Content Warning: This blog post discusses depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm. Please read at your own discretion. If you struggle with any of these things, I encourages you to seek help. Talk to someone–whether that's a friend, family member, your pastor or a mental health professional
That afternoon was hot. Unbearably so.
My backpack straps dug into my shoulders and my school socks pooled around my ankles, limp with sweat.
All day I’d been feeling the weight grow, pressing tightly against my chest, and by the time I stepped off the school bus that afternoon I felt ready: today was the day.
It’s not that I wanted to hurt anyone. In fact, my decision felt selfless–noble, even–because I was a burden, and I was sick of letting people down.
They’d be better off without me.
With that thought whispering around my head, silent and sinister, I started up the hill towards home, not expecting to reach home.
The footpath ran alongside a busy road, and cars plummeted down the hill well over the speed limit without much visibility or time to slam on the brakes–perfect.
The path veered away from the road into the trees for a minute, and my steps felt heavier. Sweat dribbled down my face in place of tears; there were none left.
My stomach churned. It would be quick, wouldn’t it? And no one would blame the driver, would they?
The voice in my head reassured me: this was the best thing to do, for everyone. It was time.
The path met back up with the road and I followed it, heart racing, knowing this was it and feeling terrified and calm all at once; like it wasn’t really me, like I wasn’t the one standing on the edge of the bitumen, about to make my last decision.
I looked up the hill towards home, towards the car that would surely come. Sweat stung my eyes and I squinted.
What is she doing?
Holding up my hand to block the angry sun, I recognised my little sister: ten years old and standing at the top of the hill, waiting for me.
It took me a second to work out why; usually, she crossed the road to our house ahead of me in defiance of our family rules.
But today, she stood there looking back at me, hand out–waiting for her big sister to help her cross the road.
I stared back at her for what felt like a minute. Still, she waited. So I readjusted my backpack straps, wiped my face with the back of my hand, and started towards home.
Maybe you’re reading this and feeling the pang of recognition: I’ve been there, too. Or maybe, you’re reading this having never understood how someone can get to the place where they truly believe the best thing they can do–the only thing–is to make it end.
Whoever you are, I share what I’m sharing today for you; whether it’s to help you know that you’re not alone, or to help you understand the people in your life who may be struggling the way I once was.
What Led to That Moment
Depression came for me when I was 16. Not overnight, but over a period of months; a gradual descent into a darkness so deep that it consumed everything in my life.
I withdrew from friends, and disconnected from church. The things I used to love doing took energy I didn’t have, and I stopped enjoying them. Smiling felt like an effort, and my bed was the only safe space I knew. And all the while, I didn’t know how to explain what I felt to my family or friends.
Is this what growing up feels like? I asked myself, unsure of whether what I felt was normal. What if they think I’m attention-seeking? How do I explain what I feel if even I don’t get it?
To hear more about what depression looked like for me in that time, you can listen to my full story in this recent podcast episode. But in this blog post, all you need to know is that depression felt bigger than I could explain to anyone, and that was scary.
At the darkest points of my depression, suicidal thoughts were rampant. They felt eerie and out of place; thoughts disguised as me, that had my voice, but were like nothing I’d ever wanted or thought before. Thoughts so utterly disconnected from my own mind, from me, like a conversation with a stranger in my head.
I would write in my journal, when I could find the words and energy, wondering who would read through it when I was gone and whether it would help them understand what led me to that point.
The thoughts told me that I was a burden to my family and friends. I felt a constant guilt that I wasn’t able to be the person everyone needed me to be–or that I wanted to be–because depression left me with no energy or mental capacity to be there for the people I loved.
I was terrified to tell anyone about those thoughts, because they felt dramatic and hurtful and very un-me. I didn’t want to further burden people, or to cause anyone pain. What parent wants to hear that their daughter no longer wants to exist?
When Self-Harm Felt Good
After that day walking home from school when I’d wanted to end my life but didn’t, I felt trapped–my only escape route closed. I realised I didn’t have the guts to do it, and if I was truly honest with myself, I knew I didn’t want to. I just wanted something to change. A circuit-breaker. Some relief.
The idea to hurt myself came gently, almost like an accident. I was in school one day feeling everything and nothing all at once–the worst kind of overwhelm and pain and crushing numbness. It felt so intensely physical, like there was too much bottled up inside and I didn’t know how to let it out. I took the pointy end of a pen lid–harmless, I thought–and started digging. Over and over again, deeper and harder until I broke through the skin and kept going.
By the time I got home my hand was red and pussy. I kept at it, relieved to feel something, relieved to have some control. It was my mum who noticed, and when she did, I felt ashamed. It felt so good and natural in the moment, but once the overwhelm passed, I saw the wound on my hand for what it really was; evidence of a damaged mind.
I wish I could say that the desire to hurt myself stopped when I realised that, but it didn’t. It was a vicious cycle and no matter how much I regretted it afterwards when the pain finally broke through my numbness, it didn’t change anything.
Verses like 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 swirled in my head: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit… Therefore honour God with your bodies.” I felt disobedient and sinful. My shame kept me silent–a secret between mum and I.
I wish I could go back to my old self, confused and hurting, and tell her that those scars weren’t the answer, and that the temporary relief would only make way for more pain. But I also wish she knew that no shame or self-loathing would ever separate her from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).
Breaking the Myth: I Wasn’t Far From God
“God, I pray right now that Maddy would feel your presence. I pray that she’d come back to You. Help her to put her trust in You.”
His presence is one of the only things I feel right now, I wanted to yell. And I never left Him. I’m right here.
These were the familiar prayers that well-meaning people in church would often pray over me when I eventually started opening up about my depression.
It felt like some big misunderstanding. Hold up, I wanted to say. I don’t think you get it. There seemed to be an overwhelming perception that my depression was caused by a rift between me and God. That something had gone wrong in our relationship and that ‘getting better’ was as simple as trusting in Him again.
I wanted to tell people that that wasn’t the problem. In fact, those dark years were when I felt His presence most tangibly. In a time where it felt like everything else was crumbling around me, He was the only constant–the only thing I trusted in. I talked to God every day. It felt intimate in a way I hadn’t ever experienced, because I’d never known how much I needed Him until He was all I had.
I clung to Psalm 139 like a lifeline, choosing to believe that God was with me in every moment, and that He knew what was happening inside my mind, even when I couldn’t understand it. “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me… You perceive my thoughts from afar… You are familiar with all my ways… Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.” (Psalm 139:1-4).
Despite knowing where I stood with God, after a while I started to doubt myself. Maybe I was far from Him. Maybe I wasn’t healed yet because I didn’t trust Him enough. The more people prayed for me to be ‘healed’ of depression, the more a tiny voice inside me wondered if it was my fault I was still struggling.
I became so focussed on waiting for a miraculous moment of healing that it was hard to see what God was doing at that time, in the inbetween. Had I known then what I’ve learned since, I would have held firmly to the truth; that yes our God is a healer, but He doesn’t always answer prayers the ways we expect Him to. He was healing me, slowly. Through people. Through professional help. Through community.
No Quick Fix: A Holistic Road to Healing
I would love to tell you there was a foolproof, here-are-the-three-steps-I-took approach to recovery. There wasn’t. And hey, I do recognise that some people receive healing from mental illness all in an instant. But for me, at least, my ‘healing’ came slowly. It took deliberate, consistent actions, even when I didn’t feel like them, and the support of a lot of people.
One of the things I had to learn was that I couldn’t separate my depression and everything happening inside of my mind from the rest of myself. It wasn’t enough just to focus on my thoughts and feelings; I needed to take care of my whole self–mind, body and spirit.
That meant that ‘over spiritualising’ the recovery didn’t help. God was very much in all of it, but praying to be made well while hiding myself away, isolated from friends and eating poorly, was not going to help.
My parents helped me take steps in the right direction. My dad got me into a new sport and helped me to consistently get outside and be active, even when I didn’t feel like it (which was a lot of the time). My mum drove me to the psychologist for regular check-ins and helped me prepare healthy foods to eat. They gave me patience and grace, but they also didn’t let me keep hiding away from the world.
My friends helped me see that I could be loved even when I didn’t have much of myself to give. My church accepted me as I was, and made space for me to be involved as much as I was able.
And ultimately, God. He whispered to me in the quiet moments, the ones where it was just me and Him: I see you. I love you. I know what you’re feeling. I’m proud of you. I found a peace in reading His Word that I’d never experienced. Verses like Romans 8:26 were a huge encouragement to me, to know that even when I didn’t know what to pray or felt too weak to find the words, His Spirit would intercede for me. How beautiful!
Not an Ending
For a long time, it was hard to talk to people about depression because my story didn’t feel finished. I kept waiting for the day I would finally feel ‘freed’ so that I could have a neat little conclusion to the story. It’s taken me a long time to share publicly about those low points, because for a long time I’ve bought into the shame and stigma that attaches itself to mental illness, especially in faith communities.
But I’m now in a place where I can see the good that came from those low times. Our Heavenly Father has a special way of weaving our pain and brokenness into something with beauty and purpose when we offer it up to Him.
I look back now, and I know: It was worth it. The scars I wear now are worth it because of the message of hope they carry; that we’re never too far gone; that God can meet us in the lowest and darkest of places and draw us out.
Time and time again I’ve been privileged to have raw, candid conversations with people where I’ve been able to say, “I get it.” Do you know how powerful those three words are? How much I longed to hear them from someone when I was the one struggling, feeling like I was doing it alone?
If any part of my story has resonated with you as something you’re battling with right now, I’m sorry you’re going through this. You’re not doing it alone. I pray you’ll find the courage to tell someone what you’re feeling, even if it’s hard to put into words.
If you don’t personally know what it feels like to struggle with your mental health, I hope this has given you a small glimpse of what it can feel like and an encouragement to check in with your friends and family.
As I shared in my podcast interview, I became very good at hiding what I was really facing. I would give anyone–even my psychologist–the answers they wanted to hear. But what would have helped me open up was hearing that someone else got it, or that they wanted to understand. Are there people in your life who might be struggling without you knowing? Reach out to them today.
There is hope and healing from depression, even if it comes slowly. I’m forever grateful that the 16 year old who stood by the side of the road that day, sweaty and desperate and alone, got to stick around to help share that hope.
This blog post was originally published at anxiousfaith.org, the site where I write for work. Anxious Faith is a community of people sharing real, raw stories and tackling the big questions around faith and mental health. Come join us on the site or socials (@anxious_faith)!