Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Road to Recovery

This post is one I have thought about writing for some time now, and I felt that the time was right for me to share this part of my life more openly. I'm not really comfortable with talking about it because it may make people who can't relate feel awkward; also there's a stigma attached to the condition I have. For the past 2 years I have been treated for Clinical Depression. Known as the "common cold of mental health", it affects 1 in 10 people at some point in their lives. This is more than simply feeling the blues, but a condition that darkens the emotions of those affected from it. For some the condition is short term; for others it is a lifetime struggle to not be consumed by feelings of hopelessness, sadness and low self-esteem. Some eventually lose the battle.

I walked into a clinic in May 2004 knowing that something was wrong. I felt anxious, I wasn't sleeping or eating well and I was loosing weight; whether I ate or not there was always this ache in my gut. I would cry a lot and would often think, "If I got ran over by a car all my problems would be solved." I withdrew from people and would find myself at times curled up on the couch as if to protect myself. Thinking there was something wrong with me physically that affected my emotions, I was unprepared for the results of my examination. After some extensive tests which turned up nothing, the doctor began asking some questions about my personal life. Then came the question that I wasn't prepared for: "Do you think you're depressed?"

I sat there for a moment on the examination table. I had been clinically depressed as a teenager, but that was years ago I thought. How can I be depressed? Yes, I was going through some personal issues, but I was handling them well - wasn't I? I have Jesus in my heart, right? Didn't he heal me of that stuff way back? After all, we're supposed to be known as a joyful people! The very thought that it could have come back was foreign to me. I had made that part of my life as something in the past that God totally delivered me from. Yet in my state of denial I could offer no other explanation to the doctor. Finally I said, "Yes, I think I'm depressed."

After some encouraging words and a recommendation for follow-up, I walked out of the clinic with a prescription in my hand and a sense that my life as I knew it had come to an end. My next stop was a baby shower for my brother & sister-in-law, but how could I face all those people? I would have to tell my family & friends sooner or later, but what would they say? And there was definitely no way I could continue with my responsibilities at church. I had thought of walking away from my pursuit of pastoral ministry earlier; now this seemed to confirm that I had no business being in a position of spiritual leadership.

Looking back at that moment, I can see that it wasn’t the end but the beginning of my journey to recovery. The first steps were made when my family surrounded me with their love and encouragement. Since depression can be genetic (I have family members that either did have or were going through depression) it was comforting to know that maybe – just maybe – it wasn’t something I let happen to myself. You see, I had blamed myself for my condition, thinking that if I had handled things better I wouldn’t have “gone around the bend.”

My church family was also there for me. I wasn’t allowed to quit the leadership team at Calvary; instead, I took a leave of absence. My reasons for taking a break were not made known except to a few select people, mainly the rest of the Elders and a group of friends that Angel & I met regularly with. To my surprise I found others at church who were in the same boat as me. They too knew what it was like to live with depression. Other people in my “network” came out of the woodwork – friends who weren’t a part of my church (some Christian and some not) who confided in me that they too lived under a cloud of sorrow.

My “network” was a part of a wholistic healing process I went through. I came to see and appreciate better the fact that God has made people as body, soul and spirit. Whatever affect one of those parts will affect the others. As thinking and emotional beings, God created us to be relational. We need to be with people; their smiles, their touch, their words of encouragement give life to our souls. They need the same from us as well. I needed to work on being more relational, which meant addressing issues with people in order to bring reconciliation and healing. We may accomplish great things in life, but on our deathbeds we will look back and see that the only thing we truly had (or didn’t have) was the people in our lives.

One of the things that kept me going was the thought of all those confused and hurting people I would have left behind had I made the fatal choice I felt inclined to make. Knowing that I was free to make choices gave me a sense of empowerment – that I wasn’t stuck or painted in a corner. I didn’t have to feel trapped in my circumstances, but it took a lot of psychological counseling to help me see that. This was where the thinking part came in, because thinking affects our feelings. My counseling course from PBC gave me a better appreciation for the need to, as Romans 12:2 says, “renew the mind”, and that psychology can be used as a tool by God to bring that renewal in our thinking.

Music has been a big part of the healing of my thoughts & emotions. There have been many times when I have been at home or in the car listening to a worship CD or a CD from a Christian artist. The words and music would blend together and infuse in my heart a sense of joy and hope that would often move me to tears. Songs like I could sing of your love forever (I love Sonic Flood’s version best), Healing Rain (by Michael W. Smith) and Mountain of God by Third Day (my favorite band) have especially touched me in a way that words can’t express.

As a wholistic being God gave me a body, and I saw how taking better care of it could help in my recovery. Eating right, drinking lots of water, being active, adequate rest and taking my antidepressants (which I refer to as my “happy pills”) were all part of the routine. I also found alternative health care to be a benefit. Seeing a massage therapist and a chiropractor every month released tension in the muscles, kept my skeletal system lined up and improved my body’s biochemistry.

But the one thing that is most important, from which the other aspects of our lives flow from, is our spiritual life. Our bodies help us interact with our environment and our souls help us interact with other people, but it is with our spirits that we interact with God. It’s by our spirits that we know we belong to our heavenly Father and cry out to Him (Romans 8:15-16). I needed to allow God to deal with areas of unbelief that kept me from having a deeper experience of His love for me. We can have everything going for us; we can be in perfect health with lots of money and friends, but if we don’t have Jesus living and perfecting His life in us it all means nothing.

Now, 2 years later, I look back and can say with the psalmist that I too have “walked through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). Over that time I have gone through a lot of emotional peaks & valleys (last spring & summer was especially bad) but in the last few months the ups & downs have been more like waves than a rollercoaster. Am I out of the woods yet? I don’t know, but I have learned some things over time. I’ve learned that it’s still true that God heals and saves us from sin and sorrow. Even though we have the presence of Christ in us we are weak, frail and prone to get weighed down by the world. I can identify with Elijah the prophet, who in 1 Kings 19 crashed emotionally and wanted to die after achieving a great victory over God’s enemies.

I’ve also learned to be more caring and less judgmental. In the past I had met a few Christians who were going through depression; having my own depression broken when I came to know Christ I had a hard time relating to believers who were depressed as I thought they weren’t as “spiritual” as me. As someone once said to me, “Everything happens for a reason, and this will make you a better minister.” It’s not like I went from being an insensitive clod to Mother Theresa, but I have learned to have more compassion for those who suffer in sorrow. Apparently I’m not the only person in ministry who suffered from depression, so check out this article from Rick Warren’s

I write this not to make something of myself, but to encourage and inspire those who live with the stigma and fear of rejection that comes with having Clinical Depression. There is hope, so hang in there! I also want to pay special tribute to some people in my life; although there have been so many out there who have built me up, there are a few who stand out that deserve special recognition.

Greg, my pastor, mentor and friend, you have a heart to listen and you did so without any judgment. You are a man of integrity and compassion that I admire (and I will beat you at foosball some day...)

Phil, my mentor, counselor and friend, you are truly a man of God. God is love, and you are the most loving person I know. You have taught me how to receive from God and people (and I hope you can teach me how to snowboard this winter...)

Kailey, my friend, you have inspired me to live life to the fullest. Your smile and your beautiful personality breathed life into me, and for that I’m eternally grateful (we'll have to do Starbuck’s soon)

Bethany, you are more than a niece to me. You are a friend, and it can’t get any better than to be friends with your family. You and I are alike in that we want God to make the world a better place through us, so keep being the change you want to see in the world (we'll have to do Tim Horton’s soon)

Colin & Galya, you have been such good friends to both Angel and me. You have loved us, prayed for us and fed us in your home so much! You are missed and loved, and we can't wait til you (and your soon-to-be-born baby) come home. Until then, we'll see you in England in '07.

Angel, my dear sweet wife, I can’t live without your love. I know that I will always have it.

And to Jesus Christ, for dying and living again for me, words can’t express my love for you let alone your love for me. To you alone, my master and friend, be glory and honor forever.

(To read a complete list of all my posts related to Clinical Depression, click here.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Summer Adventures

It's too hot to sleep, so what better time to blog than at 1:00 in the morning? Please exuse me if this sounds like the ramblings of a tired, overheated 36 year old, 'cuz that's what this is! Recently I had my birthday, and on the one hand I feel like my youth is slowly slipping away (my brother Niels reminds me of this often when he points out my crows feet) in another way I feel like I'm just starting to live my life. I told someone lately that I'm tired of living like my life is limited, and that I'm not going to let anyone tell me anymore that I can't do what my heart desires. "It can't be done" has been the motto of my life for too long!

This new attitude has allowed me to start living and enjoying life; part of that involves taking risks. Take for example my recent trip to Capital Ex. Edmonton's annual K-Days has been rebranded and had a few new rides; one of them was something called the Skyscraper. At a mere 56 meters (170 feet) you are swung around at 110 kph (70 mph); let me tell you. it was the best $30 I ever spent! I never felt so scared and so alive at the same time - it was so much fun. Or my more recent trip to the Big Valley Jamboree, where I had taken a group of clients from work to take in this annual country music festival. I'm not a big country fan, but I do have to admit I enjoyed myself. Then there's Edmonton's annual Hertiage Festival; Angel & I always make a point of going to this wonderful celebration of world culture. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells are always a big treat (by the way, our picture as seen is from Heritage Festival, complete with the cowboy hats I bought for Angel & me at Big Valley). All of these summer adventures are a reminder to me that it's never too late to start living life. I have some people that God brought into my life to thank for encouraging me to live; some day I'll write about them in future post.

Now if only I can convince Angel to let me buy that motor scooter...