Journey to Joy
by Susan Bowen

My lifelong battle with depression began when I was 11. During the ensuing decades, I tried many avenues to free myself from the desolation of this crippling disease.

I read countless books on depression, hoping for some magic formula that would deliver me from its clutches. Doctors prescribed various antidepressants. Some helped, but none provided complete relief from the debilitating symptoms that plagued me.

Could anything assuage the tremendous weight that was intent on crushing the life out of me?


I

was raised in church and had a definite salvation experience when I was 8 years old. I don’t remember a time when God and His presence weren’t as real to me as my earthly parents.

However, as I transitioned into my teen years, I drifted from my relationship with God. As the clutches of depression tightened around me, I felt estranged from God and the people around me. I longed for a way to escape the horrendous burden that pressed me down.

Although I wasn’t living a Christian life, I still went to church regularly to be with my friends. During a revival service just four days after my 18th birthday, I felt the Holy Spirit tug at my heart, and I rededicated my life to the Lord.

Suddenly, I had a purpose. Most important, I knew Someone loved me and I wasn’t alone.

Despite my new relationship with God, I continued dealing with the depression off and on. It was my secret shame. Compounding the effects of the depression was a belief that Christians are supposed to be full of joy. I existed under the self-ascribed condemnation of being a depressed Christian (which meant I couldn’t be a good Christian, so I thought).

The debilitating episodes of depression didn’t hit me until my mid- to late-40s. Until then, the disease had sapped my energy and hindered my enjoyment of life. But now it slammed into me with hurricane force.

I went through weeks of hardly being able to put one foot in front of the other. I could barely interact with people, and stayed at home unless I absolutely had to go out.

I continued to work, but I cannot explain how difficult it was to function. This crushing weight I carried is unexplainable to anyone who has never experienced it. I longed for deliverance and even thought about suicide. But I knew I would never do anything that drastic because underneath it all, I knew God was still there. I just couldn’t see any hope that anything would ever change.

During this darkest time─when I thought the rest of my life would never be any different─I sensed God’s hand at work.

I began to take baby steps to return to my first love and the foundational habits I had let lapse over the years. In my depressed state, it was exhausting to make even those small efforts. But obedience in minor disciplines can lead to major breakthroughs. These little steps turned into giant strides when I got my first taste of real joy. In the end, joy is worth the effort.

Making the Journey

If you are experiencing depression for the first time and it lasts more than a few days or a couple of weeks, make an appointment with your physician. Sometimes depression is caused by a physical condition, such as a chemical or hormonal imbalance.

Create a designated space in your home for devotional reading and prayer. This is the best thing I ever did. For me, it has become a sacred space and has made a tremendous difference in my Christian walk.

Read your Bible daily. Only the precious living Word of God could have breathed life back into my dying spirit. When you’re feeling especially bad, read out loud. Especially, read passages from the Psalms (see sidebar).

Pray even when you don’t feel like it. Depression is strong, but God is stronger. Many times I’ve simply prayed, “God, help me.” He always hears.

Be diligent in church attendance. Depression makes it difficult to face people, especially in church where people appear happy and positive. But don’t start skipping services. Your church is your lifeline.

Sing along to uplifting Christian music. Sometimes the louder you sing the better, because it helps to drown out the negative and accusatory voices that try to dominate your thoughts. Don’t worry about whether or not you are singing on key; God likes joyful noises.

Realize that depression does not make you a bad person. You did not choose to feel this way; it is not your fault. Depression is not caused by a character flaw.

Embrace hope. Hope is difficult. It’s easier to stay down than to hope for a better day and have your hopes crushed. Look ahead: one day you will spend your last day living under the weight of depression.

Fight back. Instead of being angry at yourself for what you perceive to be your shortcomings, get angry at the enemy of your soul for tormenting you with this disorder. Depression is not who you are; it does not define you.

Remember that Jesus is an ever-present help. Don’t look to others to fulfill you or to make you feel better. Even though unintentional, people will eventually let you down. Unlike our loved ones who can’t always be with us, Jesus will never leave us.

Only God can permanently fill the vacuum that the disappointments of life often leave. Be careful about where you turn in trying to find relief from the emptiness that accompanies depression. Just as other people can’t fill that void, neither can drugs, alcohol, food, entertainment, or any other temporary fix.

Postpone making any important decisions until you are feeling better. If something can’t wait, get input or advice from someone you trust before taking any action.

Practice smiling. It’s astounding how just the act of smiling can make you feel better. God had to teach me how to smile. After a while, it stopped feeling awkward or forced and came naturally.

Do the hokey-pokey. Yes, I mean it. You cannot “put your whole self in and shake it all about” without smiling or even laughing. Give it a try!

Set daily goals. Find something to get your mind off your immediate misery. Ask yourself, Is there something worthwhile I can do right now to make me feel better? Do something that requires effort and movement.

Avoid things that trigger your depression. Pay attention to your feelings and take note of circumstances that cause the depression to start coming back over you. Learn what may cause you to feel depressed and don’t put yourself in those situations.

Be persistent. Realize that someone may be watching your battle. You can be a testimony of God’s delivering power. Determine to serve God regardless of how you feel.

Saturate each day in gratitude. I noticed a change in my emotions as I prayed for a friend suffering with depression. For the first time in my life, I thanked God for my own depression because it helped me to relate to my friend. That’s where my breakthrough began. As I expressed my gratitude to God, I was able to embrace healing.

Depression is a cruel captor, but Jesus is a mighty Victor. He came to set the captive free, including those held captive by depression.

Susan Bowen is a member of the West Anderson (S.C.) Church of God.