Years ago, I came to the conclusion that my depression was 1) not the result of circumstances alone, 2) approaching the realm of dangerously-out-of-control, and 3) not going to go away without help. So help was what I sought. I went to a counselor, and I also went to my doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant.
I was open about my battle with depression. I hoped I’d win (I still hope I’ll win someday), and I hoped that others around me facing the same battle could draw comfort from knowing someone else was battling the same enemy. I didn’t consider it something to hide from or cover up in shame; it was just a thing to deal with, no more and no less, just like chronic conditions that don’t involve the brain.
None of that was the mistake. The mistake, it turned out, was extending that openness to some of the people I went to church with.
I still remember the reaction of a woman with whom I had considered myself close. Upon hearing me confide my struggle and what I’d done to address it, she told me how wrong I was. To feel the overwhelming sorrow of depression was a sin, she said; she also told me it was a sign that I was possessed – she quickly (ahem) corrected herself on that score, saying I was “demon-oppressed” rather than demon-possessed – and therefore the answer was not to be found in the professional health care community, it was to be found through prayer, spiritual battle and talking to the pastor. By taking medicine for depression and going to a secular counselor, she said, I was compounding my sin with more sin.
Before that conversation, my spirit was hurting but resolute. After that conversation, my spirit was broken.
Today, years removed from that conversation I still vividly remember, I’ve dragged myself to the reluctant realization that this woman may not have intended to break my spirit. She may have thought she was being kind and loving and encouraging, because if you earnestly believe that mental illness does not exist, then giving a cheery pep talk about sin and spiritual battle and rejecting psychiatry would seem like the kind thing to do. That realization in itself has been an uneven journey; it was much more twisted fun to think she wanted to harm me.
It would be counter-intuitive today to ask her to apologize to me. After all, I doubt she remembers that conversation ever taking place, and forced apologies for offenses forgotten by the offender are hardly the path to forgiveness. And if she (or one of her loved ones) is reading this and recognizes the story, I leave her name out of this because shaming her personally would be just as counter-intuitive as demanding an apology.
So what’s the point of telling an angsty story from so long ago it qualifies as “back in the day”?
The point is to encourage… remind… whatever you to be as gentle with others’ honesty as you hope others will be with yours. And the other point is to encourage… remind… whatever you that what sounds gentle in your head might not sound gentle in another person’s ears.
Your words can bring healing, or your words can prevent healing. If you say the sort of words that prevent healing, you teach the lesson that honest vulnerability is unwelcome – that it’s preferable to say you’re fine and summon up a fake smile than to reach out with a need for support. But if you say the sort of words that bring healing, you tell a hurting person a story of hope – that showing vulnerability and being honest is the path to help and recovery.
That sort of hope is one of the things that draws people to God in the first place. People come to God longing to be accepted, comforted, given grace and unconditional love. Why, then, does it feel so rare for acceptance, comfort, grace and unconditional love to flow from those who call themselves God’s people?