Treading Dark Waters


Six years ago, my sister, Rachel, drifted out to sea — not a body of water, but the dark depths of depression. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Family crises, chronic health problems and other factors combined for a perfect storm that sent her spiraling downward. Rachel sat for hours sobbing, her eyes empty and sad. She raged over insignificant things, withdrawing from the people and activities she had enjoyed. Pressures of single parenting added even more weight.

I grieved for my sister and for myself. I missed our spiritual talks, our prayer times, our silly laughter while mall crawling. And I couldn’t understand how a person so committed to Christ could be so enveloped by mental darkness. Despite my prayers, each day Rachel slipped further out into the emotional deep, while I stood on the shore, helpless and confused.

I wasn’t the only one struggling. Folks at church witnessed Rachel’s disturbing moods and suspected a spiritual low had settled on her. They offered help. Some urged her to read the Bible more, pray, or listen to praise music. Others tried to cheer her up. One Sunday morning, a fellow member planted herself beside Rachel and announced, “I’m going to sit here till you smile.”

What this person didn’t know is what I also failed to realize at first—that a person in depression can’t just put on a happy face. I decided to get help from a Christian therapist and do my own research, which was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I have learned that depression isn’t always easy to comprehend, but we can offer companionship to those adrift on its turbulent waters.

I’ve had many down days, brought on by winter, midlife, a job layoff. Usually walking, swimming, spending time outdoors, praying, and talking to a friend have lightened my mood.

I learned, however, that more severe experiences, like the death of a loved one, abuse, health problems or divorce can take someone beyond the blues to depression that can last for weeks, months, or years. Depression is even packaged in some families’ DNA.

A severe case of depression is like a stubborn darkness, an in-your-bones sadness that won’t let go. A number of people I’ve known have plunged into their dark sea after a personal catastrophe, eventually making it to shore. The crisis faded with time, wounds healed, and darkness lifted, sometimes with the aid of a professional counselor.

But Rachel’s depression didn’t seem to get better. It became a major disorder and has now lasted for years. That’s when I discovered that not only outside influences can trigger depression but internal ones as well. If the brain lacks the chemical serotonin, which controls emotions and other neurological functions, depression can set in. Medications and talk therapy keep Rachel’s brain in balance, much as insulin and diet keep the blood sugars controlled in a diabetic.

Don’t confuse depression with lost faith. At church we’re usually surrounded by smiling folks who offer a hug and share what God has done in their lives. But what about a person like Rachel who doesn’t smile, maybe withdraws from us and admits that God seems distant and uncaring? Has she disconnected from God?

Sunset over the waterI used to think so, but Rachel has convinced me that depression doesn’t always signal a problem with faith. After a difficult week, she could cry uncontrollably and distance herself from family, but she couldn’t wait to get to church on Sunday. She drank in the sermons and sang “Amazing Grace” with tears wetting her face. She worked on Bible study lessons and told those in her support group that the only thing getting her through each day was God.

When Job fully processed the reality of his losses, he cursed the day he was born and struggled to sense God’s presence (Job 3:1; 23:3-9). David felt forgotten by people and abandoned by God (Ps. 31:10; 22:1). Jeremiah cried, “He [God] has driven me away and made me walk in darkness and not in light” (Lam. 3:1-2).

Beneath the heavy layers of sadness, depressed Christians still believe that their Redeemer lives (Job 19:25) and that His daily provision of mercies will help them to survive (Lam. 3:22-23).

Be quick to listen and slow to speak. One Sunday when Rachel let down her guard and shared her feelings with someone at church, the woman stared at her and offered a response that was void of empathy: “Things can’t be that bad.”

Another woman brushed aside Rachel’s words and offered her testimony of endurance through hard times. Then she concluded, “I just praise God when I’m down and choose not to focus on the negative.”

When she heard the word depression, she, like many other people, saw it as the work of the devil.

Depression creates an awkwardness that leaves us searching for causes and solutions. But offering those, even with good intentions, discounts the feelings of the depressed person. In speaking before we listen, we inflict more hurt.

A sensitive friend of Rachel’s followed the advice in James 1:19: “Be quick to hear … [and] slow to speak” (1:19). Every week after Bible study, she hugged my sister and asked how she was doing, then quietly listened. She didn’t analyze or recommend a remedy. “I’m praying for you,” this friend said. One day she ventured a step further and asked Rachel, “Do you ever feel that God has deserted you? I’ve had times like that.” Identifying with Rachel’s burden forged a deeper trust.

Make your prayers supportive. When Rachel first drifted into depression, I boldly believed God would heal her. A compassionate God wouldn’t want His child to suffer such mental torture, would He? I claimed scads of Scriptures, like Jeremiah 32:27: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” But when Rachel’s depression worsened, I thought God had met His match.

Eventually, however, I viewed God’s denials to my requests as a redirection of my prayers. Though some are healed of depression, Rachel would not be. But she could survive.

So I prayed for coping skills, that her doctors would find the right combination of cognitive therapy and medications. On her bad days, I asked God to be real to her, to show His presence on the dark sea (Mark 6:45-51). I prayed that Rachel would know that God identifies with her depression. In her affliction, He, too, is afflicted (Isaiah 63:9).

God has answered these prayers. Rachel has accepted her depression as a lifelong battle that forces her to depend on God. Her doctors teach her skills to discipline her thoughts and moods, and antidepressants keep her brain chemicals in balance. Rachel is showing me that God’s power isn’t shown only in healing, but in making our worst weakness strong (2 Cor. 12:10).

In the boat. Rachel’s depression has changed us. But it’s been a good change, forging a deeper bond between us. I’ve left the shore and climbed into the boat with her. Together we row on the endless dark sea, locked in a rhythm of love and faith.

We’re not alone. Beside us sits the Man of Sorrows, gripping the oars and rowing when our strength is gone. A few friends have climbed inside as well. And from where I sit, there’s plenty room for more.

By Lynne Miller