Friends in the Valley of Shadows

I remember it like it was yesterday. Except it was 2005, and it wasn’t a single instance. It was two years after I graduated, and I was living with two of my best friends from college. And, I wanted nothing to do with them. It wasn’t them; it was me. And no, that’s not just a breakup line. I was clinically depressed.

I wasn’t suicidal; I never have been in that deep of a pit. I don’t say that to avoid some stigma, but really just to clarify that I don’t have as deep of insight or experience into the hopelessness as some others might. That season of my life in 2005 was difficult, not because my life circumstances really dictated it to be that way; I was just experiencing depression. It’s not that I wasn’t praying hard enough; some nights I went to sleep with tears—each one a more earnest prayer than I ever could have voiced.

I went to counseling. I took medication. I prayed, sort of. But mostly I retreated to my room. Nothing really excited me much, except maybe food and movies. As an extrovert who was living through depression, I had switched over into a shadow side of introversion. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other, it just isn’t me. I thrive off relationships, but those were exactly the things I tried to avoid. Isolation became a refuge because it was becoming familiar, because it was the easiest way to mitigate any further emotional pain.

I say I remember it like yesterday. The depression partly, but mostly I remember my roommate knocking on my bedroom door every evening when he got home from work. And every evening I had already locked myself in for the night. I would have grabbed Chinese takeout after work or pizza or “cooked” some unhealthy frozen dinner. I would have turned on the TV in my room and started trying to numb the emptiness and sadness and loneliness and hopelessness and existing numbness with food and pseudo-realities. I felt trapped in my depression, and food and movies provided escape and comfort and many extra pounds. And every day he would knock and ask if I was okay. And then he’d ask if I wanted to come out to the living room or if he could come in and join me.

I’d always decline.

Until one day the hope of my friend’s heart seemed just compelling enough, just inviting enough, just tempting enough for me to take the risk of effort and vulnerability. And so I remember it like it was yesterday, when I came home from work with my takeout Chinese food and turned on my bedroom TV, and instead of shutting my door and locking it, I simply left it open. And my roommate, like every other day before it, came to the doorway and said hi.

I don’t know everything about how depression works. I know how it feels. And I know that as much as you feel alone and try to remain alone, you can’t get through it alone.

My roommate’s friendship didn’t cure my depression. It was still a pretty slow trudging out of that valley. But I didn’t go it alone. Even in the valley of the shadow of depression, God was near, in one of my best friend’s consistent and patient compassion.

After Robin Williams’ death, I read blogs where people claimed that suicide and depression are spiritual matters. I get their intention—or what I hope is their intention. That God is hope. But it is a real battle, a real weight of hopelessness. It doesn’t just go away by praying or reading devotionals or Psalms. Not any more than cancer does or Ebola or war injuries. I never stopped believing God was there, was near; it’s just that it all felt so shallow or hollow. Not untrue, but not exactly real or tangible. More like head knowledge, but lacking heart. It was the presence of God through my friend that gave me real and tangible hope; God’s love shifted from the love of Hollywood movies to something I could feel.

It’s irresponsible, ignorant, inflammatory to exploit a celebrity’s apparent suicide for page views and Facebook shares and likes. And I hope I’m not committing the same error. I simply hope that instead of piling onto grief and pain and loss and fears and tears, that instead of trying to have a spiritual answer for why everything in this broken world happens, we might think of those in the throes of mental health problems, that we might seek to offer tangible help instead of insensitive, formulaic, uninformed expositions.

We have to quit assigning blame (the illness or the person) and advocate for better mental health awareness, education, and care. That means better access to counseling and medication. It means talking about depression instead of sweeping it under the rug or pretending it doesn’t really afflict Christians. We need to stop separating the body and soul like contemporary Gnostics or dualists. It stigmatizes those who aren’t able to completely control their mental health. The mind is a part of the body as much as a broken bone is a part of the body, and both the body and the soul make up the person. We can’t divide ourselves. When we’re depressed we aren’t spiritual failures. We’re normal people—with depression.

If we want to handle this in a “spiritual” way, as followers of Jesus in his kingdom, then that means we must care for the physical needs of those who are depressed. We have to care to check on our friends more consistently and patiently. Walking with friends and family through depression might be hard, but in doing so, you are bearing their burdens with them. It might not feel like it’s doing anything and only wearing you down, but it’s making their burden lighter. Where they feel alone (even if they are choosing it themselves) or hopeless or numb or empty, you struggle with them. You don’t absorb the same feelings, but you travel that valley alongside them.

I don’t mean to oversimplify the difficulties of depression by suggesting a friend will make it all go away. But it’s a start. And it’s the most Jesus-like (read: the most “spiritual”) thing many of us can do for them in those seasons. Guilting them into joy (as one prominent blogger suggested) won’t solve a thing and is the opposite of the way of Jesus. Truly walking with people who are depressed even when they can’t find joy, communicates that they are loved and valued and important. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted; we should be, too.

I don’t know why my roommate decided to check on me every day. I assume it’s because he cared about me. He could’ve easily gotten bored or angry or resentful or frustrated or indifferent with all of my rejections at the door.

But he never gave up on me.

That sounds like the gospel to me.

If you or someone you love is considering suicide, you can find help at 1 (800) 273-TALK with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

 

Brent Newberry

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About the Author
Brent Newberry is a Pastoral Resident at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. He is in the second year of the residency program and received his MDiv from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, TX.

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