I have published an ebook on Kindle. It is available for free through July 27. Since I am self-publishing, I can show you an excerpt without asking the publisher for permission. I am the publisher, and I give myself permission. The book is called Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. You can use the link to go straight to the page on Amazon to download it.
There are a lot of misconceptions about depression that prevent people who suffer from getting the help they need. In my own experience, religion sometimes brought healing and comfort when nothing else would, and sometimes it made my depression worse in ways nothing else could. And so I say I am in recovery from two things: depression and bad faith.
The first misconception is thinking depression is only an emotional state. Typically, people say they’re depressed when they are very sad. So depression in this sense is extreme sadness. Anyone can feel depressed after the death of a family member or friend, loss of a job, divorce or breakup, or some tragic event in their lives. This is situational depression.
But depression in the sense I’m talking about is not that kind of sadness. It is a medical condition. It is not something that happens because of life. It is an ongoing condition of the brain. This is clinical depression.
The Depressed Brain
Did you know that your brain processes more than 100,000 chemical reactions every second? Obviously, that is too much to describe in detail here. For most purposes, you just need to know that an important part of this activity involves the production of chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. I will refer to them generally as “happy chemicals.” You have happy chemicals and stress chemicals. The brain processes them, but most of them are actually produced in the gut. This is why people with depression or anxiety often have gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses as well. Regardless of where they come from, when your brain does not get normal levels of happy chemicals, the stress chemicals affect your mood. You live in a constant, underlying, and invisible state of depression–even when there is no reason for you to be sad. This kind of depression is a medical condition, not an emotional state where you can just “cheer up” or pray your way out of it.
I did not know any of this until I was professionally tested. The psychiatrist summed up the results like this: “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”
It was one of those moments when I knew my life would never be the same. How I viewed myself, life, the world, God, and everything changed forever with that one sentence. I only felt mildly depressed, and I still tested high in every possible way? I never thought it could be that bad. Yet, as the psychiatrist explained it, I saw how it was not only possible but explained a lot about my whole life.
Clinical depression is not about how you feel at any given moment. It means you need help in creating a healthy level of happy chemicals. Without that help, I walked around numb, moody, temperamental, irritable, and looking angry even when I was not. I isolated myself and either dreaded or loathed social interaction. I thought all kinds of bad thoughts about myself, friends, enemies, family, strangers, the world, God, and life itself. I suffered from anxieties for no good reason. I thought no one understood me, so there was no point in talking to anyone.
Of course, I did not feel that way 24/7. It would have been easier to recognize if I did. I had ups and downs just like everyone, or so I thought. My emotional/mood spectrum felt normal to me because it was the only thing I had ever known. This is what it’s like to live with clinical depression and not know it.
If any of this sounds familiar, especially if you can’t identify any good reason for your sadness, irritability, apathy, or hopelessness, you may be one of the millions of people living with undiagnosed depression of some kind. How do you know for sure? Since it is a medical condition, it needs to be diagnosed by a medical or psychiatric professional (See Appendix B). But if people close to you think you are depressed, even when you don’t, you should seriously consider getting tested. I only got tested because my mother and sister urged me. If they hadn’t, I would still be undiagnosed, still moody and depressed, and still thinking it was normal.
Clinical depression is not about feeling sad or anxious. It’s about living with a brain that does not get enough happy chemicals. It is very important you understand this, because when religion gets mixed up in depression without understanding what it really is, it creates more problems than it solves. An article on Beliefnet said it well: “As we consider the causes of depression, those of us in the church must face the ways we might be responsible for creating it.”
I’ve experienced some of those ways that church/religion/faith–whatever you want to call spiritual life and practice–can be responsible for creating it or making it a lot worse. I thank God from the depths of my soul that He led me out of that and into a church, faith, and spiritual practice that helps my recovery and healing, rather than beats me down for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means. Because the only thing worse than living for ten years (in my case) in a faith or religion that will only acknowledge “spiritual” causes of depression is living in that kind of faith for ten years…and one day.
A New Mission
What I say next, I don’t say lightly. I’m not the type of person who goes around saying, “God told me this. God told me that. God has called me to do this.” So many times I have heard people say things like that and thought, I bet if I could hear God as well as you claim to, right now I’d hear God saying, “Leave Me out of this!”
It’s not that I believe God does not talk to people. I believe God talks to us all the time, but hearing God is tricky. I’ve learned from hard experience that I don’t hear nearly as well as I would like to. Probably because it’s being filtered through a clinically depressed brain.
With that disclaimer, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I believe God is calling me to help others who are in the same position I was. People who know they are depressed and are trying to be happy. People who don’t know it but have a sense that something is wrong with them. People who think it’s normal because they have lived with depression all their lives. And especially, depressed people who have been hurt by religion. I believe I am in a position to help point you to what is helpful–and away from most of what is hurtful. I don’t think I will ever say I am healed of depression. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call themselves recovering alcoholics, not recovered.
Just recently, I have been able to look at my life today and realize I have come a long way on this road of recovery, though I have by no means come to the end. This journey has been a quest for happiness, purpose, and meaning in spite of a brain that is tilted toward depression, and God has been with me through it all. There are some lessons I have had to learn the hard way. I hope to spare you some of that drama. The greatest happiness, purpose, and meaning comes from helping others, so I pray this will in some way help you.
Grace and Peace to you.
P. S. The book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain is available for $0.99 on Kindle for a limited time.
 “How Many Chemical Reactions Occur in the Brain Every Second,” Answers.com, http://www.answers.com/Q/How_many_chemical_reactions_occur_in_the_human_brain_every_second
 “Christians: Take Depression Seriously,” Beliefnet, July 26, 2016, https://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/christians-take-depression-seriously.aspx