A new perspective on the penance of depression

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July 28, 2011 by Nicole

One thing I did a lot of thinking about while at Lourdes was the possible purpose of my illness (depression).  Before I go any further, I want to be absolutely clear that in no way do I believe what I am about to say applies to everyone whose struggle with depression interferes with their daily lives, because depression is a serious illness that often can be mitigated with proper medication and therapy.  I also believe that God has helped doctors and researchers to discover medications to help treat depression, and that depression is NOT a punishment from God.  What I am about to say, however, does apply to my own life and what I have learned in Lourdes.

That being said, I have come  to understand and accept my depression and the particular challenges it poses as a personal penance.  WHAT?!? Yes, that’s right.  Depression is the penance that I carry through life.

Before I left for Lourdes, my only understanding of penance was during Lent.  I did penance by abstaining from meat every Friday and giving up something that was hard to go without (for me, that’s namely SweetTarts or going out to eat.)  I guess in a very small way, this is “penance,” but while at Lourdes, I gained a deeper  understanding of the nature of  penance.  Penance is a powerful reminder of what we risk losing if we allow sin to come between us and our relationship with God.

I don’t believe that God gave me depression to punish me, but I do believe that He allows me to struggle through the suffering for a higher purpose.  Depression clearly tests me on many levels.  If I allow it to, it takes away my life, keeps me feeling worthless, guilty, and both unloved and unlovable.  I get irritable and restless.  As a creature of habit, I slip into allowing myself to pull away from the people who love me, leaving me withdrawn and isolated to the point of hopelessness.  For those of you who know this illness first hand, you know that fighting these tendencies is daunting at times, ,and impossible at others.  You can’t just “snap out of it.” Depression is, in its worst moments, suffocating; it’s like wandering into and getting stuck in the shadow of the valley of death.

I think that the weaknesses and hardships that naturally come along with depression are an easy target for Mr. Scratch–Satan and his little minions look for anything that could serve to drive a wedge between you and God, and the things that he whispers in your ear–that you basically are a worthless and unlovable little freaky headcase who is not good enough for anyone, or for that matter, even God (sound familiar?)–that you deserve to be sick.  You have depression because you deserve to be punished.  And, when I look at what depression does to me sometimes, like slowly pushing me towards isolation, despair, and false guilt, it ultimately leaves me separated the people who love me.

I have come to conclude that living with depression is at least a small reflection of what it must be like to live in hell.  But, more importantly, what I also notice it that it is always those times when I hit rock bottom that I seek out God.  His love and presence doesn’t magically cure my depression, but gently nudges and urges me back into the arms of the people who love me, and who are also reflections of the loving and merciful God who created them.  Like David says in psalm 40:2, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

Penance necessarily offers an opportunity for conversion–a change of heart and a discipline of mind in which I try my best to constantly walk on the road that leads me to the place where I can come closer to God.  In my case, this means that I have to fight like hell to resist the temptation (okay, it’s more like an ingrained habit or natural tendency for me) to withdraw into myself and away from others.

It means that I have to push past the intense urge to do nothing but sleep all day and make myself go outside and take the dog for a walk.  It means that I have to keep a physical list of positive messages to go back and read when I feel like no one cares about me.  It means that I have to do things that make me incredibly uncomfortable and feel awkward, like forcing myself to talk to my husband at the times I feel most overwhelmed and unlovable rather than bottling it up and pushing it down inside.  It means that I have to admit I need help when I feel like life is impossible.  It means not succumbing to the urge to be “nice” when people want to treat me like a doormat.  And, it means taking the time to reframe and retrain the way I think.

On some days, this isn’t too difficult, on other days, I feel like I am trying to move the Swiss Alps with nothing but my bare hands.  The reason it is my penance, though, is not because I am being punished by God, rather because it shapes and forges my relationship with Him.  Compared to some people to whom a personal connection with God is not difficult to maintain, I have to work harder at my faith.  I have to trust that He hasn’t abandoned me, and I have to work twice as hard to “be still and know [He] is God.” (Psalm 46:10).  It doesn’t come easy to me, and having depression makes it even more difficult.  I constantly have to work hard–and I do mean hard–to not allow my illness to suck the life both out of me and out of my faith.

While I don’t think that this is the case for everyone who has depression, I think for me, at least, this is a large part of why I struggle with my illness, and possibly why God will bring healing into my life, but not necessarily a cure.  And when I think about it that way, it puts my illness in a whole new perspective.

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