The memory is burned into my brain. After waking my two sisters and me up while it was still dark, my mom tucked us in the car and drove to a lookout point with a clear view of distant hills and mountains. As the sun edged its way through the clouds, my mom read the story of Jesus’ resurrection from her leather bound Bible. I was 7 years old, and it was Easter Sunday.
These days, my mom and I don’t spend much time together. The memory of that Easter morning sticks out so strongly because closeness with my mom was rare. Her lifelong struggle with major depression made connection near impossible, and in my later life, it made me hate myself for having the same dark emotions that slowly eroded my mom.
I tend to think of my childhood in two parts, before and after my mom’s depression and my dad’s control issues buried us all. Up until about age 6, photos of my sisters and me show clean clothes, brushed hair and fresh smiles. And then suddenly, the photos change. We go from clean-cut kids to three girls with knots in their hair and stains on their T-shirts.
A few years after my little sister was born, my mom seemed to lose interest in us and started spending a lot of time in bed with the door closed. She’d wake up in the middle of the night to journal and pray for hours and burst into tears for no apparent reason. My sisters became my support system and we learned to manage without my mom’s input. For me, parental depression was heart-wrenching, but it also taught me to be scrappy. In seventh grade, I closed the gap between my two front teeth by cutting the ends off water balloons and hooking them around my teeth like rubber bands. I became an expert at making sourdough toast and using the iron to straighten my frizzy red hair.
When my mom finally sought help, she went to the place she felt most comfortable: Church. My parents started regularly meeting with our pastor who, I later learned, told my mom her depression would go away if 1. She prayed more and 2. She submitted to my dad.
An estimated 9.8 million U.S. adults have a serious mental illness. As for the aching sadness of mood disorders, 15.7 million adults and 2.8 million adolescents have had a major depressive episode in the last year. Right now, more people are suffering from mental illness than living in the state of Washington. Based on pure statistics, many of those same people are likely churchgoers.
But at our evangelical Christian church, mental illness was not part of our religious education. In my “praise-Jesus” church, the only prescription for anxiety and depression was spiritual warfare. Stories involving encounters with angels and demons were told consistently. A guest speaker with a drug-riddled past discussed visiting hell after a stint as a devil worshipper. One of our youth leaders once told me she had seen a demon in her friend’s bedroom while she was in high school. She said it had wings (was she maybe insane?). These hellish tales scared the bejesus out of me, and as I battled my own inner turmoil, I became convinced the devil had taken a hold on me.
My own depression sprouted when I was 11 years old. I’d fantasize about swallowing pills to end my stupid, uncool, totally pointless existence. Not until I sat on the floral print couch in a therapist’s office at 22 years old did I get a diagnosis. Most of life up to that point was spent wishing I wasn’t such an ungrateful jerk who often secretly sobbed uncontrollably until the numbness settled in.
There are some Bible verses that I still find truly beautiful and inspiring. Many times the verse, “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow — not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” has brought a wave of hope into my life. But the whole “wives must submit to their husbands” thing feels more than a little misogynistic. Obviously, submitting to my dad did not make my mother’s depression magically disappear. Things eventually got worse, when my parents asked my older sister and 19-year-old me to get the hell out of their house (I’m paraphrasing). Then life got better when I found a therapist, left religion and found treatments that work for me.
With so many “hallelujahs” and too little scientific understanding in my early life, getting a grasp on the biology of depression helped me push back against the negative stigma long associated with the illness. Religion taught me that emotional pain was a spiritual battle, when really, biology has so much impact on our mental state.
If my mom’s mental illness had been treated like a heart problem or broken bone, who knows what would have happened. Maybe nothing or maybe she would have been able to experience the hope and fulfillment that depression robbed her of. She wasn’t given the tools to deal with mental illness, and by default, neither was I.
Nearly every day I wake up with the worry that my depression will clobber me with apathy until I succumb to staring at the ceiling in bed, unable to move. I can’t imagine how excruciating my mom’s pain must have been without any psychological treatment. Undoubtedly, the people in my church meant well, but I can’t help but think of the countless churchgoers who likely received irresponsible advice from religious leaders while living with the turmoil of depression and anxiety. At the very least, I hope they know that they are not alone. Those of us who know the pain of depression feel everything more deeply, but we are strong, and we are definitely scrappy.
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