Saturday, April 9, 2016

Sadness is Not Weakness

     Today, I had one of those conversations that only come around a few times in a persons life. It was the kind of conversation that uncovers new knowledge that permanently changes your perspective in a big way, and after it's over, the whole world seems a little different. This conversation inspired me to write about something I never thought I would reveal. So, here we go.
      I should preface this by saying that I have never been officially diagnosed with depression. I just know that since about seventh grade, I've consistently experienced periods of feeling sad and unmotivated, and these times last for a while, ranging from a few weeks to a few months. Sometimes I have an idea of what is triggering these episodes, other times they seem completely random. I went through one of these periods last spring, near the end of the last semester when I was living away from home attending college. It manifested in seemingly small ways, like skipping class for the first time in my life, and leaving the laundry undone until the only clean clothes I had left were pajamas.This particular episode may have gone unnoticed if I didn't have a very caring and perceptive roommate who is very kind and kept asking me if I was okay because I didn't seem to be acting like my normal self. I've never talked to a doctor about these events, partially because I was born with a lot of physical problems that have always needed to be monitored and fixed by doctors, and I'm too stubborn to let myself possibly be labeled with yet another problem, especially one whose symptoms are invisible to most people.
     Even though no one has ever directly told me this, I've always sensed an unspoken rule that Christians aren't supposed to be depressed, especially when we don't have a concrete reason such as the death of someone close to us. Even at funerals, it's always acknowledged that we're happy because the person who died is with God now. We start our rejoicing while we're still mourning, and while that's a wonderful thing, it can imply that there's no room for sadness in the Christian faith. It's often suggested that any and all negative feelings can be solved, simply by praying and reading the Bible until we feel better. We call our hard times valleys, and convince ourselves and each other that everyone has these valleys, and they're simply preparing us for our mountaintop moments. While that's a very poetic thought, and might be true sometimes, it ignores a very real problem many people face. It can make people like me believe that our sadness is our own fault, and that we're having these feelings because our faith isn't strong enough. I know from personal experience how devastating it is for a Christian to believe that the sadness they feel is due to a lack of faith. I'm thankful for the first psychology professor I had, a conservative Catholic woman who also happened to be highly educated in her field. Through her starkly honest way of teaching, I was able to realize that there might be something chemically imbalanced in my brain that will be there no matter how much scripture I memorize. I started to understand that it's important to realize and acknowledge that a chemical imbalance in a person's brain is not a sin.
     A friend I grew close to through church died when we were seventeen, and the cause of his death was suicide. Sometimes I feel like I'm not supposed to talk about him because of the way he died, and lately that's really been bothering me. I asked his mom once if it was okay with her that I wrote about him sometimes, and she said that she saw it as a healthy part of my grieving process. I would never write anything about him that I haven't thought about very carefully, because it's very important to me to honor his memory as respectfully as I can.
     I decided to write this because of him. He's not here anymore so I can't tell him that I understand now. I understand that he truly was the strong Christian I always saw him as, and he was also a person who struggled with an illness that was invisible to me. I finally understand that those two aspects of who he was are not contradictory, and that's helping me forgive myself. I'm forgiving myself for being an ignorant teenage girl that was so caught up in how handsome and charming he was that I never thought to ask him how he was feeling. I'm not a doctor, and I'm certainly not God. It was never my job to "fix" him, and though I still doubt this sometimes, I know there's nothing I could have done to prevent his death. My job was to be his friend, and I believe I did that pretty well. I'm thankful for the people in my life who have also done that job well, and given me the courage to share these thoughts, so the cycle can continue, and maybe someone else can discover for the first time that what they are going through is something that many people experience. People just like me avoid talking about it because it makes us feel ashamed, but it shouldn't. We are strong people, and we have an even stronger God that loves the people he created, no matter what's going on with the feelings in our hearts or the chemicals in our brains.