Something was not right. I felt awful – physically my stomach was churning and emotionally I was filled with panic. A visit to my doctor confirmed my worst fears: I was clinically depressed and what I had just experienced was a panic attack.
This would become the pattern for more mornings than I care to remember – awakening with anxiety which turned to panic at the thought of the day ahead; getting up, trying to get myself and my two little girls ready for the day; often losing the battle with panic and throwing up in the bathroom.
What had led to this emotional and mental state? The year was 1992 and I had left our home in N.Ireland 2 years previously to come, with my husband and 2-year old daughter, to live in Switzerland – with great joy and anticipation at what lay ahead for us.
On arriving and filling out the papers for health insurance, I had to say whether I was pregnant. There was a remote chance, since we had been trying for a second child before we left N.Ireland, but we had almost forgotten about it (as much as one can) in the move. Still, I did a pregnancy test and, to our great joy, discovered it was positive! Our much-longed for second child was on her way!
But soon morning sickness turned into all-day sickness and that lasted for about 4 months. I vomited virtually all I ate. As I lay on my bed between bouts of sickness, I had a lot of time to think – and worry about our financial situation. We had discovered that my pregnancy was viewed by the health insurance companies as a ‘pre-existing illness’ and was therefore not covered by them – not the pregnancy, nor the birth – which of course would run into thousands of Swiss francs. We had come to Switzerland to work with an international church and therefore did not have a lot of spare cash – how were we going to cover these costs?
One option was to go back to N.Ireland for the birth – but we soon discovered that there I would be treated as an overseas private patient, since we were no longer resident in the UK.The costs of that, on top of flights etc., not to mention the hassle of flying back and my husband having to take time off work, soon made that possibility redundant. So it was that we decided that I would stay in Switzerland and trust that God, who had called us there, would somehow look after the details.
But my faith was small and I had lost all my support network of family and friends at home. So, while my husband poured himself into the demands and excitement of a new job, I stayed at home, caring for our two-year old daughter and trying to get us all settled into this foreign culture. For although Switzerland is part of Europe and a wonderful, beautiful country, it was not home. There were all kinds of papers to be filled out (in French – and although I had university French, it was a bit rusty); our daughter to be settled in a kindergarten where she understood nothing and had to be peeled off my arms every time I left her there (she still remembers that!); and all the usual things like shopping and banking to be done in a very new culture.
On top of this, I had had dreams of working alongside my husband in what we believed God had called both of us to in Switzerland – and here I was languishing at home in pregnancy sickness which drained all my energy and left me barely able to look after my home and my family – what else could I do? what use was I to my husband or to the church? I had had my own picture of what a pastor’s wife looked like – and this certainly wasn’t it.
After 4 months, the ‘morning’ sickness finally passed and I enjoyed the rest of my pregnancy and then had a beautiful baby girl. As for the finances, God did hear those cries to Him from a mustard seed of faith and provided all we needed. First he sent a midwife to our church, who said she would look after me if she could find a gynaecologist to supervise her – so God sent a gynaecologist to our church. Just for added measure, he threw in a physiotherapist, who brushed me up on my breathing exercises in preparation for the delivery. So there were very few medical expenses accrued throughout my pregnancy and when the time came for the delivery, one person picked up the bill for that. God certainly demonstrated his faithfulness to us.
However, this beautiful baby girl was not happy – she cried a lot. In fact, she seemed to cry day and night. Having had a first baby who settled into a happy rhythm at 8 weeks, sleeping through the night etc., I just didn’t know what to do with this second baby who cried so much and slept so little. Of course that meant I didn’t sleep much either and, although I had dreamed of finally settling down to life in Switzerland, that was not to be.
It was a rough year after her birth and during the Christmas period we were sent away for a few days’ holiday by some kind friends who could see we were at the end of our rope. One night, as I tried to rock my crying baby to sleep, my tears bouncing off her, I cried out to God and asked him either to change her or to change me by giving me extra strength – because I couldn’t go on like this. Miraculously, our little girl started to settle from that night on and life grew much more calm.
I was even able to start helping my husband more in the church and found great fulfilment in coming alongside people who were struggling in various ways, comforting them and helping them through their difficulties. We were a young church, growing rapidly, and so the demands were great. We had a core of wonderfully committed people who were helping as much as they could – but there never seemed to be enough people to meet the needs, as more and more people came, with greater and greater needs.
Or was it me? Could I not say ‘no’ to anyone? Why did I have to say ‘yes’ to every need that came my way? Finally, we had one week when we were dealing with several major needs: one lady was diagnosed with cancer, two marriages were in jeopardy, and then one lady came to see me who was suicidal. When she left, I collapsed in tears and thought: ‘I feel just like she does!’
That was the turning point: my husband took me to the doctor, who diagnosed me with depression and advised a complete break from everything. My husband and I took a few days away and thus began a long, slow, painful process of recovery.
I had to pull out of all commitments, other than my home and my family. On my doctor’s advice, I put my second daughter (then 3) in kindergarten two mornings a week and tried to take that time for myself – reading, cross-stitching, walking.
At the same time, I had a wonderful doctor who not only prescribed anti-depressants and saw me (often along with my husband) for one hour each time I went to see him but who also insisted that I see a counsellor. He said that the anti-depressants would just keep my head above water while counselling would help me work out what had caused the depression. The doctor was a Christian and I remember him saying to me that this was one time in my life when it was harder to be a Christian than not – because on top of being depressed, I felt guilty that I was depressed. Certainly I did hear of one member of our church who was aghast when she heard that the pastor’s wife was suffering from depression. (It is also a time in your life when no amount of being told to ‘cheer up’ or ‘count your blessings’ will do anything for you other than make you feel more miserable.)
I had a very gifted counsellor who helped me sift through all the layers of my depression and the factors that had let up to it:
- I had 2 small pre-school kids and was far away from home, family and old friends
- I was in a foreign country with a foreign language and different ways of doing things
- My husband was busy getting himself established in his new job, eager to give his all and do his best
- I had no clear rôle to fulfil – it was up to me to work it out
- I didn’t recognise my limits – I said ‘yes’ to everything and to everyone until finally I couldn’t any more
- I was a perfectionist, demanding perfection of each and every task I embarked on
- I had repressed a lot of anger which I had to learn to deal with
Slowly but surely I began to crawl out of that dark hole of depression. I began to understand what had got me there and learn to relinquish some of these expectations and demands I had placed on myself. With the constant support of a wonderful husband who cheered me through every victory and supported me through each defeat, I worked with my doctor and counsellor until I could come off my anti-depressants and eventually stop therapy.
Here are some lessons I learned through it all:-
- I began to understand and accept that, although I was not able to feel God’s presence during my depression (I felt nothing – I was numb), he was there all the time. He has promised: ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you’. For me that was a momentous discovery – the reality of God and the reality of his presence is not dictated by how we feel at any given moment. He is there all the time and he never changes. He is always faithful and he is always loving. It is us who change but he never changes. My faith does not depend on feelings – it depends on the Word of God. My feelings change – God doesn’t change.
- I had to learn the importance of my thought patterns – because how I think affects how I feel, and I can control how I think. During my worst period, I particularly struggled upon wakening in the morning, thinking I couldn’t face the day. Then I would just recite over and over the verse ‘I can do everything through him who gives me strength’ Philippians 4:13. I had to learn the importance of taking every thought captive to Christ. Thoughts which do not come from the Lord need to be taken captive and replaced with the Word of God. When tempted to worry, I would recall: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ Phil.4:6-7. We need to replace the negative thought or attitude with a biblical verse or a biblical principle – and meditate on that, feed on that, until it begins to sink into our souls.
- I had to learn that I had limits. I could say ‘no’! I didn’t have to say ‘yes’ to every person with every request! In fact, I had to learn to say ‘no’. ‘To escape the tyranny of the urgent and handle the busyness of life, (a) we must take time to evaluate our activities and organise our time and (b) we must develop a new style of living which involves constant re-assessment of our priorities. As your children grow up, you need to keep this in mind – you need to constantly re-assess your priorities because each stage brings its own challenges.’
- I had to learn that each period of parenthood is only for a season. The stage of nappies and bottles and sleepless nights soon passes, even though you think it never will and you’ll never feel human again. God understands which particular season we’re in and the stresses and strains of that stage. It’s alright to be tired. It’s alright to be exhausted. It’s alright to go to bed instead of doing a Bible study at midnight.
- I had to realise that I had unrealistic expectations and so was frustrated and disappointed because I could never meet them. I needed to ask, ‘Does God expect me to do this or is it only me?’ We often need to reduce our expectations of ourselves. We need to let ourselves off the hook sometimes. Some things won’t get done today and that’s OK.
- I had to accept that emotional exhaustion is as much an illness as a broken leg and is not something to feel guilty about – who feels guilty about a broken leg?
- I needed to learn to spend some time on myself. I need it for myself, I need it in order to be a better wife and a better mother. I have to find some way to regularly spend some time doing whatever builds me up, recharges me and replenishes me – reading a book quietly, having a coffee with a friend, going for a walk, whatever.
- I needed to spend regular quality time with my husband. It was too easy to let the pressure of his job and the stresses and strains of parenthood to squeeze out any available time together – but in every stage of parenthood it is vital to find and to guard that time. Don’t wait until you’re depressed and your husband has to take time off to be with you just to keep you sane! Join a baby-sitting circle, find an au pair, make a reciprocal arrangement with another couple which allows you to regularly have time together.
- I had to face my anger. I had always thought I was a calm, patient person – until I had children. I never knew I could get so angry. (Of course, the anger was always there. I believe that God uses circumstances in my life to allow ‘the real me’ to surface. What emerges may not be pretty – but it is stuff that God wants to deal with – and it is often during the difficult seasons of life that God is pruning us and shaping us into the people he wants us to be.) If you have found the same thing, here are some suggestions: (1) Ask why it is you are so angry. What is happening inside? Some anger is ‘righteous’ (Eph. 4:26) and justifiable and we need to discuss the issues raised with the offending parties – usually our husbands or our kids. Don’t bury it or it will reappear in another form – probably depression!
(2) Some anger is unrighteous and we need to repent before the Lord and say sorry to the other person and deal with it. A lot of the anger that appears in our marriages is the result of living in close quarters with another person and facing our own sinfulness, particularly our self-centredness. But don’t let it fester. Don’t let it grow because it will destroy you and your relationships.
(3) According to Scripture, anger is unacceptable when it is hasty (Prov.14:17; 16:32; Titus 1:7; Jas.1:19); without real cause (Matt.5:22); or long-lasting (Ecc.7:9). Whether righteous or unrighteous, we are not to let the sun go down on our anger and we are not to give the devil a foothold (Eph.4:26,27,31).
- I began to learn about the God-dependent life – not just having a regular QT each day, but learning how my whole life needs to be God-dependent. I found a lot of help in the book ‘The God-dependent life’ (Joanie Yoder) which in itself is a story of how the author faced depression while living in Switzerland. I think there is some truth to the fact that we spend all of our lives learning how to really depend on God.
- I learned that God had good things in store for me, even out of this long, dark journey called depression. I was challenged on reading this question in Scripture: ‘What do you want Me to do for you’? II Sam.21:4; Luke 18:41. Did I just want to be healed or did I want to learn more of God through my depression? I believe that every circumstance, good or bad, can be used by God to bring us nearer to Him – if we allow Him. God is shaping us into the men and women he wants us to be – and he loves us too much to waste an opportunity to do that. Often what we settle for is so much less than what God has for us. We would settle for a quiet life here on earth with the promise of heaven at the end of it. God has so much more in mind. His plan is that through all the vicissitudes of life – the ups and downs of the roller coaster (and even the tunnel of depression) – we learn who he is and we learn who we are. In doing so, we become part of the adventure he has planned in order to shape us and refine us and prepare us for that day when we will go home to be with him forever – his home, where there are no long dark tunnels, but only light, glorious light.