What to Read when You are Depressed

So my blog post about depression took a lot out of me. I don’t mind sharing about my depression and OCD and obviously I want people to read what I write but as soon as I published the post I thought, oh wow, now more people know my stuff. And I kind of didn’t know what to write about next. I did not intend to make this blog about mental illness and I don’t think it will permanently stay in that category. But, I heard back from my friend and she asked a really good question. And I realized I have more to say and really wish someone had written this blog post for me. So here it is.

My friend wrote me and asked about my faith. She said, “It’s as if [God’s] left me all alone but is relevant in so many other people’s lives. Any advice?” Ugh. Tough, right? And yes, I know that feeling well. I think even people who are not depressed struggle with this question. Why are other people so happy or so confident and I am not? Am I alone? And so I wanted to write another follow up post about being a Christian and being a depressed person. It is hard to deal with sometimes and not made easier by some of the things my fellow Christians said. Things like, “But the joy of the Lord is our strength” (apparently from somewhere in the Bible) “What unconfessed sin do you have in your life?” (yeah, for real someone asked me that) and another favorite, “Just pray more.”

Here are some things I have learned: My faith is not my feelings. Rather, God is not based on how I feel about him. I had to do a lot of work separating my beliefs from my feelings. I may have gone too far since I haven’t had a lot of emotional religious experiences since then but as someone who grew up in an evangelical church, I think I’ve had more than my share. 

I don’t really have a lot of the answers but I found a lot of comfort in books, especially books written by other people who have had these questions. I found three or four books to be particularly relevant and encouraging while I was depressed.

  1. Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey– The title is somewhat explanatory but the book deals with what to do when you feel let down by God. Yancey has had plenty of experience with this and addresses it in a gentle, easy, non-judgmental way. One of my favorite points of the book was about leprosy. Stay with me. People who have leprosy lose the ability to experience pain. Because of this they are at a higher risk of hurting themselves. Yancey’s point is this- pain is a gift because it means we can still feel. It might sound like a cop out but I found my depression to be a gift as I said before because it means I am still alive internally.
  2. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott– This book was one that showed me how to reconcile some of my thoughts about the world with my faith. Lamott is funny and dry and real. Her understanding of God’s love for the whole world and particularly for broken people helped me as someone who felt she had it all together and then lost it. I mourned what I had lost (my perfect grades, achievements, etc) until I read this book and then began to see that maybe I should rejoice in what I found (a heart for other people, humility, sensitivity, vulnerability).
  3. The winner of all books for depressed people in my opinion- The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen. A Catholic priest who left his post at Harvard Divinity School to work with the developmentally and mentally disabled at L’Arche in Canada. He kept a journal of spiritual mandates for himself while he went through a major depressive period. He published this journal and I found it on the bookshelf at our church. It had a nice cover and so I picked it up. My mom actually read it in one night and then told me, “You have to read this. It’s written for you.” I have never before or since connected with a book on such a deep level. My favorite message in the world of “You alone are enough” or “You’re never enough,” is this: “God loves you and his love is enough.” Done. I think that sums it up for me.

And as a special bonus for people who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or who love someone who struggles with OCD, I recommend The Imp of the Mind. I have trouble explaining what OCD is like. Yes, it can be a lot of compulsions, like washing hands, checking locks, repeating rituals. But there’s another insidious side to it that resides just internally. Like everyone, people with OCD have intrusive thoughts but unlike other people, we cannot ignore them. They play over and over in our minds and become obsessions. This book more than any other has given me words and metaphors for my OCD. It also helped me feel less alone once I realized there is a group of people (even if it is small) who also have these cycles.

I know depression and mental illness are unique to each person. You may have walked away from the church because of your illness. You may have joined the church because of yours. You may have started a church because of it. I know how personal it is. This is not meant to be a fix-all or some sort of solution. Just a couple of suggestions from someone who’s been there too. 

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