How I Know Clinical Depression Isn't Sinful
- Tim Laitinen Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- Updated Apr 23, 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.
I’ve never been eager to go public with this because of all the second-guessing in which both hardened critics of such mental diagnoses and well-meaning sympathizers engage when hearing admissions like mine. People who believe that faith in Christ can solve anything see the whole question of depression as either one big fuzzy push to enable emotionally weak people, or a problem that stronger faith should fix.
Which creates an enormous stigma about depression. A stigma that the Warren family apparently sought to avoid by not being more public about Matthew’s condition before his passing. It’s a stigma that I have feared for years. And it’s a stigma that likely inhibits untold numbers of people reading this right now.
After all, chronic clinical depression is not fun. But neither is it immoral. It’s not a crime. It’s a mental condition that doctors are recognizing has a distinct biological component. Have you ever heard of serotonin? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in our brains, and scientific studies indicate that imbalances of serotonin may play a key factor in clinical depression. I tend to believe it, since the medications I’ve been taking for years seem to have helped me adjust to the anxiety that used to be a dominant presence in my life. Anxiety that existed not just when something really awful would happen, but anxiety that rode with me as I drove, or watched TV with me, or sat in church next to me.
Maybe it sounds like a cop-out for me to say, “if you’ve never experienced it, you don’t know what it’s like.” But frankly, if you haven’t, you don’t. Even if you’re a self-professing, evangelical Christ-follower. Like me.
So why am I telling you this now? I’ve been writing for Crosswalk for four years, and while I’ve hinted at this topic, I’ve never really given any of my readers obvious proof that I suffer from clinical depression. I’ll admit that I’m taking the opportunity provided by Matthew Warren’s story to broaden our dialog on this topic. But I’d also like to demonstrate that if people have been reading my articles for years, without suspecting that I’m clinically depressed, then perhaps you can see how evangelicals like me can exist in our Christian culture and work really, really hard to hide our big secret.
Frankly, hiding my depression has been exhausting. Yet I still take no pleasure in revealing my secret to you. Nor am I staging a poignant confession to garner your sympathy.
So, why “come out of the closet”?
As I’ve been going through this season of clinical depression, God has been showing me that my life isn’t about me. Just as your life isn’t about you, either! I’m not telling you all of this to make myself feel better, because remember, I’d prefer keeping this a secret. Nevertheless, I don't believe keeping this a secret any longer honors God. He’s allowed me to have chronic clinical depression, and the "chronic" part means I've had it a long time, and maybe for a lot longer. This is part of the life God has given me. So why should I be so ashamed to have it?
Not that I’m engaging in religious fatalism. I’m simply putting the apostle Paul’s words into practice:
”I will not boast, except of my weaknesses… To keep me from becoming conceited, a thorn was given me in the flesh, to harass me… I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” - from 2 Corinthians 12:5-10
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
Publication date: April 15, 2014