Like millions today, I’ve faced the demon of depression for much of my life. In fact, I’ve battled severe depression ever since I was in the 7th grade, when I would cry my way through a long day of classes with a book held up in front of my face to hide my tears. My parents didn’t know what to do with my incessant sadness, and a brief mental breakdown during my high school years raised everyone’s awareness – especially my own – that something was not right inside.
image courtesy of anna siran photography
Even as a leader in the worlds of faith and the arts for over 25 years, the battle has never left – but a few silver bullets have made the clouds lift more often than not.
Are You Battling Depression Right Now?
Have you known that unrelenting sadness? That inner anxiety that everything will come crashing down at any moment? I used to tell my wife that I was one bad day away from being a street person, and two bad days away from a serious attempt on my life. Today, you wouldn’t know that’s my past, but for much of my life, the specter of depression haunted me daily. As a Christian, prayer has been the staple of my recovery. But other direct attacks on depression have also lifted me in powerful ways.
It’s my hope that some of the keys I’ve discovered, from sheer desperation, over the few decades of my life, may help you. While there is no one silver bullet for anyone’s depression, in my experience, a cocktail of them can put depression out of your life so you can function and enjoy your days.
Here are four of my silver bullets in my battle against depression.
1. Name Your Triggers, And Manage Them
One of the first things I had to do was to name what experiences triggered my spirals downward. If we never examine our lives and patterns, we will never discover the weapons we need to battle depression.
For me, relational conflict is a primary trigger. I’m fine if finances are tough, or even if I lose my job (having experienced this multiple times, the heat is off that one – See Gladwell’s David and Goliath). But whatever happened in my youth, whatever still happens in my psyche today when high emotions are expressed in a room, signals a trigger for me that I must constantly manage.
For that reason, a job that entails a steady diet of being around relationally dysfunctional people (needy, or belligerent, or hiding agendas, or socially clueless, or dismissive, or emotionally unfiltered) is not for me. I was a counselor of juvenile offenders, because my compassion compelled me there. I almost (physically and emotionally) died in the daily fray. I was a senior pastor of a local church, and while I was called to do it and wouldn’t trade that season for the world, the sustained need to be “on call” for crisis took me away from being emotionally present to my family. Some mornings I couldn’t get out of bed. Lord, I thank you for my wife.
I’m also an artistic personality, with a high bar for quality in visual, audio, and aesthetic fields. I’ve noted that being in environments where the bar for “quality” is what I would deem to be low, for a sustained period of time, takes me out.
Conversely, I thrive in arenas where creativity is high, interpersonal competition is low to non-existent, aesthetic comradery and collaboration is encouraged, and where my internal bar for quality can be exercised without being penalized or spoken of as “extreme.” (I can’t tell you how many deer-in-the-headlights looks I’ve endured because my dream is to live in a cathedral or modern castle.)
Having named a few of my triggers, I can note when an environment simply won’t work for me over the long haul.
2. Get Control Of Your Body, And Keep Control
Many moons ago, when I was in one of my darkest times as a pastor, a friend came to me. Natural eating and medicine were still quite unpopular then, and my friend was a hippy in a GMO world. I had tried all the natural anti-depressants everyone seemed to rave about – and they all had the opposite effect on me. I would be brought lower by using them. As I shared my struggle, he had a thought.
He suggested I try NuLife’s Energy – a unique blend of Ginsengs and other ingredients that serves as a food supplement and stimulates the adrenals. I needed to take it twice daily, for 30 days, for it to build up in my system. 20 or so years later, it daily takes me from feeling naturally “sad, tired, and afraid” to feeling “normal, energetic, and confident.” If I stop, I just go back to the way I was (Note: for women, ginseng has a different affect, so be aware; and everyone should consult a naturopath if you’re considering trying it).
For me, Energy was the first real game-changer in my battle with depression. Nothing else worked for my body like it did.
That told me that my body had something definitively to do with the depression. It was not just a spiritual darkness from which I needed delivered. My emotions were being controlled, in large part, by my body’s systems. Genetics, my early diet, and more were ruling me. Energy revealed the reality that if I could control my body, I could take the heat off of depressions onslaught.
The second part of that silver bullet was a book called The Mood Cure. It addressed the amino acids in the brain, and the unhealthy fats, that wreak havoc on the moods of our generation. With a naturopath’s guidance, I began to experiment according to their system. One amino acid, in a low dose (had to figure that one out), put a “bottom to my cup” emotionally. That has generally remained. It’s a book worth the read if this is your battle.
The third part of this was identifying the foods that take me down, and make me tired. Carbs, especially breads, desserts, and alcohol – things that convert quickly to sugar – I treat like enemies (with occasional forays into their territory just because melted butter on bread or a frosty glass of Guinness is so darn good). When I went with primarily proteins and vegetables much began to change. Egg whites for breakfast beats a bagel hands down for my moods.
The fourth part of this is weight loss and exercise. To be honest, the “buzz” others say they get from exercise, or the “clarity of mind” has never been my experience. I hate exercise. I really hate it. My skin itches, my body hurts, and sweating is miserable. But I do it anyway. Because it must be good. Do it anyway.
3. Surround Yourself With Positive Reinforcements, And Manage Your Influences
This is short. I am, by nature, compassionate. But I have to watch my relationships. I need people in my life, like my wife, who are “can do” people. I don’t buy the folk philosophy you see on Facebook quote graphics that says you should avoid everyone who brings you down. Jesus walked into the mess, and we should to – to heal it, and be healed ourselves in the process. But we can watch our diet, and hang around the orbit of those who are waking up believing anything is possible.
I also have quotes up in my office, and images, that remind me of who I am and what I am here for. I keep a sheet of phrases in my drawer that I review each morning, that helps me reorient to what is truly important in my day. While there are often no fireworks with this one, the steady diet of these words keeps me from The Drift in my calling and hope.
One day, when I was at my worst, one of my closest friends was with me in a car. I said, “I feel like I’m about to lose my mind.” He was matter-of-fact. “No. You won’t lose your mind. You’re going to be fine. That’s the truth.” It was all I needed. I still need words like that in rough moments. We all do. Someone can help us take charge.
4. Invite Prayer Unceasingly, And Embrace A Lifestyle Of Gratefulness
By far, my best silver bullet, discovered only my recently in my life, is the Daily Examen – a specific prayer practice from the Ignatian tradition. Other patterns forms of prayer have also renewed me from within.
The power of prayer sits at the center of the universe, a tool given to us by God to invite Him into any and every concern we have. When my community prays for me, I am stronger. When they forget, or I forget to ask, I am weaker. I don’t understand the theology of it all. I just know it’s true. Humble yourself, and welcome God into the equation. (If you’re not a follower of Jesus, or not sure about God in general, I invite you to ask Him to show himself to you in your depression. In surprising ways, though the depression may not lift overnight, He will.)
Two little spiritual books have also helped me put a dent in depression. 1000 Gifts by Ann Voskamp, has been a game-changer for me. I now see most of life through the lens of thankfulness, and have come, with her and my wife, to believe that cultivating the habit of thankfulness for every little thing is the key to a joyful life.
The second book that has served me well as an artistic personality and Christian leader is Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. Using ideas in spiritual formation, which were familiar to me, I learned to face fears that were previously tucked away, and to learn from them what my heart was telling me. Sure, we can get lost getting in touch too deeply with ourselves (in some folks view), but in my experience, leaders who stuff their emotions are far more broken and on a fast track to health issues than those who are listening to their heart daily.
Finally, I also see a Spiritual Director every month or so. This has been a priceless addition to my growing emotional and spiritual health.
I have a daily rhythm of personal prayer, reading, and devotion that keeps me centered, and this also prepares me to step into the battle of my day fully armed, and with my silver bullets locked and loaded for any challenge that may come.
This Is Just A Start
These are a few of my silver bullets for battling depression as a fellow journeyor and as a leader. I chronicle my path for keeping my spiritual passion alive in my book, The Elemental Life: The Earth, Wind, Fire, And Water Of The Passionate Spiritual Life. In my experience, if this part of me is alive and well, I have the strength to apply all of the above in my changing life.
I encourage you to seek out support in each of the areas above, and find – with God’s help – the silver bullets that will matter for you. My prayers, today, and as I read every comment below, are with you.
Question: Have you battled depression? If so, what “silver bullets” have helped you in your struggle?
Resource: I’ve named a few above. Again, The Elemental Life: The Earth, Wind, Fire, And Water Of The Passionate Spiritual Life chronicles my path for living in 4 rhythms that strengthen us for daily life.