Discovering the cause of my depression (and it’s not what I expected)

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From October ‘16 to April ‘17, I suffered from major depression. A series of big life events culminated with an explosion of everything I thought I had figured out about my life and faith. That’s when the dark clouds rolled in, shrouding everything in a heavy blanket of hopelessness and despair.

A month in, I accepted that I had no idea how to fix myself or my emotions and reached out to a Christian counselor at my church for help. A few days later, I sat on the couch in Shawn’s home office for an initial session and told him the story of what led me to where I was. He listened intently, asked thoughtful clarifying questions, and affirmed what I described myself as going through. Near the end of the session, he sat back in his chair and let out a long exhale.

“Sara, I don’t think you need counseling.”

Hearing this, I felt like a bomb had been dropped on me. I had just dumped my heart out and shared quite vulnerably about how I was feeling seriously depressed. If that didn’t warrant a need for counseling, I didn’t know what did.

“Okay,” I said, staring blankly at him. I waited for further explanation.

“I think God wants to teach you something new about who He is through this season,” Shawn said. “I think what you need most right now, Sara, is a safe place to ask the deep questions you’re wrestling with.”

I wanted to believe what Shawn said. I wanted to believe there was some kind of higher, divine purpose to the awful period of depression and doubt I had inescapably entered into. Before leaving his office that afternoon, Shawn proceeded to invite me to a “safe place”—a small group he was starting for people like me asking hard questions about their Christian faith. I agreed to attend and went home, unsure of how I felt about what I’d been told that day.

Even after attending the small group for a few months, the statement “You don’t need counseling” continued to bounce around the walls of my mind as I kept wrestling with depression. If I didn’t need counseling, why wasn’t my depression going away? I eventually talked to my doctor and decided to try antidepressants. I also saw a psychologist who affirmed I was struggling through a major depressive episode.

Still, all the while Shawn’s words echoed in my head that maybe God was somehow going to use this season for something more. I just couldn’t perceive how He could.

Today, it’s the beginning of June and I have been out of depression’s darkness for almost two months. Praise God. Having been on the other side of that season of depression for a bit of time now, I’m starting to see in hindsight just how God invaluably shaped me through that dark experience—and also what caused my depression in the first place. It’s something I started to see back in April after I returned from a weekend trip with friends and I suddenly no longer felt depressed.

The answer is simply this: my depression was the chief symptom of a broken identity.

The way out of depression’s fog took work. It involved peeling back the curtain of my heart to discover all the hurt I’d been unknowingly carrying around, and having a spotlight shined on the many lies I’d fallen prey to. It took ongoing meetings with Shawn over coffee and plenty of soul-baring conversations at my small group for me to finally see my heart was a wounded mess, and it was dying to find healing. I thought I’d managed to make it through a period of major life changes last year without many scratches. Yet without even realizing it, the entire time my heart had been soaking up the poisonous message that I was not a person of worth. And when you start to believe you are not a person of worth, it doesn’t take long for all of life to start feeling empty and worthless, too.

When I learned how to stop ignoring my heart and let it actually speak, my eyes were opened to the deeper issues going on. Having seen what was really occurring under the surface, I had to choose to face the muck I found inside me head on. I had to pull on my boots and walk out into the swamp of my heart and start washing it clean with the truth of God’s Word. I started scrubbing away the lies that I am not a person of worth, therefore creating the space my closest friends would later fill with the truth that I am loved, and I am worthy of love. The lies about my identity left after that weekend with my friends, taking the darkness of depression with it.

I now know how crucial it is for me to stay rooted in the truth. I know what it’s like to live with a broken identity, and I’ve experienced what happens when love floods in to heal my brokenness. My journey is far from over though; the adventure of learning how to live wholeheartedly pursuing after Jesus has just begun. I am grateful this chapter is behind me, and spring has finally arrived in my soul. It feels so good to feel the sunshine on my face again.

While I know many probably share a similar story to mine, please hear me: I am not saying everyone who struggles with depression or any kind of mental illness is dealing with an identity issue at the root of it. I truly believe mental illnesses are real and that the last thing people need to be told is that what they’re going through is all in their heads, or it’s just a spiritual problem. For me personally, however—through a lot of soul searching and work to examine my heart with the help of others—the core of my depression lay in my identity being damaged from a number of significant experiences. It wasn’t until I addressed the heart of the issue that the dark clouds of depression finally parted and I felt like myself again.

If you or someone you know is going through a difficult time, please reach out for help. Talk to someone, whether it’s a friend, a pastor, a doctor, a counselor, or a family member. Send me a message, or check out some of my other posts about mental health. Let’s choose to walk into our hearts—together. The journey is worth it.

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