Training to Overcome Depression
Note: God reminded me of this journal entry I made a few years back after Pastor Todd’s message this past Sunday, April 22, 2018. His message was challenging and encouraging, but only if put into action. God has been speaking to my heart quite a bit since hearing it. I took some time to add to the journal entry and added some practical application. It really isn’t a blog, this is a whole chapter of a book, so it will take some time to read and digest. Just a warning if you are looking for something quick to read, this isn’t it! I pray it is helpful if you struggle with depression and dark days. May you have light and life. Pastor Eric
The Long Dark Winter - My Personal War Against Depression – Training Instead of Trying
"Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it." 1 Corinthians 9:24
As my feet began to pound along the sporadically snow and ice covered pavement at 4:30am the limited recesses of my mind that weren’t already being used to will my body to do this run began to calculate how many more weeks of training I had left before running my 2nd Boston Marathon. 10 weeks. 10 more weeks, which kindly my mouth spoke out loud to myself: 50 more runs. A long sigh proceeded from the depth of myself and it would have created a great cloud of freezing condensation seeing it was about 9 degrees out, but my mouth and nose were currently covered by my Balaclava mask so instead my morning breath simply circulated back at me. Nice.
This is always the most difficult part of the training. The miles are increasing, which means that I’m out for increasing amounts of time and I begin to wonder if I really am going to be able to hit the goal I’ve set for myself this year. Doubt creeps in as my body seemingly fights against every stride I take in an attempt to thwart me from keeping the pace I need for the day. The thought of another 50 runs with each run having a specific purpose at least at this moment feels overwhelming. At 4:30am there isn’t anyone else out here to offer encouragement. There are a few passing cars, but many mornings I’ll go miles without seeing another soul. The only voice I hear is my own and in the middle of the winter my voice is not very encouraging.
Now that I’m 49 years old, I’ve known for a very long time that I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager. I definitely didn’t recognize it in my younger days, but age and learning have revealed to me what wars within me. Winter stirs up my depression even more and to further exasperate my depressive symptoms is the fact that I’m naturally introverted. There are just long periods of days in which I feel sad, lonely and fatigued of heart and mind, which most times brings on feelings of worthlessness. Being out running at 4:30am, alone on a cold, dark winter morning, forced to put forth effort, paints a good picture of how my soul feels during certain stretches of my life.
In my younger days and into my early 30s when my depression came on it brought about mood swings that caused me to be downright nasty with my wife and kids and withdrawn at work and in public. I know I caused a lot of hurt with my family and with others. It brought about questions like: “Why can’t I ever seem to truly connect with Eric? Have I done something wrong?” In a sick way this almost brought me a little satisfaction. Knowing that others could “feel” my inner pain, I would think: “good at least they know I’m struggling.” I’m shaking my head as I’m writing this. I can’t believe I actually thought those thoughts, but depression causes many dark thoughts far beyond sadness and hopelessness.
I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point in my early 30s some around me began to suggest that I consider medication. I prayed about this and thought long and hard about the potential of beginning medication and I chose not to take any. I want to stress that point. This was the decision I felt best for me personally. I personally choose to forgo medication and instead learn (train) to overcome it. I would wage war against my own depression. I do believe a large majority of people can do the same. I’m not anything special.
I came to this conclusion for myself for a few reasons:
1. I was confident that in Christ and with Christ I could overcome this issue in my life. I was tired of reading all these great stories of the power of Christ in others lives and somehow His power didn’t work in mine. Either Christ was not really all-powerful or I was going about this all wrong.
2. I was fully aware when I was in one of my full mood swings and when I was treating my family poorly. If I’m aware then I can make a choice.
3. I was fully aware of when I was becoming withdrawn at work or at public events. Again, if I’m aware then I can choose what to do next.
4. I was able in the past and in the present to fight my way through my depression if the current demand on my life absolutely required it. If that’s the case then I should be able to learn to do it more and more often, until succumbing to it was the rare occasion instead of the norm.
#1 Gave me the unshakable confidence in and for a better future. #2 – 4 made it clear to me that I already had the knowledge and the ability, I just needed the will to fight. If I can will myself to run on a regular basis, then I certainly should be able to will myself to trust God to change me for the sake of those I love.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that I started running around the same time I consciously made a decision to learn to fight this. I started running because I had been gaining weight, but I believe God had a vastly different purpose for having me run.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the years of running, training and in warfare:
Depression Had Created a Dark Rhythm in my Life. I needed a New Rhythm.
By the time I finally came to my senses to how depression was hurting (destroying) my life it had already formed a rhythm, a pattern in my life. A 30 something year pattern. That’s a long time. That pattern isn’t going to simply disappear overnight. It would take and will take and is still taking regular, concentrated effort to form a new rhythm in my life. At the time of this original journal entry it was to be my third marathon I’ve trained for. I have not chosen to run marathons for fun. I do enjoy running and racing, but I want to improve, I want to push myself further.
In order to run the 1st marathon I had to train. Because I had never run a marathon before I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen or what I had in store for myself. I learned a lot during my first 18 weeks of marathon training and from my first marathon. I thought my body was going to absolutely fall apart during training, my leg muscles hurt and ached like they never have before and I didn’t even think I’d make it to the marathon. Forming a new running rhythm for that distance was brand new to me and accomplishing that first marathon took far more effort than I thought it was going to. My goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That’s all I could think of every time I woke up with pain and I just kept telling myself not to quit, not to give up. I had to trust and believe that my body would eventually catch up. It did. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of crossing that finish line knowing I had run fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I was absolutely exhausted, but I made it! Now training for my third marathon and then my fourth marathon I know I can do it. I just need too push harder in order to improve upon the marathon before. Now I’ve seen the results of continuing, so when I get discouraged at 4:30am in the morning, I just have to look back, see my past successes and allow that to provide hope for future success.
Forming a new rhythm in your life is going to take far more effort than you think it is. It is painful. There were many days when I fought every feeling I had inside of me to stay connected instead of disconnected. To speak with patience and love instead of moodiness, anger and hatred. There were times when I was in a public place and would have to go into the restroom, close the stall door, pray and beg God to help me keep it together and not give into feelings of worthlessness, to convince myself that I could stay involved regardless of how I felt inside. There were times at home when I would go into the basement and lean against the washer and dryer and pray and remind myself that my family had done nothing wrong that it was rather a wave of strong emotions within me and I needed to subdue them and choose kindness, patience and love instead. It was war and war is exhausting, but this was worth it and overtime the rhythm of my life was changing and has changed.
I couldn’t see it changing on a daily basis, but looking back now I can see just how much that rhythm has changed and I enjoy this rhythm far more!
2. Depression is an aimless, sinful sickness that destroys my soul. God is a purposeful, loving Father who heals my soul.
Yes, I probably was born with a propensity for depression. We are all born into sin and thus we are all born broken. However, we always have two voices to listen to and thus to choose from: The world’s voice which has a way to diagnose and cure my depression or God’s voice who has THE WAY to diagnose and cure my depression.
I never walk out of the door of my house for a run without a specific purpose in mind for my run. Every single run has a distance and a desired speed attached to it. If I leave the house saying oh well, I’ll just run 3 to 5 miles. I will always just run 3. I will always do the minimum if I give myself that choice. I have to walk out that door saying I’m running 5 miles. Once I do that my mind is set on 5 and I will run 5. If I start my run with no speed goal attached to it I will either run way to slow or way to fast. To slow and the run is almost meaningless. Too fast and I hurt myself for future runs because my legs are too fatigued to run the next run. I have to know in other words how to prepare myself and set myself up best for success, growth and progress not just for today, but for tomorrow. Both the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God give you instructions. Which one will you walk out of your house choosing to listen to?
I have to pray over my day knowing full well that there will be circumstances that may spark my emotions to move me in the wrong direction. I have to look ahead and see what tasks and events may cause me difficulties and be ready and prepared for them in advance. If I know I’m walking into a meeting with a lot of extroverted people or people I do not know well, I have to remind myself that I’m there for a reason and a purpose and to look for opportunities to encourage others, build others up, be an agent in helping their gifts and abilities to be used and be ready to use mine if needed. If I end up listening most of the time, that’s fine, it doesn’t mean I was unnecessary or I’m worthless. The important thing is that I’m actively present and that I refuse to allow myself to be passively present. I’ve learned that being actively present doesn’t mean I have to be always talking, coming up with ideas or leading the way, but it instead means to be looking out for ways I can help, contribute or bring together. I’ve also learned that a majority of people are struggling themselves so building them up and helping them participate is far more important than anything else I can do at the moment, but the point is I need to go into every day actively participating.
Now on the flip side is this and I love this part! I’m naturally introverted and there are times in my day that I have apart from people. That is where I can thrive in writing, creating, planning, organizing and reaching out through words and notes. It is a gift that I’m introverted and I used to always beat myself up for being so quiet, but that is where and when I create and get things done. If I’m alone then why am I? Is it because I’ve withdrawn myself to worry about myself or is it because that is the time given to me to create for the sake of others? Choose others and you remain active even during times of being alone.
3. Depression Creates a false, dark and drama filled world. God creates a vivid, truthful path to life that He wants us to enjoy - Choose this instead!
People always ask me how I can run this many miles. That my knee must hurt, or my feet or my hip and the list goes on and on about why they don’t run, so I must then of course be the same. I used to eat that up and describe this or that and make a whole drama filled conversation about it. Now, I just say I’m fine even though of course something always hurts! I’m 49 and I run a lot of miles most every week. Of course something hurts, I’m always sore and I’m always managing some sort of muscle or joint in order to not end up sidelined. That’s life. I don’t want to create a drama about me. That’s selfish and feeds darkness. I just love to run, I truly do and I’ll take both the positive and the negative of it in stride. Let’s focus on what is strong in my body and how it continues to propel me to run, further, faster and more frequently.
My personal life is the same. How are you Eric? Am I perfect? Of course not. Perfection is part of the promise of eternity with God. So in that innocent question: How are you Eric? I can create a drama filled conversation that leads to negativity, criticism, cynicism, bitterness and that pretty little list goes on and on or I can choose the good in my life, I can choose the noble, pure and encouraging pieces of life and go with a gratitude filled life answer to that question. If I am prone to depression why on earth would I welcome in a conversation to highlight darkness and thus promote its presence in my life? Am I struggling some of the times when someone asks me how I’m doing? Yes, but why highlight darkness? Am I lying? No, I’m not. I just choose to welcome the light, not the darkness. Darkness may seem powerful in that moment of my life, but light is also present so I choose to highlight the light. Let’s focus on the light and how that light continues to shine on the fact that I am God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that I should walk (or run :) ) in them. Thankfully God has provided me with my wife and a couple of very close friends that I share my dark times with when necessary and they know how to love me in that darkness WITHOUT enabling me to remain there.
Reality is, Jesus Christ has victory over my depression. He has given me victory over my depression. I am no longer depressed, I simply struggle with its symptoms. When darkness begins to lay hold of me then it is in that moment, in those moments that I turn to the truth of Christ which powerfully states: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.” Colossians 1:13. I have been delivered from the power of darkness. He has changed my living address. He has changed my living quarters. I no longer dwell there. I dwell within His kingdom. His Kingdom is life and it is light.
I know what some of you are saying. So it’s that easy. No, I didn’t say it is easy, but it is true. Getting out for a 12 mile run on a Tuesday morning in January at 4:30am when it is 9 degrees out is not easy and it isn’t fun. Question is do I truly want to improve my chances of crossing the finish line on Patriots day in April at a time faster than I’ve ever performed in my life? If the answer is yes then I need to train and be out there, regardless of how I feel and how my feelings are trying to shape my beliefs. If I want to experience joy and life on a day that feels especially dark than I need to train myself to do godly things in the midst of that darkness trusting that it will either lead me to the light or bring light into that darkness. That’s not easy. It’s hard. At times it takes every ounce of strength I can summon in myself, at times I have to retreat to the bathroom and talk with God with no one present so I can get myself back into the crowds that He has called me to encourage and teach. Stop putting a period after this statement: “I’m so weak.” Change it to a comma. “I’m so weak, but HE is so strong.” His strength IS your strength. Train and learn how to use it.
1. Learn to Trust the Promises of God – Learn about who He says you are and What He has promised you. Listen to Pastor Todd’s sermons again and you’ll hear him preach on these things over and over again. Write them down and memorize them.
2. Pray Often and Consistently – Memorize Philippians 4:6-7. Believe it. Do it.
3. Let God teach you where you allow darkness to overcome you and how you help give it a foothold in your life. Once you are aware you can begin to combat it.
4. Write down your God given responsibilities - Your relationship with Him, Your relationship with your spouse, parents, kids, work. Those are absolutes in your life so train to be light in those relationships instead of darkness. Focus on being light to them instead of bringing darkness into their lives. Love them. Serve them. That is your God given responsibility!
5. Practice Rest in Your life – Learn to set aside a 24 hour period of rest, healing and enjoyment in your life every single week. Start by blocking off 6 hours at a time and build from there. Stop saying yes to everything. Stop saying no to everything. Learn balance Danielson.
6. Read Psalms and Proverbs more often – Learn how emotions and God go together. Learn how wisdom and understanding begin with the Fear of the Lord.
7. Memorize Romans 12:2. You and I must believe that God’s wisdom is greater than the wisdom of this world (the wisdom of the world includes your own wisdom often times). If not, you will forever remain captive by your sin, lies and half truths.
8. Serve other people on a consistent and daily basis - You want to be great? Then stop focusing on yourself.
9. Don’t do all this simply to get what you want. Do it for Him and then you won’t quit if the results don’t go your way. Part of the reality I must accept when I'm in the midst of training so hard for a marathon is the fact that marathon day may come and the weather is such that I can’t run as fast as I trained for. My goal suddenly has to change.
We do not control outcomes or circumstances. Sometimes we do absolutely nothing wrong in our training, but the results are different then we planned, that’s OK, keep going. We train to stay connected to God regardless of the outcomes in life. He is life. Success is not life. He is life and in Him we are already victors.
But hey let’s face it. Training hard, with faith and consistency will more often than not bring some pretty powerful results. That is a blessing. May you walk and run in His light.