Although I’m only 30, I’ve spent more than six years in depression over the course of three separate episodes.
My first experience with depression
My first episode was triggered by a difficult transition to college and lasted for a year and a half. I had terrible anxiety about being away from home and family, as well as difficulty making friends. My high school friends and sisters wanted to branch off and be around new people and new situations, and I found myself alone. I thought that my low moods would go away once the stressful transition was over or once I made new friends. After the first semester of college when I had settled into a routine, however, I was still terribly unhappy.
For me, depression was the inability to feel positive emotions. The only thing I felt was apathy or sadness. I didn’t care about the people or things that I used to love. Although I intellectually knew that I loved my family and friends, I couldn’t feel it emotionally. I cried every day, often for no particular reason. I had no energy and would nap often and sleep up to 12 hours a day.
I was also completely apathetic to everything that I used to enjoy. Talking to people was a chore. Hobbies held no interest for me. I didn’t want to go out or even watch TV. Simple tasks felt like they took enormous energy. Even brushing my teeth felt exhausting.
During this time, I also lost my faith. I wondered how God could let anyone feel this way. If God was all love and happiness, and if I couldn’t feel love or happiness, did that mean that God had abandoned me? I figured it must be so. I thought that He must have made me suffer, or at least had made a mistake in creating me so flawed.
What helped me pull out of depression
A few things helped to get me out of depression. That summer, my mom made me see our family doctor. He prescribed antidepressants with the caveat that I had to see a therapist. I was mortified by both taking medication and by seeing a “shrink.” I thought both were proof of failure and of having a weak mind and weak will.
In retrospect, going to counseling was the best thing that I could have done. The therapist helped me with coping strategies. She taught me to recognize negative thought patterns and to replace them with positive ones. For example, I blamed myself for feeling depressed, and I would beat myself up for every mistake. I was not so critical of other people, just myself. She helped me rebuild my self-esteem and develop a more balanced, forgiving view of myself and my illness.
She also taught about depression in general — that it had strong genetic components and that difficult life circumstances can trigger chemical changes in the brain. She also reassured me that it was normal to take time to heal. Getting better overnight was unrealistic. Instead, I learned how to make small improvements and acknowledge my hard work and progress.
I also started going to group meetings run by Recovery International that taught cognitive behavioral therapy techniques similar to the ones that my therapist challenged me to use. We used tools to recognize and change our negative thoughts and behaviors. Slogans like “comfort is a want and not a need” and “do things in parts” helped me to push forward when I just wanted to stay in bed.
In tune with my therapist, this method also emphasized acknowledging your successes and effort. It also was reassuring that other people in the group had similar thoughts and feelings. I had felt very isolated and stigmatized, but hearing these people’s stories of success gave me hope.
Finding friends at college and something that I enjoyed was also important. I was dragged by my sister and her friend to a ballroom dancing class and fell instantly in love with the activity. The upbeat music, the exercise, and the social component were just what I needed.
It took a year and a half to subside, but slowly, I started to feel like my old self again.
My second experience with depression
My second episode of depression happened while in grad school to earn a master’s degree in education. For two years, participants teach full-time in underprivileged Catholic schools around the country while also being full-time grad students.
The teachers in the program live together in community, but I often felt awkward and out of place with my housemates, who were very different from me. The workload and the problems at school were often overwhelming. Being more than a thousand miles away from my family and friends added to my stress. Over the course of a few months, my initial excitement wore off, and I sank deeper and deeper into apathy and sadness.
During this second episode, though, I knew what to do to take care of myself. I found a therapist in my new hometown, talked to my doctor about adjusting medication, and found something I loved to do — dance. I wasn’t thriving — the stress of the situation kept me in a state of depression for two full years — but I survived and functioned. I had also learned from the past: I didn’t beat myself up over a situation or feelings I couldn’t control.
Ironically, it was also my depression that brought me back to God. In the graduate program, we often had retreats to recharge spiritually from our demanding schedules. I talked to one of the priests on a retreat about my loss of faith. I told him that I felt unloved by God because of my depression.
I will never forget his words. He told me that God made me this way because he loved me this way. I wasn’t made incorrectly or abandoned because of my flaws. I didn’t need to be perfect or feel good to be loved. God meets us where we are. If Jesus descended into hell before rising, He could descend into my own personal hell before pulling me up with Him in resurrection.
God made us for joy, not suffering. Our own brokenness and this broken world bring suffering; it is not inflicted on us by God. But Jesus was willing to join us in our suffering, to be broken for us, so that we might be whole again. All things can bring us closer to God. God can take even the worst situations and transform them.
How my recovery made me stronger
I realized that I had grown a lot because of my depression. Counseling and dance had been gifts from God — even though I had not been on speaking terms with God at the time. God used human means to teach me: I had learned to love myself, to appreciate happiness, to acknowledge my successes, to work hard. I had become resilient and strong. This priest encouraged me to let God love me just as I was, not to try to earn God’s love through perfection.
I have had one additional episode of depression since grad school, but with the certainty that I am loved and that I have survived before, I was able to come through to the other side once again. Going through depression with my faith was a lot easier than trying to make it without God.
I know that there is something in my makeup that makes me prone to depression. I may well experience another episode, but I know that God loves me as I am and will walk with me through the darkest days.