A version of this was first posted as a Facebook note in 2009. Nothing in this post should be construed as medical or medicinal advice.
The term “black dog” was used by Winston Churchill to describe depression and, though it predates the British prime minister, is the sum total of familiarity most seem have with it. Regardless of who coined it, “black dog” is as apt a descriptor of the frustrating experience of depression as there is. Ask anyone who deals with it regularly.
At this point in my life I cannot even remember when I started dealing with depressive episodes. (I do not use the phrase “suffering from depression”; it just does not seem to fit me.) I’m pretty certain that it has not always been a part of my life, though it may have been unrecognized earlier on. For the last few years, however, there are three or four times each year that it hits.
It is funny when you start talking about being depressed and experience the reactions of those around. The responses can range from the spiritual (“Pray more.”), to the physical (“Are you getting outside enough?”) to the ludicrous (“Just pull out of it.”)
One can no more “just pull out of” a depressive episode than they can “just pull” the moon out of its orbit.
This note is the result of my own observations and experiences over the last couple of years.
2. Anything or nothing can trigger it. It can be turmoil on the job. Or not. It can be the kids growing older. Or not. It can be you growing older. Or not. It can be feeling inadequate on the job. Or not. All of the above, or none of it. Or anything else that you can put your finger on. It just shows up howling its blooming head off.
3. Sometimes you can be in it before you realize it. This is especially true with me. Sonya usually recognizes it before I do. I usually do not realize how depressed I am until I do not know if I can work another day, and that is even when things are good.
4. There are no easy steps out. Sometimes you just cannot tell if or when it will go away. I’ve awakened in the morning feeling pretty good only to have it return in half an hour leading to an entire day of “down” feelings.
5. Things may not be the same for every person with depression. It might be easier to relate to people in depressive episodes if they were all the same, but they are not.
What not to say to a depressed and why:
1. “Pray.” (Or these variants, “Pray more,” “Are you praying enough?” “Have you prayed about it?”) Depression is always a matter of prayer. If prayer was the solution there would not be any depressed Christians, since we all pray about it. Yes, I wish that God would always take it away for just the asking, but since Moses, Elijah and Paul dealt with it periodically, I don’t see that God will take it away just because He’s asked. It does bear remembering that prayer can actually make you more depressed since the tendency is to focus on the depression. This can be a tricky proposition.
2. “Cheer up.” Depression by nature is an emotional “out of whackedness.” A depressed person cannot simply get happy because they decide to do so any more than you can get from Nashville to Los Angeles by clicking your heels together. Although depression might be caused by various factors, in the end it is a feeling of sadness that usually seems impenetrable and, while you are in the midst of it, permanent. I’ve never been suicidal (or homicidal) during a depression, but I understand how some people can get that way. Just imagine the most sad you have ever been and then being convinced that it will never go away. The feeling of potential “lifelong sadness” is more than some can bear.
3. “Just trust God.” To do what, exactly? I do trust God and try to trust Him with every aspect of my life and depression still strikes. I trust Him to see me through it each time, but it does not make it go away immediately, though it always does with time.
4. “Don’t isolate yourself.” This one is actually true and helpful, but sometimes really hard to do. When depressed, there are few if any feelings of desire to socialize with ten or with one. Of course this exacerbates the situation but remains an issue. Depression can result from and cause a desire for isolation. It is not so much not wanting to be a wet blanket as it is not wanting to have to expend the emotional energy to carry on conversation. Any expenditure of emotion worsens the lack of emotional balance symptomatic of the depression itself. I have experienced great times of fun and laughter while depressed, then turned away and felt just as sad or “blue” as before. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it is not always the cure.
5. “Get some meds.” Some people are offended by the idea, since it is sometimes mentioned flippantly. I have not yet gotten a prescription, but I’m considering it. (Is it the purple pill, the blue pill or the hexagonal pill?) The thing that I am most working through is whether medication is necessary for something that happens three or four times a year.
What do to for a friend who is depressed:
1. If you deal with it, be open about it. Depression may be a black dog, but it should not be a dirty secret. Some men view it as weakness and thus it retains a hold on them. Bite the dog; don’t let it continue to gnaw on you. Be sensitive when you recognize that a friend is depressed, and be open when that friend is just realizing it for themselves. Sometimes depression makes you feel crazy; hearing from a friend who struggles through it and retains most of their sanity is an encouragement for others not to give up.
2. Don’t think that going to a ball game or a movie is “just what they need.” It may or may not be; depression is a tricky thing and when I am depressed, I often do not know what in the world I want to do. I do find that being in the company of another person, whether Sonya or a friend, who does not demand that I talk or interact can be helpful. Just hanging out. It takes a lot of energy to carry on conversation or “just be yourself” when there is no inner drive at all to do anything.
And on this note, don’t give a book, website, sermon, podcast, or other thing you think “might help.” The person typically feels broken already. Offers to “fix them” can serve to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy. Be friend enough to long time care without immediate repair.
3. Do pray because often your depressed friend finds little comfort in praying themselves. In addition prayer while depressed can be tricky. It is very easy for prayer itself to become depressing when depressed. I am not sure why.
4. Don’t judge the whys and wherefores, especially if you’ve never dealt with it. It’s very, very hard to explain; heck, it’s very, very hard to deal with emotionally, physically and spiritually. Depression may or not be spiritual and if it is not, then it is very frustrating to be given a simplistic answer revolving around a book, dvd or sermon series.
5. If the person begins to talk suicide or act suicidal to any degree, intervene; obviously, sadly some depressive episodes end in suicide. I knew a fellow many years ago who seemed for all the world to be ok. He woke up one morning to leave for vacation and saw that it was raining. Despondent over that particular situation, he went back into his house and killed himself. It was almost unbelievable to hear. At the time I thought, “How in the world…”
When writing this post originally I received a great amount of encouragement. I was steered to a natural product called St. John’s Wort available at almost any grocery store or drug store. It has proven to be very effective for me at both preventing and helping lift depression. I now take it only as needed which is infrequently.
All-in-all I see depression a result of the fall, not a part of God’s creation. As such Jesus died so that we might have ultimate deliverance from it. That may or may not happen in this life for me, but it gives me yet another reason to long for That Day.