On Losing My Joy

“Rejoice always.” 1 Thes. 5:16

Some of you remember that back in April, I went through a serious fall emotionally. It is what some people call “depression.” I wrote about it while fractured. In short, my mind broke. I don’t know how else to put it.  There was a black hole that suddenly showed up in my brain that sucked all hope, purpose, and sanity out of me. One minute I was fine, the next minute I crashed.

This experience has come to define my life as much as any other thing I can think of. My daily emotional well-being now has a referent point, a bar if you will. “At least I am not ‘there,'” I often tell myself. Now, things could always be worse.

The other day, I took my son, Will, to his basketball game. I watched his game and enjoyed it as every father does. After we got home, we sat on the couch together and talked. It was one of those conversations about nothing. But something happened during this conversation that made me to further realize that I was not as “recovered” as I thought I was. While I talked with Will I was suddenly filled with a sense of happiness that I had forgotten about. I don’t know how to describe it. It was like I could suddenly, just for a brief moment, smell again. I don’t know what it is like to be without a sense of smell, but I can imagine. I have a friend in California who suffered a blow to the head last September. Since then, he has not been able to smell. With this, he has lost his ability to taste and enjoy food. He may soon forget, in an experientially way, what it is like to enjoy life in such a way. But in this moment with Will, an aroma passed by my nose and I remembered how joyful life could be. I also realized the residue of depression.

It took six weeks for me to “come out” of the black hole last Spring. Once the “cloud” departed, I proclaimed victory. I even wrote about this victory. I celebrated. I waxed eloquent on the perils of depression. I gave council to those who were depressed. I was still alive! However, I did not realize the lingering effects of the injury for many moons.

Four Stages of Emotional Wellness

Please note, that I am not a professional. I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. I don’t think I even qualify to be called a Christian counselor, though I have taken the required courses at seminary (which gives me just enough information to be dangerous!). These stages are representative of my “journey” through depression. So take it for what it is worth.

There seems to be four stages that one can find themselves in emotionally:

1. Happiness/Joy

Find joy in just about everything. Able to enjoy life with little effort. Many hopeful plans for the future with contentment in the present.

You are yourself here.

2. Stable

Content with life and find joy in some things. Takes more effort to enjoy life. Plans for the future are present, but not so hopeful.

You are potentially yourself.

3. Sadness/Depression

Frustrated with life. Very hard to find joy. Downcast and pessimistic. Plans for the future may be present, but tainted by sadness and hopelessness.

You are losing yourself.

4. Despair

No hope or joy in anything. Despair for the present and future. Fear of living and fear of dying. Unable to access reality.

You are no longer yourself.

You all know how much I like charts, so here is one to boot.

Please understand: I don’t want to minimize the line between the “Sad/Depressed” stage and the “Despair” stage. It is night and day. I think we can stay in the “Sad/Depressed” stage for a time. But the utter hopelessness and hell of the despair stage cannot last for it will eventually take one’s life one way or another. I think most people visit each of these other stages from time to time, but there is something completely different when you pass into the darkness of despair. 

For six weeks, on and off, I was in this despair stage. That is why when I came above the line of despair, I felt like the depression was over. I felt back to “normal.” However my definition of normal was tainted do to the exposure to the “dark side.” Anything was more normal than what I was experiencing there. Therefore, I felt “normal.”

But here is where I think I have gone over the years:

I think many factors led to my emotional fall. Maybe overconfidence. Maybe wrong decisions. I don’t know. But I also believe very much that God wanted me to go through this. I still have not worked out theologically how I say that it was God’s will for me to lose my joy and enter into despair, but I do think that I am a better person because of it. I could not have lasted long in that despair stage. I don’t know if I would have ever killed myself, but the anti-reality matrix would have taken my life one way or another.

However, recounting that terrible time is not my purpose here. My purpose is to chronicle my journey and come to terms with my “recovery.” The sense of emotional smell I encountered the other day demonstrated that I was not fully recovered. I am not sad or depressed in most situations. I can go there, but it is situational and I can get myself out. However, my desire is to reclaim joy, optimism, and hope. I want that to once again be my default composure. I want to be able to smell all the time.

All of this to say that I realize that while I am in remission from depression and despair, I have yet to recover. It lingers. “Rejoice always” is a command in the Scripture that I cannot find the ability to obey. I am only at the place where I can “rejoice sometimes and in accommodating situations.”

14 Responses to “On Losing My Joy”

  1. Wow, it’s weird that this Subject would appear, to me. It’s extremely relevant…I wish you the best in fulfilling your objective! Will definitely have to read the dark and the victory posts.

  2. Thanks for being open with your struggles, friend. It helps others more than you know.

  3. We suffer that we might comfort those that suffer.

    And that is exactly what you are doing through being so open and honest with these experiences.

    Not many folk realise the Spurgeon was only able to function in his public ministry approx 9 out of every 12 months, due to debilitating depression. And look what he achieved :)

    This is the wonder of God, in that within the Bible He works through and uses the very ordinary and even the broken.

    We have the weeping prophet, the addicted strong man, the bipolar king, the suicidal Qoheleth, the depressed Psalmist, the intensely grieved, the self-harmer, and of course, the man of sorrow.

    And through them all we witness the compassion and forgiveness of our loving Father and His willingness to touch us and accept us to His heart despite it all.

  4. I cannot say how much I appreciate these posts, Michael. Your continued transparency has been of enormous benefit to me and is a constant reminder of how important it is know that I don’t have it all figured out. God bless, brother.

  5. I would never say to another that it is Lord’s will for you to enter into despair. There are so many emotions that we can have and yet we are not despondent, we are not without hope. I cannot fathom this world without hope of our salvation and in THAT we rejoice. We Rejoice that God is working with us and for us. Absent from your thoughts above is our enemy he is a tremendous force. BTW Dan Phillips over at Pyromaniacs also has a good post leaning toward this topic of the believer and joy.

  6. It wasn’t God’s will.

    (That He turns bad or evil things for the better when we cry unto Him is something completely different..)

    The reason you (and I) can’t experience joy like we used to is because that former joy of ours was self-centered, and not the Christ-like peace and joy that spring from purity, kindness, selflessness, forgiveness, and victory over passions.

  7. If you want to find joy again, cry bitter tears for your sins (we all have them), and try to bring joy to *others* (I know this may sound paradoxical to the mind, but it brings God’s grace and healing to one’s broken heart and soul — it certainly brought *me* back…)

    [As a bonus, more or less related to this subject, here’s the description of the Orthodox version of Hell].

  8. And another thing: the expression “sadness/depression” that you use makes as much sense as “cows/helicopters“: they have NOthing in common. Sadness or melancholy or even grief presuppose meaning: but depression implies utter meaninglessness. — There’s just NO connection between the two states of mind.

  9. (Fourth comment in a row, I should be ashamed of myself, but some impulses are stronger than shame…)

    You use the word or term “hopelesness”, which –although not necessarily a bad choice– (mis)leads people into believing that the depressed mind actually has a ‘hope’ or a ‘purpose’, and it becomes ‘sad’ and ‘hopeless’ that it can’t achieve it… when actually, for the depressed mind, there’s NEITHER sense, NOR hope, NOR purpose, NOR logic, because everything and anything and everyone and anyone is empty and devoid of ANY purpose or meaning whatsoever

  10. …from the Bonnie Raitt song,

    “I can’t make you love me if you don’t…you can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.”

    AND you can’t make your recovery happen in the timeframe you want, by the force of your will. You’ll need to wait. Wait, and keep observing, and try not to be impatient with yourself. You really aren’t less of a person right now, in whatever place on your chart you are–you’re NOT less you, God loves you just as much as whenever, you’re not a worse Christian or worse human being.

    You’re you, and you’re where you’re at, dangit!

    And as for your having “just enough information to be dangerous”…maybe it will cheer you to consider that, having dipped below the “despair” line, you may now have just enough information to be rather LESS dangerous. This kind of information cannot come from classes and textbooks or even field studies (of other people). It comes from personally “walking” through it.

    One and a half questions: on what basis do you assert that in the “happiness/joy” stage, “you are yourself”?

    What does the word “yourself” mean, when you use it?

  11. Sometimes the older we get the more we find despair, while others find more contentment. For some of us, when we were young and full of arrogance we assumed that we had it all figured out and nothing could hurt us, then reality intruded and we began to understand our limitations and our dying. We began to sense our own vuneralbility and that of those around us. A slow decay of earthen vessels. We came to understand that this life wasn’t about us. We are just bit players in someone elses story. Everything is fragile, so incredibly fragile. May we all have strength for the journey. The strength to live well and to love even better.

  12. We are to rejoice even in our afflictions. That’s not a happy dance. It’s knowing deeply despite our feelings and our sufferings that these are light and momentary afflictions not worth being compared to what is yet to come. I live with chronic pain, and sometimes the depression that comes with it. It’s real, but so is the reality of joy that cannot be taken away, the makarios of being blessed in the kingdom.

  13. Thanks so much for your honesty Michael. Its uncanny how much I identify with you and I fully understand when you say that the command to rejoice in the Lord always is a command that you have only been able to obey some of the time.

  14. Michael,

    Thank you so much for sharing and being transparant. I struggled with depression quite a bit in my teen years and was a “late bloomer” in all areas of my life. My mid 20’s to early 40’s were a time of great blessing and growth. By my mid 40’s I went through a divorce, loss of employment and social network due to a chronic severe sleep disorder and then had to sell my house. Right now I find myself in despair 90% of the time with occasional bouts of rising to depression.

    While I would never wish this on anyone the one thing that does provide some hope and comfort is hearing someone discuss it honestly and openly as one who has truly experienced it. All the medication and counseling in the world does not accomplish for me what hearing from someone who has and continues to fight this battle.

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