On My Depression, My Anxiety and Following Jesus: It’s Not Really a Contradiction

One of the most devastating things that can happen to me is going to bed.

Don’t get me wrong: I love sleep. I love getting rested for the next day, whatever that day may bring. I love waking up refreshed. But if I go to my room, shut the door, turn off the lights and it get silent, I’m done for.

Why is that? Well, my mind starts to go nuts. I start calculating, thinking, analyzing whatever big thing it is that’s on my plate at the moment. It could be something to do with work, relationships, fighting sin, following Jesus. And this happens just about every night. I’ve gotten a lot better over the last year at controlling it and handling it, but there are still some nights where it’s a knock-down, drag-out fight with my own brain just to get to sleep.

I have anxiety, but more than the normal person. Or so I’m told. I look at other people and how they live their lives and how they seem to be so carefree and I’m thinking, “How the heck do you do that?” I’ve also dealt with bouts of severe depression, so much so that I’ve started taking anti-depressant medication.

But before I get any further, let me start at the beginning.

My Shy, Nervous Childhood

I don’t blame my parents for any of this. Just want to make sure that’s made clear.

Growing up, I was pretty shy. I’m not the kid who’s going to walk up to you in the park and say hello or tell you that your shoes are awesome. Now I think it’s adorable when kids do that, but I never thought that was a good idea when I was younger. I remember my parents taking me to events and introducing me to people, and I would shake hands as firm as I could, but I would mutter a “hello” or “nice to meet you” under my breath.

I think this is just a part of how I was made, part of my personality I can’t change. I still have moments like that today when I meet new people. Ask any of my friends who have introduced me to their friends; they’ll probably tell you that, except on the rarest of occasions, I don’t warm up to the idea of meeting or hanging out with new people.

O'Neal. And a dog.
O’Neal. And a dog.

When I was entering the fifth grade, I moved to a new school, The O’Neal School in Southern Pines, N.C. It’s a fantastic school where I basically prepared for college from the time I got there until the time I graduated. Nothing about college academically threw me off. But socially, O’Neal was a nightmare, particularly in middle school. My naturally shy personality led to me trying to do everything I possibly could to get people to think I was cool, girls to have a crush on me and not to get ignored. I got in two fights in fifth grade trying to “defend my honor.” I was really just being shy and insecure, trying to show off and get people thinking I was cool.

Case in point: I remember playing basketball at recess one day that year. A couple sixth graders were standing just off the court and were talking about me. “You see that kid?” one said, pointing at me. “He gets angry and wants to start fighting people.” (Side note: I don’t remember if those were the exact words, but something like those.) I heard him say that and started looking for an opportunity to get ticked at somebody. I found it, and shoved someone. Nothing really came of it, but it’s an exemplary story of where I was in fifth grade. I wanted people to know who I was, talk about me, etc.

As I progressed through middle school, my need to fight diminished but my need for attention and affirmation rose. I don’t think I was any different from any other sixth or seventh grader. I wanted girls (particularly the cute ones) to like me, guys to think I was cool and to get good grades. That last one is just one example of where my Christian upbringing had an interesting impact. I wanted to fit in and I wanted to be cool, but I didn’t want to do it at the expense of being a “good guy.” I’ve written before about my goody-two-shoesedness. I had to be the “best kid” in the whole school.

When it came to girls, it was especially complicated. I wanted to look at girls the “right way,” not going around comparing which one was the “hottest.” I also didn’t want to scare them away, which happened in the eighth grade. Long story short, I freaked one girl out, in her words. Not exactly my brightest shining moment.

So I left middle school and transitioned to high school trying to get people to like me, all the while not trying to freak out girls and be a “good Christian kid.” As if algebra and chemistry didn’t give me enough to worry about already.

My Lonely, Depressed High School Years

I went to high school and found myself resorting to a lot of the same patterns. I had legitimately become a believer during the summer before my ninth grade year, but little seemed to change. I still wanted people to like me, particularly girls, and I wanted to do the right thing. Those things often collided.

There were a couple weeks during my freshman year of high school when I cussed about every chance I could. Never at home, and almost never at church (I did under my breath once), but at school, I let it fly. One time in particular, I got ticked at someone on the basketball court (I’m seeing a pattern here), and let loose a string of expletives so prolific that led someone to tell me that I cussed pretty good. That gave me a sense of satisfaction, that someone saw something I did and recognized it as good.

Let me go ahead and throw something else in here: my parents and my home life were great. I have nothing to complain about there. The issues all came at school. The thing about being at school when you’re that age is that’s where you spend the majority of your time. From 8 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday, you’re surrounded by the same people, doing the same thing, in the same building(s), for four years. That’s at least 35 hours a week, minus the summers, for four whole years. Add in extra-curricular activities, and it’s more. You feel a need to prove yourself.

Things got a little better during my sophomore year. I got into filmmaking and made a short film that won me an award at my school’s small film festival (trailer here). There was some recognition from people and some friendships that were really blossoming. I had my first girlfriend the summer afterwards. Things seemed to be looking up.

Then: depression. For some reason, my junior year was the hardest year of my life up to that point. I had girlfriends during that time, things seemed to be, on the outside, going quite well. People liked me, I was getting along with girls. But something just turned in me. Looking back, I can’t seem to explain why. But at school, things were awful. I felt that no one at school liked me or cared about me. I didn’t think I had any friends. The people that I loved hanging out with the year before didn’t seem to be “caring enough” for me anymore. Again, I can’t explain it.

Me and some of the guys I graduated with.
Me and some of the guys I graduated with.

I would spend all my free periods and sometimes lunch periods sitting away from everyone else. When I started driving to school in the November of that year, I would take those periods in my car, watching episodes of The Office and just generally trying to stay away from people. I didn’t think people liked me, so I figured it would just be easier for me and them for me to stay away.

Let me remind you: I had no real logical basis for this. I had no empirical evidence that people hated me or didn’t want to hang out with me. I’m sure there were people who wouldn’t choose to hang out with me, but you get that everywhere. Anyways, I imagined all or most of it. My anxious desire for people to like me led me to take the slightest probability that someone didn’t want to talk to me and run with it, believing that that person didn’t care if I was alive or not.

During this time, there were occasional moments when I wrestled with thoughts of suicide. I never got serious about it, planned anything. There were just brief moments when I would consider it, consider what it would be like, then shake myself and realize that was not a good idea.

Life continued like that throughout my junior year. As senior year rolled in, things continued. The relationship I was in was not healthy, and that just complicated matters as I spent hours a day trying to figure out what to do. Deciding to go to Elon University didn’t take a lot out of me as most students’ college decisions do; I applied early decision and found out October 31st I was in.

I ended the relationship I was in during the January of my senior year and things started to look up. My depression began to fade as I made new friends, enjoyed life, had some fun. I made a short film that’s probably one of the most depressing short films about high school relationships ever if you understand it properly. But I had fun doing it. I went to my senior prom with a girl I had a crush on, but I think she was just being nice. But I didn’t take it too seriously. It was great!

I went into college with a little bit of anticipation, but mainly just looking forward to what was ahead, learning how to be a filmmaker, learning how to make movies that glorified God.

College Years of Anxious Depression

I went into college and things started off with a bang. The first night on my hall, a group of about 10 of us worked on putting together one of our new friend’s set of drawers, just hanging out, getting to know each other, having a laugh. I was ready to deal with some of the awkwardness of being around non-Christians a lot – I was one of a few Christians in my entire high school, my brother being one of the other ones – but didn’t exactly handle it well, coming across as quite self-righteous.

Once again, though, I fell into the trap of wanting to impress people and make them like me. But it was a different kind of trap. My anxiety revolved around wanting Christians to like me. I had grown in my faith to the point where it was involved in just about everything I did, and I realized that worrying about how non-Christians perceived me because of it was not helpful. But Christians was another story.

My dudes Eugene (left) and Ryan. Shout-out to Jerry, too.
My dudes Eugene (left) and Ryan. Shout-out to Jerry, too.

During my freshman year of college, the ministry I got involved with was super-loving, super-welcoming and I really enjoyed their company and their ministry. But the next year, I started hanging out with another ministry and, for whatever reason, all the old anxieties and depression came back up. I don’t blame the ministry for it. But being around new people and trying to make new friends brought up all the old feelings from fifth grade – the insecurity and the shyness I naturally carried just reared its ugly head again.

During my sophomore year, I was the RA on my hall, which started off wonderfully, but ended in a mess when a couple bad conversations and questionable decisions by me and others led to factions and divisions in a formerly tight-knit community. I felt solely responsible for the whole thing, and that took its toll.

Another thing I began to realize around this time is how sinful I was. And somehow I missed out on grace and the Gospel and how that applied to me every day. I knew the Gospel, believed the Gospel, but ignored the everyday affects of the Gospel in the life of a Christian. I struggled with sin daily and took it so hard. I became the opposite of the self-righteous person I was in middle and high school. I went from thinking “Oh look at me, I’m such an awesome Christian” to “Oh, don’t look at me, I’m the worst Christian in the world.” So now not only was I anxious about how people viewed me and grades in college, I also had to worry about my sin. “Had” is the operative word there; I didn’t absolutely “have” to worry about it, but it seemed like I did.

And, to be real with you all, I dealt with that until I graduated. Through overseas mission trips, multiple small groups, leading a weekly prayer meeting, living with other believers, I was anxious.

Really Examining the Depression

I haven’t really gotten much into the depression part of things, but it was mainly my anxiety that fed my depression. I would get anxious and overthink something, and then I would get sad about it.

Depression is awful. I can’t exactly put into words exactly what it is but here’s a shot: a condition where you fall very easily into a crippling sadness. The key word there is “crippling.” The Mayo Clinic staff define depression as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest…it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety or emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and depression may make you feel as if life isn’t worth living.”

I’d say that’s pretty accurate for me. Sometimes the littlest things could set me off into a stretch of depression. It could be a stray word in conversation or a certain look someone gave me, or a life-altering event that threw my previous plans in a tizzy or a serious losing bout with sin and temptation. And it’s not something you can simply “snap out of,” or just quit.

It’s so easy, when you see someone who is at that very moment depressed, to just say, “try smiling” or “just push forward” or “let go and let God.”But it’s not that simple. It’s not that easy. If it were that easy, almost no one would still be dealing with depression. Most people don’t want to feel sad. But for some, it just comes. And it’s not something we can control.

One of the things that made me feel even more depressed was the thought that Christians shouldn’t struggle with depression. We’re supposed to be joyful and happy all the time, right? Was I really that rebellious that I felt sad at random times for seemingly no reason? Was I that bad a Christian? This led me to doubt my faith, doubt that I was really saved, doubt that I actually had a relationship with Jesus. There were a few times I begged God to save me again if necessary.

1486020_10151972604442054_1292725511_o
That boy Trip Lee.

And for the most part, I held it inside. There were a couple times I did say something about the anxiety and depression, but I felt, for the most part, people didn’t know how to handle it. Christians didn’t know how to handle it. I remember one time being super honest and transparent about all the things I was dealing with, but the person just told me to change myself, do something different. I wanted to yell “It’s not that simple!,” but I didn’t have the guts to.

As I left college and moved back in with my parents, I began to confront this anxiety and depression head-on. I was tired of it affecting my work, my relationships with others and my relationship with God. There’s been some growing and some maturity, but I still struggle with it from time-to-time. As I said before, I’m taking anti-depressant medication to help with it, but there have been two things I’ve realized that have greatly helped me.

Grace and Sovereignty

The thing that I realized that has helped me with my depression is realizing the depth and the width and the power of God’s grace.

One of the most common forms my depression has taken is condemnation for past and present sins, sometimes future sins. I’ll look at myself and realize how much I suck, and then I get down. Sometimes I’ll think about how my present sins are going to affect my future and get depressed. There is no remedy for that greater than grace. Romans 8:1, which I’ve quoted at least 15 times on this blog as a whole, says there’s absolutely no condemnation for those in Christ. 1 John 4:10 says that love is defined by how God loves me, not by how I love Him.

That was so freeing to me! By the time I walked across the stage at Elon to receive my diploma, the majority of my depression came from my lack of obedience. I would sin in some way, and then I’d feel like crap. When I finally realized the depth of this, the width of the love which God has for me, it began to free me up to actually love myself and allow God’s love to guide me and fill me. I began to hold my sin against myself less and less. I began to believe the good things people said about me and actually be encouraged by others.

The thing that I realized that has helped me with my anxiety is realizing the depth and the width and the power of God’s sovereignty.

The majority of my anxiety has come from my fear of the unknown: what do they think about me, what will I do next, how do I handle this situation. I’ll feel helpless and unable to do anything right. Couple that with my fear of making the “wrong decision,” and it’s a deadly cocktail. There’s no remedy for that greater than God’s sovereignty. Romans 8:28, which I’ve quoted at least 7 times on this blog as a whole, says God works all things together for good those who love God and are called according to His purpose, so Christians.

This was so freeing to me! I can trust God with my unknowns and the decisions I make knowing that, whatever happens, EVERYTHING will work together for my good and God’s glory. And praise Him that it’s not my definition of my good, because that would turn out to be an absolutely dreadful definition. God’s timing is perfect, the cliché goes. It’s a cliché because it’s true. When I finally realized the meaning of this, it gave me so much more peace about decisions I’ll make, events happening around me. I began to be less and less anxious by default about things in my life, little decisions, big decisions, relationships, etc.

So the question is: am I healed from those things? No.

What? But you just said…

I know. I’m almost 100 percent convinced that these things will be things I carry to the grave with me. Thorns in the flesh, if you will. Rarely does an hour go by when I don’t spend at least two or three minutes collectively over-worrying about something I don’t need to worry about at all. It’s almost a constant thing for me, a constant analysis. I’m like those guys who comment on the NFL Draft Combine, but there’s a combine in my head almost all the time. I’ve gotten better at turning the volume down at times, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally off.

Why Do I Share This

As I’ve probably written before, “why” is my favorite question in all of language. You can learn so much about someone from getting them to answer the question why.

I share these things with you for a few reasons.

For those who struggle with anxiety and depression and are Christians: You’re not alone. We’re out here. And don’t feel guilty for struggling with these things. If you look at Scripture, you’ll find people who had anxiety and depression. Read Jeremiah. Read Job. Charles Spurgeon struggled heavily with depression during seasons of his ministry. Dealing with these things does not disqualify you from being loved by God or being used by God. If you ever want to talk about it, please reach out to me. I’d love to speak with you.

For those who don’t struggle: Please take the time to read articles like mine or this one or this one. Mental illness is often not handled well by the body of Christ, and most people who write about it come at it from a scientific or outsider’s point of view. The science part of it can be very helpful, true, but there’s nothing like getting down in the trenches. Speak with those who do struggle. Love them enough to let them share this struggle with you. This is a very personal issue that is hard for most people to share about. I don’t relish speaking about this for the most part. Please don’t judge. Be patient. Be understanding.

Me and two of my longest friends. And by that I mean longest time, not longest anything else.
Me and two of my longest friends. And by that I mean longest time, not longest anything else.

For those who are in ministry: I beg of you, come alongside those who deal with this and don’t just rush to saying, “You have to think this way or have this attitude,” and expect it to be fixed. The conclusions I came to about grace and sovereignty weren’t fix-alls. When I’m reminded of them, there’s relief and peace, but it doesn’t stay. It’s a thing I have to be constantly reminded of, either by myself or others. We don’t need ministers who treat depression and anxiety with kid gloves or a casting-off glance. It’s a fearful thing for some of us to be honest about it.

For those who struggle with anxiety and depression and are not Christians: I can’t tell you that following Jesus cures me. But I can tell you that following Jesus gives me reason to push forward and continue to live my life with a joy I can’t explain. Give Him a shot.

If anyone has questions or wants more thoughts from someone who’s been there, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at zacharyhornereu@gmail.com or tweet at me at @zacharyhorner.

I hope as you’ve read this that, if you’re a regular reader of my blog (which there might just be 5 or 6 of you), you’re getting a better understanding of where I’m coming from in most of what I write.

Love you guys.

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