How I Know Clinical Depression Isn't Sinful
- Tuesday, April 15, 2014
A year ago on April 5, the son of a famous California pastor committed suicide.
His death shocked our evangelical community, not simply because Matthew was the son of Rick Warren, the popular author and confidante of presidents. Rick and his wife, Kay, revealed to the world that their son had actually been suffering from depression for most of his life.
How does the son of a guy who writes religious self-help books like Purpose Driven Life suffer from depression? And suffer to the point that he kills himself in despair?
As the first anniversary of their son’s tragic death approached, Kay Warren publicly commented that she’s been amazed at the number of people who figure the Warren family has spent enough time mourning, and needs to get back to normal. What these well-meaning folks don’t realize, Kay says, is that the Warren family already has a new “normal.” And their new normal is life after the death of a loved one with depression.
For many Christians, this still makes little sense. Some of us try to ignore what we don’t understand, like depression, and bristle at anything that makes us uncomfortable. For many of us, however, I suspect that we don’t have a true picture of depression, and what “having depression” really means.
According to the Warrens, their son suffered from a severe form of depression most of his life. It’s called chronic clinical depression, and unlike the blue funk you might fall into every now and again, chronic clinical depression can consume your life. It can involve deep, dark mood swings, debilitating stretches of extraordinary anxiety, feelings of mental paralysis, and panic attacks that aren’t mere reflexes to bad news, but are triggered by the most mundane thoughts. These can persist to varying degrees for years.
Some patients who’ve been diagnosed with chronic clinical depression can handle its symptoms better than others, but as Matthew’s case proves, you can have a loving family, a famous preacher for a father with evangelicalism’s best resources at his fingertips, and access to the world’s best healthcare, yet still succumb to its ultimate treachery: suicide.
The pain can be that real, and deep, and seemingly unavoidable.
How do I know? Well, as difficult as it is for me to publicly admit, I have been struggling with chronic clinical depression for at least 21 years. I’ve probably had it even longer than that, but a particularly severe bout with horrific anxiety ultimately forced me to seek help, back when I was living in New York City.
Yes, I know – you sat back just then and diagnosed my problem, didn’t you? “New York City? Well, of course – anybody who lives there has to be a little bit crazy!”
Except the Big Apple wasn’t my problem. It’s simply the location where the Lord got my attention with the reality that something had destabilized my brain, and I couldn’t simply pray my way out of it. To a lot of evangelicals, that sounds an awful lot like heresy. Yet how many of us can pray our way out of cancer, or a broken arm? Chronic clinical depression isn’t a fancy, newfangled term for plain old sin, as some Christians assume it to be. Increasingly, science is pointing to medical factors related to chronic clinical depression and how the brain processes emotions.
Or doesn’t, as the case may be.
In my case, two highly regarded evangelical psychiatrists have separately confirmed the diagnosis, and I'm on two prescription medications for it. I’ve had at least five or six other therapists over the years, but frankly, I've lost count. It's been at least a decade since my last visit to one. So for evangelicals who suspect that people with clinical depression simply want somebody to pat their hand and indulge their problems, I seem to have done just as well after years of therapy as I was when my last therapist suggested he’d done all for me that he knew to do.
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