As a Catholic who loves Jesus, serves His Church and even studies at the seminary, it is quite the cross to be depressed. Most just assume that I must not have faith because as St. Augustine says, “God had one child who didn’t sin, but He didn’t have any child who didn’t suffer.”
How could my suffering be any worse than the other crosses beared by others? Some people are terminally ill and hold on to great faith. However, I am just depressed: plagued with anxiety; the inability to maintain routine, do work, eat; and fatigued by the act of sleep. So is it really true that if I am depressed - even to the point of suicidal ideation - I must not love Christ?
I want to propose stigmas and questions I receive about depression and my answers to them as a Catholic woman.
Firstly, are you praying? This is often the first question that is asked to anyone in turmoil, whether depressed, anxious, in search of their vocation or just trying to find simple answers. And it is a great question. You’ve often heard that you can’t maintain a relationship without proper communication; and no, this God-creator-of-the-universe-and-your-soul is not one of those low maintenance relationships, it is one of constant contact. Yes, I do pray, and maybe I should pray more. Prayer hasn’t “cured” my depression, however, I pray because I love God and I know I can’t do this alone.
But you look so happy. Saint Theresa of Calcuta did not feel the presence of Christ for many years. Looks are deceiving. I am happy when I do things I love, but often times I might need to fake it to make it. More importantly, there is a lot that others don't see when I am busy isolating myself, digging my head into a book at the library or sitting in the adoration chapel. Remember that there is only one God, who knows every piece of our inward being (Psalm 139).
You’re choosing to be depressed. I have suffered from depression since I was about twelve going on thirteen years of age. Depression is not a choice. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain hindering the functions of my emotional regulation as there is not enough serotonin in my brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with high emotional states such as happiness and anger, our sex drive, appetite and is critical in the balance of our moods. They are connected to our hormones. I am one of the people who medication helps. Antidepressants have helped my anxiety and manic emotions, however, it only helps my depression when taken at a high dose for a long period of time. I repeat, DEPRESSION IS NOT A CHOICE.
You study theology, does that help with depression? The more I learn about our great faith of Catholicism, the more I love God. It is insane how beautifully composed God made the earth for us, how the old testament mirrors the new, the deposit of faith that was left for us, the sacraments instituted for us that we may receive the grace to live our Christian lives, how free the Church allows us to be and the fact that I am upheld as a woman. What more could someone ask for? The great thing about Catholic theology, is that it is not just a scholastic/intellectual endeavour, but a spiritual one as well. Knowing my faith is so important in my relationship with Christ, for as Saint Jerome eloquently puts it, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Knowing Him leads me to depend on Him more. However, scholarly knowledge and background in theology is not the determining factor of one’s faith. There are many people who do not receive religious instruction, nor know the bible like the back of their hand or study theology at all; this doesn’t inept their ability to love God with every fiber of their being. So no, understanding theology in and of itself can't fully cater to helping my depression.
Just think happy thoughts. This is usually at the top of the list of things to not say to someone with mental illness. Happy thoughts are not the remedy to a disordered mind. It helps when I think of nice memories, but then I fall into the temptation of despair, telling myself that is all they are, “nice memories.” If it were that simple, there would be no need for therapists, medication, support groups and awareness. I'm trying to live in the now; this means I want to resist the temptation of living in the past, or fantasizing about my future.
Quit being a victim. "Stop dwelling in your pain", "You are the one making yourself miserable." As logic follows, I don't believe anyone would want to choose this. I don’t want to be a victim, but I am a survivor. I have battle scars on my wrists from self inflicted cuts. I came out of an overdose with a completely healthy liver - how was that even possible? The last thing I want to do is dwell in my pain, which is why after coming home from my hospitalization, I found it hard to recall memories. I’ve managed to seal them and send them to a new archive in my cerebral filing cabinets. It is crippling to recall bad memories and just like the nice memories, that is all they are, “bad memories.”
What advice would you have for those who know someone suffering from depression? Do not expect too much of the person, but be empathetic and open. It does not help to invalidate their emotions. Consistency in any relationship is a sign of great love, so be as consistent as you can in your care for them. Encourage them to seek help and maintain the attitude that there is no shame. I believe that negative stigmas are the main reasons for why many in need of help do not receive it.
Lastly, one of my great brothers in Christ sent this exerpt to me from a book called, Let Yourself Be Loved: Transforming Fear Into Hope: “It is a painful thing to surrender our loved ones to God’s care, knowing that we are not called to sacrifice our own growth in order to make them whole.”
The author knows there is a limit to how much he can help, and that he is not God; therefore, I would suggest that you should always intercede for your loved one in prayer, turning them over to God.
St. Dymphna, patroness of mental illnesses, pray for us.
Karina Coss is known for always being in the library at Saint Joseph's Seminary, where she is currently studying for an M.A. in Theology. She has worked in Youth Ministry for over 6 years at her parish; but currently volunteers with the CFRs. On her free time, you might find her professionally singing in the shower, reading, cooking, painting, talking someone's ear off, or simply sitting in an adoration chapel.
Image by: [Marisel Rodriguez https://www.flickr.com/photos/mariselrod/]