Monday, December 28, 2015

Guest Post: Depression and the Spirit

[Note from the blog author, Quantumleap42: This is a guest post from a long time friend. They don't like to talk about their depression, especially not in public places, but after some prompting from me they agreed to tell about their experiences. They wish to remain anonymous so I will refer to them as Sidney, but if anyone has any comments or questions for Sidney please leave them in the comments or email them to me and I will pass them along to Sidney. Sidney's experiences and insights have taught me a lot about how to understand depression. Feel free to share this with anyone who might need it, or just with anyone because you never know what they are going through. This originally came from three different texts or letters Sidney wrote over several years. I provided some editorial revisions that Sidney agreed to, to combine the three texts and for clarity.]
I normally don’t read or comment on blogs and I hope that you will not mind posting this, but I thought I could offer some insight into this topic. It is just something that has been on my mind a lot lately. 
When I was a teenager I began experiencing severe depression, but I always thought it was normal. It never occurred to me that not everyone found it difficult to do basic things like get up in the morning. I remember laying in bed feeling like I hurt all over while also feeling like I had done something terribly wrong and I would never be a good person. I felt I was fated to end up somewhere in the Telestial kingdom, and would never be able to do anything righteous with my life. I felt like a perpetual sinner. The few times I talked to friends about it they would say they occasionally felt the same way. It never occurred to me that they only felt that way rarely, not 5-6 days a week for months on end. I still have the page in my journal where I wrote about the pain I felt and how I wish I could make it stop. No one ever saw that page.
Later when I went to college, and then on a mission, I was still dealing with my depression, but I didn't know that was what it was. I just thought I was tired, or I just had to be more spiritual, or I had an impure thought and therefore I had lost the companionship of the Holy Spirit. If I just tried harder then I wouldn't feel bad. I remember an Elder from my mission got sent home because he had bipolar disorder and was unable to function. I looked at him and thought I wasn't that bad so I couldn't have bipolar disorder or depression because the only people I had ever known who had depression were on 15+ medications and on suicide watch, or so it seemed. I thought I didn't have a problem because it wasn't that bad.
When I came home from my mission and returned to college I continued with my same problems. I felt that my mission had been a waste, my family was distant and friends never wanted to talk. I received some priesthood blessings that came at a very specific time when I was feeling my worst and the Lord told me that He was pleased with the work I had done on my mission and had accepted my offering. (Quantum was there for that blessing, though he was not the one who gave it.) It was just the thing I needed to hear.
About that time some basic training I received in a psychology class kicked in. What I thought were feelings of inadequacy and the withdrawal of God's Holy Spirit were actually a disconnect between my body and my spirit. I began to keep track of what I was feeling and when and after a few months I noticed a pattern. Like clockwork there were times when I would experience severe depression that had nothing to do with what I was doing. Even if I was reading my scriptures, saying my prayers, doing well in school and maintaining a good social life I would still hit rock bottom. These darkest days would be followed by a few days of intense euphoria where I felt superhuman. As if there were nothing that could stop me.
Eventually I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which means sometimes I am severely depressed and other times I have more energy than I know what to do with. With bipolar disorder there are two phases, a depressive phase, and a manic phase. I have experienced all parts of the spectrum.  Many people are familiar with depression and the depressive phase of bipolar disorder but few people talk about the manic phase, usually because in the manic phase the person is feeling very happy, energetic, and in many cases relatively normal, if just a little on the hyper side. Many people do not recognize that the manic phase is just as problematic as the depressive phase. They think, "Oh, they're back to their 'normal', 'happy' selves. There's nothing to worry about." To put it in terms that we can understand it is in almost all ways the exact opposite of depression. Just as someone has little or no energy when depressed, in the manic phase we have an overabundance of energy. In the manic phase, it is not just feeling like you have more energy, you do have more energy. In one of my more energetic manic phases I once managed to do 100 pull-ups (5 sets of 20, with a 30 second pause between sets).
Through my experiences I have learned about depression, emotions, and how they are different from feeling the Holy Spirit. I have learned that even in the deepest parts of depression I can still feel the Holy Spirit. It is a distinct feeling that can be felt through the cloud and pain of depression. The Spirit can be something that is difficult to feel at times, but it is something that can always be felt. One of the pernicious side effects of depression is that many times the feelings of depression are indistinguishable from the feelings of sin or the loss of the Spirit. Someone with depression can very easy assume, mistakenly, that they are somehow more sinful than others and that they cannot access the healing power of the atonement or have access to the feelings of the Spirit.
In those times I try to take stock and carefully consider my life. I remind myself that the Spirit does not withdraw for petty and inconsequential things. Even if I am committing some of the sins of omission I have learned that the Spirit still strives with me and more often than not my feelings result from depression and not a loss of the Spirit.
We all have to deal with feelings that come from our own bodies and from our own spirits and telling those apart is hard enough. So sometimes it can be even harder tell what are promptings from the Holy Spirit and what comes from ourselves. The hardest part is learning to tell the difference between the Spirit telling me that I have done something wrong and that I need to repent, and experiencing a feeling of biological depression. Over time I have learned to recognize the sweet, peaceful feeling of the Spirit that permeates everything he does. It is a very distinct and personal feeling that, when learned, can be recognized very readily, just as the flavor of mint can easily be distinguished from the flavor of oranges. But at first it may be very hard to learn to discern the feelings of the Spirit from our own feelings. 
When I learned to recognize the feeling of the Holy Spirit it became a very personal thing, and I could recognize it as being distinct from all other feelings, much in the same way that we might recognize a brother or sister or good friend as distinct from all other people. If we are not familiar with the Spirit then the feelings he brings may be covered over by our own feelings, including the feelings of depression, much in the same way that we may pass a stranger in the street and not give them a second thought. Even in the depths of depression I can still feel the promptings and peace of the Holy Spirit, though it has taken me years to learn to tell the difference between my own feelings and the feelings he brings. 
In some cases the problems of depression are enhanced because the person who is depressed does not only have to deal with their own feelings, but also with feelings brought on by evil or malicious spirits. Not all episodes of depression are caused by the influence of evil spirits, and not all people who experience depression will ever have to deal with the influence of evil spirits, but it is something that I have had to deal with and it is something that requires the power of the priesthood to overcome. When it comes to depression there is perhaps something wrong in the connection between body and spirit, and that misconnection will occasionally induce those who cannot have bodies to try to exploit that opportunity to gain some influence over the body. For those spirits who cannot have their own body, a body that is broken and not working properly is preferable to none at all, even if they have little or no control over it. 
In these cases it requires someone who is very much in tune with things of the Spirit to exercise their priesthood power and to remove the influence of these evil spirits. These spirits can both cause and exacerbate the problems of depression. Like I said, not all people who have depression are being influenced by evil spirits, but some are and it takes the gift of discernment to recognize the presence of these spirits. A bishop has specifically been called to exercise the spirit of discernment so they should usually be the one to recognize and help out in this matter, but I have found that my bishops were not always aware of this or even willing to attempt to help in this way. In these cases I have had to rely on inspired priesthood holders who were sufficiently in tune with the Spirit to recognize the problem and to help out. (If at this point you have in your mind some scene from the movie The Exorcist then you are understanding this all wrong. I am not talking about anything like that at all. The workings of the priesthood and of the Spirit are never creepy. They only provide peace, if not then something is wrong.) 
So the things that I have learned by experiencing depression are that I can still feel the Spirit, even if it is very difficult and it seems that I am “past feeling”. There can be something biologically wrong with my body that interferes with my feeling the Spirit, but even in the most extreme situations the Spirit can still speak to my spirit without a physical intermediary, such as my body, and the Spirit can always be felt and heard. Every once in a while it is not sin, nor a biological problem that creates or worsens my depression, but the influence of those who can never have bodies. In these cases prayer, a reliance on the Spirit, God and His priesthood can dispel these evil influences. 
When I am in my manic phase how I connect to the Spirit is remarkably similar to when I am in my depressive phase. Most people would see me in my manic phase and think it a good thing I am out of my depression, but the manic phase is just as dangerous. It warps my thoughts and makes me think things that aren't true. Just as depression gives me feelings of inadequacy and makes me feel like I have sinned, even when I haven't, my manic phase makes me feel superhuman, like I can do anything, and also makes me feel like I can do no sin.
So how does this affect how I connect to the Spirit? It is like turning up the volume on the radio. If there is static then turning up the volume will just make the static louder. If there is music then the music will be louder. If there is music and static then both will be louder, but in many cases when the static is minimal with the volume turned down, when the volume is turned up the static can override the music. It is the same with the Spirit. If I am feeling the Spirit when I enter one of my manic phases then the Spirit is amplified greatly. Some of my most spiritual and revelatory experiences have come when I was on my manic phase, but just as depression can override the feelings of the Spirit, the feelings of my manic phase can just as easily override the feelings of the Spirit. Going back to my radio analogy it is not just an increase in volume, but the frequency or the tuner also tends to drift in my manic phase so it is just as easy to lose the feelings and promptings of the Spirit when I am in my manic phase as it is in my depressive phase. The problem is I am on a high so it makes it hard to recognize that I have lost the sweet, peaceful, calming feelings of the Spirit.
Alma may have wished to be an angel to cry repentance to the whole earth, but when I am in my manic phase, I feel like I am an angel and I am going to do all of God's work myself. I feel so righteous I think I am good enough to be the prophet (someday). Those moments don't last long and I have learned that if I feel what I think are promptings of the Spirit while I am in my manic phase then I try to verify the same feelings and thoughts when I am not in a manic phase. I found that this deliberate approach to sorting my own feelings from the feelings of the Spirit has kept me from falling into error and mistaking my own feelings for promptings of the Spirit. I have frequently received assurances through the Spirit that God is aware of my limitations and takes extra care to lead me carefully to distinguish what He wants from the sometimes random noise that I can produce in abundance.
What I feel when I am depressed mimics the feeling of losing the Spirit, which is the feeling of having sinned. We must never mistake depression for sin. It is a feeling that is all too common among those who have depression. They feel they are not good enough, that they are a disappointment to God and others, and that they can never be righteous. That is not the Spirit. That is depression. The Spirit always brings hope, even when it chastises us for sin, it gives us hope and peace.
So those are my thoughts. I hope you do not mind me sharing them on your blog, but I have been thinking about these things recently and felt like sharing them. 
I ask that you not use my real name. For this subject I have to be careful since there is still a strong stigma against having these issues. Tell someone you have cancer and they will organize the whole Relief Society to bake dinners till the end of time. But tell someone you have bipolar disorder and they go tell the bishop that they are not comfortable with you being their children’s Sunday School teacher.
Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. I know my comments were rather lengthy but I guess it was just something I really felt like sharing.
[For anyone who wants to comment, you can post anonymously in the comments if you do not feel comfortable using your name or email account. Keep in mind that nothing I say should be taken as medical advice. I'm a astrophysicist not a psychiatrist. ;-) I encourage anyone who is experiencing depression/bipolar disorder to seek help from competent medical professionals.]


Nick Nelson said...

Thanks for sharing, Sidney. From what I learned about you here, it sounds like my kids would be lucky to have you as their Primary teacher.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I love how you had the clarity of thought to discern between your illness and the feeling of the Spirit. That can make a big difference being able to tell the difference between self and other.

I wish you well on your journey and am glad you shared it with us. I've learned a few things that will benefit myself.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful. I feel like I recognized myself there with some of those symptoms--sometimes feeling weighed down with sin, other times feeling angelic, prophetic, and righteous.