Depression and Spiritual Direction
October 2-8 was National Mental Illness Awareness Week. I’m a little late to the party, but this week I’m going to post on my own struggles with clinical depression. This article was originally posted on July 31, 2007. It is also posted on the Spiritual Directors International website.
I sat in my car and took a breath. This would be the first time I met with my spiritual director. I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew I needed to do this. I needed someone to help me find my way out of the depression that had darkened my life and back to intimacy with God. I hadn’t sinned or wandered off–nothing so dramatic. What I had been for the last five years was busy. First I attended seminary plus worked a full-time job. After seminary, the full-time job continued, and I added a part-time pastoral position. Somewhere in the midst of preparing for ministry and actual ministry, I had lost my own way with God. I was tired, burnt-out, and I needed help. I had also been diagnosed with clinical depression and was on anti-depressants. But I needed someone to help me sort through all of the negative images and feeling; I needed someone to help give me hope. I needed someone to talk to without one more person to tell me to hang in there and just “have faith.” I needed someone who could listen to me–listen to my story–then help me to connect my story back to God in my daily living. I found help with my depression from a source I had not known about until a retreat at a Benedictine monastery: a spiritual director.
Depression is a reality of life. One in ten people suffer from some form of depression, with women experiencing depression twice as often as men. Depression used to carry a heavy stigma with it. It was thought we should be able to shake it out of ourselves and get on with life. It was a very painful stigma for Christian women because the assumption was that something was wrong with our relationship with God. If we would pray more or serve more, or have more faith, then surely the depression would magically disappear. Thanks to new studies we have learned that depression also affects us physically and not just mentally and emotionally. There are anti-depressants to now get our brain chemistry right with the chemicals we need to be healthy. Christian women like Ruth Graham and Sheila Walsh have also told their own stories of dealing with depression. There are several treatments for depression: anti-depressants, counseling with a therapist or pastor, and groups to listen and offer help and advice. I found help through these avenues, but I also discovered a spiritual director essential in helping me come to grips with my depression and deal with the root causes of it.
One of the things my spiritual director helped me with the most was my self-perception. It’s amazing how much depression can warp our perception, especially our self-perceptions. When I was in the midst of my depression, I couldn’t see anything good in myself or good for my future. It was a downward spiral of self-loathing and self-negation. I could not see who I really was or what I was capable of. I also had no ambition. All I wanted to do was lie on my couch and channel surf all day. I did not want to go to work, to church, see friends, or move. I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to be in a situation where my own worst fears about myself could be confirmed. If they only knew… echoed in my head. I had become my own worst enemy.
To get out of this cycle took more than one thing. I had gone on an anti-depressant, but I also needed someone I could talk to. That’s when I discovered spiritual directors. A spiritual director is a mature Christian that guides another Christian into seeing how God is working in his or her everyday life. Spiritual direction helps a person to evaluate his or her life and see where God is working and moving. It is a process of making us more aware of the presence of God, and disciplines we can practice to make space for God in our lives. The relationship can be formal between a trained spiritual director and directee, or informally, between two friends at church. Pastors, Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders can also be spiritual directors. I chose a trained spiritual director: Sister Mary Pat. She offered the structure and guidance I needed to see who I really was and what God was doing in my life. These are the key elements she brought to me:
Accountability. I was more aware of how God was working in my life on a daily basis knowing that my spiritual director would be asking “What has God been saying to you?” the next time we met. Instead of feeling like God was so far away, I became more aware of how God was working in my daily life, especially through my friends. Sister Mary Pat also held me accountable on my own spiritual disciplines. I was fine with telling her that I slacked off on prayer once, but to have to report that twice can be a difficult thing. Knowing I would be telling my director about my weekly disciplines was the catalyst I needed to stay on track. This also kept me on track with my daily life as well: getting to work, going out with friends, going to church–the things I needed to do to give me perspective and lead me out of the self-loathing bubble I had created for myself.
Fidelity. My spiritual director told me the single most important thing I could do was to be faithful to God: to both my time with God and what God had called me to do. American society is addicted to quick fixes and instant gratification, but God does not work that way. There is also no one way to nurture our relationships with God. Listening to God and being faithful to what God is calling us to do is the most important thing we can do. As we pray, listen, and obey in our daily lives, our faithful response to God will open up avenues for God’s grace to flood our lives. I learned the importance of being faithful to God, whether I felt liked it or not. I also discovered that God was faithful to show me the areas of my life that needed God’s healing. But I had to give God time and space to do that.
Objective viewpoint. Having an objective viewpoint while I worked through consequences from past actions, as well as some misperceptions about God, was a great help. I found out the roots of my depression went back to my misperceptions about God that I had had since I was a child. I grew up with a very angry God who was just waiting for me to do something wrong, so God could get me. I also had to deal with consequences from a sinful time in my past, and then forgive myself and let God heal me of that time in my life. My spiritual director gave me a balance between seeing myself as a helpless victim on one side and blaming myself for everything on the other. All of us have blind spots, and none of us view ourselves the way we really are. A spiritual director can help open our eyes to those blind spots, and lovingly show us the areas in our lives where we are not obeying God. He or she can also give us guidance in how we can turn away from those ungodly ways and become more like Christ. On the positive side, a spiritual director can also tells us what we’re doing right, and how he or she sees God working in our life, when we’re not seeing anything good in ourselves or our lives.
A friend of mine discovered that having a spiritual director helped her work through theological questions she had. As she went through seminary she had questions about God, and she wished she had someone to talk to. Now that she has a spiritual director, she wishes that she would have known about spiritual directors a lot sooner than she did. We all have theological questions. How does God work in our lives? Our families? Our neighborhoods? Our enemies’ lives? Our world? A spiritual director can help us see where God is working in all of our lives, and not just those areas we consider spiritual. All of these questions also played a role in my depression, and my spiritual director helped me find biblical answers to these questions.
Discernment. After the depression, I continued to see my spiritual director. I wanted to make sure that the habits and things I had learned, I would stick with. I’m glad I did. Not long after I worked my way through the depression, and the root causes of it, I went through major life changes. Sister Mary Pat helped me to navigate and discern God’s will through those changes. I had lived in Kansas City for eight years and been an assistant or associate editor for my denomination’s Sunday School curriculum for six years. I had bought a house, and spent four years getting it just the way I wanted it. Then a relationship with one of my best friends took a turn toward the romantic. The problem? He lived in Chicago.
I talked and prayed with my small group at church and with close friends. I also received guidance from my spiritual director. By this time Sister Mary Pat knew me very well, and she asked very pointed and sometimes hard questions, to help me discern God’s leading. I felt released from my calling as an editor, and not a year later I was moving to Chicago and marrying my best friend. Now on the other side, I can say this was God’s will. I am very grateful for my director helping me to see the new vistas God was leading me into. I also know that if I start sinking back into depression, that I have the tools she gave me to help me navigate through it. (I did find another spiritual director here in Chicago who has helped with discerning God’s calling and my vocation for this time in my life.)
The best benefit of spiritual direction is being more aware of God’s presence in our lives and having a more intimate relationship with God. It was also wonderful to know I wasn’t alone. Sister Mary Pat would tell me of the times she struggled with depression, and how God faithfully saw her through. I didn’t have to feel ashamed. Depression is a part of life. All of us deal with it. I found out that it’s okay to ask for help.
I am very glad that I got out of my car that day. The year I saw my spiritual director, I came to see that God really was working in all of my life, and that God cared about the things that I desired and wanted. I found out that deepening my relationship with God takes time, solitude, and fidelity. But it was worth the time–even when I wasn’t seeing any results. I now know that God is working and moving in my life, and I have resources that I can use to help me deepen my relationship with God. And the next time I feel like I need spiritual direction, I won’t hesitate to get out of my car.
If you would like to explore spiritual direction and find out how a spiritual director can help you in your walk with God, discerning God’s calling in your life, or your vocation in the world, I would love talk to you. Please Email Me .