What Does It Look Like in the Dark?

My first recollection of it occurred on the back porch steps of my rural home in North Carolina. Nine or ten years old, I slumped, cried aloud for what seemed like an hour, tears cascading down my cheeks onto the steps, obscuring my view of the sun setting behind a mountain.
An overwhelming sadness, a deep-seated loneliness, enveloped me. At the time, I couldn’t put a label on my emotional state nor identify a reason for the hurt.
Like any other hormone-crazed high school male, I wanted to date. Yet I never asked a girl out. Instead, I often cried myself to sleep, wishing I could be more “normal” and confident. Why bother to ask when I knew she’d reject me?
The poor self-image, coupled with low grades that fell far short of my academic potential, instilled self-loathing and a daily barrage of accusatory self-talk. More than once, I balled my fists and whammed my head repeatedly until I couldn’t take the pain anymore.
I stood with the rest of the congregation for a familiar hymn. Except mouthing the words took a herculean effort. My heart felt numb and parched. I felt out of place in the midst of so many people with smiling faces and praise on their lips. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt buoyant in spirit and worshipped with positive feeling. Guilt badgered me, for I knew that the joy I didn’t have is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
I tried to muster enough resolve to keep a lunch appointment with a student, and to teach an afternoon class at the university. My lesson plan was ready, but the last thing I wanted was to be around people.
As I walked to the cafeteria, I hoped the student wouldn’t show. The idea of listening to and feigning interest in another person created pressure that I resented. My gait was slow and my spirit lethargic as I approached the entrance. A high humidity had settled in my heart, smothering motivation and sapping energy for the daily routine, and for responsibilities that I usually cherished.
Due to God’s help, and an adrenalin rush, I taught the class effectively. Afterward, I fell to my office floor and assumed a fetal position, unable to function.
Alone in the house, I sat in my recliner, clutching the second handful of tear-soaked tissue. In stark contrast to the afternoon sun, my spirit was pitch-black. “Where are You when I need You!?” I cried aloud to God. “Don’t You care enough to help?”
My weeping became so violent that my body convulsed. Despite a cognitive awareness of a meaningful full-time ministry, plus numerous indicators of God’s blessings, I wanted to die rather than continue in that state of despair. All the prayers for relief that I had uttered seemed in vain. The pain wouldn’t ease up.
During our out-of-state drive to my mother-in-law’s funeral, my grown son and I argued. What spawned it was a missed exit off the interstate, but why it became contentious I don’t recall. Frustration within me escalated due to the harsh words, my overreaction to something he said, and the history of strain in our relationship.
By the time we reached the funeral home, hopelessness dominated all other emotions typical at a funeral. I recall thinking, “I wish I were the person in that casket!”
That wasn’t the best state of readiness for the funeral message I would give moments later.

These vignettes, spanning more than fifty years, reveal an inescapable fact: when I write or teach on depression, I don’t take a theoretical, ivory-tower approach. To some readers and listeners, I’m uncomfortably honest about struggle, while at the same time offering hope, showing how rays of light often penetrate my darkness.
The following poem is a case in point, revealing the raw hopelessness of a depressive episode, as well as the hope offered by my view of God and His Word.

Fleeting, it’s like a bird in flight,
or like a shooting star at night.
Or lightning that spans the sky:
gone in the blink of an eye.

Elusive, like the fog that lifts
when morning sun sends its gifts;
or the zigzagging butterfly
that you can’t catch. No use to try.

That’s my relationship to hope.
It’s like a wet bar of soap
that keeps giving me the slip.
Can’t keep it within my grip.

Hope that a blinding beam of light
will penetrate my soul’s dark night.
Hope that it won’t seem so strange
that habits of the mind can change.

Can God plant hope within a heart
for peace of mind, for a fresh start?
Though right now I am without it,
God shouts “Yes!” Should I doubt it?

“Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance, and My God” (Ps. 42:11).

In my blogs, I won’t offer you ten surefire steps to victory over depression. Shun anyone who offers such a simplistic solution to a complex condition. But I will share how God has enabled me to maintain a challenging full-time ministry for decades despite the recurring episodes. And I’ll steer you to resources—insights from counselors, books, other blogs, and God’s Word—that offer perspectives and sustenance to keep you walking, even when the pathway is dark.
Typically, I won’t write in the skeletal, bullet-point format of many successful bloggers. The issue of “depression and faith” requires a different kind of verbal data: more personal, description of inner states, more comprehensive reviews of resources or print interviews with experts, and more emphasis on the affective domain that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to short lists of points.
My next post will differentiate between “feeling blue” and chronic depression. I’ll disclose up-to-date statistics on the prevalence of depression, and add to the list of symptoms of major depression embedded within my anecdotes in this post.
After reading the “Welcome” post on my home page, and today’s article, if you believe my blog could help others you know, please steer them to penetratingthedarkness.com. And receive two free gifts for your email subscription to this blog (see my home page).