My mood’s default setting seems to be one of sadness. When I’m not being actively entertained or engaged with other people I tend to lapse into a state of moderate despair tinged with irritability and fatigue. That makes me sort of the poster-boy for the psychiatric diagnostic category of Dysthymic Disorder. The word dysthymia is Greek for “bad mood.” I think in the early years of the church it was called acedia. It’s been that way for much of my adult life, but it seems to be getting more intense as I get older.
Many dysthymic people are never diagnosed as such because in trying to self-medicate their chronic sadness they gravitate toward addictive behavior. When I was younger I drank quite a lot. After two or three drinks I became predictably euphoric and for a few moments the depression went away. Of course, alcohol is ultimately a depressant and so the end result was that my drinking brought me lower still. Many dysthymics abuse alcohol and drugs but very likely many more over-eat or over-spend to ease their sadness.
Both of my parents had mood disorders and so the underlying cause of my problem is undoubtedly genetic. Both of my parents were seriously bipolar. So I’m lucky to be able to label my problem as “moderate” and not severe.
One of the disconcerting things I’ve noticed in the past few years is my bipolar heritage manifesting itself more clearly. I have periods where I feel an anticipatory excitement, have racing thoughts and feel uncharacteristically cheerful. To a degree this isn’t a bad thing. However, waking at 3 or 4 a.m. with your mind going like a locomotive is not so desirable.
I’m probably what’s called Bipolar II or perhaps Cyclothymic–less severe forms of the illness formerly known as Manic-Depression. A typical Bipolar II pattern is several weeks to several months of feeling depressed and then an episode of short duration (a few days to a week) of feeling uncharacteristically high, followed again by a downward spiral into a state of depression. I’m also what’s known as a “short cycler”–my moods can flip back and forth within a few days. To me this is reassuring. Whatever uncomfortable state I happen to be experiencing I know that I wont remain there for very long.
I do not take medication but for some mood disordered folks that is the answer. For dysthymia there are antidepressants like Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro or Wellbutrin and for the bipolar there are mood stabilizers like Depakote, Lamictal or lithium carbonate. They work for many but not for everybody, and the response to psychoactive meds is very idiosyncratic. Some people experience many side effects and some have none. Some have a dramatically therapeutic response and some almost no response.
Back in the 1970s I read a book on the cycles that underlie all natural phenomena. Around that same time I became interested in biorhythms, and over the years I’ve learned to keep track of my moods. I’ve found this helpful. I’ve learned not to panic when I feel exceptionally down. I’ve learned that in a few days I’ll be feeling brighter. Conversely, I know that when I’m feeling unusually high that will not last either. Everybody has a mood rhythm but for bipolars and cyclothymics it is just more extreme.
I elaborate on mood disorders, cycles, medication, addictions, spiritual warfare and coping techniques in my book: The Unwelcome Blessing. Its subtitle is “A Christian Therapist on Depression and Coping.” It tells my story, as well as looking at depression from both clinical and biblical perspectives. It is what the Holy Spirit has taught me about the meaning of depression. A caveat: this book is not for everybody. For some its an answer to prayer and I have the letters to prove it; but others think it is overly technical and that I use too many big words. I will say this, it is not some dumbed-down seven magic principles to happiness. The book is available thru amazon.com and at the Northland Church Bookstore.
After I became a Christian I learned that the ultimate reality is not how I happen to be feeling at the moment. I’ve learned that our feelings lie to us. Feelings come and go. They are good indicators but poor governors. What the reality is, is that God loves us and that our lives matter to Him. We may feel abandoned, hopeless, helpless and worthless but we are not. Satan has a way of magnifying those feelings. Satan also seeks to isolate the depressed, or for that matter, anyone coping with any sort of mental or emotional disorder or addiction. And so staying in close contact with others in our Lord’s Body is essential. I attend a Celebrate Recovery meeting weekly at my church–and some weeks I attend two.
Praise & Giving Thanks
I have found that the best way of overcoming my depression is in effusive praise and thanksgiving. As it says in I Thes. 5:16-18 ‘”Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in every thing give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” When we are thanking God and praising Him our focus is on Him and not ourselves and how we happen to be feeling.
Thank Him! Thank Him! Thank Him for every imaginable blessing, large and small–even the unwelcome ones. As St. Paul writes, this is not a suggestion: this is the will of the God of the universe speaking directly to you.