Getting Unstuck from the Hole of Depression

You are underground, in a dark hole, looking up at the light, far above you.
Don't lose hope — there are steps you can take toward a better life. Just because you got stuck in a depression rut, doesn't mean you can't get unstuck

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Do you feel like your depression rules your life and your marriage? Like you can’t move forward with your life, and you can’t back to the way things were? Don’t lose hope — there are steps you can take toward a better life. Just because you got stuck in a depression rut, doesn’t mean you can’t get unstuck. Being stuck in depression isn’t forever, even if you feel it is.

When you find out what causes your depression, and what your mind responds well to in treatment, you can see the hole ahead of time. You can avoid getting stuck in depression. You can navigate this mental illness. Reach out to your spouse for love, ask for patience, and determine to take action as you are able.

When Stress Triggers a Depression Rut

I felt like I was failing at work and failing at home. Was I growing more depressed because I was failing? Or did I feel like a failure because of my depression? These are not easy questions to parse, but I knew I was slipping into an uneasy, and unhealthy, state of mind.

The suicidal ideation came back gradually — so gradually I scarcely noticed it. Thinking about dying became almost a lullaby for me: I’d plan my own demise as I slowly fell asleep. I was functional, but I was rarely happy by then. With few exceptions, my moods had winnowed down to:

  1. slightly miserable
  2. unconscious

I wished life worked more like a video game. After all, if a game grew too frustrating, it was a simple matter to just press the reset button. Why couldn’t life come with one of those? Something you could press to restart your existence from your last good save point, redo the errors of your last session, and move on to a better place? But God didn’t give us such a thing. We control our own lives, and if we take the wrong turn in the dungeon, we can’t just start over. We can only push on or press off. And just contemplating some sort of “off” button in my life — the idea of stepping away from life’s game and moving on to …  well, something else … was relaxing. Heaven wasn’t something I hoped for. All I wanted was a little peace — a place soft and warm where I could pull the darkness over my head like a sheet.

But even with all those warning signs, what happened next was a complete shock.

Can Depression Cause Physical Symptoms?

Around 3 a.m., I woke up as a wave of nausea hit me. I felt it in my gut, my throat, my cheeks. I dashed to the bathroom.

But nothing happened. As I knelt by the toilet, nothing came. But when I stood back up, it felt like a large, disgusting explosion was imminent.

Remember the Winnie-the-Pooh story when Pooh eats too much honey at Rabbit’s house, tries to leave, and then gets stuck in Rabbit’s front door? He can’t go forward, he can’t go back? Sorry to ruin that story for you now, but the gunk in my gut felt like it was playing Winnie-the-Pooh. It wouldn’t come up, it wouldn’t go back, and all I could do was wait for it.

When mental health experts look for signs of depression or anxiety in kids, they’re not just looking for telltale emotional signals — sadness, irritability, suicidal feelings, and the like. Often, mental illness manifests in very physical ailments. Children might complain of headaches that never get better with aspirin or stomachaches with no discernible cause. Because children often can’t articulate or even pinpoint serious mental angst, and because the adults in their midst often brush off these sorts of emotional complaints with a smile and a wave of the hand, these physical ailments can form an important tell for anxiety and depression.

Excerpted from Beauty in the Browns (pages 90-92).

Don’t Ignore Your Physical Symptoms of Depression

The physical problems don’t vanish when those depressed kids become depressed adults. Our psychology and physiology are deeply and inseparably connected: Physical problems can cause real psychological anguish, and depression doesn’t always manifest itself most obviously in crying jags or suicidal thoughts. Sometimes it’s the headache that just won’t go away, or the literal pain in the neck that no amount of rubbing will completely alleviate, or the cramps and queasiness we feel at the most inopportune moments.

Stress often manifested itself with physical symptoms for me, and they continued through college and into my working career. But these stomach woes, as annoying as they were, were tolerable — frequent, but not constant. My stomach would turn cranky for a day or two and then settle down for a couple of weeks or a month. Rarely, if ever, did I miss work because my stomach felt like a wad of paper clenched and squeezed in some oversized fist. I was used to it.

But this time, it felt different.

Descending into the Dungeon of Despair (My Basement)

Thankfully, my wife and I had just finished the basement in our house, and because we didn’t know what we were doing, we made the bathroom huge — so much so that a full-grown man could lie right on the floor. (The walls were also a nice, fitting shade of salmon, not quite the hue of a certain stomach analgesic, but not far off. It was as if the decor itself was trying to settle my tum-tum.) So, after I was relatively sure the stomach could make the trip downstairs, I grabbed a pillow and a couple of blankets and parked myself on that cold bathroom floor.

I barely left the basement for the next three weeks.

At least the couch was comfortable.

Excerpted from Beauty in the Browns (pages 92-93).

The Misery of Being Stuck in Depression

For three weeks, I spent twenty-three and a half hours a day on that couch in the basement. Sometimes I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus. Sometimes I’d try to watch TV, but it made me nauseous. Most nights, I found I could stomach the Disney Channel at around 2 a.m., when I’d typically wake up and stay awake for the rest of the night. Every three or four days, I’d drag myself into the shower and run water over my body, rubbing the soap over me slowly, slowly, to try to wipe away the stench of myself. And occasionally, when everyone else had gone to work or school, I’d even crawl up the stairs — literally crawling, some afternoons — and eat a cracker or two. I dared not come up when anyone was home, so sick I felt and so ashamed I was of this weird, helpless thing I’d become.

One day, Wendy sent Colin and Emily down the stairs for a visit — hoping, perhaps, to remind me that I had a life outside the basement, that subterranean pit I was wallowing in. I looked at them, standing in front of me, uncomfortable and unsure, and I burst into tears.

Sometimes I wondered if I was dying.

It was my stomach. That’s what I told everybody, and that was at least partly true: I felt sick all the time. I lost twenty pounds in three weeks.

But I also knew that my gut wasn’t the root of what was wrong with me. It was just the most noticeable symptom. I was simply … broken. Something in my mind had reared up and smashed my face in. I couldn’t cowboy up. I could barely climb the stairs. And I wondered if I would ever leave the basement again.

Broken Bones and Broken Brains

Severe depression is, by definition, an unhealthy, unnatural state of mind, inherently and wholly illogical. It really and truly doesn’t make sense. And that’s what makes it so difficult for those who’ve never dealt with it (and maybe even many who have) to understand. Cheer up, people say. Get out. Get active. Life’s not so bad. And, of course, they’re right. On some level, you know they’re right. This is exactly how you should be thinking and what you should be doing, because this is what normal people think and do.

But let’s face it: When you’re dealing with depression, you’re not normal. In fact, you’re a wee bit insane. You might not be talking to lamps or calling yourself the Queen of England, but your brain is a little warped. What makes sense to everyone else — what makes logical sense to you, very often — just doesn’t compute somehow. Telling someone suffering from severe depression to cheer up is a little like telling someone with a shattered leg to take a quick jog around the park.

But unlike broken bones, which are obvious to everybody, your broken brain is out of view. It doesn’t even have the decency to come with a telltale cough or fever. You can complain about the pain, but no one can see any real reason why you should be in any. And unless you’re aware that you have depression, you don’t see why you should be in pain, either. You just know that you are.

What Can Help when You’re Stuck in Depression?

At the time, I didn’t know I was depressed. I just knew that I was, without warning, unable to cope with life’s simplest challenges. That almost everything I saw, heard or felt was making me sick. It didn’t make sense. But depression’s inherent illogic didn’t make it any easier to deal with. You feel like the way you feel now will be the way you will feel always and forever.

And in the absence of treatment, there’s some truth to that. You have to find a way to move forward, and both counseling and medication can be incredibly useful to facilitate that. There’s no replacement for expert help.

I didn’t get psychiatric help then. I didn’t know I needed it. But I did get help. I was fortunate that I had people in my life who helped me push forward. And as happened in college, they gave me the gift of three key elements. They happened pretty much simultaneously. But for the sake of clarity, let me talk about them one at a time.

Close up of a young, pensive Asian woman listening to someone talking to her on her phone

Talk to a Counselor

If you need further guidance and encouragement, we have a staff of licensed, professional counselors who offer a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. They can also refer you to counselors in your area for ongoing assistance.
Reach a counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).

Time Helps Heal from Depression

The Body Heals Itself over Time

The miracle of our creation is found not only in how we’re made, but also in how we can — slowly, painfully — be remade. When man-made things break, they are broken. If they’re going to get fixed, someone’s going to have to fix ’em. But when people break, we can heal. Cuts stitch themselves together. Broken bones mend. As Deb Greenough taught me, even a bicep torn away from the scapula can, given time, reattach. We may be left with scabs or scars, but we can be whole again. And sometimes, we can feel stronger than before.

The Mind Can Heal Too

And even when our mind breaks a little, it, too, can heal. Not always, and not perfectly, but most of us can find a way to move on. When we grieve over the loss of someone we love, we sometimes feel we’ll never get over it. But we usually do. We always feel the pain of the loss, but with that pain comes a hint of gratitude: Even the pain reminds us how wonderful it was to have known and loved that person, even it wasn’t long enough. When we suffer losses of a different kind — a friendship or a job, or when we deal with financial or personal setbacks — we often learn lessons and use them to move forward with a little more wisdom. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds sometimes leave us with a limp. But we can still walk. We can still move forward … with time.

The time I spent on that couch wasn’t a particularly productive time — not unless there’s some benefit of watching a lot of innocuous Mickey Mouse Club reruns that I’m not aware of. But I think I needed it. I needed time to see that even if I fell apart for a while, the world wouldn’t. I still took in breath. I could still feel my heart beat inside me.

Excerpted from Beauty in the Browns (pages 97-100).

Love Comforts throughout Depression

The Bible’s Definition of Real Love

Even if we’ve never cracked open a Bible, most of us know evangelical America’s favorite verse, John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

The verse sums up the essence of Christianity. But it’s so familiar to us that we sometimes lose the backstory.

For God so loved the world, we’re told. And so He gave us His son. Why did He need to give us Jesus? Because we needed Him. It wasn’t that we deserved that special gift of life and salvation. Just the opposite, really. He loved us not because we showed a great deal of love for Him, following His commandments and all, but in spite of what we do. He loved us, and because God also knew how broken we all were, He sent His son so that we could be with Him anyway. God’s love isn’t dependent on what we can do for Him. He loves us.

The World’s Love Is a Lie

That’s what real love is. I learned this from Wendy [my wife] earlier, but I’d forgotten it again. In fact, I forget it occasionally even now. Somewhere, somehow, I — like most of America — learned a lie, that the amount that we’re loved is dependent on the value we bring to the party. We’ve defined love in capitalistic terms — that our inherent worth is predicated on our skills and talents and dedication, and our ability to love in return. It’s the old concept of supply and demand. If we supply what people want and need, then we’ll be in demand. We’ll be loved. But God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. He gives us what we need. He blesses us, and often beyond measure.

Excerpted from Beauty in the Browns (pages 101-102).

Action Gets You Out of the Depression Rut

Wendy was great about showing me love and patience, both of which I most definitely needed. But after a few weeks, she came downstairs, saw my mopey self and ran mer fingers through my hair.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said with the sweetest smile ever. “Part of me wants to give you a big hug and never let you go. And part of me wants to give you a kick in the butt.”

Depression’s a funny thing. Not everyone who suffers from it can hear those. four words — kick in the butt — in the moment. But thankfully, I could. I knew that I was loved. Time had taken me as far as I could go. I needed to get off that couch. I needed that gentle kick.

I had my time. I felt the love around me. Now it was time to cowboy up.

In the end, everyone who’s depressed — no matter how good his or her psychologist is or how effective the person’s medicine is — needs to cowboy up, to move forward, even if they don’t want to. You might not be able to do so initially, but you have to do it eventually. You need to start moving. And if someone gives you a little kick to get you on your way, be grateful. It may not come at the right time or be said in the right way, but you can find truth in those words.

Getting Unstuck from the Hole of Depression

Let’s go back to Winnie-the-Pooh, when he was stuck in Rabbit’s front door. He was stuck, no doubt about it. And I was too. But Christopher Robin knew how to get him out.

It would take time …

“A week!” said Pooh gloomily …

It would take love …

“Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?” …

And eventually, it would take a mighty tug to get him unstuck.

And for a long time Pooh only said “Ow!” …

And “Oh!” …

And then, all of a sudden, he said “Pop!” just as if a cork were coming out of a bottle.

I needed time, love, and a little kick to get me unstuck. And when I, like Pooh, came tumbling out, I told myself that I’d do my best to keep from ever getting stuck again.

Excerpted from Beauty in the Browns (pages 103-104).

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