Pastoring in the midst of depression

As many of you will know, I suffer with ongoing depression. I have a somewhat gory history with it. Prior to being on medication, I had two fairly major depressive episodes – one during university, one shortly after getting married.

The first was the less serious and, given I knew nothing of depression at the time, I essentially ignored it. Whilst I lost the ability to function for several months, things eventually lifted and got better seemingly of their own accord. The second was significantly worse, couldn’t be easily ignored and was diagnosed as very serious. It lasted about two years, during which time I had two specific and concerted attempts to take my own life (both, evidently, quite unsuccessful) as well as engaging in many more, ongoing reckless behaviours in a more passive attempt to effect the same outcome. I was also forced into a 6-week hospitalisation (with the right to at least go home of an evening) by way of threats to section me if I didn’t comply, and I wasn’t so mental as to reckon an enforced stay to be preferable.

All of that means I am now on permanent medication. By and large, on my current meds, I am perfectly well – I have no problem, I function properly and I feel perfectly normal. However, I still have periodic dips. I have never had anything quite so serious as my two-year stint since that happened, and thanks to my medication, I suspect I am unlikely to ever have it that seriously again. But, as an old friend and fellow sufferer recently said to me, ‘it never really goes away, and always lurks in the background.’ That has been my experience over the past 16 years of dealing with it. I am usually well with the occasional significant, but not utterly disastrous, dip. The dips vary in intensity and longevity, sometimes lasting a matter of weeks, other times they set in a stay for months at a time. I am, currently, in a significant dip.

Another friend, who is similarly prone to depression, recently asked whether I had any wisdom on how to press on in ministry when depressive episodes kick in? Alas, I had almost nothing for him. The only thing I could say was that simply getting out of bed and functioning to any credible degree at all was, in my book, proper cause for celebration. My former CBT kicks in and I can only remind myself, horrible as things seem at the moment, they are not episode of some 12 years ago and my medication means that it will only descend so far and last so long. The hope lies not in the moment but the fact that, as every time that has come before, this will eventually pass.

In the meantime, every day feels minimally grey, more frequently black. Everything seems like a slog, a hulking effort. Each issue, meeting or task feels like psychological torture. Anxiety rides high in matters that would barely even register so much as a raised eyebrow under normal function. Whilst each person will be different, I find sermon prep and writing far easier than pastoral meetings, delivering sermons and person-facing tasks. Writing is an excuse to at least be alone, without the pressure of having to maintain a front. When I was teaching, one couldn’t realistically stand in front of a class and say, ‘sorry kids, I’m just feeling a bit off today, so if you wouldn’t mind an hour of silent note-taking, it would be much appreciated.’ Pastoral ministry carries the same sort of pressure to perform.

Except, I find pastoral ministry much harder in that respect. Not only because of the general burden for the church – that is amplified in the midst of depression – but also because churches like mine are chocabloc full of people with real grounds to feel as I do. One feels as I do but is conscious that there is no real ground, or right, to do so. It is hard to look an asylum seeker in the face, who has faced all the danger of getting here and the challenges inherent in remaining, and whine about depression from your relatively prosperous, comfortable perch. Little induces more guilt than feeling depressed and knowing you have absolutely no ground for feeling the way you do. It is made all the worse when people with real problems are in your midst – not only asylum seekers, but people with far more legitimate grounds to feel low – simply get on with their lives, making the best of their situation, whilst you have nothing in your life that compares with theirs. But the guilt doesn’t make you come to your senses, it just debilitates further, inducing yet more guilt still.

Despite the advice you are often given, I’ve never particularly found exercise or light boxes make much difference in reality (NB: I appreciate for some these things are beneficial and I don’t want to discourage those who find them helpful). But I do know that, psychologically, doing all that I can to rid myself of this wretched black dog feels better than not doing those things and feeling the worse for not having even tried. In reality, I suspect those things do nothing to help, but doing all you can – no matter how inconsequential – has some psychological benefit, if not merely indicating to oneself that you at least wish to be free of your tormentor.

How does one credibly stand in the pulpit and preach hope from a position of inexorable bleakness? How does one offer pastoral counsel to others where such counsel has such little effect on one’s own disposition and heart? I can only stand up and speak what I know to be true and insist that my feelings on the matter don’t come into it at all.

I know that my redeemer lives, no matter whether I feel it or not. I know that one day I will be free of this illness, whether it feels that way or not. I know that, apart from Christ, there is no hope, whether it feels like I have hope or not. I know that in Christ there is joy to be found, whether I feel I can access it now or not.

I can at least know that the Lord seems to delight in saving and using even depressed cabbages like me. None of it is of ourselves when we are well, so it remains equally not of ourselves when we are not. The same Lord that loved David in his depression, Elijah in his and others beside, is the same Lord who loves me. What I feel about it is, frankly, neither here nor there when it comes to what is true. Feelings are frequent liars. But truth remains true whether we feel it or not.

That means God loves you, whether you feel it or not. The Lord will use you for his glory, whether you feel it or not. Even in the midst of the blackest night, the Lord will glorify himself and there is nothing we can do or say to change it. Our feelings may not be our friends, but the truth remains true, whether we feel it or not.