This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Depression is tough at the best of times. Perhaps it’s the best of times, such as holiday times, when it’s especially tough. The thought of mixing with happy people fills you with dread. The thought of remembering lost loved ones fills you with gloom. How can people be so happy when you are so sad? How can people celebrate when you are in mourning? It jars your soul and scrapes your tender wounds, doesn’t it?
You may want to run away and hide from the noisy busyness and the social obligations. Or you may want to lash out at the insensitive and uncaring people who exhort you to “Cheer up!” Or maybe you just want to drown your sorrows with binge drinking, binge eating, or binge TV-watching. But none of these options—running out, lashing out, or pigging out—will improve your depression. Indeed, they will only make it worse.
Let me propose a better way that will enable you to carefully navigate this holiday season while also contributing to your long-term healing.
I know prayer is perhaps too obvious, but sometimes we miss the obvious. Bring your burden to the Lord, tell him your fears and dreads, and seek his help to push through these daunting days. Lament by saying “Lord, I don’t want to give thanks, I don’t want to celebrate Christmas, and I don’t want to live through another year.” Admit, saying: “God, I can’t stand happiness right now and I can’t abide people.” Confess: “This is wrong and sinful, but I can’t seem to change.” Plead: “Lord, I am weak, I need your power, I need your patience, I need your joy.” Promise: “I will rely on you alone to carry me and even use this time for my help and healing.”
It’s amazing how the gospel can turn the greatest pain into the greatest therapy.
Not everyone among your family and friends understands depression; but some do, as you know. Give them a call, or, better, meet with them, and talk to them about what you dread during this season. Ask them to pray for you and to support you in the coming days. Ask them to stay by your side in social settings, to protect you from those who don’t understand, to accept your silences, and to help you withdraw quietly when you have reached your limits of socializing.
Although burnout is growing increasingly common among men in ministry, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Pastor and counselor David Murray offers men gospel-centered hope for avoiding and recovering from burnout, setting a more sustainable pace.
While it’s not wise to totally withdraw from social life during the holidays, neither is it wise to force yourself to go to every social gathering. Total withdrawal will only depress you further; but so will total immersion. You just don’t have the emotional and mental fuel for it. So, plan ahead and choose wisely which social occasions you will go to and how long to spend there. Perhaps try to avoid going to too many gatherings on consecutive days or evenings. You need downtime to be quiet and to refuel. Perhaps you can plan to attend a gathering but not stay from the beginning to the end. That’s more inviting in prospect and more beneficial in retrospect. The aim is to pace yourself and make sure you are getting sufficient time to rebuild your energy levels.
Regular routine is vital for those with depression. Your body, mind, and soul flourish when you are following a predictable pattern of sleeping, eating, working, and relaxing. All this is threatened by the irregularity and unpredictability of the holidays. You will have to accept a degree of change in this area in these weeks, yet still fight to maintain as much regularity as you can. You don’t want to waste all your good work in this area.
Keep up a fitness regime. I know from personal experience how hard it is to be consistent in this area over the holidays. There’s so much sitting around, and so, so much food. But it’s so important for your physical, mental, and spiritual health to maintain your discipline here. If my experience is anything to go by, you won’t keep it perfectly. But do what you can. Even if you can’t get to the gym, try to get outside and walk in the daylight for 20-30 minutes a day.
Preach to Yourself
You have an internal narrative, the story that you are telling yourself. You’ve done a great job of rewriting that story over the past few months. The dark chapters that were so full of what you lost with these painful family bereavements have now given way to many bright paragraphs of how much your loved one has gained in heaven and of your hope of eventual and eternal reunion. You’ve also managed by God’s grace to expand that part of the story which focuses on how much you still have in your life. Keep writing these chapters in your mind and heart—the longer the better.
Now, you’re going to be tempted in the next few weeks to write a chapter that dwells on the present estrangement with your daughter and how much you miss her at family occasions. While we can’t deny the reality of this, and we continue to pray and work toward reconciliation, can I suggest that you write another chapter in parallel with it? Write a chapter on the way God has reconciled you to his Son through his death on the cross (Eph. 2:14–18; 2 Cor. 5:18–21). Fixing your mind on this greatest estrangement and reconciliation story will help you to balance a bitter experience with the sweetest experience, and will also give you hope in God’s reconciling power. It’s amazing how the gospel can turn the greatest pain into the greatest therapy.
You can also preach to yourself by singing the Gospel to yourself. Remember how much you enjoyed Handel’s “Messiah” last year? Why don’t we go again? Attend your church’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Sing these Gospel-rich songs and make melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph. 5:19).
Preach to Others
I don’t want to lay a heavy burden on you here, but why not look for and take opportunities to witness to others? The unbelievers in your family will be looking to see how you react to your recent losses and how you are responding to your depression. They will see you are sad and they will ask how you are doing. How about this for an answer: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). That should startle them! But is will also start some profitable conversations that give you an opportunity to testify to God’s grace to you in these days. Sometimes, ministering to others is the best way to minister to yourself.