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.