Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lessons Learned on My Journey Through Depression and Anxiety: Part I

Falling on the Grace of God

As I have traveled this road through depression, and more recently anxiety, I feel God has taught me many things, especially during these last several months. I am on a very good path right now, one with its ups and downs, but one that is leading me ever closer to Him. With the Holy Spirit as my guide, in part leading me through a very holy and humble priest, I travel. I'd like to share some of these lessons with you, knowing that God is leading each of us in different ways unique to our own needs, but in hopes that you, or perhaps people you know, may grow closer to Him, through your/their own crosses, possibly including depression or anxiety.

One lesson I have learned, this one actually a few years ago, late in the year 2008, is to view the cross of depression and anxiety in a more positive light. It was the first of many paradigm shifts. It is easy to view our crosses in a very negative light, for they are often difficult to carry and weigh us down. But in God's wisdom, our crosses can become something that actually lift us up, closer to Himself. Our crosses, including the crosses of depression and anxiety, are an invitation to rely more heavily on Him, to trust in Him rather than in ourselves, to come to Him in our weakness and lay our worries upon Him.

Depression and anxiety both introduce a choice. Do we despair or worry, or do we trust in Christ Jesus? No matter how we may feel, we do have the ability to make this decision. It is said that the Bible contains the words "Do no worry" or "Do not be afraid" or some derivative of those words three hundred-some times. Christ wants to make it clear that we are not to worry, we are not to despair; He is here for us and is taking care of us, no matter what the situation. His grace is sufficient for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).

Christ is the great healer, the great physician. If God the Father wills that we be healed, we will be. But He may also be using our sufferings for our own sanctification. Or perhaps both are the case - that He is using our sufferings for a special purpose now, and to teach us how to follow Him now, and will heal us when we are ready for the healing. In any case, if we trust Him, He will use the sufferings and the crosses of depression and anxiety for our own good and for the good of those He has entrusted to us. He cannot help but bring about good in our lives if we give Him permission to do so (cf. Romans 8:28). When we truly realize this, it is difficult not to react with gratitude, despite the difficulties we are facing.

Not only that, but when we truly trust in Him and lay our burdens upon Him, He helps us to pick up our crosses and carry them. He gives us strength to continue along the journey. He stays with us, and within us, giving us the peace the world cannot give us, peace beyond explanation, and giving us faith in Him that, no matter what the situation, we will be alright as long as we have Him. He tells us: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). We often try to do so many things for ourselves, especially when we are under pressure or have a time constraint. We don't rely on our Savior enough. Yet, He is here for us and here with us; He wants to help us and to lighten that yoke from around our shoulders through helping us to carry it.

This is what my blog title refers to: Falling on His Grace. I need the grace of God to help me through this tangle I call life. I find it too easy to fall into despair or worry, and I find myself in the state of depression or anxiety quite often. And why not? Life is difficult. It's too often full of uncertainties and frustrations, full of opportunities for worry and despair to sneak in and steal our joy. But we have a God Who is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful and wills our good. Rather than relying only on ourselves and our own knowledge and efforts and falling into worry or despair, we can rely on God and fall onto His grace. We can trust that God will work all things to good for us, that all uncertainties are not uncertainties to Him and that all we are worried about will indeed work out under His guidance. We can trust God that He will lighten for us all struggles and frustrations and that He will be our strength to bear them until He redeems them and brings them to glory.

I have struggled with depression all my life. I was born with a very melancholic personality. And I have, at least since early high school, tried everything I could think of to think and behave more positively and "beat" depression, only to be disappointed and frustrated again and again. What I see when looking back now is that, while I was praying to God for help and listening for inspiration from Him, I was actually relying on myself and my own understanding and abilities rather than on Him. I did not adequately trust Him and His timing. I did not desire the process He wanted to bring me through but instead impatiently wanted healing now. I am currently learning (and learning is the operative word here - I am a work in progress) that growth is a process - a process that must be led by God and not by me. He knows what is best for each of us, and He knows what timing is best. And He has the ability to carry it out. God can do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. And when we place our needs in His hands in the spirit of faith rather than keep them in our own, He does indeed begin His loving work in us. He has placed on our hearts a desire for happiness, a desire that is meant to lead us closer to Himself. He does desire to fill our hearts with His joy, but it is only when we come to know Him and His love for us and come to trust in that love that we can begin to experience His joy.

Depression and anxiety do present a choice, as does any cross we humans must bear, but I do believe that because depression and anxiety tend to be more consistently with us than do many other crosses and do so deeply affect many aspects of our lives, making the choice to trust in Christ is more necessary. And we need to make that choice again and again, indeed every time we are tempted to despair or worry, and so we are given the opportunity to progressively grow in trust and in faith. Faith that is not tested does not adequately grow. It is when we are tested that we are given a chance to "exercise" our faith, and faith, when it is exercised, does indeed grow stronger.

Christ challenges us at all times to have faith in Him. He is able to take situations which seem impossible and rectify them, oftentimes in a super-natural way. He did this with five thousand men gathered around Him to listen to Him teach. They did not want to leave, for they were hungry for His Word, but it was getting late, and it appeared Jesus would need to send them off so that they could feed their stomachs. Jesus said, "No, let them stay," for He knew the importance of the hunger they felt in their souls. Giving thanks to His Father in Heaven, He was able to feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. Their witnessing of that miracle, I'm sure, gave them more sustenance than did the food itself (Mk 6:34-44). Christ knows, still today, what we truly need and will work miracles in our lives in order to provide it for us when we come to Him in faith.

Later that evening, Jesus was praying alone, while His disciples were on a boat heading across the lake, rowing against a strong wind. It was a long journey, and they were greatly tiring as they continued to row all night and were likely wondering whether they would make it to the other side. Jesus then came toward them, walking on the water. They were all terrified, for they did not recognize Him against the early morning sky and thought they were seeing a ghost. He spoke to them "Courage!" and calmed the wind, dumbfounding them with His power and giving them courage and strength to continue to row until they reached the other side (Mark 6:45-52). Christ knows our journeys are difficult as well and sees when we grow tired and hopeless. He desires to speak strength and courage to us just as He did to His disciples, helping us by lightening our load and calming the wind so that we may also continue along our journey.

We are each called to have a Christian hope. Our hope is born of faith in the One Who sanctifies us, Who delivers us, Who shelters and feeds us. Christ is our all in all. He will provide for our every need if we but place our trust in Him. He has proven Himself time and time again throughout the course of history and will prove Himself trustworthy in our lives as well if we give Him the chance. Christ knows what we need better than we do, and He is able to provide it for us. He is able to be our strength when we are weak and our hope when all the world appears hopeless. Can we not place our trust in Him Who was able to feed five thousand from just five loaves and two fish and was able to calm the sea? Why, then, do we not have hope that all will turn out as it should in our own lives and the lives of those we love?

Again, we are presented with a choice: do we hope, or do we despair? Do we have faith or do we worry? We may not know what God has in store for us, which is a challenge in itself to our trust. To trust God is to let go. We like to be in control, especially when we are feeling anxious or depressed, for control brings with it a feeling of being grounded somehow, and therefore a feeling of greater security. Worry somehow brings with it this feeling of control. But as we learn to trust, we learn that our security is much greater when put into the the hands of God than it is in our own hands. To trust and to hope can be frightening at first, but the more we exercise our trust and hope, and the stronger it becomes, the safer it feels.

Each cross we carry, including depression and anxiety, hold this challenge and this invitation: to trust and hope in God rather than continue to worry and despair, to grow closer to Him who is the Source of all goodness and all love. God wants us to know Him. He wants to pour His love upon us. He wants us to know His joy and His peace. He is inviting us. Let's answer this invitation with gratitude! St. Paul says, "I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me" (2 Cor 12:9b). He had become grateful for his weakness because it was in His weakness that He had come to know the strength of God. St. Paul had made that decision to rely on God, to allow God to draw him closer to Himself, and God answered. Let's follow his example!

I have had a sense for several years that my depression was in some way a gift, an invitation, though I really couldn't explain why. I knew I needed God and that my need for Him was more apparent than it is for many people. And I was, even at that time, grateful for that gift. But I didn't know how that opportunity would play itself out. I find in interesting that God used my worsening symptoms in the form of sudden and fairly intense anxiety to teach me these things. Thus, it's only been in the last 4-5 months that I have begun to understand it and have been able to put more words to this need to trust in Him. This initial understanding, I believe, is the beginning of a long process of growth in faith and a growing closer to Our Lord, a process I hope and trust will continue.

The anxiety I experienced this year, and the depression I have experienced all my life, had seemed to me to be beyond hope of a cure. While I cannot call myself "cured," God is doing wonderful and amazing things in my life and is teaching me the ways of faith and of hope in Him and gifting me with His reassurance and with His peace. In God, I have no true need to worry or to despair, and the choice to trust and to hope is progressively becoming easier and more natural. And I am truly amazed at the work He has done in me; I am amazed by His love and His power. I have no doubt whatsoever that it is God Who is doing this work in me. Currently, I am typically in a fairly stable mood without any signs of significant depression. I do have my days when I am feeling somewhat depressed, but even on those days, I have the faith that I will very soon feel better. And my anxiety also typically well under control, with my having very tolerable anxiety, if any, the vast majority of the time. When I compare this to where I was a year ago, with nearly constant moderate or intense anxiety and increasing depression, I'm honestly amazed.

I will, in future emails, attempt to explain what I am learning in greater detail and following the steps God led me through in my own healing process, in hopes that my explaining it will shed, though God's grace and His guidance, more light on these things for my readers and for myself. I hope that, as I grow in understanding, I will be able to express the beauty of the things I am learning with growing clarity. This is my journey I am sharing with you, and while I know each person has their own journey, and God is leading each of us individually, I do also believe we are here to share our experiences and to lift each other up, and in the hopes of finding a common thread in which one person can help another.

God bless you!

Just a note: I want to make it clear that it is not my faith that is providing the healing, but God's grace, along with my docility (or attempts at docility) towards His works. :)