Church Girls Get Depressed, Too
Sitting in my therapist’s office as she and the collaborating psychiatrist handed me pamphlets about depression and anxiety disorders, I knew the conversation was a long time coming. A week prior was the first anniversary of the last time I saw my mother alive. On that same day, the love of my life stood at my front door and said, “I don’t want to be here.” Days later, my doctor told me I would need a corneal transplant as soon as possible, the final letter denying my appeal to keep my mother’s home came and I was still trying to make sense of the death of a cousin and an aunt 24 hours apart. I’d hit a wall and knew that, if I was going to come out of it alive, I needed help.
Admitting that I needed help and seeking it wasn’t difficult for me. My mother was a Psych Nurse Practitioner; she taught mental health nursing and dedicated the entirety of her career to ensuring people received the best care. I was always around the profession. In school, my friend often joked about the Prozac ink pens, Zoloft note pads and other paraphernalia I had from drug reps. My mother worked hard to normalize issues concerning mental health around me. She would never let me call anyone “crazy” or “off”. She said that we are all one event away from needing serious help- if we weren’t there already. After she died, I received notes from her former patients telling me how thankful they were that she never let them feel like they were strange. It’s quite possible that same feeling propelled me to walk into my therapist’s office and begin the work towards healing.
I don’t say that I have depression; rather, I am living with a depressive condition. Depression isn’t the totality of my life. It just means that there are certain times when I need to be extra gentle with myself. Anniversaries, holidays and birthdays all can be triggers that can take me to sad and dark places. Yet having the right language about myself ensures that, when I need it, I can get the right tools. For instance, long before my depression diagnosis, I was diagnosed with PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) and navigating those particular times were difficult. Now, I can recognize difficult moments within my PMDD cycles and give myself space to feel what I’m feeling without guilt or giving into painful thoughts. I’m grateful that my wellness team works together to ensure that I have what I need to thrive. Mama always said you need God and every other qualified professional to be your best self.
Growing up in church though, I admit that I did not hear my mother’s approach to mental health reflected in our theology. According to many pastors and leaders, having depression means you lack faith or the belief that God can heal. I heard sermons where pastors used schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as punch lines to mark the distinction between real believers in God and those who were just playing. And instead of dealing with the emotional trauma women have experienced, it was often theologized in a way that made it our fault. For example, in some of our churches, heartbreak isn’t just heartbreak; it’s a soul tie. We wouldn’t be responding to the dissolution of our relationships in depressive manners if we hadn’t had sex or crossed lines of holiness and sanctification. Hearing this has kept many Black women from seeking the help they desperately need to heal and move forward.
If I am completely honest, while the events of the past two years triggered a breakdown, it was not my first experience with depression. Even outside of PMDD, I was wrestling with moments of deep sadness. I spent years longing to feel like I was good enough and feeling the weight of never living up to expectations. I had family and friends who loved me but I couldn’t shake the reality that my dad didn’t. I would watch my homegirls enter relationships, eventually become married and start families. While I was happy for them, I would secretly pray for my turn and question what I’d done to prolong my chances at love. I can’t even count the number of times I prayed, “God, can you just show me what I did wrong so I can repent and we can move past this?” It was difficult to focus on the life I was living because I wanted more in it and couldn’t understand why I didn’t have it. There are those who would tell me not to worry about that because in time, God would give me the desires of my heart….as if it was that easy. It isn’t that easy. It never was.
Depression doesn’t signal a lack of faith. Acknowledging that you need help is a sign of faithfulness. I knew God wanted me to be well. I’d moved beyond conversations of survival and realized that life was about more than just surviving what I’d been through. I was alive and each moment we have is a gift. God has gifted me with life and my expression of gratitude for it is to live. Untreated depression was keeping me from doing that. Knowing God is able to heal my brokenness carried me to the pharmacy when my prescriptions needed to be refilled, allowed me to keep sessions with my therapist and attend my survivors group meetings. It is my faith that allows me to rest in the truth that God will not allow me to remain in this dark space forever. Living with a depressive condition has deepened my relationship with God. On my worst day, when I filled with doubt, I am not alone and I am still loved. Only a God who loves us can sit with us in our darkness and remind us that light is present.
But even though light has always been there, all of my days have not been good ones. Just six months following my diagnosis, I found myself in a psychiatric hospital. I’d been trying too hard to pretend like it didn’t matter that the man I loved moved on so quickly from loving me. Pretending like a shower and a long nap was enough to wash the cologne and memories away of a pretty okay date turned rape. Pretending like I wasn’t upset with my friends who encouraged me to go on the date in the first place. Pretending like I was fine was how I went from preaching on a Friday afternoon to being hospitalized three days later. The weight of it all, compounded by continued grief, came crashing down. Had it not been for the intervention of friends, I am most certain that I would not be here. And yet, while hospitalization was a difficult experience, it saved my life and provided me with the space to be honest about what was really going on with me and what I truly needed to be well. I realized that I couldn’t keep things bottled inside for fear that I was burdening the people around me. Right now, I need to let them know everything that’s going on even if it borders on oversharing. It could easily mean the difference between life and death.
As I journey through life with a depressive condition, I realize that everyone cannot walk alongside me. Some people just can’t do it; it is too much for them. And then there are others that I can’t afford, for the sake of my own peace, to have in close proximity. All of that is okay. It really is. And I am most grateful for the friends and family who have been consistent in their love and care. Many of them educated themselves about depression and anxiety disorders. They talked with my therapist about strategies they can employ to be safe space for me, learned the proper ways to help me in the midst of panic attacks and became the refuge I need in tough times. It’s because of their love that I can hear them when they tell me that my behaviors are becoming concerning or when they simply tell me to log off Facebook and take a nap. I recognize that it is rooted in a care for me that I sometimes can lack for myself.
One year ago, I was deeply broken and did not believe that “one year later” was even possible. Today, I am stronger and I am lighter. Every day is not perfect and I have let go of the unrealistic expectation that any of them will be. Some days, I am sad. I miss my mom. I miss the life I had before everything abruptly changed. But now I have the tools to not give into that sadness. It doesn’t have to win…and it won’t. A year from today, I will smile at even more strength, even more growth and even more life I am living. I am living.
If you believe you are experiencing depression or any other potentially life threatening emotional condition, please seek help immediately. Contact 911, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) or your health care provider.