Metaphors Describing Depression
After decades pockmarked by plunges into dark moods, I know the difference between a state we call the “blues” and a full-blown depressive episode. The symptoms mentioned in the following analogies match the telltale signs of major depression in medical research, though these metaphors hardly exhaust the possible symptoms. I’m not sharing these symptoms just so you’ll know me better and grasp what I go through, but to increase your understanding of depressed family members and friends.
A Fib of the Spirit
Atrial Fibrillation (A Fib) is an irregular or quivering heartbeat, a disorder of the heart’s electrical system. The heart’s two upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically, out of coordination with the heart’s two lower chambers (the ventricles), spawning dizziness, shortness of breath and weakness. The severity and frequency of symptoms vary widely among people with A Fib. Left untreated, blood clots may form in the heart and move to the brain, causing a stroke. Since 2014, I’ve had one or two episodes a year, usually lasting a couple of days each time. Regular use of a blood thinner decreases the likelihood of A Fib occurring, and if it does, it makes clotting far less likely.
The image you see with the post shows A Fib on an EKG graph. The space between beats should be equidistant, but the variation in space between the spikes (some short, some noticeably longer) reveals the irregularity. If the line consistently shows the same distance between beats, there is no A Fib.
I correlate A Fib with depression in the sense that my mood, or human spirit, seems chaotic during any given week or month. During a depressive episode, my mood may change positively or negatively with short notice and without a known provocation. Don’t think that a depressive episode is one long, uninterrupted black hole in which a person feels “down” 24/7. For most of a day I might feel pretty good and stable emotionally, even cracking jokes with my colleagues at Columbia International University or with my wife. I’m more outgoing and highly motivated in the completion of the day’s responsibilities. I’m rarely ecstatic or extremely sanguine. That just isn’t my temperament. But if you graphed my spirit during those hours, the space between beats would be equidistant and coordinated, not inconsistent.
Then during the same day, my emotional state does an about-face. Mental chaos or emotional palpitations may start late in the day, seemingly out of the blue. A sense of hopelessness overwhelms me. I don’t want to live. I can’t wait until bedtime so sleep will give a reprieve to the despair. Or conversely, I may wake up with a bleak spirit, the depression feeling like extra weight strapped to my back. Then by mid-day I’m on a more even keel emotionally. I’m not saying this is how it happens with everyone during a depressive episode, but I’m patently not the only person whose graph is highly irregular within any given day or week.
On a recent Saturday, I spent hours updating our personal business files in my home office, throwing out bags of outdated material and filing away stacks of papers that had accumulated for months. That afternoon, Dolly showed me humorous dog and cat videos from Facebook. I laughed aloud numerous times. Neither despondency nor self-absorption plagued me. Then while Dolly prepared our evening meal, I plopped into the recliner to relax. Within a couple of minutes, despite sunshine streaming through our patio door, dark, low-lying clouds rolled in and blanketed my spirit. Pessimism reigned. There aren’t words to describe the sudden emptiness and despair. In contrast to the emotional numbness that often describes my depression, my heart ached. I wept aloud, uncontrollably.
Thank God for a wife who came up behind me and comforted me with a hug, then a kiss on the top of my head. She didn’t need to ask, “What’s wrong?” She has witnessed such unevenness of spirit so often she just wants me to know she loves me.
Arthritis of the Will
Arthritis involves inflammation of a joint, resulting in pain, swelling and stiffness. The shock-absorbing cartilage in the joint wears down. Bone rubs against bone and the sacs of fluid in the joint resist flow. When it’s in the knee or foot, this lack of cushioning or lubrication restricts movement, causing a limp. Or if it’s in the hand, we wince in pain trying to twist open the lid of a jar. In severe cases, arthritis immobilizes us to the point that we can’t do physically what we need or want to do.
For me, depression often has a similar outcome. There isn’t joint inflammation, but the accompanying lethargy physically immobilizes me. Though I’m physically capable of acting, it takes a herculean effort of my will to get up from the recliner or couch and accomplish necessary tasks. Whether the responsibility is sending emails, grading papers, making a phone call, writing, or running an errand, I’ll sit in a stupor as if there’s a disconnect between what I perceive needs to be done and my body’s ability to obey the command. When I do get up, I move sluggishly as if arthritic pain were hampering me. Without a physical cause, my gait is noticeably slower. This happens even when the task I’m resisting is one I typically enjoy or which I know represents significant ministry.
Apathy and negativity stand between the awareness of what to do and the will to do it. If you could eavesdrop on my self-talk you’d hear things such as, “What’s the use?” “Nothing matters, so why bother?!” “What difference will it make?” A couple of days ago, I sat on the couch of my school office half the morning, staring into space, gripped by inertia, feeling absolutely nothing, totally unresponsive to my surroundings. I looked more like a department story mannequin than a human being.
I’d rather feel the inflammation of arthritis than experience such inertia of will. At least then I’d feel alive. (And believe me, I know the torment of severe arthritic pain!)
Cancer of the Mind
Cancer begins in the body’s cells. Unlike the normal process, old cells do not die when new ones form. The cells grow and divide relentlessly, resulting in out-of-control expansion of tissue (a tumor) which eventually interferes with normal function of one or more organs. Cancer cells may spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, generating new tumors. A diagnosis of cancer often beings with a dark spot on an x-ray. As the cancer spreads, future x-rays show a larger mass. The mutating, renegade cells literally try to take over the body. Barring medical intervention that destroys cancerous cells and reduces or eliminates the tumor, death results.
Depression exerts a similar effect on my mind. I’m not referring to the brain, but to the figurative center of a human being that generates thoughts and attitudes. One dark, foreboding thought spawns another, then another. Before long, negative ruminations and false beliefs dominate my thinking. I’m prone to pessimism about the future. I dismiss the possibility of personal improvement or further growth in holiness. I doubt the presence and power of God. Self-condemnation, sometimes out-loud recriminations, escalate. The significance of my teaching and writing ministry wanes (not in reality, but as I perceive it at the time).
During such a descent into depression, if you could x-ray my mind multiple times over a period of a few hours or days, you’d see an ever-expanding dark spot that eclipses the sunlight and prevents hope from streaming into my thoughts. Despite what I teach and write about my identity in Christ, and how my significance is rooted in what Christ has done instead of my own performance, I view myself as worthless and feel as though my primary accomplishment is taking up space (and too much space at that!).
The older I get, the worse this proliferation of hostile, hopeless thinking becomes. I figure there’s less time left to correct personal flaws, to fulfill long-held dreams, or to see answers to heartfelt prayers for loved ones.
A Fib of the spirit that inexplicably causes my mood to crater for an hour or two, then stabilize.
Arthritis of the will that makes important and necessary tasks more difficult to initiate.
Cancer of the mind that generates negative, erroneous thinking that expands if not countered.
Do remedies exist for these oppressive symptoms?
Prescriptions from the Great Physician
That my faith in Christ doesn’t eliminate bouts of depression is obvious. Whether the malady is chronic physical pain, a disability or recurring despondency, the Lord chooses to heal some people instantly and permanently, but not everyone. And when He doesn’t, it isn’t necessarily due to feeble faith on the part of the hurting person.
When we examine the lives of Bible personalities and read the biographies of great people from church history, it’s crystal clear that God often receives more glory by sustaining and using weak people than by healing them outright. The needy person praises Him more because, keenly aware of his limitations, he’s convinced that God is responsible for his endurance. Observers of the hurting person see the fruitfulness of his life and think, “Only God can do this!”
Concerning “A Fib of the Spirit,” I send an S. O. S. prayer to the Lord. I plead with Him to assuage the depressive symptoms, or relieve them altogether for the time being so I can fulfill the tasks He has given me for that day. Psalm 50:15 prompts this desperate prayer for equilibrium of my spirit: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” When I preach that verse to myself and act on it, at least for a while the erratic palpitations of my mood stabilize. He keeps His promise.
Concerning “Arthritis of the Will,” when I’m physically immobilized by depression, I again call out to the Lord and plead for His will to govern mine. I trust in His willpower to work through a feeble human instrument and to energize my own will. My role isn’t to grit my proverbial teeth and get going. It’s to ask Him to do what, in my own strength, I cannot. The Holy Spirit infuses hope within me through Philippians 2:13: “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
Concerning “Cancer of the Mind,” I recognize that no matter what causes depression, there is a spiritual battle to fight. It is a battle of belief. What will have the last word: my troubled, erroneous thoughts, or the objective truth and efficacy of God’s Word?
My strategy when depression skews my thinking is to review Bible verses I’ve memorized, especially promises God has given to His people. Stuart Briscoe said, “Spiritual experience begins in the mind.” He rooted his remark in a part of Romans 12:2: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I can’t count the times over the years when meditation on His promises enabled me to get through the day successfully, causing a ray of sunlight to penetrate the low-lying storm clouds. Here are three of the many Bible verses that instill hope and throw a lifeline so I can climb out of the dark abyss.
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence” (Psalm 42:5).
“Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy. Though I fall I will rise; though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is a light for me” (Micah 7:8).
When you experience A Fib of the spirit, arthritis of the will, or cancer of the mind, what other prescriptions does the Lord write for you?