Depression, Addiction, and Faith

You wake up with it, carry it around with you all day, can’t shake it at bedtime and it chases you into sleep: dread, a low, sad, irritable feeling in the pit of your stomach.  A nagging sense that something is wrong, but you know in your heart that what’s wrong is inside you.  Maybe you can’t sleep, or maybe you can’t stop sleeping.  Food has lost its taste, but you might eat anyway just to fill up that void.  It is not uncommon for a Christian to feel forsaken by God, abandoned and despairing that even faith is just too difficult to sustain.  Depression is much more than being bummed out, sad, or “blue.”  Depression is as different from a low mood as diabetes is from being hungry.

What is Depression?

Depression is caused by a neurotransmitter problem in the brain.  Serotonin, a naturally occurring “feel good” chemical brain component called a neurotransmitter, is needed in sufficient quantities flowing freely in the synapses in the brain in order to feel good and be able to self-soothe when bad things happen (anything from a stubbed toe to a bad grade on a test to a snippy comment from a boss or coworker).  True “endogenous” depression happens when serotonin gets “stuck” in its receptors, and won’t come out to play any more.  There may be enough serotonin in the brain, but it isn’t flowing; it’s all bound up.

The symptoms of depression can be debilitating and worse.  Depression is a leading cause of suicide.  Depression is a serious illness and left untreated it can cause death.  Like addiction, however, it can be difficult to diagnose because at least some of its symptoms seem to be behavioral or “attitude.”   And like addiction, many people who are not familiar with this disease will assume that laziness or lack of “discipline” is the cause the depressive symptoms.

Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

Even people who have deep and abiding faith can become depressed.  It is a cruel but “equal opportunity” disease that can affect people of any faith, age, sex, socioeconomic background or race.  While it may seem unfair or confusing that God could let someone who has been devout suffer, it might help to view depression as one would view any disease.  Read up on Christian perspectives on suffering, and take comfort in knowing that looking at it from a Christian perspective, suffering is not for naught.  Remember Job?  Suffering brought him closer to God.  Isaiah 48:10 suggests that disease and suffering might have a spiritual purpose: “…I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  Depression can bring you to your knees, quite literally, and the surrender of ego can contribute to a real spiritual awakening.  And, as you may know from reading about addiction and recovery, the surrender that happens when you turn your pain over to God can be the beginning of true and profound healing.

Treatment Plus Love and Trust in God Equal Happiness and Success

Addiction and depression can be a deadly duo: many people suffering from depression discover that certain substances such as alcohol or opiates will numb the psychic pain of depression.  These substances don’t help heal the depression in any way; the serotonin remains bound and out of circulation, but the substances mask how miserable that feels.  This leads to a vicious cycle of needing to use substances in order to function because the depression can be so debilitating.  Alcohol is particularly insidious in this cycle, as alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which means that it increases overall physiological depression.  In short, it makes things worse.  But the temporary numbing feels so much better than feeling the depression, it increases the addictive quality of the drug.

Proper treatment for depression, like proper treatment for addiction, may include such Christian practices as prayer, reading from the scripture, and partaking in activities with healthy, positive people from your faith community.  But as with any medical illness, seeking the correct medical treatment will include becoming educated about your illness, discussing it with the appropriate doctors and specialists, and learning about all your options, including medication.  Many of the newer antidepressant medications target serotonin and actually help address the neurobiological cause of depression – they don’t just treat the symptoms.  These medications feel much more subtle and gentle in their effect; they aren’t numbing and they don’t make you feel “high” or euphoric.  They just help you feel normal – able to manage life’s ups and downs.

Changing your attitudes and behaviors can also help your regain your faith and use it to combat depression, along with your medical treatment.  Catching yourself when you think negative thoughts out of habit can be an important component of self-care for depression.  Getting fresh air and exercise can do wonders, even if your level of fitness isn’t that great – a five-minute brisk walk will increase serotonin and help start a new and positive cycle in which feeling better leads to being more positive and hopeful, which in turn leads to restoring faith and making it easier to weather the next bout.  And connecting with people who are strong in their faith can be inspiring and supportive.  Reach out, get connected and let people in.  You may find your willingness to connect with others helps them too.