When Darkness Seems to Overcome

backlit-dark-dawn-1102912I’ve had many seasons plagued by depression and anxiety since my parents’ and daughter’s death in 2011. However, some of the darkest days of my life were the weeks after my last blog post. For several weeks, day after day, I was living in constant fear and anxiety. I was overwhelmed by an ongoing crisis: the possibility of my brother being discharged to outpatient treatment. The demands of work and home became unbearable. Tasks that were a regular part of my work responsibilities were challenging beyond belief!

I couldn’t concentrate, and I couldn’t sleep. I felt scatterbrained and as if I was living in a fog. There was no joy in my work and moments of joy at home seemed fleeting. I felt mentally and emotionally exhausted all the time. I was under a dark cloud that did not seem to lift. I tried to carry on as best I could. I tried to convince myself that this was like all the other times I had struggled and that it would soon pass, but this time it felt very different. I started to feel an ever-increasing sense of despair.

On a dark and rainy morning in early August, I headed to work around 10 am. A few blocks from my house, I realized that I should have probably planned to work from home that day. It was raining hard, and though I thought I had avoided rush hour by starting my day later, traffic was a nightmare. Barely a couple of miles from home, I sat in bumper to bumper traffic for almost an hour. I started to feel very anxious, so I decided to head back home and wait for traffic to get better.

Turning back towards home, I drove but a few blocks, and once again, the cars were just not moving. I decided to try another route to the Parkway and head to work instead of trying to get back home. I soon found myself stuck again. I started to feel like I could not breathe. I was having a panic attack triggered by lousy traffic. I’ve had many panic attacks, and the triggers have varied, but simple frustration had never been one of them. As I cried out to God and tried to breathe, I felt my life was out of control. It was a dark day in every way.

I continued to sit in traffic and slowly began to feel better. I finally made it to the Parkway as the rain started to fall even harder. Just as I tried to merge onto the highway, I was caught off guard by a car on the right lane. I didn’t see it coming! I quickly swerved right and barely missed getting hit or running off the road. It all happened in a split second. I made my way onto the highway as relief washed over me. It was a close call, and I realized I could have died. And suddenly, the feeling of relief was replaced with an intense and somber sense of regret. Followed by a thought completely out of left field, “Why did I swerve out of the way? I should have just died.” And although the realization of those feelings scared me to my core, I couldn’t shake off the thought that death would bring me relief.

Similar thoughts would come and go as I went about my days. I’m usually pretty open about my emotional struggles, but this time things were different. Although I would share with friends and family that I was feeling very overwhelmed, I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone just how bad things were getting. I couldn’t share that at times I wanted to end my own life.

The frequency and intensity of those feelings increased, and I continued to wrestle with them on my own. Finally, one day, I remembered the wise advise a close friend gave me during a conversation about the importance of self-care. She had said something like, “it’s a lot easier to prevent a mental breakdown than it is to recover from one.” I’m not sure if the conversation took place before or after the suicidal ideations had started, but remembering her words encouraged me to finally open up to my husband.

My husband listened attentively, and although he was very concerned, he didn’t panic. He reassured me and prayed with me. I had also not shared with my therapist until that point. So I started to process in therapy some of the underlying issues I had been trying to manage on my own. My husband and I continued to talk and pray. We discussed steps we could take to alleviate the stress and create margin in our lives. We knew we needed to do things differently.

The steps were drastic and have involved a lot of sacrifices, but we are slowly starting to see the fruit of those changes. I still have difficult days, but I’m no longer feeling tormented. I’m no longer on the verge of “losing it” or having suicidal thoughts. I continue to pray for healing and pray that I would trust in God more fully during seasons of suffering.

As I think back and reflect on the difficulty in speaking about what I was experiencing, I hope that what I share can be of help to someone going through a dark season in life or to anyone who is walking with a friend who is struggling.

Reasons I Didn’t Want to Share

I didn’t want to burden my husband with the details of my struggle, and I was anxious about how he might respond.  I was afraid that he would be worried about my safety and not trust me to be alone. I was worried he would not trust me to care for our son. I was even afraid he would want me to stop driving! Although I’ve never been given any reason to think this way, these were real concerns for me.

The reality is that we can’t control how our loved ones respond to something like this. That doesn’t mean we don’t share. We all need people we can trust and can go to in times of need. We all need support. It’s a disservice to ourselves and to our relationships to not give our loved ones a chance to step in and be there for us when we most desperately need them. I won’t deny that it was a hard conversation. I didn’t even know how to go about it. But by God’s grace, it was the very best thing I did because I no longer had to suffer alone.

Fear was probably one of the main reasons I had a hard time sharing. Part of me felt that talking about those thoughts out loud could make them worse. So often we think that keeping things in the dark is a wise strategy. Perhaps it feels more manageable if we’re the only ones aware of it. At times we are led to believe that speaking about the things we fear will cause them to come to pass. We are afraid we will “speak them into existence.” However, the exact opposite happened!

I started to experience much relief once I began to talk about my feelings and started to explore some of the possible reasons these thoughts were coming up for me. Talking about these strong and scary thoughts actually helped diminish the grip they had on me. Saying them out loud and hearing the words myself, helped to dispel the fears of what these thoughts could possibly mean. I could see them for what they were: an indication that I was having a tough time coping with my present circumstances and that I needed to make some changes.

As a Christian and a mom, I was also ashamed that such dark thoughts crossed my mind. I love my family, and I would never want to cause them pain. I love God, and I know that He is sovereign and good. I know that He is faithful and He’s carried me through so much! How could I start doubting Him now? I often felt guilty and weak.

Denial also played a critical role in my desire to keep my experience private. I dismissed the significance of those thoughts because they would come and go. The fact that I had moments of joy and laughter made me question the seriousness of what I was experiencing. I thought to myself, “I’m just under a lot of stress, and things will get better.”

Interestingly, after sharing with my husband and therapist, I still continued to question whether or not those thoughts were of real concern, and if I had sounded a false alarm. Even though talking about and processing my feelings was clearly helping me, I wondered if I would have gotten better on my own. I honestly could not believe that I could actually do anything to harm myself.

Then, just short days later, I learned of the deaths of a California pastor and a New Jersey child welfare professional. I was crushed. I didn’t know either of them, but their deaths hit very close to home: one shared my faith and the other, my field of work. My heart broke for them and their loved ones. There was nothing I could do but pray for their families and repent for once thinking that I would never be capable of such action.

The truth is that we can never truly know what would lead anyone to take their own life. There are countless differences between each of us that influence our having greater or lesser susceptibility for suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior. However, I would argue that believing that sheer personal strength and willpower can protect any of us is foolish and arrogant.

Practical Takeaways

I can’t overstate the importance of talking about this issue. If you’re feeling helpless and hopeless, if you’re having thoughts of taking your own life, please talk to someone. Don’t try to manage it on your own hoping that it will just go away. Loved ones, if you have any reason to believe that someone you know is at risk, have the courage to ask them. These are difficult conversations because we don’t talk about this issue enough. But by bringing it up, you demonstrate to your friend or family member that they can open up to you if they ever need to and that you will not freak out.

I also can’t overemphasize the importance of getting professional help. I’m in ongoing therapy, so I already had a professional I could speak to about these particular symptoms. Perhaps for you or someone you know, the first step could be to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Check out their website and learn about the resources that are available. We should all know the risk factors and warning signs and be prepared to help prevent suicide if it comes up in our own circles.

The most critical lesson for me these past months was to recognize that I needed a lot more margin in my life. I learned that the complexity of my current circumstances, the emotional and psychological toll inherent to these circumstances, and my ability (or lack thereof) to cope with those stressors, warranted a serious evaluation of my existing commitments and responsibilities. Although we live in a society that is accustomed to hectic and excessively busy lifestyles, there is a limit to what we can actually handle. Unfortunately, we’re often unaware of our limit, and we keep adding on to our commitments, always thinking that the next season will be a little less stressful.

It’s important to understand that, even though you may have been able to handle something well in the past, you may not be able to do so in your present circumstances. At times, we need to let go of good things for the sake of the most important things. Letting go can be a challenge, even painful, but trying to sustain what is no longer sustainable is a recipe for chaos.

After much prayer and many conversations, my husband and I decided to move forward on two changes we had discussed on and off since our son was born: my resigning from my full-time job and our family moving to a church closer to our home. These were incredibly difficult decisions to make. Not working full-time has represented many financial sacrifices and changing churches inevitably has brought changes in existing relationships. However difficult, we have seen God’s faithfulness through this season of change.

Spiritual Takeaways

I can hardly unpack the spiritual implications of the past months, but my main takeaway continues to be the importance of maintaining spiritual practices and the need for ongoing repentance. When I feel helpless and hopeless, I can struggle to turn to God for help because the “desire” to seek Him is minimal.  I thank God for His grace! He meets us where we are and accepts even our most feeble attempts. 

Sunday Worship and the Hearing of God’s Word

Scripture emphasizes the importance of the fellowship of the saints and the gathering of His people for worship, but it’s so tempting to skip services when one is depressed or anxious. There are a million reasons: physical and emotional exhaustion, the desire to sleep in, the fact that just the thought of having to look decent feels like the most excruciating task, having to be polite or heaven forbid having to smile, and the list can go on and on.

There were plenty of Sundays I did not want to go to church, but I’ve learned that this has to be non-negotiable. Even when we were in the process of changing churches, we went to Sunday service every week. We were very cautious to not allow the process of looking for a new home church turn into an excuse to skip worship services. And as soon as we found a place we could call home, we committed to that local body of believers. This has been so critical! In seasons where private devotional practices are hard to maintain, corporate worship is like an oasis in the desert of our souls.

Reading God’s Word

I wish I could say this has been a daily practice, but that is not the case. Depending on the severity of my symptoms, reading the Bible can be very difficult. At times it seems I get nothing out of it. I have a hard time concentrating and forget what I read by the time I close my Bible. Once again, persistence has been so valuable! Even if I fall off the wagon when it comes to daily reading, I have to pick myself up again and open my Bible! I also find it helpful to always be reading or listening to solid Christian books. They often motivate me to go back to God’s Word for myself.

Prayer

Although my private prayers were often short and weak, I continued to pray. There are many days I have no desire to pray. And when I do, I feel like a broken record. But persisting in prayer opens us to a process of transformation. Our circumstances may not change, but our hearts surely do. Asking for prayer is also a practice that has had a significant impact over the years. I’m so grateful for the prayers of my family, friends, and my church community!

Repentance

One of the underlying issues I was confronted with was my lack of control over my circumstances. The desire for control is basic to our human nature, but as Christians, we are called to a higher reality. The truth is that we don’t really have as much control as we think we have. We just have to stop to think about the fears that creep into our minds at times, and we recognize that our influence is actually pretty limited. But the most important truth is that God DOES have complete control. He has control over all things and at all times. Only He is sovereign. I’m desperate for control over my present circumstances because I’m really struggling to trust God with them. As I processed those dark thoughts and learned that my desire for control is at the root of my current struggle, I’ve had to come to God in repentance over and over again.

The Holiday Season can be especially difficult for those walking through a season of suffering. Perhaps you’re past the bleakest days of suffering, but in this season, the memory of loved ones who are no longer here can be a source of pain. My prayer is that we would turn our attention to the true meaning of Christmas.

This third Sunday of Advent, our pastor reminded us that Christmas is all about how “God brings spiritual life and light back into a broken and dark world through the birth of Jesus…Christmas is a celebration of the fact that the light has come to show us the way of life.” What a powerful reminder!

As Christmas approaches, may we remember that, no matter how much darkness seems to surround us, when we are in Christ, we have already been rescued from darkness. No matter what fear seems to grip us, we are eternally secure in the One who holds all of our days in His loving hands. And when all seems hopeless, Christ himself is our hope! May we allow the light of God’s truth to take root in our hearts in every season of our lives. Although we are weak, by God’s grace, we persevere. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:1-5