By Darla Isackson
One by one, the neighbors brave frosty cold weather to take down their bright outdoor decorations and twinkling lights. Our street becomes part of the post-Christmas gloom I am feeling. I pack the red and green symbols of Christmas that have spilled into almost every room of my house back into their boxes and return them to the storage room. I turn on the radio and hear, not Christmas carols, but never-ending and sometimes sappy love songs. Family gatherings are fading into memory as all of us return to our daily routines.
Even though the Winter Solstice is past, and each day brings a few more minutes of precious light, the January nights seem long and sometimes cheerless. The letdown I always feel after Christmas is heightened and deepened by contemplating the drama of the year that has just ended and the year that is already unfolding. The tsunami drama dwarfs my personal trials.
In 2004 in my immediate family we experienced, amidst many lesser dramas, a marriage, a death, and a birth. Although two out of three of these experiences were joyous, they were all stressful, and I am physically and emotionally spent, vulnerable to the ever-threatening spells of despondency that have plagued me since my twenties. I have a naturally cheery disposition, so depression puts me at odds with myself. I feel incongruent, hypocritical, miserable – and that misery is the adversary’s purpose in regard to us all. “And because he [the devil] had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind” (2 Nephi 2:18). My life quest – especially now, is to thwart his purpose.
Appropriately Reaching Out to One Another
I recently received a card from a ward member whom I have experienced as the epitome of cheerfulness. She seems full of humor and good will and always makes us laugh when she takes part in Relief Society lessons. So I was all the more surprised when she thanked me for my openness about depression. She confided that she has long struggled with chronic depression – something, she said, that we are usually “very reticent to advertise.” Of course we don’t want to run around telling the world our problems and drawing others into our misery. But how are we to bear one another’s burdens, hold up the hands that hang down if we don’t know that the burdens exist and aren’t allowed to see that the hands are hanging down?
It is relatively easy for others to see when we need physical help. The need of the tsunami victims for food, water, shelter is blatantly obvious and has been trumpeted around the world. However, emotional needs and spiritual starvation are far less obvious and less likely to be noticed.
So many of us suffer in silence. My son who committed suicide rarely allowed another human being into his inner world. Only during one period of his life did he admit he needed help or confide even to his own mother on a deep feeling level. In the months before his suicide as far as we are able to ascertain he did not tell one person what was going on in his mind and heart and did not reach out in any direction for help.
There is great danger of living behind such walls. In appropriate ways we all need to reach out to those who can help and support us in our challenges. Since Brian’s death I have received enormous amounts of support from people who could never have helped me had they not been told about my trial.
The more people I draw close to, the more I become aware of the fact that few are untouched by major trials, tragedies, and struggles. We need each other and we need all the help and support we can get to remind us to hang onto the iron rod and to take heart in the face of daunting challenges.
A Prophet Summarizes Sources of Help
One of the most concise and helpful summaries of sources of help when we are struggling is President Ezra Taft Benson’s conference talk titled, “Do Not Despair,” printed in the Ensign, Oct. 1986. He began, “We live in an age when, as the Lord foretold, men’s hearts are failing them, not only physically but in spirit. (See D&C 45:26.) Many are giving up heart for the battle of life. Suicide ranks as a major cause of deaths of college students. As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression.” Then this great leader summarizes the very fact that has tripped me up the most:
He says, “Yet, of all people, we as Latter-day Saints should be the most optimistic and the least pessimistic. For while we know that “peace shall be taken from the earth, and the devil shall have power over his own dominion,” we are also assured that “the Lord shall have power over his saints, and shall reign in their midst.” (D&C 1:35-36.)
How many times have I said to myself, “You have the gospel, you know the Plan of Salvation, you have a testimony. It’s ten times worse for you to be depressed than someone who doesn’t have these things.” And then I get depressed about being depressed!
But President Benson has suggested that the devil’s designs of despair, discouragement, depression, and despondence can be defeated in a dozen ways, namely: repentance, prayer, service, work, health, reading, blessings, fasting, friends, music, endurance, and goals. He says that if his suggestions are followed, they will lift our spirits and send us on our way rejoicing.
Along with quotes from this excellent article, I would like to share ways that these twelve sources of help are working to protect me from Satan’s purpose to drag me down into despair.
One of the best things about repentance is that it keeps me focused on changing my own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Whenever I focus on trying to change circumstances or other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, I’m miserable, because those things are not within my control. When I look inward, instead of blaming my problems on outer situations or the weaknesses of others, I can always find some disharmony of spirit that I need to repent of.
President Benson said, “Sin creates disharmony with God and is depressing to the spirit. Therefore, a man would do well to examine himself to see that he is in harmony with all of God’s laws. Every law kept brings a particular blessing. Every law broken brings a particular blight. Those who are heavy-laden with despair should come unto the Lord, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. (See Matt. 11:28-30.)
My formal prayers on bended knees are only a small part of my quest for overcoming. The ones that seem to count most in my inner battles against the adversary are the constant ones in my mind as I turn to the Lord for help. The writing ones are also effective – when I talk to the Lord in my notebooks. As I write I ask for the understanding and guidance most often communicated to me through the Spirit in the very process of writing. Words often flow onto the page that amaze me – words of comfort, words of truth that I need at that very moment.
In D&C 10:5 we read, “Pray always, that you may come off conqueror.” It is not an easy thing to remember to pray “always.” And when I am under siege from the adversary, no casual, half-hearted prayer is sufficient. President Benson mentioned that, “Exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me” is how the young Joseph Smith described the method that he used in the Sacred Grove to keep the adversary from destroying him. (JSH 1:16.) He suggested that this is also a key to use in keeping depression from destroying us.
Because my grandchildren needed my love and care when my daughter-in-law Heidi was bedfast right after Brian’s death, my grief was cushioned by the necessity of service. The innocent wide-eyed enthusiasm of children I love buoyed me up. But I have learned that I can use service as a distraction from the grief work I need so much to do.
If I am already physically and emotionally depleted to the point of exhaustion, another service project is not going to rejuvenate me. I need rest, I need time to ponder and prayer and read the scriptures. I need time to cry in private. So I learn to be cautious about my service commitments – at the same time knowing it is vital to continue to reach out and not become too reclusive.
However, I know that if I become overcommitted I deprive myself of the rest and time I need to take advantage of other things on President Benson’s list, such as reading, prayer, time with friends, time to listen to good music, time to take care of my health.
Like service, necessary work is a blessing, when kept in balance. It is so good to have reasons to get out of bed in the morning – things that must be done, things I care about doing. President Benson said, “We should work at taking care of the spiritual, mental, social, and physical needs of ourselves and of those whom we are charged to help.”
I have noticed that it is usually a blessing that I am in the habit of getting up before my husband leaves for work to pack his lunch and fix him some kind of small breakfast. By the time I’m finished I feel like doing other productive tasks. Without that motivation I would sometimes be inclined to pull the covers over my head and forget that morning had come. When I had little children to care for, their needs often pulled me out of my low moods, as my grandchildren do now. But again, balance is necessary. I need meaningful work to do, but right now some of the most meaningful is grief work and I need to take time for that.
This one is huge. If I don’t take care of my health, everything else can collapse at the slightest nudge like a house of cards. So many things make a difference: exercise, nutrition, sufficient rest. I neglected exercise for some time after Brian’s death, and paid an almost immediate price. I soon realized the importance of taking time for it.
President Benson said, “The condition of the physical body can affect the spirit. That’s why the Lord gave us the Word of Wisdom. He also said that we should retire to our beds early and arise early (see D&C 88:124), that we should not run faster than we have strength (see D&C 10:4), and that we should use moderation in all good things.
In general, the more food we eat in its natural state – without additives – and the less it is refined, the healthier it will be for us. Food can affect the mind, and deficiencies of certain elements in the body can promote mental depression. “I have learned for myself the importance of President Benson’s words. My best “food find” for 2004 was adding mixed whole grains to a diet that already focused on fresh fruits and vegetables. I know that combination has improved my health.
Under the category of heath I think it is appropriate to say a few words about supplements and medications. My body and brain are like the equipment I have set up to receive dish satellite transmissions. If the equipment is not in good shape, no matter how clear the transmissions are I will not receive them. So, too, my brain chemistry must be adequate and in balance before I can receive transmissions from the Holy Ghost – or even normal transmissions of happy feelings. Depletion and chemical imbalances have numerous causes, and need careful attention. Two supplements I’ve found very helpful to moderate my moodiness are B’Calmed (B vitamins among other things), and Sam-e, which Laura Brotherson suggested in part 2 of Sean Brotherson’s three-part series on depression (posted recently on Meridian). I strongly recommend those articles.
I have been determined to avoid prescription antidepressants, but have recently felt impressed to go that route, and a relatively new antidepressant called Lexapro is helping me. I firmly believe that this kind of decision, like so many others, is a very personal thing that must be made prayerfully. In my own case, I thought a lot about my son Brian’s refusal to explore avenues of help, and realized I needed to be open to all possibilities.
I had begun to relate strongly to Laura Brotherson’s analogy of trying to fill a bucket with holes in when our body chemistry is out of balance and we are depressed. I could spend every hour of the day and night filling my mind with scriptures and positive thoughts, yet the very instant I was not focusing on something positive or spiritual, the heavy, dark, negative feelings would flood in again. The battle can become exhausting. I’m grateful that we live in a day when so many resources of help are available, and believe it is wisdom to prayerfully pursue every one that might help us achieve the physical homeostasis necessary to function well enough to be good instruments in his hands. I certainly cannot serve Him well when I am in the depths of depression.
Of course depression can be a symptom of any number of other health problems, and President Benson mentioned that it is wise to have regular medical checkups.
Reading uplifting material has always been my major source of recreation and stimulation, but it can also be an unhealthy escape. I can use it to distract myself from my problems, to avoid doing my grief work, to rob me of the time I need to sort out my emotions, even to crowd out all the feelings that would give me a clue as to my current needs.
Still, reading is my most consistent source of inspiration and uplift and, like service and work, I simply have to be careful to keep it in balance and listen to the Spirit in regard to when it is appropriate and when I should be doing other things. President Benson suggested that those who are discouraged especially focus on the Book of Mormon, the Psalms, the D&C, and the words of the prophets.
Redundant as it may sound, blessings have been a great blessing to me. President Benson said, “Even the Prophet Joseph Smith sought and received a blessing under the hands of Brigham Young and received solace and direction for his soul. Fathers, so live that you can bless your own wives and children. To receive and then consistently and prayerfully ponder one’s patriarchal blessing can give helpful insight, particularly in an hour of need.”
I have a great testimony of priesthood blessings. So many times I have been comforted, lifted up, and restored by blessings. I have also memorized portions of my patriarchal blessing and call it to mind frequently. I suspect we live far below our privileges in regard to blessings: that if we had the faith to ask more, we’d receive more.
The scriptures tell us that a certain kind of devil goeth not out except by prayer and fasting. (See Matt. 17:14-21) Perhaps depression is one of those. I have to admit that because of chronic health problems and personal weakness fasting is extremely difficult for me, but I have a testimony of it from times I have lived this principle. I have known personally of many others who feel they have reaped great blessings in their lives from this practice.
President Benson said, “The fellowship of true friends who can hear you out, share your joys, help carry your burdens, and correctly counsel you is priceless. For one who has been in the prison of depression, the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith have special meaning: ‘How sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling.'” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 134.)
I honestly don’t know what I would have done these past few months without friends – and I count family members as some of my dearest friends. A phone call, an e-mail, a visit, a kind word from whatever source has often made the difference between night and day.
I push a button on my stereo and the Tabernacle Choir fills the room with beautiful hymns of Zion and other great music. How grateful I am to live in a day when I have this option. Sacred music soothes and calms and lifts me. Playing and singing the hymns myself, or gathering family around the piano to sing can be a true balm to my soul. President Benson referred to the practice of memorizing favorite hymns and singing them or reviewing them in our minds to chase away bad thoughts and said, “This could also be done to crowd out debilitating, depressive thoughts.”
When George A. Smith was very ill, he was visited by his cousin, the Prophet Joseph Smith. The afflicted man reported: “He [the Prophet] told me I should never get discouraged, whatever difficulties might surround me. If I were sunk into the lowest pit of Nova Scotia and all the Rocky Mountains piled on top of me, I ought not to be discouraged, but hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage, and I should come out on the top of the heap.” (George A. Smith Family, comp. Zora Smith Jarvis, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1962, p. 54.)
President Benson said, “There are times when you simply have to righteously hang on and outlast the devil until his depressive spirit leaves you. As the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: ‘Thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.’ (D&C 121:7-8.) Pressing on in noble endeavors, even while surrounded by a cloud of depression, will eventually bring you out on top into the sunshine.”
I can’t count the number of times that I have found my only solace in pressing on, in spite of the cloud of depression, believing, knowing, that it wouldn’t last forever, and that if I waited until I felt great to move ahead, too many things would go undone. I have so often found solace in the scriptural words “It came to pass.” Hardly anything “comes to stay” and fortunately, discouraging feelings are in that category. I know that if I do my part and ask for the Lord’s help and endure, these feelings will surely pass. Feelings are not facts, and the fact is that God and right will ultimately prevail.
I expressed my feelings on this one in my last article on resolutions. I’ve changed most of of “Do-ing” goals to “Be-ing” goals, and simplified to the very basics of seeking to truly love and take the Spirit as my guide. I trust the Spirit will reveal the goals possible for me in my current circumstance. Every day, however, I do write down the tasks that seem most important, and as I check them off, try to give myself credit for accomplishing the smallest things.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Salvation is nothing more nor less than to triumph over all our enemies and put them under our feet.”” (Teachings, p. 297.) President Benson concluded, “We can rise above the enemies of despair, depression, discouragement, and despondency by remembering that God provides righteous alternatives, some of which I have mentioned. As it states in the Bible, ‘There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it’ (1 Cor. 10:13).
“Yes, life is a test; it is a probation; and perhaps being away from our heavenly home we feel sometimes, as holy men in the past have felt, that we are ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth.’ (See D&C 45:13.) Some of you will recall in that great book Pilgrim”s Progress by John Bunyan that the main character known as Christian was trying to press forward to gain entrance to the celestial city. He made it to his goal, but in order to do so, he had to overcome many obstacles, one of which was to escape from the Giant Despair.
“To lift our spirits and send us on our way rejoicing, the devil’s designs of despair, discouragement, depression, and despondency can be defeated in a dozen ways, namely: repentance, prayer, service, work, health, reading, blessings, fasting, friends, music, endurance, and goals. May we use them all in the difficult days ahead so that we Christian pilgrims will have greater happiness here and go on to a fulness of joy in the highest realms of the celestial kingdom.”
I highly recommend President Benson’s entire article, and bear testimony that when one follows his counsel, the dragons of discouragement and depression can be slain.