(this is the first part of a series on my journey of depression and shame, to finally overcoming the stigma against mental illness enough to get help and be diagnosed as bipolar. for more information and the post list, see the Intro. trigger warning: depression and suicide shaming and suicidal thoughts)
I don’t believe we are born believing that our negative emotions are wrong, i think this shame is something that we learn. I believe we can learn to use our emotions as guides to show us warning signals and lead us towards the next healthy steps (of course, with clinical depression, those emotions might be liars, i’m not sure how that works).
but many of us learn that normal emotions like sadness, anger, fear, and distrust are things we need to repress, for the sake of keeping the peace around us, being ‘godly’, and making our parents and others happy.
I struggle with depression. For years, probably for most of my life, I have struggled with depression and physical pain caused by depression and stress.
I never would have recognized it as depression though. I would have called it ‘feeling a little stressed’ or ‘having a bad attitude but working on it’, when secretly I felt like there was no hope and if I loved everyone around me, I would kill myself and rid them of the burden of dealing with me. I remember being around eleven, after doing something that upset my mother – i didn’t even know the word suicide yet – crying on my bed, believing that I was a major screw-up and a terrible daughter no matter how badly i tried to be good. If I weren’t so scared I might go to hell for murder (I was a christian who was afraid of losing her salvation at that point), i would murder myself so my parents wouldn’t be disappointed by me anymore.
I was twenty-three before it occured to me that these are not the normal thoughts of a healthy preteen child.
I brought it up once – only once that i remember – in childhood.
It wasn’t something i could talk about, because I quickly learned suicide was a taboo subject.
I don’t remember what I said, I didn’t say that I was thinking of it but tried to bring up the idea of killing oneself. My mom declared suicide very evil and nothing to be considered or talked about, and that was that.
I was afraid my selfishness kept me from doing it, but others considered suicide the ultimate expression of selfishness*. I felt most of my life that I was damned if i did and damned if i didn’t.
I also had unexplained pains and aches, and periods of ‘attitude’ where I just couldn’t feel happy and cried for no reason. I was sad that i was such a poor example of Jesus’ light to the world** My parents lamented once that i wasn’t even PMS (i wasn’t sure what they meant). I frequently had trouble making friends at school, my teachers once said i wasn’t adjusting well, and i went to the office to be checked for sickness regularly because of tummy aches – i still get stomach aches and joint pain when i am very stressed or depressed.
In retrospect, I believe a lot of this was partially because of undiagnosed childhood depression. now that I know what depression feels like, I can remember that I DID feel this way many of those times, all the way back to age 7.
In 7th grade, I was homeschooled for the first time. My homeschooling continued through graduation, and while there were some benefits, one cost was that I lost any of the ‘psychobabble’ from school counselor classtime that might have taught me how to cope with anger and that sadness was okay and how to deal with it. Also my family ventured deeper into fundamentalist Christian teachings, where we believed we would find out how to live and all turn out faithful because we trusted God and served him. My parents wanted very badly for their children to grow up to be strong soldiers for Christ, and I wanted that for me too. I wanted God to be happy with me, and not sad because of me. I wanted to hear ‘well done, good and faithful servant!’ when I died.
When I was sixteen, I took a great interest in the human brain, staying away from psychotherapy because that was ‘psychobabble’ by people who denied God could heal. I was actually very interested in psychology, and learning how the brain worked. I had an old college textbook I read in my spare time.
I also dreamed of being a christian counselor, to help people. Maybe even to help myself with my very big negative feelings I couldn’t seem to control – and by control I meant get rid of.
My parents encouraged me by buying a me a course on mental health from a respected Christian teacher. I ‘learned’ that suicide was the ultimate expression of ‘self love’ (which means ‘selfishness’ in the language i learned as a fundamentalist christian), and depression was either a failure to trust God, guilt, or an evil spirit that god visited on you for sinning – like Saul after God disowned him as king.
I had heard somewhere that depression was a medical problem, but this was generally dismissed as a lie perpetuated by people wanting to drag others away from God, while medicines that ‘supposedly’ helped with mental illness – depression especially – were even called witchcraft by a pastor at my church – who used bible verses to support this claim. I cannot find an article arguing this right now, but the general claim is that the word translated ‘witchcraft’ is pharmokopeia, which they say refers to psychotropic medications. By this logic, taking any medication that might help mental illness is actually trusting to ‘witchcraft’ and sin, instead of trusting God, forgiving, asking forgiveness, and living right.
I would like to point out that I am not saying the bible is against mental health care, simply that I was taught it was, and the Bible was used to teach me this. I no longer agree with these interpretations or usages of the Bible.
By the time I was done with high school, I didn’t admit I’d ever had depression (I believed I didn’t have repressed guilt and I knew I did pray and trust God, so how could I be depressed?), but I did believe that if I trusted God ‘enough’, he would give me peace and mental health in my life, and that if I worked hard, I would be such a good christian I wouldn’t have to wrestle with the dark sadness and suicidal thoughts again..
Unfortunately, I was never ‘made perfect’, although I had many long periods of happiness in my childhood and young adulthood (and probably periods of hypomania), the emotional difficulties, attitude problems, and unexplained sickness came back the worst they had ever been, when i was in college….
(disclaimer: my whole childhood was not depression and repressed feelings. there were many good days and fun times. but this post is about my history with depression, and mental illness shaming, and the warped beliefs i held about mental illness)
*the link to a reb bradley PDF is a note taking guide/companion to the tape set The Biblical Path to Mental and Emotional Health. the section on suicide as self love is striking. My parents got the set for me when I was about sixteen because I was interested in becoming a therapist to help people. I didn’t listen to all of it, the suicide and depression shaming filled me with very uncomfortable thoughts, and led me to put the tapes away until i trusted god enough not to be depressed. That day never came.
** I ‘got saved’ at age 5. I felt a great pressure to ‘be salt and light’ so that people around me would love Jesus and not go to hell. This ‘burden for souls’ and pressure to be Christlike added extra guilt onto me my entire life. For many reasons, both of reason and heart – and hurt – I no longer identify as Christian.