Today’s Up Close guest post is by Sunny Smart. She is a stay at home mom with four wonderful, hilarious kiddos and one hard-working, good-natured husband. She has battled depression at various times in her life and to varying degrees. She wanted to share her story so that others who suffer silently and alone might feel a little more normal, a little more understood, and a lot less ashamed. The stigma associated with depression can be as debilitating as the disease itself, often leading toward isolation and away from needed help. Sunny’s hope in sharing her story is twofold: One, that a few more bricks might crumble from the walls that keep so many suffering in loneliness and, two, that those who might not be able to feel God’s love in the darkness might be able to recognize some of the ways He is ever feeling after them.
The blackness had been steadily closing in. I hadn’t been up to help the children get ready for school all year. I could barely muster the courage to emerge from the bedroom when my husband left for work and the little ones had to be tended to. I walked around in a daze, wishing the day would pass so I could return to the blankness of sleep. I was volatile. A spilled bowl of cereal might send me into a rage that terrified me as much as the children. Or I might drop to the floor and weep, feeling that this moment encompassed my entire life, that things would never get better. The walls were closing in. I couldn’t breathe. I wished I had never breathed.
And yet, to the outside world, even to my closest friends, I was the vision of happiness. I could always be counted on for a joke, a laugh, a good time. I was the life of the party. No one knew how carefully I had to plan and meter my energy so as not to break down in the middle of an outing or social event. My resources were limited. I had to be careful not to tax the fragile, paper-thin facade I worked so carefully to construct.
That my parlor trick of smoke and mirrors would ever be detected had never occurred to me. That’s why this particular day came as such a surprise. It was an especially dark day for me, though for no apparent reason . The demons in my head had been working furiously as of late and my thoughts had grown darker and more hopeless. Suicide had crossed my mind, but having lost a parent at a young age I knew I couldn’t do that to my children. I began to fantasize about a tragic accident that would take the entire family at once. It was during one of these moments when I had a distinct impression: The bishop will call you today and ask if you need emotional help. You can talk to him. He is safe.
I was stunned. I hadn’t heard the voice of the Spirit in any discernible way in months. And yet this was as clear as if someone were sitting right beside me speaking. I knew where it had come from. But how could the bishop know? I hadn’t discussed this with anyone–not even my husband. Yes, of course he was aware, but sometimes we don’t realize how far a seemingly imperceptible current has carried us until we’re so far from shore we can’t remember what safety looked like. My crazy had become the new normal. We were now in survival mode. There was no trying to figure it out; we were just getting through the day.
I waited all day. Once again the dark thoughts began to crowd my thinking. I was standing in the front room dusting. Maybe there’s a way to end it, said the voices. Immediately, as if pulling me from a black pool, the Sure Voice came back. The bishop would call. I knew it. And I knew I would be safe. I clung to that thought like a lifeline. It was all I had; I hoped I could last until the phone rang.
The bishop did call. He was hesitant. He was a new bishop. A young bishop. A careful bishop. He didn’t know how to begin. He stumbled. Finally, he got it out. Someone had come to him, concerned about me. They told him they thought I might be suffering from a deep depression and that I needed help. Who? Of course he wouldn’t say. I broke down. I thanked him for having the courage to ask me that uncomfortable question. I told him I had been waiting all day for his call. He was stunned. He admitted he almost hadn’t brought it up.
That phone call was the beginning of a journey. Now, I must tell you, as miraculous as that phone call was, and as wonderful, kind, and tender as my bishop was throughout our time together, he was not perfect. And he would be the first to say he had no idea what he was doing and he often did exactly the wrong things. But he was humble and open to my expressing what I needed from him. He offered counsel, yet allowed me to guide the process. He encouraged me to seek whatever help I felt I needed, listened to my plans, and supported me fully. This was no easy task, considering my husband and I decided I would seek in-patient treatment at an out-of-state facility for six weeks.
It was almost two months from that first phone call until the time I entered treatment. In the interim I spiraled quickly. It was as if finally admitting I was drowning sucked away any strength I had previously been able to muster. I hardly left my room. However, I still went to presidency meetings and other engagements so as not to let on that my world was crumbling. I still told no one. The blackness was so thick I felt completely cut off from God. Yet the Spirit was moving in my life, mobilizing people around me to rally to my aid though they knew nothing of my condition.
One evening, as I had just gotten out of bed for the day, a sister I had served with in a stake calling showed up at my door unannounced. She came in, sat down by my unshowered, disconnected self and began to speak. She asked no questions, just told her story of battling depression so severe she had left her family and developed a drinking problem. She told me everything as I sat weeping silently. Could she have known that I had been out driving in the middle of the night many nights that week thinking about loading my car with alcohol and getting a hotel room just so I could make it all stop for a while? I told her everything. Again, the Sure Voice told me this was God’s way of letting me know that He was working in my life when I couldn’t hear or feel Him otherwise. I felt I could hold on a little longer.
As the date for treatment neared I began to tell those around me what was really going on and where I was headed. Stunned doesn’t begin to cover it. Some people laughed, thinking this was yet another joke. Most were speechless except for offering apologies for not knowing and not helping. It was a lot to take in and I didn’t expect it to make sense to anyone. At some point I decided the best way to deal with the stigma was head on. I told the bishop, Relief Society president, and friends that it was no longer a secret and that when people asked where I was it was not to be “hush hush.” If anything, I wanted to remove some of the shame so that someone else suffering in a private hell might have the courage to seek help. My ward was astoundingly supportive. While in treatment I received letter after letter from sisters telling their own stories of depression, some for the first time.
My journey through treatment and out the other side is a story for another time. Did I find help? Yes. I came home feeling as if the previous year had been a bad dream, and one whose memory was fading quickly upon waking. I could hardly fathom feeling the things I knew I had once felt. It seemed like I’d been another person in another lifetime. A miracle? Yes. Nothing short of it. It was my salvation, my family’s salvation, and it came because of the thoughtful heeding of a few to the still, small, whisperings of the Sure Voice. Without them I would be lost. This is no small thing, to mourn with those who mourn and to lift up the hands that hang down. My journey into depression was lonely and isolating. My journey into healing was made possible through the love of Christ manifested through His disciples. Truly He seeks after the one, and charges us to do likewise.