Content Warning: Topics of Depression, suicide, mental health, and 1 curse word. Only one. Promise.
“Depression is such a bitch,” a friend said on a sunny Monday over coffee while making figure eights with her finger on the table. The statement seemed in stark contrast to the hum of the campus Starbucks; sorority sisters laughing over their lattes accompanied by Michael Bublé Muzak in the background. I looked at her with a sad expression before I said the dumbest two words in the English language, “At least…”
Mostly, I was coming from a mixture of confusion and disbelief. She was vivacious and spunky. She was well-liked and seemed to be successfully forging her way through seminary with a GPA I envied. I didn’t understand how she could possibly be depressed.
It wouldn’t be until nearly decade later that I would fully understand her statement. Her words were true.
Depression, like death, doesn’t seem to care who you are. You could be a newlywed, a beaming parent, someone with an impeccably curated Instagram feed, a successful human making your way in the world. It doesn’t care. Depression is an indiscriminate jerk.
Add to that a system of faith that is supposed to remind you of “light in the darkness” and “rough places made plain,” and “resurrection,” but at times feels like an oppressive PR campaign for happy, shiny people. Pray enough and miracles happen. If they don’t happen, you clearly are not praying enough. Or you’re sinning. It’s probably the latter.
Being a Christian human who struggles with depression is exhausting. Being a pastor who struggles with depression is exhausting.
I have been an anxious person my entire life. I am 99% sure that I inherited it from my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, a collection of incredibly tough yet incredibly anxious Texas farm women.
It’s not just that I am an expert worrier by nature (believe me, I am), but there has always been a sense of fatalism connected to my worry. This is only made worse by the well-intentioned edicts of Christendom that somehow, through purely spiritual rigor, I can overcome my psychological problems. This is a test of character. This is a trial of your faith. Fight the good fight.
I have tried many things as it relates to my mental health: I’ve rebuked Satan, burned sage, prayed with the earnestness of a thousand Joan of Arcs, anointed spaces (and myself) with oil, read scripture, and read devotional books with aesthetically-pleasing covers aimed at cultivating a sense of fulfillment in the female species. Ultimately, I found ways to cope and always was able to get my anxiety under control and use it to propel myself forward.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized I had an actual problem. It started with a long-undiagnosed chemical imbalance, then a move back home, then a new job, then an all-out nervous breakdown. All my previous coping mechanisms for harnessing my anxiety into productivity were failing and for the first time, I wondered to myself if life just wasn’t a series of terrifying, depressing events one right after the other.
I lost interest in almost everything I once loved and was basically propping myself up with an alarming amount of coffee every day, which triggered severe panic attacks and effectively relocated my heartbeat to my eyeballs. I wasn’t coping, and I knew it, but I had no idea what to do. I was at the bottom of a pit, and I felt so ashamed of being there that the pit seemed to grow deeper.
Everyone’s attempts at retrieving me out of said pit felt a little bit like they were shouting motivational posters at me. “God helps those who help themselves! Smile!” “Just be happy!” “People like happy people!” “If you think it, you’ll believe it!” “Pray harder!” “With Christ, all things are possible!” It wasn’t until a small group of very good friends and family said, “Kristen, have you thought about seeing a doctor?”
Medication and good, cognitive behavioral therapy has saved my brain. My frequent migraines began to return to a normal spacing and life started to look sunnier again. Medicine and therapy with a licensed counselor got me back to the point where I was able to pray, meditate, and exercise, all three of which no doubt have helped tremendously.
That said, this isn’t over. I know this is something I will struggle with my entire life, because those strong, Harper farm women struggled with it their entire lives. There is no magical cure. This isn’t something you quash once and it’s done for good.
Your brain is the most vital organ you have (I mean, sure, heart and lungs are also good), yet it so often gets the back burner when it comes to health concerns. The brain is the seat of our emotions. It is how we view the world. It is how we as Christians process our faith. When your brain is sick, when the chemicals that make it function optimally are out of whack, everything is out of whack. Nothing, not even God, looks right. It’s important to have people who can remind you in the least condescending way possible that it’s literally in your head when you are in the unforgiving pit. Better yet, make friends with people who have ladders.
Friends, if you or someone you know is suffering, please seek medical help. You may not need medication; some people do well on just therapy. Whatever the case, reach out. Your primary care doctor is a great place to start, and can often manage medications and refer you to good counseling.
I felt particularly pulled to write about this after hearing of the death of Libby Davis back in July, a Christian, a wife, a mom, and a teacher in North Texas who, after a long battle with depression and postpartum depression, went missing after she drove her car off a local turnpike, fled on foot, and was found dead 24 hours later. I didn’t know her personally, but she, by all accounts and photos, was a beautiful human and was deeply loved. She even wrote about her depression once. Her struggle is a loud reminder of how insidious and obnoxiously aggressive mental illness can be, even for people of faith.
If you need help, don’t be afraid to get it. You are not a bad person. You are not weak. You are not irredeemable. You are not a terrible Christian. You’re not faithless. Reach out. Trust me, it makes all the difference.
US Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
PSI Postpartum Support International: 1.800.944.4773
Kristen Hanna serves as an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A born and bred Texan, Kristen grew up in the Dallas area and received her Bachelor of Music from the Meadows School of the Arts and Master of Sacred Music from the Perkins School of Theology, both of Southern Methodist University. During her graduate work, Kristen served at various local churches in the Dallas area. Kristen grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and was confirmed in the United Methodist Church in 2009. When not planning worship or pondering theological conundrums, Kristen enjoys reading a wide variety of literature, knitting and sewing, solving the world’s problems over coffee with friends, and experiencing the beauty of North Carolina while walking her corgi, Rory.