Faith, depression and stigma

Faith is like depression – it is very hard to understand or appreciate until you have experienced it for yourself.

Since having depression and counselling for it I have learned some very important lessons from Christianity that are a big help whether you believe in God or not:

1)   Accept what you can’t change, and, if you can change something, do it. Don’t dwell on it; don’t have imaginary arguments about it. This has been a tough lesson for me, and has taken months and years to get to grips with, but it is crucial. The Serenity Prayer puts this perfectly:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

2)   I am an expert worrier, so this verse (Matthew 6:27) calls out at me loud and clear. Worrying is normal, but excessive worrying hurts you – and achieves nothing.

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

3)   Forgiveness – the Bible says a lot about forgiveness. The overall message for me is not to hold grudges. Forgive people and let go. Move on. I stayed angry for years at the kids who picked on me at school, but they didn’t know I was angry with them so what good was it doing me?

4)   If you’re someone who’s used to achieving and ‘going the extra mile’, give yourself a break from the stress and remember you don’t have to do it all at once – see Ecclesiastes 3:1.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens

I have talked often and honestly about the reality of depression and how it is a very personal thing – different for each person who experiences it. Faith is the same. Just as people with mental health problems can be vilified and demonized, there is a special hatred and mistrust set aside in the public psyche for those who dare to believe in God.

And, as depression gets muddled up with feeling depressed – bad moods that you can snap out of – faith gets confused with religion. Faith is what you believe. Religion is a way of formalising what groups of people believe in. So actually, you can’t blame my faith for war, for intolerance, for individual cases of abuse or for brainwashing children, or any of the other things that I hear. I believe in forgiveness, love, humility and hope, not in judgement. If someone else with faith, or a group of people from a religion, does or thinks something disgusting or appalling, why come to the conclusion that everyone does or thinks that? I know my faith doesn’t make sense to everyone but to make sweeping generalisations about millions of people – that’s OK, is it?

Just as there is a stigma to depression, because there is so much cynicism and misunderstanding about it, I am wary of being open about my faith, because even people close to me pour scorn on what I believe. It’s fine to mock a Christian as much as you like, as openly as you like, as often as you like, and to stereotype and generalise who a Christian is, what he or she does, how he or she behaves and what he or she believes in. But talk about faith for a second and you are ‘ramming it down someone’s throat’.

I don’t want to provoke a discussion about faith, religion, atheism or whatever on this blog. I got into a Facebook spat about those subjects the weekend I plunged into my second bout of depression two years ago. It did me no good. I have not talked publicly about it since, apart from with supportive people who share my faith.

Just as I came out about my depression on this blog, I am now opening up about my faith. If you disagree with me, I am fine with that. We will not change each other’s minds so let’s not use this forum to try. If you get what I’m talking about, that’s great too.

As for how I came to faith, that is another story for another time. But there is another analogy to depression – I was a cynic until I had it myself, and it changed my life.

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Light at the end of the tunnel

So, you’ve opened this blog post and found a rather poor photograph and half a page of solid, black nothingness. There is a point to this, and it’s about finding the light at the end of a long, black tunnel. Allow me to explain.

I was in my home city of York, stuck in traffic and feeling sorry for myself. I’d just had the latest of three disappointments in as many weeks and was wondering if I could pick myself up enough to be a cheery presence at the leaving do I was on my way to.

Pondering these rather gloomy, negative thoughts and staring straight ahead at the back of a car I’d been looking at for nearly half an hour, I suddenly realised I was beneath an arch – Micklegate Bar – and there was literally light at the end of the tunnel. The unexciting image you can see above is that light.

I scrambled for my phone in an attempt to take a photo before the traffic began to move. I must have lurched as I took the photo, and found I’d taken a blurred, wonky photo of a ‘keep left’ sign. I tried again, and the traffic lights obligingly stayed red, as you can see from the resulting image.

The view you’ve just been looking at inspired me. I know it doesn’t look very inspiring, but to me it was a revelation and it changed my mood completely.

It became symbolic of my past year. Last October, I crashed into a second major bout of depression, triggered by my reaction to what I saw at the time as a personal rejection. I could have taken these latest three disappointments in that same way, but instead I vowed to learn from them and keep going, because nothing will happen if I do nothing.

Yes, I’d been sad, disappointed – gutted even – but I was able to accept (probably thanks to the counselling I’ve had, the books that I’ve read and the wise words I’ve listened to) that it is perfectly normal, even for the most upbeat of people, to be disappointed sometimes, and not necessarily a sign of an impending re-run of my depression.

This acceptance and determination is something I simply could not do and did not have twelve months ago. It was a sign of real progress, and a reminder of how far I’ve come.

It showed me that however long and dark the tunnel may be, it’s worth keeping the faith that you will one day see the light at the end of it. A moment after I took the photo, the lights changed, I moved forward and turned a corner. More signs of progress yet to come?