As I meet with a new doctor she reviews my list of prescriptions.
“Do you still need this one?” she asks while pointing at my anti-depressant medication.
I take a deep breath and proceed to tell her my history with depression: “I had my first depression when I was 13 years old, the next one at age 19, another one in my mid-20s, then again when I was 40,” I said. “That last one was deeper and longer than any of the others and I started the medication.”
“Okay,” she said while nodding. “Sounds like you’re a lifer for meds.”
I’ve had this conversation with a variety of physicians, including a dermatologist who said, “You look fine to me!” To which I replied, “That’s because of the medication—it helps me not to be depressed.”
Another doctor suggested I see a therapist and I said, “I’ve done years of talk therapy and have met with four different therapists during my life. I know my depression well enough that if I need a therapist, I see one.”
My depression is part of who I am and I am well-acquainted with it. When I notice the inner flatness I take a survey: how have I been sleeping? Do I need to increase my vitamin D and/or B12? Do I need to get out of the house and move more? And, as an Enneagram 4, am I veering toward the unhealthy attributes? If so, do I need to do a life correction and move toward the Enneagram 1? Or, is this the return of “darkness, my old friend?”
For decades I’ve been ashamed of my mental illness.My friends remember my depression at 19 and describe me as sitting in the corner at Bible Study with a pullover hoodie and greasy hair. I’m ashamed by that description. A few months after I began anti-depressants I wanted to stop because I was “feeling better and don’t need them anymore.” My husband wisely said, “You feel better because of the medication. You have a disease—the mental illness of depression.”
I don’t like the phrase “mental illness” because of the portrayal of people mental illness in popular culture—scary, erratic, irrational. I want to appear normal, steady, and have-it-all-together, not someone who lives with a mental illness.
When I first learned of the “dark night of the soul,” I wondered if that’s what I experienced. I asked one of my seminary professors and he quickly responded, “No, that’s depression, not the dark night.”
“How can you tell the difference?” I asked.
“In the dark night you still function in life and you have full expression of your emotions,” he said. “With the dark night God is silent. God’s silence is leading you into a deeper or newer form of prayer.”
A wise friend suggested that I “befriend my depression” which seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I’ve pondered this idea and I have come to understand that to befriend my depression is to accept it as an essential part of me as much as my delight at a good joke. To befriend my depression means not disowning and heaping shame on this part of me in an attempt to appear normal. I will never be cured of my depression but medication helps me manage it. I know I will need to introduce this friend to future doctors as “my friend.”
I consider my daily pill as a gift from God. And because that pill is a gift from God it is a daily reminder of my dependency on God. I cannot make myself whole, only God can and there is the grace which allows me to befriend my depression.