Fighting Demons and Being Myself
“Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!’ For Jesus had said to him, ‘Come out of this man, you impure spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion,” he replied, ‘for we are many.’ And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.”
- Mark 5:5-13 NIV
The man hid among the graves, death itself his company, and slit himself with the rocks. He could not bear to truly live among the living, but he did not die among the dead, either. His life was an agony on the fringes between the worlds of death and life. And centuries later, we know his anguish, but we do not know his name. We do not know whose beloved son or brother he was. We do not know if he a wife and children, abandoned and quite probably ashamed. We call him the Gerasene demoniac or madman. A nameless crazy man who lived on the fringes, a grave yard next to a cliff, and who would have died without notice in history if not for the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
The ancients, lacking our modern understanding of mental health, our enlightened view of chemical imbalances and misfiring synapses naturally gave assigned demons blame for the self-destructive and irrational behaviours they witnessed. It seems so viciously harsh, to label someone you once loved demon-possessed, but it could be an attempt at mercy, an attempt to say, “I know that’s not my friend, my brother, among the graves, cutting himself,” a way to preserve the ideal memory of your loved one as they spiral out of their personality into something frightening. But the demon label reinforces stigmas, too. That less than ideal mental health is evil, when it isn’t. And I cannot count the times among Christians I have seen Jesus’ miraculous intervention here used to perpetuate a notion that mental health crises can be prayed away, willed away, or snapped out of. An anti-medical belief in miraculous healing that is found among only the most fundamentalist Christians when it comes to cancer, is commonplace for mental illness.
As a pastor, I would never tell someone sufering as this anonymous brother in Gerasa that they are possessed by demons. But, rooted in my own experience, I would never blame someone for thinking they were. I understand this dear brother more than most people know. I noticed recently while driving near my home signs for a Suicide Prevention walk taking place near me soon. It fell on my birthday. My thirtieth birthday, a number big and round enough that I have been spending too much time lately in melodramatic self-reflection, wondering if I am in life where I should be by now. I don’t know for sure who gets to define what someone ought to have accomplished by age 30, but I had been worried about their opinion of my life quite a bit as this birthday approaches. So in all my nervous reflection, the date of the Suicide Preventation walk struck me. I consider it a miracle that I am alive as my 30th birthday approaches. It is a miracle because it was back when I was thirteen, more than half a lifetime ago, that I started battling my own legion of demons.
I reiterate hestitancy to ever use demonic language to describe mental illness in others, but I insist that I get to use it for myself. It best fits my experience, the only experience I dare speak for. For more than half my life, I have spent part of every day contemplating killing myself. Despite everything in me that says I should live, that my life has value and purpose, I face a constant whisper telling me to give up and throw it all away. There is something inside of me that whispers to me, daily, that I am worthless, that the world would be a better place without me, that my efforts are useless and my talents impotent, that no aspiration I possess is worthwhile. It could probably be explained by saratonin imbalances in my brain, but that doesn’t make the experience of it any less evil. That it is something biological makes it no less an enemy to my life and no less an enemy to God’s will for me. It does not help me to have that language softened.
(I do not consider all neurodiversity, that is all non-normative brain function, in this light. I also have ADHD, which I consider to be downright heavenly most of the time. I even disagree with calling it a disorder, since it’s probably the reason behind most of my best traits. My inability to pay sustained attention to boring things is behind whatever creativity I may have, behind my talent for the acquisition of utterly random information, and probably behind my passion for chilren’s and youth ministry, working with the people whose attention spans mirror my own!)
I have been diagnosed with dysthmia, the clinical term for mild and sustained depression. There have been times in my life when major depressive disorder would have been a more accurate diagnosis, but I don’t think that’s true of my life now.
For a long time I resisted medical labels and medical intervention altogether because I didn’t think I was depressed for medical reasons; I thought sincerely that my life really did suck, was really awful, and that I had every reason to be miserable. It was not an entirely erroneous view, and as I struggled my way out negative circumstances, I felt genuinely better. At its worst in my late teens, I sincerely wanted to die. Say you what you will about conservative Christian doctrines of hell, the fear of it may be the single greatest reason I made it seventeen. My ADHD-inspired classroom doodlings could turn downright morbid. I remember glancing down once at my history class notes to realize I had simply written, dozens of times, “I want to die.” It may have been adolescent, it may have been melodramatic, but it was also utterly sincere.
Now I am nearly thirty, and my life is great. I am married to a talented, brilliant, loving, and beautiful wife. I have angelic and hilarious and inspiring twin four-year-olds who make every day better and who make me better every day. I go to graduate school at Yale. I have an amazing job that matches my passions and talents. I cannot really imagine many ways my life could be going better at this moment. But every day, at surprising moments, I sense a kinship my ancient brother in Gerasa. I want to get away from everyone, and my mind wanders to all the ways I could end my life. I am intellectually aware of all that I have to live for, but my mind betrays me. Nobody has to tell me that I am worthless. That voice comes from within. The medical term is “suicidal ideation.” According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, most people who struggle with suicidal ideation do not in fact want to kill themselves. I do not want to. I certainly do not plan to.
The thought is the daily uninvited visitor. A perfectly random moment when I picture ending it all. The mental flashes are not elaborate plans, just glimpses of ways to die. But it is never simply morbidity. My demons do not tell me that I am going to die. They tell me that I ought to. That I would be happier, or at least less sad. That the world would be happier, or at least indifferent. I think one reason I am comfortable calling my own seratonin imbalances demonic, to use such loaded language for my own brain, is that these thoughts are lies. Part of my brain is lying to me. It is telling me to wallow in my darkest thoughts when the blessings of God are being poured all around me. It is telling me that widowing a wife, orphaning children, or abandoning friends is noble. The Apostle James’ directive to ancient Christians, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27) is my unrelenting, if not unshaken, will to live in one verse. If I cannot yet make myself press on for me, my wife and children sustain me. I refuse to make anyone fatherless or widowed.
For years, I have improvised a series of successful coping strategies. I pray. I exercise. I eat heaping piles of junk food. My weight fluctuates wildly as I have prolonged stretches of one strategy or the other. I go for long walks. I go for long drives. I socialize exuberantly. I retreat into solitude. I write rambling blog posts in self-therapy and the earnest but unprovable conviction that my story is not completely unique.
This is news for many dear to me, but it is not at all new. It has been the majority of my life. When we share and vent, there is a dangerous tendency to get competitive about our griefs and trials. I am not interested. Some people face far worse. Some people may have it easier. I made a specific decision to share this story for one reason. If you ever face the passing thought, or the crushing obsession, telling that your life is not worth living, you are not alone. You are not alone. The world is full of people facing this, people who have recovered, and people like me who are being sustained. You are not alone.
I did not choose to be depressed. I cannot choose not to be. I have spent most of my life trying to choose not to be. I do believe that Jesus can drive the darkness out of my life, but right now my faith is entrusted more in the God who walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death than the God of miraculous healing. I am trusting in the God who is with when I cry, when I smile, when I keep my secrets hidden, when I open up to a professional.
I am writing this because you are not alone, and what I want to say even more passionately to my fellow Christians: you have nothing to be ashamed of. God himself in Christ came and joined in our human condition. Depression is not a sign of bad Christianity. Those who promise Christianity is nothing but a roller coaster of happiness are liars as much as those who promise Christianity is nothing but money being poured into your life. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Your depression is like any other part of your health, private if you want it to be or public if you need it to be. It’s yours. Yours to seek professional help about, yours to use medication for, yours to ask for sustaining prayers for. Yours to survive, yours to endure, maybe even yours to conquer, but yours to be unashamed of.
My life looks pretty great right now, and I am in a position of Christian leadership in my work. I could keep all this to myself. In keeping my struggles private, some would argue that I am maintaining my Christian leadership, that I am perfectly negotiating professional boundaries, that I am keeping my ministry about others and not myself. I understand those arguments. I have spent over a year carefully determining that I don’t believe that. I don’t believe God has called a false or shrouded me into ministry. I believe that for me hiding my depression only keeps stigmas alive. If I have to pretend to not have depression to be a minister, then I am promoting a false ideal. I believe Jesus called me follow him with all that I am, including all the brokeness and struggle I have. I refuse to project an image of a Gospel that has made me a mentally healthy minister with a beautiful family, because God did not call that fake man to ministry.
God called me, the chronically and clinically depressed young minister with a beautiful family. And when I laugh or smile, when I crack a joke in a sermon or tell a Bible story with a squirrel puppet, when I belt out Disney songs on a long van drive with the youth group, I am not lying, I am not hiding, but I am being sustained, and thanks be to God.