In this excerpt from Coming Out of the Dark, a pastor's wife who had been active in her husband's ministry describes the onset of her depression--and what her family chose to do about it. Reprinted with permission of Harvest House Publishers.
I was used to being the one who gave help. I was always the one others came to for strength and direction. I was the great encourager--the caregiver. People who knew me well would describe me as someone who was very strong. All of my life, I was driven to excel in everything, and if I couldn't do it perfectly, I didn't do it at all. I was a raging perfectionist with little sympathy for weak people.
Now I, the strong one, couldn't get out of bed. The simplest decision sent me into a panic. The great wisdom-giver could not compile a grocery list. The woman who taught hundreds of women couldn't bring herself to face crowds of any size. The large tasks of life were out of the question, and even the simplest tasks seemed like huge mountains.
Meals, housework, and even shopping were all left undone. If I managed to get out of bed and get dressed by the time my kids got home from school, the day was a success. All I wanted to do was sleep and be left alone. I was paralyzed. I had fallen into a deep, dark, nameless pit. I had no idea how I got there. And even more frightening was the stark reality that I had no idea how to get out.
I decided I was just tired. All I needed was some rest. With that hope in hand, my family and I escaped the hot, humid flatlands of Florida to enjoy three weeks in the cool mountains of North Carolina, my favorite vacation spot. That vacation is a complete blur. I remember very little about our time there. My two responses, when asked any question during those three weeks, were "I don't know" and "I don't care." My children knew something was terribly wrong. They had never seen their mom so quiet, so still, and so sad. Dan listened patiently as I poured out my fear and confusion night after night. There seemed to be no answers, only questions. I could see the growing fear in his eyes that I felt in my own heart. We had never been here before. It was a foreign land. I was in serious trouble, and I needed help.
As each day grew darker, Dan and I both realized we had to come up with a plan--quickly! We decided I would see a Christian counselor Dan often referred people to and in whom he had great confidence. Her name was Betty Wells. My first visit with Betty was uneventful as far as I could tell ...and a total waste of time. She did, however, accomplish one thing. She named my pit.
Clinical depression was a problem I knew little about. Evidently, it was an enemy that strong, committed Christians were not supposed to encounter, because I had never heard anyone in the church even talk about depression, much less admit they struggled with it. I recoiled at the thought of such blatant weakness in my life. I felt ashamed of what was obviously a great failure on my part, but I was very desperate and willing to do whatever it took to climb out of that pit. I also knew I could not make this journey alone. Over the next several months, Betty and Dan, along with many others, climbed down into that dark, slimy pit with me and became God with skin on. They sounded the alarm and gathered the troops.
At this time my husband was the pastor/teacher of a large, very visible, and fast-growing church. Dan and I had a choice to make. We could choose to be transparent and real or we could attempt to claim our right to privacy and hide my struggle. We chose transparency and began to share our pain with the team God had assembled around us. The pastors and their wives were told in great detail. Our deacons, who are wonderful encouraging servants, were gathered together and told. Then we took an even bigger risk by sharing my struggle with the entire church.
We quickly discovered that sharing the crisis lessened its grip on our lives. The response to our transparency and willingness to share our pain with those who had known great pain themselves was absolutely overwhelming. People began to pray. Cards, letters, and Scripture verses came pouring through the mail. Women would show up at the front door with meals. At times, others came to clean my house, do my laundry, and entertain my children. Deacons would station themselves at various places in the church building during any worship service that I attended. If I were caught in a difficult situation or detained too long with someone, all I had to do was turn and nod to them. They would come, take me by the arm, and walk me to my car with a hug and instructions to go home.
Out of this transparency came another blessing, a precious gift of friendship. As Dan and I began to share what we were going through with others, a good friend, Michelle Johnson, stepped into my life. Because we needed a study at home, Dan and I had just moved to a house in the neighborhood where Michelle lived with her family. Michelle and I had known each other for several years because our children attended the same school and we had worked together in the women's ministry of our church.
One Tuesday morning I sat down with Michelle and explained that I would have to step out of all church leadership while working through my depression. Her response was immediate and strong. How could she help? What could she do? I did not even know what to tell her. It didn't matter. She just knew. Over the next few years, Michelle was always there. Time after time she stepped into situations and shielded me, protected me, loved me, and encouraged me. God used her friendship to save my life. Her husband Jay was a tremendous source of strength and encouragement to Dan, and our children became great friends. I have often wondered if my family and I would have missed this priceless gift of friendship had we chosen to handle my pain in private.
We were created to share our burdens with each other. Isaiah 35:3-4 is a clear directive: "Make the weak hands strong and the weak knees steady. Say to people who are frightened, `Be strong. Don't be afraid. Look, your God will come, and he will punish your enemies. He will make them pay for the wrongs they did, but he will save you"' (NCV). We need each other. A shared load is a lighter load. Transparency brings healing.