Given that depression can be a fragile and, at times, controversial topic, what made you decide to write a book about it?
Depression can feel like a solo sport. There’s no team backing you up. It’s like swimming or gymnastics; once you get going, it’s up to you to make it to the other end of the pool or the mat. (I was told this is why writers get depressed, because writing isn’t really a team effort).
Most of the resources I found on depression began with the “solo” premise: It’s up to you, go get help, here’s this method, try this and this. But that sort of individualized isolation was very vacuum-ish to me. Life doesn’t work in such a frictionless shrinkwrap; we affect others in a causational web and we need their help, too.
So I started with the premise: How do we collectively get through depression? How do we manage the stress and cause-and-effect and even the global consequences of depression? I wrote the book for both those who struggle with depression and those who don’t. I wanted to bring in every person involved, because depression affects families, cultures, marriages, churches, all of it.
I always knew that the topic of depression itself was a game of telephone — “I’m depressed” sounds like “I’m antisocial” to most people — but when I got to the research and surveys, it was even worse than I had thought. There was this nearly impermeable membrane around the discussion of depression. And then this phrase kept popping up in my head: If you could just know how hard it really is …
And as cheesy as that might be, it became the title of the book. My whole goal was to peel back that weird membrane around depression so, if anything, there would be more empathy on every side of the discussion.
You’ve written on your blog about your personal struggle with depression. Did writing this book help you? If so, how?
It helped, but there were times I knew I had to step away because it wasn’t helping. I’d imagine it’s like someone investigating a crime in their own family—it’s cathartic, but it’s also dangerously close. I think the writing process helped to “de-fang” some of the depression, too. I was able to remove some of the unknowns and break it down to its basic elements. There’s some stuff where you want to keep the mysteriousness, like a cool protagonist’s backstory or something, but there’s other stuff (like a disease or a broken appliance, and yes, depression) where the less mystery, the better. For me, exposing the Wizard of Oz was worth the cost.
It’s such a conundrum, because we need to talk about it, whether in person or in writing, but talking about it can also exacerbate it. I think for some people with depression, writing it out might be therapeutic, while others might find it very harmful. That’s a case by case decision, even day by day. If anything, my hope was that the book would help someone else, and that was probably my number one motivation.
Christians with good intentions often brush away those struggling with depression, as though it’s as simple as “praying it away.” As a Christ-follower who has struggled with depression, how do you handle this response?
I used to get really mad about this sort of thing. I still do, but I’m learning that bad advice like “pray more” or “be positive” is more of a coping mechanism for those who don’t know what to say, or want to say something valuable rather than looking helpless, or are too scared to enter the dark with a person who has a mental illness.
I think most Christians get caught up by this idea that they need to look like they have an answer for everything or their faith is at stake. The stronghold of “certainty” is such a big deal in Christian-World, because there’s this dynamic with looking like a “good Christian” when you know more doctrine and stuff. Saying “I don’t know what to say” is like a death sentence to so many Christians, but really, I’d be relieved if more Christians just admitted “I don’t know how to do this” and were open to learning.
For a person with depression, there’s this almost two-prong battle of handling the dark inside and then handling other peoples’ responses and perceptions. That gets really old, really fast. But as a Christian myself, I want to have grace for those who lack grace.
Of course, there are some “Christians” who will never get it and never see depression as a legitimate condition, but for others, I’m slower to build a conversation. It’s hard to explain myself a thousand times over and over, but humility has to go both ways. I need to be humble about those who don’t seem to get it, just as I’m hoping they’re humble about not getting it.
(I also talk about this a lot in Chapter 3 of the book!)
How do you find comfort in God when you feel depressed or depression coming on? Do you bring your depression to God? If so, how?
My template is the Psalms. The Psalmists expressed every possible emotion to God, mostly with no clear order, with a messy, slobbery, almost embarrassing vulnerability.
I bring it to God the same way. I’m not sure there’s a “right way” to do that, but that’s exactly what the Psalms look like, too. It’s like, “Here I am, totally ugly cry-face” or “I feel nothing, I don’t hear You, I hate You, where are You?” and then suddenly, “I love Your Word and Your law brings life.” I mean it’s just crazy and all over the place. That’s the journey of faith, though. Whether your brain is broken by mental illness or you’re perfectly of sound mind, encountering God is never a straightforward path.
I think depression brings us to all kinds of hard places, whether sadness or apathy or numbness or anger or fear or anxiety, and my one comfort is that God hears all of this and doesn’t shame me. When we think of our friends or spouses or co-workers or even our pastor seeing all of us, there’s a point when they have to turn away, or cringe, or say “it’s too much,” or they have to go home. That’s understandable. Our deepest hurts are exhausting for us and just as exhausting for others.
God, however, is inexhaustible. He hears all the venting and anger and frustration and He can take it. He sees the embarrassing stuff and literally humiliated Himself on a cross. I can’t say I always believe with absolute assurance that He’s there, but even the want of believing He is constant is enough to get me through. I always think of Revelation 3:8, when Jesus tells us that he knows we have little strength, but his door is always open.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
C.S. Lewis said it best: “We read to know we are not alone.” That’s exactly what I’m hoping for, especially because depression is so misunderstood and mishandled that it comes with a built-in loneliness.
The book has a ton of different angles, from scientific to personal to psychological to theological, because we’re all wired differently, and I’m hoping even one section can reach someone where they are. I encourage chapter-skipping and browsing, because someone currently experiencing depression might not be able to read it page by page. And since about one out of five of us have a mental illness in the U.S., that means nearly all of us have a family member or friend who’s dealt with it. I hope the book can be a starting point or a guide to talk about it.
– My book on fighting depression is here in paperback: https://www.amazon.com/How-Hard-It-Really-Is/dp/0692910360/ and here in ebook: https://www.amazon.com/How-Hard-It-Really-Is-ebook/dp/B073TX15LB