The Light of Erskine in the Darkness of Depression

This semester has been emotionally, mentally, and physically draining for me. The stress of being at college, a family member’s passing after a horrible accident, and other events left me worn out, heartbroken, anxious, and eventually physically ill for several days. Every day hit me harder and harder than the day before. I started to feel trapped by the inability to breathe or swallow because of the heaviness that settled in my heart. One night, as I was sitting in front of my Supplemental Instruction class, a stabbing, physical pain in my heart overwhelmed me to the point that I couldn’t speak or move. I am convinced now that I was depressed.

Now, I know that my depression was not as serious as others’ sufferings, and I am not trying to overdramatize my life or situation. I definitely was not diagnosed with a depressive episode or anything, but I was not just in the doldrums or melancholic from a bad day. For the duration of almost a month, I felt like a completely different person. All of my usual vitality and joy was replaced by fear and emptiness. Yet, when someone asked how I was going, I persisted in giving the typical response: “I’m okay. How are you?” The last thing I wanted to do was push my burdens onto my friends, plus I hated the crumbling wreck that I was inside.

William Styron described depression as “a storm – a veritable howling tempest in the brain,” and that’s exactly how I felt. My soul felt like it was torn in two, and I feared that the lighter half was being overcome by the darker half. The amazing part of this story is that God never let me lose hope in His goodness in spite of everything. He taught me complete reliance in my utmost weakness and re-opened my heart to the incredible joy of being seen as a righteous daughter of Christ when I feel most worthless.

So what does this have to do with Erskine?

In all honesty, I felt trapped by Erskine. Over the past two years, I had become so involved with various areas on campus. Now, at the peak of involvement, I felt completely incapable of handling everything, which only increased my anxiety. It turns out that Erskine College was exactly where I needed to be. By God’s grace, so much goodness came out of my weakness. My grades remained high even though I had lost all ability to study well. Organizations that I had poured my heart into last year grew stronger and more stable, even as I pulled away. God sent me an abundance of encouragement and support from my family and friends. I was flooded with people who shouldered my burdens, who delighted in praying for me, people who encouraged me that it was okay to not be okay. I was constantly surprised by an encouraging message or a hug from students I barely knew, often when I was hitting my lowest point of the day. I had a community of people who listened patiently and gave me a shoulder plus a dozen Kleenexes to cry on. I had professors give me understanding and comfort. Most of all, I was reminded of the hope of the preeminent existence of God’s goodness every day in class, in chapel, through RUF, with my friends, and by the community as a whole.

I do not take any of this for granted.

This battle has lasted for almost a month, but now I am starting to feel more normal than I have in a while.

As for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more.” (Psalm 71:14)

Living Lent: Hope

“Blessed are they who hope in the Lord!”  As we repeated this between refrains during the responsorial psalm in Mass yesterday, I said it with practiced ease.  I have grown up hearing and believing these words for my entire life.  When I woke up this morning with them still on my mind, however, I realized that lately I haven’t believed them enough.

They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.
[Isaiah 40:31]

If you have lived on this earth for any amount of time, you–like me–have no doubt experienced stress, heartache, worry, grief, exhaustion, or any combination thereof.  If you are an Erskine student, you have perhaps experienced one or some of these in the past week, and likely will in the next week and a half until Spring Break–otherwise known as MIDTERM TIME.

stress... As this particular verse from Isaiah reminds us, placing our hope in the Lord renews our strength! I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty weary from my busy schedule and long “to do” list right about now.  As I started writing this post, I tried to think about the last time I thought about hope.  I certainly hope for many things in my own life: love, acceptance, forgiveness, an A on a test, being accepted to my ideal PhD program, healing, focus…that list could go on all day.  I have so many hopes for my family and friends, and for all of those hurting and suffering in the world.  But do I place my hope in the Lord?  God knows every intention and desire of my heart, yet (as I wrote about yesterday) He appreciates thoughtfulness.  Prayer is thoughtful. Prayer is thought-full.  Prayer is hopeful, hope-filled.  And my faith is the source of all of my hope.  I can’t remember the last time I actually pondered the idea; so today I have decided to reflect on how hope has helped me and sustained me, and why Lent is such a great time to refocus on it.

You changed my mourning into dancing;
you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness.
With my whole being I sing endless praise to you.
O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks.
[Psalm 30:12-13]

I have an internship at Patrick B. Harris Psychiatric Hospital in Anderson, SC, this semester.  Though I want to talk more about this experience at a later date, this experience is worth mentioning in this context as well.  Working at the hospital, I interact with and hear stories every day from patients who have suffered from major depression.  I have heard stories of despair, emptiness, isolation, and suicide attempts.  These stories are a daily reminder of my own struggle with depression and anxiety my sophomore year at Erskine.  As a Christian who desires to work in the mental health field I actually thank God now for that experience, miserable though it was.

Some Christians have this misconception that mental illnesses, particularly depression & anxiety, happen to people when their faith is not strong enough, when they are not praying hard enough, or something along those lines.  I would like to go on the record as saying that that is completely 110% untrue.  The most difficult part of my depression was that I did have strong faith, yet I could no longer feel God’s presence and guidance in my life as I used to.  My faith never left me, though; on the contrary, it was my faith in the Lord that kept me going and gave me hope.  Eventually, as the Psalm above says, God changed my mourning into dancing, my depression into joy.  And now I have an understanding and empathy for the patients and for friends of mine going through a similar dark time.  I thank God for my suffering AND my health.

My soul, be at rest in God alone, from whom comes my hope.
God alone is my rock and my salvation, my secure height; I shall not fall.
My safety and glory are with God, my strong rock and refuge.
[Psalm 62:6-8]

My biggest worry right now, I think, is where I will be going to graduate school next year.  I have been accepted to a Masters program but was rejected from 3 PhD programs and have yet to hear from 2 others.  I am trying to take this not-hearing as a good sign; yet I have been worrying and stressing and waking up at night since December 1st, wondering whether any of the programs will accept me.  Yesterday and today have been a welcome and much-needed reminder to myself to hope and trust in the Lord.  I hope for another offer of admission, but more than that I hope to be where God can use me and shape me best to do His work.  I may be stressed about my school work and busy schedule, but I choose this Lent season to actively place my hope in the Lord.

What is your greatest hope right now?  In what ways has God taught you the value of hope?  How do you remind yourself to have hope when life seems overwhelming?

This post was longer than I intended it to be when I began writing, but thank you for sticking with me and for taking the time to read it.  You are in my prayers and on God’s mind.  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit [Romans 15:13].

God bless you and keep you,
Christine