A story of darkness and
despair--and hope!

A true first-person story.
By request the identity of the author is not revealed.


What I'm about to share is difficult because I will be reliving a story of deep agony in my own life. When this particular illness manifested itself many years ago, the medical profession did not know what was going on with me, and I certainly didn't either. All I knew then, I was very sick and needed help desperately.

To the sufferer today with a similar condition to mine, rest assured there is help available. My illness of long ago is much better understood today. With extensive research and effective medications on the market, anyone with such an illness has the opportunity for treatment and a better and a more joyful future.

Depression can be a crippling illness. But with understanding from friends, colleagues, and family, and with adequate medical treatment, most people recover and return to productive lives--clinical depression can be conquered.

Scene 1 Scene 2 Practical Help Another Experience

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Scene 1

Early one morning while on my knees in prayer, I felt a cold chill run down my neck and my spine. Then the sense of despair which had been growing in recent weeks suddenly pressed down on me even more intensely.

I was about to go through the most terrifying experience of my life, a deep and dark hole of depression. Things would never be the same again.

The illness I experienced is no respecter of persons. In my immediate as well as extended family a few had gone through a similar crisis in the past. The cause of the disease was not understood at the time. But in my own situation, perhaps the tendency of trying to accomplish too much too quickly might have pushed me over the edge.

While attending a private boarding school, I began my day at 3 a.m. when it was my job to round up the milk crew. The rest of the day was filled with classes. Study time did not end until lights went out at 10:00 p.m. College days were even more intense. Once again I needed to work every opportunity to meet financial obligations. Therefore I pushed myself relentlessly, often burning the candle at both ends--and sometimes even in the middle.

Then came the first few years of marriage. A young person filled with ambition is impatient and wants the best things of life and all that goes with it almost immediately. For me it meant putting in long hours doing free-lance work, in addition to the responsibilities at the office. With my Type-A personality I often felt driven, which is not necessarily a virtue.

The day arrived when my physical and mental bank account was "overdrawn" and my world crashed in on me. It must have been a long time in coming, but for me everything was suddenly very dark and utterly hopeless. Also, God seemed far away. In fact, He seemed so remote and distant that I wondered if He cared about me any longer.

Strangely, about this time I found myself having a hard time comprehending spiritual things. I felt suddenly overwhelmed with thoughts of sinfulness and guilt. Then dark clouds engulfed me, and the pain I suffered was so intense I cannot describe my feelings adequately.

It was springtime when it all began. Right across the street from our home several trees were blooming in all their glory. Birds everywhere were singing their hearts out. But what had always been so enjoyable to me previously, now I couldn't stand.

Other symptoms followed. The nights were mostly sleepless. My thoughts often raced. I no longer felt comfortable sitting, standing, or lying down. My hands and feet were cold on a warm day. My head felt as tight as a drum. I experienced pressure and annoying ringing in my ears. The muscles in my neck were tight, and I found it impossible to relax. My heart was frequently racing out of control. When people smiled or laughed, I wondered how they could be so happy when I felt so sad. The feeling of hopelessness was difficult to deal with--almost paralyzing. Everything was so black and so dark I was afraid to be left alone. I was so shaken by all of this happening to me, I considered ending it.

When formerly I was energetic and enjoyed life, now I no longer had any motivation. I was afraid to tackle problems or to attempt even simple things like doing the yardwork. When my world crashed, normal living became very painful. For instance, the canary that always sang so cheerfully now became an annoying sound.

Our family doctor, deeply concerned, prescribed sleeping pills and tranquilizers. He suggested a change of scenery for a few days, to get away from the stress of life and city living. Taking his advice my wife and I left the children with a friend and we spent the weekend at the beach. Before my illness I had enjoyed the beach immensely, now I found it unbearable. The constant crashing of the breakers on the shore-line was torture to my tired and exhausted brain.

Reading short selections from the Bible was very helpful during this crisis period of my life. I desperately clung to every word that expressed even a glimmer of light or hope:

"You are my lamp, O Lord;
the Lord turns my darkness
into light."

--2 Samuel 22:29

Also, knowing that King David had gone through what seems like deep depression, made my lot a little easier to bear. This is what he recorded in Psalm 42:5: "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God."

My wife and our two kids were very considerate and supportive during my time of crisis. Often my wife read to me short selections from Scripture and Christian authors to help kindle some hope and instill some courage for me to persevere.

Here are a couple choice quotations that were so encouraging:

"The powers of darkness gather about the soul and shut Jesus from our sight, and at times we can only wait in sorrow and amazement until the cloud passes over. These seasons are sometimes terrible. Hope seems to fail, and despair seizes upon us. In these dreadful hours we must learn to trust,...and in all our helpless unworthiness cast ourselves upon the merits of the crucified and risen Saviour. We shall never perish while we do this--never!" (Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 309, 310.)

"Often your mind may be clouded because of pain. Then do not try to think. You know that Jesus loves you. He understands your weakness. You may do His will by simply resting in His arms." (The Ministry of Healing, p. 251.)

These words by author Ellen White were like much-needed rain to a parched desert, so comforting and reassuring. Perhaps God was still there for me. (Books by author Ellen White, mentioned in this section, are available by going here.)

After several weeks of mental, physical, and emotional turmoil, it was necessary for me to go back to the office. But I soon discovered that even the simplest task overwhelmed me. However, I often searched out a secluded place in the attic where I could pour out my heart to God and seek His help for wisdom and strength even if just for the next hour.

One day I had an unusual experience. I had come home early and was praying and trying to reach out to God. But I didn't seem to be getting very far. Then I heard the sound of someone getting up from the wicker chair next to me. A feeling of awe flooded over me. I then realized that an angel visitor had been right there next to me as I was praying for heaven's help. That experience started to lift the dark cloud that had enshrouded me. There was now a little more hope and I sensed that one day things would be all right again.

Even when we bring trials and suffering upon ourselves, God looks down on us with the tenderest pity. And when we turn to Him for help, He offers all the resources of heaven without cost--to see us through victoriously. His love for each of us is without measure. He hurts when we hurt. And He is right there beside us to sustain, to comfort, to strengthen!


Scene 2

After a degree of recovery from the crisis as described in Scene 1, my life was reasonably normal for a number of years. During better times I made a career change.

Things went fairly well for a while, but then familiar and dreaded symptoms began to reappear. Once again I experienced sleep disturbance, ringing in my ears, lack of concentration, digestive difficulty, and problems dealing with noise and large crowds.

During this second episode I learned that help was available by means of new medications now on the market. I spoke to our family doctor about the growing fear of another crisis with depression. He suggested that I make an appointment with a specialist.

We contacted a medical professional who was also well qualified with a degree in pharmacology. This doctor was very understanding and very patient. He took the time to explain that clinical depression could be caused by a chemical imbalance, a disturbance in the brain's neurochemistry. However, he was concerned that by now my chronic illness would be hard to treat because so many years had elapsed since my first episode when no help was available. But with time and experimentation with various antidepressants, the doctor finally prescribed a medicine that returned my sleep to nearly normal--I was able to cope again!

About this time we learned that some of my family (and extended family) were dealing with similar episodes--depression, anxiety, and one person in particular was dealing with panic attacks of more serious nature. We soon discovered that this "family illness" of chemical imbalance was very likely a genetic weakness.

We learned that a tendency to depression can be dormant for a number of years. But if a person with such an inherited weakness pushes himself or herself beyond the nervous limitation he or she has, a full-blown case of clinical depression can easily occur. And if the illness is left untreated, the condition may persist for longer periods and can eventually become chronic like mine had. In other words, the sooner such an illness is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances are for full recovery. However, without appropriate help the depressive condition is likely to intensify. In some cases individuals are no longer able to function on their own.*

Studies show that over 17 million adult Americans suffer from depressive disorders, but tragically only about one-third of this number seek treatment. From those who seek help, 80 to 90 percent find positive relief with the use of drug therapy, and may never have another episode. Untreated, however, the condition frequently reoccurs. Each time it does, chances are greater of yet another episode. After three episodes, there is a 90 percent chance for a fourth. So early treatment is critical.**

Clinical depression, an imbalance of critical brain chemicals, must not be confused with brief periods of "the blues." Clinical depression usually develops into severe symptoms and can last much longer.

Symptoms of clinical depression include**:

Marked changes in sleep pattern.
Appetite and/or weight loss.
Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" moods.
Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism.
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness.
Fatigue or decreased energy.
Thoughts or talk of death or suicide.
Unusual behavior.
An obvious change that is uncharacteristic for that particular person.
Irritability and anger.
Depressed people often use this to cover their sadness and feelings of worthlessness.
Indecisiveness and lack of concentration.

If you have any of the above symptoms, and particularly if you have several, check with your doctor. If he suggests the possibility of clinical depression, get help--don't delay!

*From Adventist Review, Laurie Denski-Snyman, January 25, 1996, p. 14.
**From Reader's Digest, "Depression: What You Should Know," by Edwin Kiester, Jr., and Sally Valente Kiester, November 1995, pp. 181-188.


Practical Help

What have I learned from my experience with clinical depression, and how may this help you?

If you are dealing with the problem of clinical depression, learn what your limitations are. You might be in danger of overdrawing your "bank account" reserves. Be careful to live "within your means" of nervous energy. Once you have experienced "bankruptcy," it's easy to slip into another episode. It isn't worth the suffering.

Apparently the cumulative effect of stress from childhood through early adulthood, along with an apparent genetic weakness, took me to the point of collapse, and the horrible torment of depression.

The following have helped me through difficult times:

Exercise--After my initial episode I immediately began a jogging program. Later I found it more beneficial to take a brisk walk several times a week.

Diet--By cutting back on sugars and fat I noticed an improvement in mood swings. We eat generous servings of fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of grains and nuts.

Lifestyle--We enjoy a simple lifestyle. We avoid harmful substances, including caffeine (in every form) as well as alcohol and nicotine. We love the out-of-doors and are refreshed by God's extravagant beauty in nature--so healing to mind and body.

Stress--I avoid stressful situations as much as possible, even the friendly chatter of people in crowds.

Accept Limitations--No matter how much I would like to have a part in family fun, there are times when I have to avoid situations in the evening that might affect my sleep.

Saying No--It's difficult for me to say NO. But if I don't feel up to a certain task, I am learning to say, "Sorry, I'm not up to it at the present time, but thanks for thinking of me--perhaps another time!"

I can't stress enough the importance of family and friends being understanding and sensitive to the needs and limitations of the afflicted one. If one who is dealing with depression knows that he has the sympathy and emotional support of those close to him, it makes it possible for him to better cope with his own turmoil.

The last two decades have seen new techniques for diagnosing and treating clinical depression with good results. Persons formerly so tragically ill, can now live quite normal lives. It is well known now that dopamine, cortisol, serotonin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine are chemicals that need to be in proper balance in the brain. It is recognized today that a depressive person will have a better chance for recovery if diagnosed early.

Finally, I would like to encourage anyone with a depressive disorder to begin a relationship with God. Scripture promises that God will supply every need. Don't you think this includes sending angels who minister to those in distress? I would not have survived so well without God's intervention.

J. B. Phillips, the well-known author of many books including a popular New Testament paraphrase, who himself experienced terrifying darkness and depression throughout his adult life, once wrote: "As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God's peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having."

If you are struggling, remember, help is available today. Hope is vital to mental health, and I believe it is possible for you to regain a measure of joy and peace.

(Depression is no respecter of persons. Anyone--from any ethnic background, career, income level, religious faith--can be the victim of this debilitating illness. It is thought that even Abraham Lincoln suffered from just such a problem. At one time he said: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better.")


Another Experience

The Hopeless Feeling

By Peter Mariner
(A pseudonym)

"Why do you feel sad, Daddy?"

My father sighed as if his soul were gasping for breath. "I'm not sure, son." Without looking at me, he picked up his garden tools and trudged away.

It wasn't the first time, or the last, that I saw my father deep in depression. He tried to fight it. I remember long tearful prayers with Mother. Confessions of sins. Visits from the pastor. Good books from friends. Intensified spiritual interest. New health regimes.

But always it came back.

As I grew older, Dad's depression became more frequent and more severe. As he approached middle age, he had what was called at the time a "nervous breakdown"--the catch-all phrase for any mental problem that comes to a crisis point. There followed more doctors, counselors, and even a sanitarium.

It was in the early days of depression treatment. The heavy tranquilizing medications such as Thorazine sometimes helped temporarily, but the debilitating side effects and possibility of addiction precluded their being prescribed in all but the most severe cases. Modern antidepressants with manageable side effects didn't gain general use until the 1980s.

He lived with depression until he died.

One generation later I found myself in a psychiatrist's office, trembling and on the verge of tears. The first question the psychiatrist asked was "Is there anyone else in your family who has suffered depression?"

I hadn't made the connection before: that I was following roughly the same path that my father had. I was about the same age he had been when his depression became severe. As with him, there was no clear past or present reason I was depressed; I was healthy, successful, and had a good wife and healthy children. As a child I'd been treated well: never abused, always loved.

When in my depression I'd always thought I had good reasons for feeling bad. A friend had jilted me. I had failed miserably at something. A teacher, or later a colleague or employee was harassing me. Never mind that most people went through the same situations without hitting bottom like I did. Gradually I began to realize that my reasons for being depressed weren't very good. The depression had a life of its own....

Inside I was in pain.

People who have never experienced depression often fail to note the distinction between depression and discouragement. Everyone is occasionally discouraged. Everyone has at times grieved. Discouragement is a small dip in mood that good thoughts, prayer, and positive thinking can often lift. Grief is a longer and more significant discouragement, such as is caused by the death of a loved one, that fades with the passage of time. Discouragement often has a cause, and grief always has one.

But depression goes far beyond. Depression is like falling off an emotional cliff from which you cannot seem to recover. It is hopeless sadness combined with unreasoning anxiety and deadly fear. It is mental pain so severe that at times death seems preferable. It is carrying a feeling of the most profound grief, but without profound reasons for it. In deep depression you feel as if there is no future; every effort would be hopeless, every attempt a failure. Often physical symptoms accompany the depression: an inability to sleep, no enjoyment of food or sex, stress-related illnesses that show up on the skin or in the digestive system.

The advice to "just buck up," "think positively," "count your blessings," or "quit thinking about yourself and go do something for someone else" to a deeply distressed person is empty. As one psychologist explained to me: "When a person is deeply depressed, he lacks the emotional energy to work on his own problem." Depressed persons can't think positively; they can't help someone else; they can't see their blessings. Sometimes they can't even work on their problem with a counselor. In deepest depression even their prayers seem hollow; they have probably prayed them a million times before, and their faith is depleted.

In all of us emotions are flexible, but in a person prone to depression, emotions are somewhat too flexible. Imagine your emotions suspended from elastic cords. In most people the elastic is strong enough to hold the emotions steady. A sudden turbulence may buffet them, but when the crisis passes, they return to normal.

In a depressed person those supportive cords are weak; very small things may cause profound depression, and when the event has passed, the emotional elastic is too weak to lift one's mood again....

Seeking help was itself a wrenching experience. As a child I was taught that you need no help but God, no counselor but the Lord. You may talk to your pastor, but it was unhelpful to go further. Growing up in the age of psychology, I began talking to trained Christian counselors about my problem.

But none of the talk, none of the prayers, were working.

Often friends would say to me, "Ellen White says you shouldn't trust your feelings. If you have those bad feelings, just tell yourself they aren't real. Ask the Lord to strengthen you. Then ignore them and get on with life." The feelings may actually not have been trustworthy--but they were still there.

I would never have dreamed of seeking medical help, but sometimes the pain was too great to ignore. The repulsion was twofold. Aren't people who go to psychiatrists "crazy"? I thought of state mental hospitals and thought that's the path I'd be going.

The other, more significant objection was a spiritual one. Isn't that what my faith is for? Isn't that what prayer is for? If I was a truly spiritual man, should I not be able to pray and think my way out of this? All my life I believed and taught that the Lord steps in to help those who are in spiritual need. Perhaps if I prayed even harder and longer it would all pass!

And then came a day of crisis. I was driving to make a pastoral visit--and I was in agony. Every worry beat upon me at once. The grief was palpable; it was as though I was impaled on a knife. I turned into a store parking lot, put my head back on the seat, and thought, Forgive me, Lord, but I cannot live like this any longer. I think I am going to have to end my life.

I had no means at hand to do so; I would have to think of a way. While I was thinking, a bit of a Robert Frost poem strayed through my head. It's a poem that appears to be merely about a man traveling through the woods on a snowy night, but I remember a teacher telling me once that it actually evoked Frost's attraction to death in times of depression: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep." I had promises to keep--promises to my wife and my children and my church. And in fact, at that moment I was on my way to a visit. Someone was expecting me. I put the car in gear and drove on.

That night I reluctantly told my wife that I was going to see a psychiatrist. She echoed what I was thinking: only crazy people go to psychiatrists. You should conquer this by faith.

But I could not.

When I began treatment by a psychiatrist, I also began talk therapy with a Christian psychologist. Most experts agree that talk therapy and medical therapy are more successful in treating depression than either one alone.

On the counseling side we began to work on attitudes--ways to think--that would help me to avoid falling into patterns of depression. Depressed people can learn to evaluate their environment more accurately.

On the medical side, my psychiatrist asked me to try an antidepressant medication. Even though I knew psychiatrists used psychoactive medications as part of their treatment, it was at that point where I began to pull back. For so long I had thought of my depression as a spiritual fault to be overcome by willpower and prayer that to try to solve it by so simple a solution as taking a pill seemed wrong.

A brief exposure to an Adventist colleague, however, had left my psychiatrist with knowledge of the Seventh-day Adventist philosophy of "wholism"--that the mind, or spirit, is not separate from the body, but part of it. What we do to our bodies affects our spirits.

"Diabetes affects one's mood. If you had diabetes, would you refuse insulin?" he asked. In his view, God has enabled researchers to identify a physical cause of depression. Why not make appropriate adjustments to your body to help your mental and spiritual health?

He explained that these new medications don't make a person "happy." They do not elevate the mood of a person who isn't depressed. But by balancing critical chemicals in the brain, they remove one physical barrier to happiness for some people. Furthermore, they all take at least three and as long as six weeks to work; there is no potential for addiction.

As for their putting me out of touch with reality, he slyly pointed out that anyone who would contemplate suicide with as few actual problems as I had probably wasn't in touch with reality anyway. He was right. In my deepest depression even the smallest problem or slight would disable me.

For me, all of this began the end of a nightmare. I had feared I would feel "not myself" after these treatments. But for the first time in years I felt as though I was myself--the me that had been hiding inside the pain for so many years.

My problems weren't all solved. But I did begin to see beauty and happiness around me where there had been none before. I began to appreciate the efficacy of prayer. I began to understand the books about improving the spiritual life; I now had the energy to apply them to myself. I began to have energy to work out problems that faced me.

I still have appointments with a Christian counselor, though less frequently. My prayer life has improved tremendously. I meet occasionally with a psychiatrist to monitor medications. I hope there comes a time when I might be able to phase out the medication, but I am not rushing.

Sometimes depression moves in on me again. Through the hopeless feeling I remind myself that it will pass, and I keep close to the Lord until it does.

I generally do not tell people that I am taking antidepressants. That's not because I'm ashamed of it, but for the same reason I wouldn't tell them about my other medical conditions. I don't want to be known as "the pastor who takes Prozac" any more than I would want to be known as "the pastor with kidney stones." At times, when it would be encouraging to another person, I cautiously share that I've struggled with depression. But I do that as rarely as I share anything else about myself in settings in which the intention should be to listen to the other person.

In the meantime I fully intend to enjoy the new life God has given me.

Permission by Adventist Review, January 22, 1998.


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