Though I have never really felt ashamed of my mental health struggles, I know that many within the Church do experience shame about their own. So the more articles like this the better. Here are some of my thoughts about Rebecca Clayson’s article.
Please Break the Silence
Several weeks after her second child was born, Rebecca sank into despair. At the time she didn’t understand what was happening to her. Feelings of unworthiness and shame kept her from telling anyone what she was feeling for six months. That’s half a year of struggling alone. That’s a long time. And even after telling her husband, it was months later that she sought professional help, and even longer before she felt comfortable sharing her struggle with close family and friends. “Because of the stigma associated with depression, my husband and I felt we had to keep quiet about my illness,” she said.
My heart breaks for people like Rebecca. Though many who suffer with depression isolate themselves, one of the first things I do when I feel myself diving is to reach out and seek help from the people who love me. My openness is unusual. But imagine if Rebecca had felt comfortable telling her husband right away? She would likely have sought treatment earlier and avoided many months of despair.
If you are suffering in silence, I urge you to tell someone. No one should go through depression, anxiety, or any struggle alone. Rebecca found, “As time went on, I became acquainted with other people dealing with mental illness. This gave me strength to cope as I interacted with individuals who understood how deeply rooted this disorder was.” There is so much strength in numbers. You are not alone.
A Crater in the Mind
If you’ve ever experienced depression, you were probably gushing with gratitude to Elder Holland like I was as he spoke in the October 2013 General Conference. Rebecca shared a lengthy quote from his talk in her article. I’ve heard and read Elder Holland’s talk many times, but this time I was particularly struck by these words:
Everyone is going to be anxious or downhearted on occasion. . . . Today I am speaking of something more serious, of an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively.
As I have gone through my ups and downs with mental health, one of the things people have said to me often is: “Everyone has hard days.” This is true. Everyone does have hard days. But there is a big difference between having a hard day and experiencing depression. I love how Elder Holland described this difference. Depression is a “crater in the mind” that you can’t just think your way out of. What you allow yourself to think about can make a huge impact in how quickly you recover from depression, but positive thinking can’t cure mental illness.
Seasons to Serve and Be Served
During the late summer of 2014 when I was in the throes of my most harrowing battle with darkness, a friend of mine shared something with me. Because of her Church calling, she had been involved in a meeting where they had discussed my mental health situation and what could be done. One of those present had suggested that I needed “opportunities to serve.” My friend, fortunately, understanding how deeply incapacitated I was, responded, “She needs help.”
Rebecca’s article includes a box with more information about major depressive disorder (MDD). It explains that depression is an illness that requires professional treatment, while “feeling down in the face of life events (as opposed to MDD) may be treated best through . . . finding ways to serve others” among other things.
Service can certainly bring joy and lift us when we are down. That is without question. But there are times and seasons with service as with everything. There are times when we are in a position to serve someone else, and there are times when we must be served. What my friend understood was that I was in the latter season. I needed to be served. And I can testify that witnessing the countless acts of service offered on my behalf during that time was profoundly beautiful and lifted me time after time when I felt I couldn’t go on anymore. Thinking of those acts of love fills me with so much gratitude. Gratitude beyond my capacity to describe. Gratitude so intense that it gathers with fierceness in my tear ducts and floods down my face.
Spiritual Side Effects
One of the hardest parts of my mental health struggles was the spiritual side effects. So I was really glad that Rebecca addressed the spiritual ramifications in her article. She wrote:
Depression, in all forms, alters perception, making it difficult to feel peace, love, joy, or any of the fruits of the Spirit. . . . Because our physical bodies and our spirits are necessarily connected (see D&C 88:15), it can be common to feel the effects of a physical disorder in a spiritual way, especially in the case of depression. . . . Therefore, it is important to seek out the actual source of such feelings, especially when experiencing the often-distorting effects of depression.
For me, when I am depressed, this has certainly been the case. I can’t feel the Spirit. I can’t hear God. It’s horrifying. When I first began experiencing the darkness of depression and lost my ability to feel the Spirit, I wondered if I would ever feel it again… if my spiritual numbness was permanent.
Our Stake Patriarch had told me (seventeen years prior) that I would see those days, that “darkness would fill my mind,” that I would feel “lost and perhaps abandoned.” I think I never really believed it would happen. How could I ever feel abandoned by God when God had always been there for me? But there I was. In the dark. Feeling abandoned.
Rebecca struggled herself with feeling abandoned, and she wondered often if she had somehow offended God to deserve such despair. But those of us who have “seen the dark and the broken places” are actually in excellent company.
But there is something beautiful that can come to those who have known such devastating darkness. And that is a profound and powerful appreciation for the light. In November of 2014, I shared the following:
I have sat through thousands of Sacrament meetings in my thirty-four years. I have felt the Spirit thousands of times while sitting in those Sacrament meetings. Feeling the Spirit was as familiar to me as feeling hungry or cold. But for most of the past six months, my ability to feel and recognize the Holy Spirit was virtually gone. I felt cut off from heaven, truth, light. This is a byproduct of mental illness for some of us. And it’s absolutely horrific. I think it’s fair to say that this inability to feel the Spirit has been a small glimpse of the bitterness of hell. . . .
So having spent six months inhabiting a body that no longer felt the Spirit in the ways I was used to, seeing a dark and hellish abyss, sitting through Sacrament meetings devoid of any “warm fuzzies” or “burning in the bosoms,” you can imagine my surprise and delight when I felt something last Sunday in Sacrament meeting. And I didn’t just feel a little something, my entire body was on fire. And I cried and cried and cried. And I felt the Spirit burning away months of ache, jump-starting my spiritual instruments, blazing them to life again. And I cried and cried and cried. Bliss. That. That is what bliss feels like. And I think it’s fair to say that I have now had a small taste of what heaven feels like.
Rebecca finished her article explaining that it has now been 20 years since her first major episode with depression, and she continues to battle mental illness. While medication, nutrition, exercise, therapy, and spiritual nourishment can help, they cannot always eliminate mental health issues. In my experience, the illness waxes and wanes, sometimes going into “remission” for long periods, and other times flaring-up.
Rebecca, wherever you are, I want to thank you for bravely sharing your story. The more we tell our stories, the less alone we and others in similar situations will feel. My heart longs to reach out to others who are stuck in the dark and broken places of this world. Rebecca and others like her can blaze a trail for those struggling souls to follow. For this reason, I am collecting stories for a book project. Do you have a story to share?