This is going to be challenging to write, and I've pondered over writing it for a while now. I've pondered whether or not it even ought to be written, but I feel that it does need to be written.
Last Sunday, I listened to President Uchtdorf's excellent CES fireside. One part in particular caught my attention. He read a question from a young member of the church explaining that this person often felt depressed and thought about ending their life. President Uchtdorf touched briefly on the fact that these are serious issues that ought to be taken care of with the help of trusted church and professional helpers. I want to spend a little longer on the topic of depression, which I'm becoming more and more aware of as a serious concern, especially for members of the church, because it isn't very well understood.
I'm becoming more aware of this because I've been there.
I'm not sure who out there needs to read this or see this, but I know that I've felt strongly that I need to write on this topic. The main thing that concerns me about Latter-day Saints and depression is that this one thing is so poorly understood: depression is a real, real, physical disease. The thing that makes it unique is that it is a physical disease with emotional symptoms. I feel that that point is so important that I'm going to repeat it: depression is an actual, physical illness that has emotional symptoms. And in a gospel that emphasizes a personal relationship with God that can be measured by feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost, depression can be especially devastating. The Lord speaks to us most of the time through our feelings, and a depressed mind is so biochemically mixed up that it simply isn't getting those impressions like it used to.
What so many people, including up until recently myself, have trouble realizing, is that this ought not be considered any different than any other physical illness in terms of treatment- and how the person ought to view him or herself. A person with diabetes has chemical imbalances that need to be treated and monitored if the person is going to live a normal life. A person with depression has chemical imbalances that also need to be treated, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that we live in an age when this is understood by medical professionals at least, and there are wonderful treatments available for it.
I consider myself fortunate in many respects- I'm almost healed, and as I get farther and farther from the darkest days, I can see better and better that although I wouldn't go through this year again for all the wealth of the world, as I read more and learn more and peruse the experiences of others, I've been so very, very blessed. However, like so many other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have learned the hard way that depression has devastating symptoms.
Please, please note that I am not talking about pessimism, cynicism, mourning, or even deep sorrow that comes from hard times. I'm talking about a dark, dark, unnatural feeling that seems to sap one's ability to feel joy or even remember that there's such a thing as joy. I'm talking about nights laying with one's head buried under the pillow because the thought of living for another fifty or sixty years is terrifying. I'm talking about curling up in a ball and wondering if you've has lost your testimony completely, because you're desperately reaching out for God and you can't find Him anywhere. I'm talking about despair so deep that I have a new, significantly deepened appreciation for the Atonement- because I've felt, more than I ever had before in my life, what it was like to be separated from God, which is the definition of spiritual death, which the Atonement saves us from. For a different angle, one person I talked to described it as the feeling you might get near a demetor, from the Harry Potter series, which I think is fairly accurate.
See the difference between depression and just normal doldrums or sadness? I doubt that anyone who knows me well would call me cynical or pessimistic- but I've been depressed. What I hope you also see is that it is entirely unrelated to one's actual spiritual status, regardless of what goes on inside your head. I have entries from my journal written last winter where I poured out my frustration that I was doing the best I could, I was doing everything right, as it were, reading my scriptures, praying so long that I often fell asleep on my knees, going to the temple as though it were a life raft, and I had never felt farther from Heavenly Father.
However, the other reason, and more important reason, I think I need to write this is that as much as depression is not a sign of unworthiness or weakness, the even better news is that it is actually a highly treatable illness. As I mentioned, I feel very fortunate in my experience, and a big part of that is that within a few months, I was working with an excellent doctor who has helped me get on a track to healing, including both cognitive work through reading books, and medication. I'm also very fortunate that the first medication I was given was very effective; I know that not everyone is so fortunate. As the year continued and more challenges occurred, I decided on my own to start working with a therapist to arm myself more effectively from any kind of large relapse, and I've also been very fortunate to work with an excellent woman here in Salt Lake. In fact, she co-authored a book about depression specifically for LDS women. I would recommend it to anyone dealing with depression or dealing with someone who is depressed: "Reaching for Hope," by Betsy Chatlin and Meghan Decker.
So, here I am, with the help of so many others, climbing out of the other side of my own personal valley of the shadow of death, and I'm sure that there are many, many others, probably even some that I know, who are still wandering lost in this valley, fearing that the rest of their lives will be lived with this feeling of darkness and despair. And I'm writing this to tell you that it's not true, and it doesn't need to be so. And if you can be brave and move forward, which I know is so, so hard to do when you're depressed, you can receive good, professional help, and become the person you used to be, the person that you feel is lost, but who I assure you is still there.
I don't claim to be any kind of expert, but I can promise to be a completely nonjudgmental shoulder to cry on and to some extent at least the beginning of a road map of how to get out of the valley. I don't even have any idea who I'm writing this to or for, but if anyone happens to read this who thinks they may be going through what I've described, whoever you are, I want to help you. Send me an email, give me a call, or at the very least, read this and know that you're not alone. I promise that God is still there and He's still watching over you. And that's the truth.