Depression: Remembering those Who Crawl to the Manger

It is challenging during this season of lights, gifts, candles, creches, and the Christmas Liturgy to imagine that there are people sitting in the pews or in our families who experience very little of the joy in this season of our Salvation. After all, we have waited throughout Advent for this joyous occasion.

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
and then formed man and woman in his own image.

Several thousand years after the flood,
when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.

The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Proclamation of the Birth of Christ, Midnight Mass

Christ is born. Joy to the world!

The reality is that people are given different Crosses, and mental illness is one of the heavy ones given to millions of people. The only time it ever comes up as a topic of discussion, at least in the United States, is when a mass shooting occurs. This furthers the stigma associated with mental illness, as well as provides our culture a passing moment of reflection on the topic before returning to its normative apathetic state. A miniscule amount of sufferers commits mass homicide, instead, this season is the most common time for suicides. It is a time of deep suffering for many. The dark nights combined with the internal frustration at the loss of joy make it a time when people give into the lies of the disease and take their own life.

It is difficult for people to grasp that the mind can be broken by illness. It isn’t something that can be seen on an X-ray or Cat Scan. It is also largely misunderstood. In women, hormone issues wreak havoc on neurotransmitters and no one has a perfect solution for the deep depression and anxiety that manifests. This illness is not the blues, sadness, or even grief. It is soul crushing in its power over the individual, and a great struggle for families who confront this Cross. The illness robs individuals of their joy and is a great liar. It is in fact possible to be a devout Catholic and a sufferer of clinical depression and anxiety. There are countless individuals sitting in the pews right now living this Cross. Thank God our faith does not rely on feelings or no depressive would ever convert to the Faith.

It’s important in this season of festivities and joy to remember that we are called to pick up the Crosses of our neighbors and loved ones and walk with them. We don’t have to understand that Cross, we just have to love and walk on. Depression is like being at the bottom of a very deep abyss in which little light gets in. It can make people selfish and turn inward. It also makes people believe things about themselves that are not true, such as they are worthless or people would be better off without them. This is not self-pity. It is the lie of the illness. It seems to prey on the highly analytical and intelligent. It works its way into minds that are always at work and it turns God’s gifts in that person into an enemy. I know because I have carried this Cross for a decade. It waxes and wanes, but then it reappears. I cannot express how terrible it is to watch your beloved daughter live the joy of Christmas while feeling completely numb internally. Depression is to live on auto-pilot with no option of shutting it off. Yes, there are treatments available and counselors to be seen. If you struggle with this illness get help, but it is a long road, and for many a life-long Cross. Also seek spiritual direction from a priest who can offer insights into carrying the Cross Our Lord has given.

Things Not to Say to a Depressive this Christmas

Snap Out of It

Why didn’t I think of that?! Pardon my snark, but this is the least helpful thing you can say to someone with clinical depression. When was the last time you told a guy to walk on a broken leg and snap out of it? Just because you cannot see it, does not mean it is not there. Clinical depression, the actual illness, is impossible to snap out of. Treatment is long term and can take years, or a lifetime, in certain people. Instead view it as an opportunity to engage in a spiritual work of mercy and bear the burdens of another in patience and charity.

Look at All You Have

It is quite true that a great many depression sufferers have all the material and familial comforts they could ever desire. I will use myself as an example. I have a wonderful husband, amazing daughter, I am a graduate student in a great theology program, I have begun a writing career, I have never slept in the cold or rain, and I have never starved. From the outside my life is one of abundant blessings, but as I said before, Crosses are different for each person. I get to live knowing that I have everything, but battle despair, soul shattering anxiety, and darkness all while crawling to the Manger in which the Christ child waits for me.

It Will Get Better Soon

This is a lovely thought and it is always meant well, but depression has no time limit. There is no quick fix or easy answer. Telling someone who has battle depression for two decades that it will get better is of little use. As Catholics, it is better to try to step into another’s suffering, as well as encourage someone to learn the value of redemptive suffering. As I said before, our Faith does not rely on feelings or emotions. Our assent is still alive within us, even when the numbness becomes unbearable. We must put one foot in front of the other and continue on the journey to Our Lord. Christmas is still true within our suffering and pain. No matter how dense the fog becomes, Our Lord walks with us. In my experience I have found Our Heavenly Mother to be a great intercessor, protectress, and guide through depression and anxiety. She comes in dark hours to provide the light of her Son.

It is right that we celebrate and live the joy given to us through the Incarnate Word made flesh. It is also important to remember the Crosses of people in this time whether it be mental illness, cancer, violence, persecution, or any other trial in this veil of tears. Pray for those who are crawling their way to the Manger that they may find comfort, peace, and hope in dark days. A very blessed and merry Christmas season to you all.

St. Dymphna, ora pro nobis.

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • Constance

    First Pope Francis wasn’t referencing mental illness or may not fully understand it. It’s unfortunate that this is your response to the suffering of so many people. I will be praying for you and those who seek ignorance and judgment rather than stepping into the Cross of another.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    There are many reasons for depression, and it ranges from mild to severe. I would like to share my experience with depression because it turned out that I was deficient in omega-3’s and other nutrients. I would eat to feel better, & it was sugar & junk carbs which trigger dopamine & turned out to be making it worse. I lacked energy, would sleep to excess & mope around in my room & house.

    The Lord blessed me with a confessor who had been a chaplain during the Gulf War. He told me that the condition leads us to do things that make the depression worse & to get outside in the sunlight and either walk or garden or some small activity to engage me on a scale that was not too taxing. It really helped.

    My dr was not much help – he offered an anti-depressant. But it was the natural family planning organization, Couple to Couple League, that helped me pick up on the nutritional side of the condition. I started taking flaxseed oil & then fish oil, and felt normal again within just a few days!

    This is not to claim that everyone’s depression is so easily fixed. However, these are things – inadequate sunlight, exercise, healthy foods & esp healthy omega-3 fats – that contribute to the problem and actively addressing them can help the vast majority to at least some extent even when their depression is more complicated than mine was.
    Hope this is helpful to someone out there who’s struggling!

  • PixilDot

    Lovely piece, but one small quibble. Not all depression rises to the level of actual mental illness. Some is brief, “situational” , of a short- term duration, such as bereavement. You left that part out. Sad things happen, or we just may be lonely, but it’s ok to be sad when we’re sad. And that’s not sickness. It’s just a reaction to a hurtful reality, and takes a little time to readjust. It’s ok to self- soothe, and take that time.

  • Tracey Kelly

    Dear Constance,
    Words are going to fail me in describing how touched I was by your essay on “crawling to the Manger”. I guess I just need to say thank you. Your passion and love and insight and Faith came through so beautifully through your words. I am a better person at this very moment for reading them:)
    God Bless
    Tracey Kelly

  • Constance

    Clinical depression is a medical diagnosis. I was referring to the illness as it is diagnosed by psychiatrists and psychologists. Grief does not necessarily result in a clinical diagnosis of depression. I have written about grief, which is a separate topic, in my articles on miscarriage.

  • Constance

    Thank you for your lovely comment.

  • Constance

    You are right! A support network is crucial, especially this time of year.

  • PixilDot

    I understand, and as i said, an excellent article, overall, however, it could give the impression to someone unfamiliar with either, the topic, or your other essays, that you were were referring to all types of depression as “mental illness” , when that simply isnt so. I do understand that this type of “diagnosable” depression is your focus here. Others may not have a clinical background, or may be too emotionally wounded to make the distinction. So, just a wee quibble, yes, but i do wish you had been a little more clear. (And less defensive!) Have a blessed Christmas!

  • Constance

    Perhaps, but those suffering from I clinical depression know exactly what I meant as is evidenced by all of the emails I received from readers on this particular article. Being lonely, sad, or grieved are not classified as mental illnesses. You are welcome to your quibble, but I knew my target audience when I sent this piece to my editor for publication: people and families dealing with actual mental illness. Those people know who they are and if others misread it that is unfortunate, but in writing people will take what they want from an author’s piece.

  • Constance

    The most powerful witness in my own life has been those people willing to just walk with me. These people have helped me take care of things I needed to get done, gone with me to Mass (before I was married), and visited me when needed. It isn’t what they said, it is what they did: making themselves available and a presence of good. There isn’t much to say except to focus on the power of the Cross and the intercession of Our Lady. That’s my experience. I can’t stress enough helping people to get to Mass and Confession.

  • I found this article a lovely expression of fraternal charity. Thanks, Ms. Constance, for keeping in your thoughts and prayers the psychically- and/or physically- suffering in this most mirthful time of the year.

  • Cooky642

    It was, QuoVadisAnima. I’ve been working with various supplements and nutrients for years to try to handle mine. Some days are better than others. Some foods are better than others. And, some people are better than others. I have learned most recently how to keep “toxic” people from planting what my grandkids call “ear worms” in my head, just as I would not knowingly take “toxic” food or supplements. It’s a complicated and complex way to live, but certainly interesting and enlightening. Thank you for sharing.

  • Robin Kellogg

    Dear Constance,
    As one who suffers from both clinical and periodic situational depression, I too cannot thank you enough for your incredibly sensitive articulation of its devastating effects at this time of year, as well as your excellent suggestions for what not to say to others who are depressed and how to cope with it spiritually, to which I would just add the Rosary to your excellent list. To your one critical response, I never once heard you sounding defensive, judgmental, or
    misleading in anything you shared. Having personally experienced both kinds of depression, I heard you leave plenty of room for “normals” to take whatever portions they found helpful, without taking it personally, and bridge the gap themselves.
    God bless you!
    Robin

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