by Charlie Lehardy
WARNING: Contains graphic description of suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Some readers may find this disturbing. Use caution.
A cool breeze sweeps up from the boulder-strewn valley, bringing with it the sounds of water rushing down the narrow canyon, filling dark pools, flowing over time-worn rocks and rotten tree-trunks, racing downward, downward, down through the ravine. The roaring flood echoes off the far ridges and has the power to set my mind free to soar like the solitary hawk high overhead. But not today. Today I am drifting, sodden and cold, rushing down with the current, my body leaden as I sink to the depths of the black pools. I break the surface gasping for breath, only to slip once more into the abyss. I’m weeping in terror now and the sun seems to have vanished, eclipsed by some enveloping evil that threatens to suffocate me.
But I am not in the water, nor am I on the edge of drowning. I am sinking instead into an abyss of the mind. I am suffocating under the black terror of emotions that I cannot control. There is beauty all around me on this mountain path: cactus blooming red and yellow; a breeze singing in the saguaro needles; rabbits watching curiously from a safe distance; but I can see none of it. I feel nothing of the tranquillity of these mountains rising around me. Today I feel only a nameless terror that will not leave me be.
Pulling the pistol from my backpack I lay it in the palm of my hand, caressing it like a lover. Respite is all I want from her. Rest from this awful paralysis. I want to sleep forever, never again to ache with this unrelieved sorrow.
I slide the bolt back, chambering the first round with a metallic click. One soft-copper projectile will do the job – a sleeping pill to give me rest from these demons. I take a deep breath, then another to steady my shaking hand. Tears flood my eyes as I lift the barrel unsteadily, pressing the muzzle against my skull. Gazing across the valley without seeing, I hear the faint cry of the hawk from somewhere over the ravine. Only he will hear. Jamming my finger hard against the trigger, the hammer slams forward in the blink of a life and releases the explosion which releases me from this dark and miserable existence.
The Reality of Depression
Sometime later I open my eyes, all awareness of time and space now gone. Energy drained, I sit in my darkened office and stare at the book shelves, my mind in a fog. The familiar sights tell me I’m still here, still cursed with a strong heart pumping life through my veins despite my prayers that it would stop. I am weary, feeling an exhaustion so deep that I can barely rise from my chair. I shuffle out the door and move slowly along the dark hallway, eyes on the floor, looking for all the world like a 90 year old grandfather instead of a 35 year old. Making my way automatically, I collapse into the front seat of my car, tears streaming down my cheeks, and vow to buy a gun. I have rehearsed this little drama until I know it by heart. What hope do I have? God has abandoned me and with every day I wait I sink deeper and deeper into the bottomless pit that is my depression.
The unrelenting sadness and hopelessness that characterized my experience with depression is something I will never forget. Those who haven’t experienced depression have difficulty understanding what its like. All of us experience sadness and disappointment, but depression is as different from sadness or disappointment as a hangnail is from a broken leg. Well-meaning friends, trying to help, say things such as: "You’ve got so much to be happy about" or "You should spend more time in the Word". But capable, intelligent, godly people who find themselves in the midst of depression come to realize that they have changed, that something has broken inside of them, that they are no longer able to make themselves do or think or feel what they did or thought or felt before. They have lost volitional control over their minds in a very frightening way, and things that were formerly certain and true suddenly seem completely untrustworthy.
I am a motivated, hard-working professional, but in the grips of depression I often felt paralyzed, not possessing the strength to rise from bed or even to open my eyes in the morning. I would sometimes sit in a chair for hours staring at the same spot on the wall or the same page of a report, lost in a fog of dread that I could not control, weighted down so heavily that I felt unable to move. My sense of God’s voice and the wisdom of His Word disappeared – I felt completely alone, unable to make contact with anyone, not even Almighty God.
I lost interest in life and the things that make life special. I became reclusive and withdrawn, not wanting to be with friends. I found my wife and children tiresome and would look for any excuse to be left alone. I alternated between insomnia and exhaustion. And always, I felt inexplicably sad. Nothing made me happy, though strangely I often tried to fake it so that my friends wouldn’t know what was happening inside of me.
At work I couldn’t concentrate. I missed deadlines, forgot commitments, and often wasted the day just doodling. Sometimes I couldn’t sit at my desk for more than a few minutes before I’d have to get up and walk somewhere to relieve the tensions I felt. At other times, hours seemed to flash by without my being able to account for them.
Most frightening of all, I made intricate preparations for my death. I rehearsed dozens of suicide schemes in my mind and analyzed each in terms of its likelihood of success. A voice inside taunted me constantly, daring me to do it, insisting that I was nothing but worthless pond scum – a burden to my family, to society and to God.
Christians and Depression
But can a Christian become depressed or suicidal? Is depressed Christian an oxymoron? Paul begins 1 Corinthians 10:13 by saying, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man." (NIV) The temptation to look a bit too long at a good looking man or woman is one most of us know. Fortunately, the temptation to destroy one’s life, the life that God created, is foreign to most of us. But it is common enough and if Christians can be tempted to sin in so many other creative ways, it shouldn’t surprise us that they can be tempted to snuff out their lives. Nevertheless, arriving at that point presupposes a rather uncommon state of mind. It requires a loss of all hope, a loss of any sense of contact with God, and a loss of every shred of self-worth.
The causes of depression are legion, and since it is an illness of the mind, that least understood part of our bodies, it is a frightening condition. It has some environmental components – people who come from abusive homes are more likely to experience depression than those who do not. It has a connection to the rhythms of our lives – the death of a loved one, a prolonged illness, a traumatic event or a major life change can trigger the disease. It has some genetic components – people who have a parent who experienced depression are more likely to struggle with it than those whose parents were unaffected. Note that these things are all beyond an individual’s control. There may well be contributing factors that are within one’s control, such as a lack of exercise, poor diet, and conflicts of the heart such as guilt or shame.
In my own case, there were many factors that led to my several bouts of depression. My father was an alcoholic who became seriously depressed himself when I was young. He threatened to kill himself several times, finally succeeding a few months after my 9th birthday. To me, this seemed to be an act of rejection by someone I loved. It became a painful, permanent statement about me: that if I’d loved my Dad more or had been a better son, I could have prevented his death. The shame of my father’s suicide and alcoholism, hushed up by my family because one didn’t talk about such things, weighted heavily on my small shoulders. My father’s isolation and self-absorption in those last years left me emotionally malnourished, desperately needing love, and when he died all hope of ever receiving his love died with him.
So, I trace some of the causes of my depression to the wounds I received growing up in a damaged home. My depression also has its roots in the things I learned from my father, who didn’t like himself, who couldn’t handle life, who modeled sinful ways of coping with pain, and who drank to forget his problems.
Depression and Sin
Another cause of my depression was my own sin and the war that was going on inside of me as an adult. Having publicly confessed Christ as my Lord, I nevertheless lived privately in ways that I knew to be wrong. The guilt I felt about my hypocrisy wasn’t sufficient to force me to repent, however, and I grew to hate myself for the double life I led.
I want to be careful about tarring all depressed people with the same brush. I do not believe that unconfessed sin will always play a part in depression – environmental, genetic, and other factors are more than adequate to bring a healthy person down into the pits. But in my own case, I had to humbly acknowledge to God that I was partly to blame for my depression.
The long walk of recovery is the most arduous hike I’ve ever had to take. It has been necessary for me to shine the light of God’s truth on many evil and frightening things that I’d hidden away in my heart. Yet, like infected, pus-filled wounds, so long as I failed to examine and treat these rotting parts of my psyche, the infections grew worse. The counseling process was like going under the knife – it was painful, but the surgery removed necrotic tissues that were killing me.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 10:13 by saying, "And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it". The way of escape for me was not a wide-open door leading into a sun-filled garden. When you have lost all hope, when you are convinced that no good thing exists anywhere in the world, the way of escape may be hard to find. For me, it appeared as a swaying rope ladder leading up into the darkness. A small sign next to it read: "The counselor is in." The ladder seemed frail and the climb appeared to be too difficult. The bullet looked so much easier. Suicide looked like the wide-open door leading to the garden, but I chose the ladder, instead. Thank God I chose that ladder!
Seven years have passed. I am quite literally not the same person I was then, and yet I am. This new person has hope. This new person hears God’s whispers. This new person has a sense of purpose and mission in life, a sense that God is leading him somewhere. God has lifted me out of the slimy pit and placed my feed on a rock (Psalm 40).
I am able to maintain my sanity through prayer, studying the Word, honest sharing with close friends, the support of both a counselor and a pastor, regular exercise, good eating habits, and an antidepressant drug which boosts my serotonin levels. None of these things by themselves was enough, in my case, to create balance in my emotional life. But taken as a package, they have each played a part in the restoration of my sanity and in making me a strong and productive part of the body of Christ. I sometimes slip back again. When I’m under a lot of stress in my work, the cold fog creeps in again on cat’s feet. Those times can be discouraging, but they never seem to be as dark and frightening as before. I understand this disease now and I know how to fight it. The support group I have built up around me, like Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ arms, gives me strength to win the battle.
This year, thousands of deeply hurting people will choose to end their depression by taking their lives. I have no doubt that some of those who will give up will be Christians who have reached a point where they can no longer hear the Lord’s loving whispers. If you hear yourself saying, "That’s how I feel," get help. If you’ve already given up and hope seems like a hollow promise, get help. If you think you might be caught in the grips of depression, reach out to a counselor or a pastor or a support group or a friend and get help. Untreated, depression can kill you. But it doesn’t have to be fatal.
Jeremiah says a lot to those who are struggling with depression. The Israelites were exiled, captive, and without much hope when God offered to help them. "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful" (Jeremiah 31:3,4). Nothing is too difficult for God. In Him, there is hope for the hopeless.
The long climb up from the ravine took every ounce of strength I had. With every step the mountain tops seemed to grow taller, not closer. But I kept at it, climbing rock by rock, until one day I suddenly broke out of the underbrush onto a trail, and turning I could see the river far, far below me at last. I can hear the cry of the hawk once again. I see the colors in the flowers once again. The breeze feels good on my face and I can sense the presence of God.
Charlie Lehardy is a missionary and an NACR member. He lives with his family in Tuscon, Arizona.