A little over a year ago, I was interviewed and filmed for a Mormon Message based on Elder Holland’s October 2013 General Conference talk, “Like a Broken Vessel,” which focused on dealing with and recovering from severe mental illnesses. As a generally guarded and private person, it was difficult for me share my experience, knowing that it would be published online for anyone to see. However, I felt that it was important for people, both those suffering from it and those around them, to better understand what depression is and what it is not.
Depression is not sadness. Sadness is an emotion, fleeting and transitory; depression is a thick pair of goggles on the mind, shadowing every experience and clouding every thought. It is a dark lense through which one experiences the world. It isn’t cured by optimism, positive thinking or inspirational Pinterest quotes. It doesn’t need a reason to make its sufferers feel the way they do.
Depression is an illness. It is a spiritual, mental, and physical illness, and must be treated from each of those angles. Fervent prayer and diligent scripture study will not cure it any more than they would cure kidney disease. Medication and counseling may not alone be enough.
With the understanding that depression is a medical condition, it is important to realize that it has profound spiritual consequences. I have never felt so spiritually forsaken as I did during my darkest months of depression. I was sure that my creation had been a mistake and that God was deeply disappointed in and disgusted with me. Knowing that my life had no value and no purpose, I watched as everything I thought I was and everything I thought I valued was slowly consumed by the dark shadow covering my life. Soon, I felt dead inside, a shell of a person, and longed for the rest of me to die as well. Except, I didn’t want to die; I wanted to erase my entire existence. Death alone felt insufficient.
Ashamed, I prayed to the God I knew was indifferent to someone as small and weak and broken as me, apologized that I couldn’t face the challenges of life like everyone else could, and begged Him to take away the spiritual and physical pain that overwhelmed me. I read my scriptures and attended church, even though it was agonizing, hearing about faith and hope and the Atonement and knowing it didn’t work for me.
But, I felt no comfort. No divine reassurances. No heavenly aid. I continued this way for a very long time. I feel this is important because I had to keep going, keep doing the things I knew I should do even when they didn’t seem to help, keep praying and studying when I received no discernable support. It was all I knew how to do so I kept doing it, in the face of deafening silence on the part of my Heavenly Father. It was painful, it was unceasing, and it was dark, but slowly, I began to get better, and I saw that He had been there with me all along, as cliche as that may sound.
Whether you are facing depression, a crisis of faith, or another challenge that alienates you from God, you must keep going. No matter how long it lasts. No matter how many prayers you pray that seem to go no further than your ceiling. No matter how many months you study your scriptures and feel absolutely nothing. No matter how painful attending church is. No matter how hopeless and desperate your situation is. No matter how endless are the days and weeks and years. You have to keep going. I don’t understand why He is sometimes silent, but I know He will not be forever. You have to keep trying, keep hoping for hope.
In addition to doing all the spiritual things I could, it was important for me to do everything in my power to get better, and then have faith that God would fix what I could not. I saw doctors. I tried different medications. I exercised when I could and took care of my body (all of which were very difficult to do when I felt so overwhelmingly apathetic and lethargic).I treated it like the disease it is. It was a slow, agonizing process, but it worked.
I expect that bouts of serious depression will continue to affect me throughout my life as they have in the past, and that scares me. I know how it is to be unable to get out of bed for weeks at a time, be unable to eat, hardly able to move. I am terrified at the thought of having a husband or children who would rely on me, of destroying their lives along with my own. I’m afraid, but I keep going, deciding to cross those bridges when I come to them and having faith that God will help me then as He has in the past.
I hope that Mormon Message video helps people who struggle with similar things as me. But just as much, I hope it helps the people around them know what to do. What is helpful, and what is not. If I may, I’d like to offer you a few words of advice. First, recognize that depression and other mental illnesses are real, not imagined, and do not define those who are afflicted by it. They aren’t their disease, even though it sometimes feels that way. Depression alters how you think so deeply that it seems like it alters YOU, but it doesn’t. Sufferers may not seem themselves, but they are just sick, even when they appear to be well physically. Please be patient with them. Second, it’s almost never helpful to say that things aren’t as grim or scary or stressful as they seem; just because it appears that way to you does not mean it appears that way to them. Invalidating their reality makes them feel more unstable and unable to trust themselves than they already do. Just listen and love and try to understand, even if you don’t. I am eternally grateful for the precious few closest to me who loved me without condition and stayed by my side, even when I tried to push them away.
This whole experience was really hard (you know, the whole depression thing, I guess, but also the interview and the writing about it) because I was so ashamed; depression was a carefully guarded secret for me. I was scared that anyone who found out would think I was just being whiny or melodramatic. Conversely, I was scared that people might think I was crazy and mentally imbalanced and untrustworthy. As uncomfortable and exposing as this has been for me, I believe that in order to normalize mental illness and remove the stigma and the shame associated with it, people need to share their honest and real experiences. To anyone suffering from mental illness and to anyone wanting to help an affected loved one, know that there is hope. Know that there is light, even in the darkest nights. That light and hope come from our Savior Jesus Christ. I wish I could tell you it would all end soon. I can’t. But it will end. He is always there.