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Managing Multifaceted Moods: Depression, Anxiety, Disability, and Life in the Church

In this blog, I’ve written a great deal about the embodiment of equity within the Church for believers with disabilities. I’ve written about some of my experiences of physical and intellectual disability, my relationships to work and housing, healing, oppression, and inclusive language, and how Scripture can help us relate as a community to all those topics. These are good things! However, one aspect of my life I haven’t talked about yet is my experiences of anxiety and depression as a person with multiple disabilities. Because that is a sensitive topic, I’ll start with a few notes of empathy, and create the conditions for sensitive engagement.

In what follows, I’m going to discuss how anxiety and depression, emerging from my experience of my body, affect my faith and my life in the world. I’ll describe those thoughts a little in the next paragraph. If that makes you uncomfortable or triggers something painful in you, I invite you to stop here. Without judgment, you can set a boundary here and pass on to another article. If, however, you’d like to hear more of my story, please keep going with me. I feel like sharing this is important and would appreciate your support!

Having said all that, let me disclose. As a person with spastic cerebral palsy, I occasionally experience episodes of anxiety and depression. I might even go so far as to say that they’re almost always with me; they come out of the anger and sadness that I feel when my body doesn’t do what I want it to do. I’m not medicated, and I’ve been talking to therapists about these episodes for more than a dozen years.  These two conditions impact, and can certainly impair, my ability to be in the world. When I’m anxious, my thoughts go in circles, and I can often hear very loud critical voices within my own psyche. When I feel anxious, it can be hard to move, to engage in conversation, and to focus on points in three-dimensional space. My hands shake (more than usual), and my throat can get very dry. By the same token, when I feel depressed, I can and do feel depleted, defeated, downcast, sluggish, unmotivated, and hazy. Depression, for me, means that movement is difficult (a phenomenon compounded, in my case, by light chronic pain); it can also mean that I take little joy in things that usually (or always) give me pleasure, and that I struggle to reach out to or relate to other people. It’s hard to leave my house, to tie my shoes, to call somebody on the phone. I feel detached, emotionless, or distant from my body. In fact, when I feel depressed, I’ve sometimes thought I might be better off dead. That thought doesn’t happen too often, but I felt it very important to name it because of what I’ll write next.

How can Scripture describe anxiety and depression in ways that can help us to respond?

All right. Now that I’ve shown you how it affects me, I wanted to ask: how can Scripture describe anxiety and depression in ways that can help us to respond to them with compassion, consistency, and alacrity? I think there are several pertinent examples. For instance, in Genesis 4:8 and forward, when Cain has killed his brother Abel, God curses him so that he can no longer till the soil (Genesis 4:11-12). Cain advocates for himself so that those who see him will not kill him, and so that he won’t forever be driven away from society (verses 13-15). God places a mark on Cain’s forehead so that people will not want to kill him (4:15), and Cain settles in the land of Nod (4:16). I point out Cain’s example because he’s lost everything. After he kills his brother, he must feel very lonely and afraid, but God’s mark might help him to feel less alone.

Again, David – remember, a ruggedly handsome and very creative individual, who also happened to be the king of Israel and Judah – experienced depression and anxiety too. The Psalms document that progression from high to low over and over again. In the text, we read songs by both the happy, sedate David who writes about the Lord as his shepherd in Psalm 23, and the chastened, bereft David who writes Psalm 51 after his unfaithfulness with Bathsheba. Similarly, Elijah singlehandedly orchestrates the killing of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40), and flees both King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who want to kill him (18:41 to 19:3). He runs, in the Lord’s Spirit, all the way to a “solitary broom tree” outside Beersheba, where he asks God to take his life. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (19:4). Elijah sleeps, and an angel persuades him to eat something (19:5-8); then he walks all the way to Horeb, where he meets God! So, Elijah has gone from running in fear to running in faith, from destroying the priesthood of Baal to meeting God in the wilderness!

And last but certainly not least, Jesus Christ too experiences depression and anxiety. At least, that’s how I read the episode of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus has explained everything he can to a few of his friends, one of those friends has betrayed him, and Jesus is crying out to his Father. At least according to Luke’s account, he’s praying so hard that his sweat and tears are turning to blood (Luke 22:39-46). If that portrait of a weeping, distraught Jesus does not describe anxiety and depression, I don’t know what does. Even Jesus experienced deep fear and angst!

Which strategies can help worshippers of all abilities to channel, comprehend, and show compassion towards depression and anxiety?

So, I – an educated man with multiple disabilities, and one named “Michael,” like the archangel who directs the armies of Almighty God – can experience depression and anxiety; and Cain, David, Elijah, and Jesus Himself also give us scriptural evidence that there are ways to manage those conditions. All this leads me to ask: which strategies can help worshippers of all abilities to channel, comprehend, and show compassion towards depression and anxiety? I can think of several, and will name them below, although their usefulness depends on the intensity of the person’s experience. What has worked for me may not work for you!

First, I feel that the most important aspect of the management of experiences of anxiety and depression is a strong support network. I’ll understate and say that I am fortunate to live in webs of relationship with all sorts of people, including family, friends, colleagues, and others who have blessed me with multiple gifts. Many of these folks have gone to church with me, some for decades, and have taught me to sleep properly, eat well, drink (responsibly, of course), exercise, dance, listen to good music, play board games, read widely, and to act in the world in loving ways. So: community is necessary. Should you ever feel alone when you experience anxiety and depression, know for certain that you are not. In your churches, and in other places, there are many people who will surely have your back. Plus, if you can, seek therapy! Talking and doing mental exercises with a therapist has really helped me, and others too.

Furthermore, I mentioned food, sleep, and exercise. Let’s go back to Elijah: when he wants to die, he lies down and sleeps, and then an angel asks him to eat something. If you feel weird, eating and drinking can stabilize your mood. When a weird or bad mood persists, I also take good short naps, because rest can change my perspective. In addition, I lift weights and go for walks as often as I can. Dumbbells and resistance bands are good listeners; they don’t judge our culinary choices or how much money we make. Bodily care is key.

Finally, cultivate an inner life. I pray each day, in a couple different ways, and if you don’t know how to do that, there are many YouTube videos that can direct your meditative practices. Reading, and taking in information, is also vital – and not just the news, which can be awful and make us feel worse when we already feel bad. Read philosophy, science, science fiction, and romance. Find things in the world that are wonderful and make them work for you.

Let me recap. I’ve described my own experiences of anxiety and depression, dipped into Scripture to find examples of the management of emotional conditions, and offered a few strategies that I know have helped me. You may know of other things that can help. In any case, I hope and pray that all these words can helpful, and that they can empower us to cultivate communities where people of all abilities can care for each other.

Photo by Flow Clark on Unsplash

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