepherd).
I also make it a priority to do things and spend time with people who bring me joy. My taste in music has changed drastically: I no longer listen to the same angry, “screamo” punk rock that I used to listen to. I tend not to watch television dramas with the regular heartwrenching themes of betrayal, strife, and so on. I’ve become a lot more selective about the kind of books I read. It’s not about living under a rock and hiding myself away from all the troubles of the world: it’s that I choose to filter what comes in so that I manage my emotions, and my priorities and values are accurately reflected in how I live my life.
And actually, crying helps a lot. It’s interesting the way that God designed our bodies. There have been research studies documenting that crying releases stress hormones and toxins from our bodies, so if we keep all of those feelings bottled up, it actually prevents our bodies from letting go of certain things. So if I feel really down, I’ll listen to worship songs and just cry everything out, throwing everything I have at God.
During one of my worst seasons, I learned that God’s not afraid of our anger. He’s the safest person to be angry with, because He knows our hearts intimately and knows exactly what we feel and need. He never rejects us or gets upset with us when we tell Him about how we’re hurting. He never feels rejected or afraid, and doesn’t feel a need to quash our anger to maintain order in the household. Because I believed that people would abandon me if they saw how I really felt, that revelation brought a lot of restoration to my heart.
- Were there moments in your restoration journey when you felt like giving up and how did things turn around for you then?
Sure, plenty. I’ve attempted suicide multiple times during my worst seasons. Each time, God supernaturally protected me (long story I’ll tell another time). But at the time, I was miserable because I thought I couldn’t do anything right – not even kill myself properly.
However, through the journey, God showed me pictures of the hope and future He had for my life (Jeremiah 29:11), and told me that He would restore the years eaten by the locusts (Joel 2:25). Those promises were like the light at the end of the tunnel for me, and they kept me going. He told me, “there’s a path for you to walk, and it will seem terrifying at times. But you are completely safe with Me.” That word brought me a lot of comfort and assurance, because one of the things I’ve never felt is the protection and joy of a father over me.
- From a perspective of a believer, what can Christians do OR should refrain from doing in order to support others who are going through depression and/or loneliness?
Jesus is the standard, and He shows us the Father. He perfectly understands what we’re going through, and is present with us in the pain and grief (Hebrews 4:15). He isn’t afraid of our pain and our emotions, and He doesn’t feel discomfort whenever we show these extreme emotions.
In fact, he says to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), and in the Psalms He’s captured the entire range of human emotions possible, articulating every feeling from anguish and dread to elation and joy. In essence, God has given us language to vocalize and understand the deepest parts of our souls – and that’s often what people struggling with depression and loneliness need.
I think that’s where most Christians miss it when trying to support those going through depression and loneliness. In our anxiety and discomfort with these feelings and our desire to try to help our loved ones, we make up answers where God isn’t speaking. We misinterpret what they’re actually thinking and feeling, and we don’t really get to the core of things. That’s when all the trite religious sayings come out, and we inadvertently create an environment that leaves them feeling even more alone and misunderstood.
If your loved one is struggling with depression and loneliness, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t rush to fix them. Don’t tell them to have more faith. And definitely don’t tell them that the solution is to “rejoice always” or “count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.” Validate their feelings, however extreme or drastic they may seem to be.
Be present with them in the moment, staying connected to what the God of hope is saying and feeling about them. Sometimes that means feeling His delight and affection for them whenever they’re around, letting them know how precious they are to you. Sometimes that means simply embracing them and crying with them.
Other times it means listening to them pour out their hearts and being fully present with them as they’re processing those emotions. Seek to understand their hearts, and seek to love them well. (By the way, if you think you’re loving them well but they don’t feel loved by you, it may be an indication to re-evaluate what you’re doing.)
That depression is a mere symptom; the real problem lies deeper within. For me, it was an overwhelming sense of being unloved, unsupported, and alone. There were many lies I believed about myself because of the things I went through, and it took time and a lot of love to unearth those beliefs and replace them with the truth.
For others, it may be that they’ve just lost their jobs, and they’d tied their whole lives to their work and/or their performance. They’ll need time and a lot of support to regain their footing and develop a new, more secure sense of themselves that is not tied to something external.
Be patient with your loved one, and always endeavor to listen and understand what their hearts are actually saying. (The words that are coming out of their mouths are a good indication of what their hearts are feeling, but words can’t tell you the whole story.)
Find out what our loving heavenly Father thinks and feels about them. Catch His heart for them. It will change the way you relate to them. It will change you. And in time, it will change how they see themselves too.
- A word of encouragement for those struggling with depression and/or loneliness.
After writing so much about not handing out quick fixes, this is a bit difficult! Every person’s situation is different, because every person has been uniquely created and is uniquely loved by God. But this much I can say: we were designed for hope. If you feel despair or a bout of negativity coming on, seek to get reconnected to what our Father is saying about you. If you seek to hear His voice no matter what you may be facing in life, He will bring you on a journey to discover all of the affections and the plans He has for you.