The Black Dog and Other Thoughts on Depression
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Several years ago I did a podcast episode on depression with Marianne Brown. While I have had other shows that have garnered more listeners, no other show generated more personal response.
It gave me a sign that more conversation around this topic is needed, and it is the focus of a book I am releasing this fall. That said, it took me several years before I felt I could write about this topic from a healthy perspective. This first section of this post is a short snippet from my upcoming book, Walking With a Limp.
If you have never watched the World Health Organization’s video on The Black Dog of depression, you need to. On February 22nd, 2016, I met that black dog.
It was a Monday morning (not typically the greatest day for pastors), and I wrote these words in my journal: “This morning it felt impossible to even get out of bed. The weight of fear and discouragement is so heavy.” During that time, I was about a year into a church plant on the east side of Toronto in east Scarborough. Like most church plants, we had our share of struggles, and as I reviewed my journal entries leading up to that day, I remembered the extra battles that brought additional stress, much of which I was unprepared to manage.
I remember getting out of bed and sitting down with my wife that morning to have breakfast before she headed out the door to teach her seven-thirty class. Sitting at the table that morning, it felt as if something snapped inside of me. Tears involuntarily streamed down my face, and I wasn’t sure why.
Assuming it was the normal pressure of being a leader, I did my best to cope. I put my head down and tried to get back to business as usual. But the experience had me rattled. What was happening? This wasn’t how I responded to pressure in the past.
Little did I know that over the next three years I would spend more time with my new “friend,” the black dog, than I could have ever imagined. What I thought was a passing morning of discouragement turned into endless days of unbelievable despair. I began having the occasional thought, What would happen if I was no longer around? Gradually, these thoughts turned into the norm. For weeks on end, thoughts of suicide were virtually constant.
But I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as if all of life was bad. Yes, I definitely had hard days planting a church in a neighborhood that was hostile—or, worse, apathetic—to the message of Christ. But everyone has hard times, right? Through it all, I also experienced numerous high points, moments when I saw lives transformed and new people come to faith in Christ.
As time went by, I saw little correlation between what was happening in my life and when the black dog chose to show up. I would be having a great day, enjoying time with Janan and excited about the future, and suddenly I could feel him coming up next to me. I would become flooded with internal dread, knowing he would probably stay for several days.
Entering into church planting, I anticipated many battles, but depression was not one of them. In Johann Hari’s bestselling book Lost Connections, he highlights nine reasons we fall into depression, including disconnection from meaningful work and other people, lack of meaningful values, childhood trauma, lack of status and respect, distance from the natural world, and lack of a hopeful or secure future. He then includes a conversation about genetics and brain changes as the final two.
In reflection, I realize how many of those causes converged on me all at once, creating a potent force that knocked me off my feet. Bottom line: I felt trapped, walled in on every side with nowhere to turn. Who would understand? What was God doing? Why me? Why this? And certainly, why now?
What Is Depression?
Depression is a tricky subject to handle. It’s difficult because despite efforts made to destigmatize it, there are still many who view depression as a problem solvable by “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” I used to feel this way, and sadly, the only way my mind was changed was through the journey of personal experience.
As many who have experienced depression can agree, this “bootstraps” approach seldom works. It usually makes life worse. Also, the word depressed is often flippantly used in conversation so that the true meaning is confused. “I’m feeling depressed today” for some means nothing more than they are having a bad day.
The Mayo Clinic notes that, “Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” The key work in that sentence is persistent. It doesn’t leave. It is different from the loss of a loved one (although this can lead to depression) or a day of discouragement. It keeps coming back in unexpected times and ways.
Why Talk About Depression?
So why write about depression? Simple answer: Because there are too many silent sufferers.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 7.1% of US adults have had at least one major depressive episode. This number sounds about right to me. There have been many arguments for why this number is so high, but I will leave that conversation for another day. Bottom line, it’s a problem.
Depression is a major cause of suicide and that has only accelerated during this Covid-19 season. In recent years, we’ve see celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, or Christian pastors like Jarrid Wilson, commit suicide. Our initial thought is, “What in the world?!” They were successful. They had it all. Yes, but they also struggled with depression.
I write this with the realization that there are likely a number of people reading this post who have contemplated taking their own life because of this struggle. Last week on my podcast, I interviewed my friend Gord Martin, whose son took his own life after a lengthy mental health battle. These stories are real, and they are all too common.
More needs to be said. More needs to be done. And while I cannot provide concrete answers, I can shine some tiny rays of hope.
How Do You Cope with Depression?
For some I have talked to, there is a sort of breaking out period where the depression or anxiety seems to go away. Sometimes it comes back, other times it might not.
Because there are some strong genetical components that factor into someone being depressed, if someone has a predisposition towards depression it is pretty twisted to encourage them to just break free.
As a Christian, I do believe in the power of prayer and have personally witnessed numerous answers to prayer that are extraordinary. I read stories in Scripture or interview guests on my podcasts where God has healed or restored in supernatural ways. Praying for healing is biblical.
But I also recognize the “thorn in the flesh” Paul talks about and that there are some hardships God allows in our lives to develop our character and bring us to greater dependence on him.
Instead of viewing depression as something we can break free from, perhaps it is better to ask how we can manage the depression so that it does not take us captive. For some, this might involve medication, others counseling, some a restriction of their personal activities, and others all three and more.
Tips That Worked For Me
For some, counseling was revolutionary. That wasn’t the case for me. For others, it was medication. Under a doctor’s direction, I took a daily dose of a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) for two years. Again, it was helpful in some ways, destructive in others. It made me less anxious and allowed me to cope better with frustrating situations, but it also made me more sluggish and I found I had to work out harder to keep off weight.
Hari’s book Lost Connections helped me connect some personal dots. I began focusing on ensuring those nine areas were in good shape. This starts each day with personal exercise. Sometimes I jog, other times I jump on my Max Trainer. Currently, I don’t take any medication. For me, intentional daily exercise has replaced this need (although I recognize this is not the case with many).
I have also taken a greater look at my activities. Am I engaged in meaningful work and relationships that bring life? This is big.
This is more descriptive than prescriptive. What works for me might not work for you. But the big thing is recognizing when there is a problem and taking steps to make a change.
Why Should You Do Something?
It wasn’t until several years into my depression journey that I got serious and did something about it. I attribute this to my own personal stubbornness and to a culture that emphasizes fighting through pain.
I only started to take it seriously when I saw the effect it was having on my marriage and my family. That was what made me visit the doctor, who confirmed I was depressed, and begin the process of anti-depressants. If you know anything about antidepressants, some of the side effects include drowsiness and weight gain – both are frustrating. But taking them helped me manage anxiety and specifically those points when I would grow frustrated over the dumbest things. The ringing of a phone or the scream of a baby would just set me off. I knew that wasn’t normal, and the meds helped.
Same thing with a counselor. I did not want to go to someone every week and pay them to listen to me talk. No thanks. But once again, I realized my depression was more than just about me. It included the lives of those around me as well.
This is an important point to make. Living with someone who struggles with depression is difficult. It is a thankless job. It gets old fast. If you are someone who has struggled with depression for years, you need to be willing to consult a doctor and talk to a counselor not only for your sake but for the lives of those around you. Love them enough to change. Perhaps visiting a doctor or counseling sounds terrible to you. I get it. But don’t do it for you. Do it for those you love who care about you.
You are not alone. Literally millions of people are engaged in a similar struggle. It just takes some courage to step out and get help.
How Do You Help Someone Else?
Helping someone through depression is tricky, but not that complicated. Here are some quick no-nos. Watch your language. Just the word mental health carries such a stigma attached to it. Don’t be patronizing. Don’t belittle depression by comparing it to a bad day you went through.
Here are some dos.
1. Listen and Care
You don’t have to have depression to sympathize with someone that does. Listening goes a long way. This is something my friend Troy was so good at doing. During some of my rough days I would give him a call and he would just listen.
It’s too easy to jump into fix-it mode. When we jump to fix-it solutions without taking the time to listen, we communicate to that person a lower sense of value. We say to them, “I know you have problems but I do not have the time or desire to help.”
Also, instead of trying to always control the narrative of conversations by maintaining some form of chatter, take a few moments to linger or listen. That’s where you discover the heart of people. If you always cut off conversations with an abrupt, “Well, I’d better get going,” it’s tough to love out of a place of empathy that time requires.
2. Read Scripture and Pray
It’s funny to me that something so simple is often so overlooked. Some of my most meaningful times have been when Janan and I sit, read, and pray over the Scriptures we have read.
Why do we not do this? Last summer Janan and I visited someone who was going through a tough time. Just a few days ago, they emailed me saying how much it meant that we sat and read Scripture with them. They said that out of all the people who had come to visit, we were the only ones to do that. I say that not to highlight ourselves, but to point out that this practice is rarely done! It’s powerful. We need to do more of it.
3. Treat Them as Normal – Because They Are
Depression is a big deal, and it isn’t. Everyone has their struggles. One of the common frustrations I hear from those I talk to with depression is when well-meaning people treat them with kid gloves. This is degrading.
Instead, learn to treat conversations in isolation. Understand that you can have a conversation with someone who is going through a season of severe depression, but they still want you to invite them over to work on a project. If you are a pastor, just because someone shares with you some deep emotional struggles such as anxiety or depression, this does not mean they are incapable of leading a ministry. In fact, this might make them more capable.
4. Bear Their Burdens
Galatians 6:2 famously states, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” One of the toughest burdens you can bear is the weight of someone else’s emotional turmoil and pain. This is what made Christ’s death on the cross so extraordinary. It wasn’t just the physical, but the spiritual weight he carried that was crushing.
A couple thoughts on this. What if you reached out to a friend of yours struggling with depression or anxiety and offered them an invitation. The next time they were going through a dark night of the soul, they could reach out to you and you would stay awake for an hour and pray, interceding on their behalf. In Paul’s language, you bore their burden.
My friend David does this for me. I’ll text him on some hard days, and he often responds back that he has paused what he is doing to pray. That means a lot.
A Final Thought For the Depressed
I close with a thought from C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, a fictional conversation between two demons. The elder mentor demon is addressing the younger demon Wormwood and makes this statement:
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
I remember one night in particular where I sensed the attack of Satan so strongly it was almost unbearable. My thoughts turned dark: Just kill yourself. No one will care. No one ever did.
In that moment, I decided to make a conscious decision that shifted my mindset. I committed to turn these hours of suffering into periods of worship. If Satan was going to keep me awake, he was going to have to listen to me worship. Meditations on the Psalms became my bedtime snack, listening to audio Bible apps became a lifeline of support, and lying on the floor reciting the promises of God turned into one of the highest forms of praise I could offer.
For you who struggle with depression, keep hoping, keep fighting. It is in your darkest nights that you have the opportunity to offer your highest praise.
Oh, and send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to help anyway I can.