Faithfulness in depression
Jen is a spiritual mother of mine and one of the biggest blessings in my life. Over the years as I have processed my own suffering and family brokenness, I sought out Jen for wisdom and counsel. I traded her insight for cleaning her toilets and home organizational projects. Not that she asked me to do those things, I offered freely - just to rub shoulders and live life side by side. Really doing anything just to sit in her presence. Her story of suffering and of meeting God in her depression has moved me, and I hope it moves you too. Not because of her faith, or resilience, but because of the grace that God offers. His love and ability to heal and restore, bringing light in even the darkest places.
Unravelling into Grace
As a new mom, I wanted to take my baby to the park. But I was convinced there would be a man lurking in the bushes. The park near my house in suburbia is situated in the middle of a big field behind a school and surrounded by outer fences of backyards. I was convinced that this was a perfect spot for a predator to lurk. I described this apprehension to my family doctor at a routine postpartum check up. My doctor questioned the validity of this assumption. I had no immediate answer. The accumulation of newspaper clippings about rape and attack my mother gathered over the years created a fearful reality of the world for me. The notion of the man in the park was as good as real, but I also could see that my doctor held a different perspective. I wondered why my doctor, who was also a new mom, could go to the park and not worry about predators and yet I was trapped in my own version of reality, living in fear.
This was the beginning of a new realization: my reality would be dismantled and unravelled, for my good and for God’s glory.
Encountering new life and hope in Jesus
When I was fifteen, I had wished for death just as it was modelled to me. My mother, as a single parent often sighed and uttered in Chinese that it would be better to be dead. While I was unaware of the dread that would fall over me after the daily utterance of these words, my brain would default to wishing death whenever discouragement set in. My brain was wired to despair: things are tough, I may as well end it.
This default of despair went on pause when a new friend brought me to a Christian youth conference in high school. I went hoping to meet a boy, instead I met Jesus. While I was hoping to fill my craving for love through the empty promises of teenage romance, I found solace in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I immediately dove into this relationship head on, devouring any material that taught me about being a child of God. This sustained my focus for a time. The next year at the same conference, I heard the speaker share my story with the crowd that my life had been transformed where I had once wanted to commit suicide. I could see that God’s hand on my life was a powerful story.
An untethered childhood
My lack of emotional connection with my parents from a young age formed the God shaped void in me. This emotional disconnection has also been the source of floundering and powerlessness in all that I attempt in life. This tension is the pull and push of faith and depression.
My childhood home environment was unpredictable. My dad was hot tempered, aloof and vacillated into temporary gentleness back to fury. My mother’s anxiety and despair waxed and waned with my dad’s antics. A child living in this kind of environment becomes cautious. Eventually, my mother left my dad. I lived with my mother an ocean and continent away from my dad. However, even being on the other side of the world physically, could not prevent the far reaching damage my dad would still have on my soul. I once thought that this was just how Chinese families are. Then I discovered that not all Chinese families are aloof and distant.
I have spent a lot of my life reflecting and making sense of my life’s narrative. What is the story of God’s glory in my life?
I desired deeper meaning in my faith journey and tried to make sense of why God allowed suffering in my life. Making sense of my early years that contrasted the peaceful and intact families around me in youth group, I reasoned that if God is good, my tumultuous childhood experiences must have a purpose. I concluded that God was calling me to commit my life to share God’s love with people like me. From the age of 18, my life trajectory began to develop.
“The perfect timing of circumstances brought together by God to bring me grace. God’s grace was giving me the perspective that I could not hold it together any more, nor attempt a radical christian life any more. The zeal I once had, that helped me to evade weakness was running out. I was unravelling into weakness, into His grace..” - Jen
Stepping into missions and exposing depression
The journey to see this to fruition was long and bumpy. I eventually arrived in China to live what I thought was my life calling, to share about Jesus to my people. When I got there, when I was supposed to be living out the pinnacle of my dream, I instead experienced disillusionment, rejection, uprootedness, despair, and ultimately, trauma. There was certainly culture shock and spiritual warfare. But ultimately, I displayed symptoms of depression.
This despairing experience was more than simple disappointment. Physiologically and neurologically there were changes taking place. Spiritually, God was continuing the process of bringing me to experience His grace. This was the beginning of my unravelling. The perfect timing of circumstances brought together by God to bring me grace. God’s grace was giving me the perspective that I could not hold it together any more nor attempt a radical Christian life anymore.
The zeal I once had, that helped me to evade weakness was running out. I was unravelling into weakness, into His grace. Even in my weakness, I held on to the assurance of being “strong” in the weakness. I despised being weak. While acknowledging the medical diagnosis of depression, I still wanted to strive overcome it in my own strength. Relying on myself was how I had come so far in life and in faith. When I returned to Asia for a second year on mission, it was better as I learned how to cope and mitigate my symptoms. However, the despair returned with greater strength than my ability to overcome it on my own.
The grand unravelling in parenting
My greatest unravelling occurred in the arena of parenting. In Isaiah we read, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” (Isaiah 49:15a). In my attempt to be the mom I wanted to be for my children, I was confronted with the reality that there was a void. I could not resurrect from my memory what it felt like to be the child that was embraced and loved with tenderness by my mom.
As I desperately prayed, sought wisdom from others, read books, the echoes of abandonment would reverberate throughout my being. As a child, I had experienced the unlikely experience written in Isaiah, being forgotten as a child. When I was nine years old, my parents flew me across the ocean, settled me at the home of relatives, and left in the night for the family to care for me. I recall no conversation about the event, just a looming sense that I was a inconvenience for the family. To their credit, the family duly cared for my needs. However, the unaddressed wounds of abandonment would surface twenty years later as I attempted to care for my toddler and newborn.
From the daily experiences of the mundane to the significant milestones, there was an underlying sense of despair that I didn’t have what it takes to give my kids what they needed. I had a picture from what I saw in others, what I read in books, but I couldn’t turn that into reality. My mothering never quite looked like how others could do it. My presence and attempts as a mom felt harsh and rigid. These currents continued to ebb and flow through the next years while I sought to overcome the effects of a new diagnosis. My experience of despair resulted in symptoms that required medical attention. I was diagnosed with severe depression.
As I drove to the pharmacy and waited for the prescription to be filled, I felt numb and walked around in a fog. I searched for concepts to find solace.
What felt like a death sentence of failure was also an extreme mercy from God. I thought of my spiritual hero, Elisabeth Elliot, who’s husband was killed by the Auca people he was trying to reach. In her writing, she had described a moment when grief came over her when she numbly walked the grocery aisles with eyes filled with tears yet fully experiencing God’s presence.
Cognitively, the two scenarios were different, but I related to her grief. I was experiencing a death. This was the death that Jesus was giving me. I had been kicking and fighting my death by trying to hang on with dear life. Now any residual strength was gone - this was a place of pure surrender. Had all my previous efforts of surrender not been sufficient? No, this was the sanctifying process God had prepared for me. This was another surrender, but it was a significant one.
Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15b)
I found such assurance that even in the unlikely occurrence where a mother abandons her child like what I experienced, God will not forget me! Even in the unlikely experiences, in the unwanted moments of life, God will not forget you! In this revisiting of human abandonment, God did not abandon me. He brought people to come hold my crying, colicy baby. God brought suffering sojourners to do hard life with me. I experienced fellowship in emotional suffering. I was embraced and accepted for my limitations. I felt alone, but I wasn’t. I often forgot to look up to see my husband trying so hard to make things better for me. But no one could take away the inner turmoil and self-abasing despair. This was a novel experience, to experience the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.
My symptoms eased after many months of treatment with medication. I faithfully went to counseling, attempting to live out the research that those who do both can prevent depression relapse. I worked hard at fighting depression. I still could not completely shake my old ways, I aimed to be the “model depression patient” by doing all the right things to recover from it. Despite this faithful pursuit of therapy, when I attempted to wean off medication, I tumbled back to square one, all symptoms returning in full force. My body failed me. It would be another 2 years before I would reach stability again.
Meanwhile, as I noticed our kids growing, I could not help but see the effects of my anxiety and depression on them. They were stressed. I worked hard to be the mother I wanted my children to have. I was desperate to give our children emotional stability. I felt deeply that their brokenness was because of my shortcomings. If they struggled, it was my fault. My counselor pointed out to me that I carried all the responsibility of parenting on my own shoulders. I would forget that our children belonged to my husband too! I could also give mental assent to the fact that our children ultimately belong to God, that they also had sin to contend with. But none of these truths would permeate my intense self-loathing.
In my life journey as a child of God, I want to glorify Him but I don’t see that there is much I have to offer. I see myself more like a person who fails often than someone who is able to accomplish much. Yet as I look at my life today, much has changed. The anxious rumblings are fewer. When there is a quake in my stomach that things are not ok, I can now attempt to ignore it and focus on the task at hand. I look at the here and now.
Through the drudgery of depression, God is sovereign. I have had to face my brokenness, along with my family’s and we have nothing to hide. There has been a freedom in releasing my husband and children to God over and over. I remind myself that if God’s grace is sufficient for all who have followed him throughout the ages; if His grace has been sufficient for me, then His grace WILL be sufficient for my children, even in the broken parenting they receive from me.