I did not have a word for it until my senior year of college. Looking back, I can see it started before then, in cycles and seasons when I described myself as “down,” “in a funk,” “struggling,” “low.” My friend talked me into seeing a counselor at our college’s health center, and there I was given the word: depression.
It felt foreign at first, as if this couldn’t be me, couldn’t be this thing I was feeling. But it had been so long since I felt emotionally steady, emotionally “up,” that I didn’t remember what normal felt like anymore. I no longer had the energy to wrestle with the thoughts in my head. I was stuck in a fog — confused, overwhelmed, suffocated.
For brief moments it lifted enough for me to sip the fresh air — to realize just how much clearer and easier life was without its presence. On the days it lingered, I cried myself to sleep, my body curled into a tight, self-protective ball, begging God to hear me, to make me okay.
As time went on, I wondered whether he did hear me. My tears dried up and feelings left me. When the numbness came, I lay awake, exhausted but unable to rest, desperate for those tears to return, because then I would know I was still alive, not a shell of a human being. I longed to disappear, to drift off into never-ending sleep. I longed for it all to go away.
Throughout this season, I felt weak, as if I ought to be able to fight the encroaching and all-encompassing darkness. I felt ashamed, as if I was doing something wrong. Most of all, I felt afraid, as depression tightened its grip on my sanity. Afraid of the thoughts gnawing at my mind. Afraid of how much deeper I might plunge into the pit. Afraid of my desire to cease to exist.
I survived. With the help of therapy, medication, a good support system and God’s grace, the light slowly dawned. Life gradually became easier, the days less daunting. My mind could focus and process once again. I could turn loving attention on other people. Sleep was no longer elusive. The sensation of joy once again took up residence in my heart.
I felt like one of the lucky ones — like I had barely survived my brush with depression’s darkness. I was thankful to be alive, returned once again to the sun. But I didn’t know what to do with my experience. I didn’t know what to do with the marks it left on me. I didn’t know what I would do if it returned.
And return it did, this time while I was living abroad, working as an administrator and a housemom in a home full of foster children. Once again came the darkness, the tears, the exhaustion. Stripped of my usual support network, I once again needed medication to help me as I clawed toward the light.
Months later, stable but still on this latest round of antidepressants, I found myself in a seminary classroom scribbling names from church history in the margins of my notebooks. With the battle of depression still fresh in my mind, I recognized something in my professor’s asides about different historical figures. These brothers and sisters were like friends whispering to me from centuries past. They, too, had been plunged into darkness. They, too, had been depressed: Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr.
So I set out on a journey to get to know them and others like them and to learn the lessons they might offer from the darkness.
As I slogged through seasons of depression — and as I’ve looked back on those seasons from more stable footing — I have found the stories and presence of others who have experienced depression to be invaluable. I hear a hint of something I recognize — an aside, a metaphor, a clue that points to those marks left by the darkness — and I zero in on them.
There is someone who knows, I think, someone who understands. They, too, have walked through the valley of the shadow of depression. There’s something about it that binds us, like brothers in arms — the battle we have fought knits us together.
Their stories bring me comfort, reassuring me that I am not alone. They remind me I am not the only one to walk this road, that this experience is not an alien one. The lie that “surely no one has felt this” is cut down by the truth that others, in fact, have, and their presence makes me feel less isolated. These fellow travelers are my companions in the darkness of night.
They offer me wisdom — advice hard-bought on how to survive, on the lessons they learned, of the tools they gained. They give me hope — hope that this is not the end of my story, that I, too, will survive this. Hope that depression will not have the last say. I hear their stories of survival and perseverance, and I have hope to keep going, keep fighting, keep doing the hard work of getting well.
This is true of those I find alive today. For those I can talk to and sit down for coffee with, for those I call or write. It is the case for the leaders I encounter, those who are vulnerable enough to share their struggles. It’s the case for the artists who write songs and poems, who paint or create films rooted in their experience. It is also true of those who no longer walk this earth, those who, through their letters, journals and written accounts, leave us the legacy of their stories.
But the stories I have studied about some of our most beloved saints throughout church history who struggled with depression were not selected at random. They come from some of our heroes, from those whose tales we still tell long after their death. This gives them something unique to offer.
These stories from our heroes help break the guilt and stigma surrounding depression in the church — undermining the lies that I am failing, that I am a “bad Christian,” that I should be better than this, or that if only I were more faithful or holy or strong this would not be happening to me.
Can you imagine the audacity of applying this principle to the brothers and sisters in this book? Of telling Charles Spurgeon to read his Bible more? Or David Brainerd to pray more? Or Mother Teresa to just choose joy? We regard these people as giants of the faith, as “saints,” and yet they still struggled with depression. The faithfulness of their lives did not make them immune — and it will not make me immune. They remind us that sometimes these things happen. Sometimes we are weighed down by sadness. Sometimes our brains get sick just as our bodies do. Their lives bear witness to this truth.
Since that seminary classroom where I first encountered these companions, I’ve come to realize that the stories we choose to tell communicate something. Ignoring a struggle like depression in the lives of people in church history — those we still talk about today, those we may call heroes — communicates something. It says those stories don’t matter, or, worse, that we should be ashamed of them.
These stories need to be told. They need to be told so that we can be heirs of the wisdom and comfort these brothers and sisters have to share. They need to be told so that we find the courage and freedom to tell our own stories. They need to be told so that we are reminded that God can still use us, that depression will not be our life’s epitaph. They are, for me, models of what it looks like to follow Jesus through depression.
Adpated from Companions in the Darkness by Diana Gruver. Copyright (c) 2020 by Diana Janelle Gruver. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Diana Gruver writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She serves as a writer and communications director for Vere Institute and is the author of the forthcoming title Companions in the Darkness (IVP).