People who are struggling with depression or other difficulties often assume that sharing their story with friends imposes a burden on them. In fact, the opposite is usually true: From a true friend’s perspective, being entrusted with the cares and burdens of another is a privilege. It’s an opportunity to dispense generosity, and a sign and symbol of trust. And when both people share with each other more of their inner worlds, more of their sorrow and suffering, the friendship is strengthened. In the words of the proverb, friendship doubles our joy and divides our grief.
In a sermon at the National Cathedral on February 17, Michael Gerson—a Washington Post columnist; a graduate of Wheaton College, one of the leading evangelical colleges in America; and one of my closest friends—revealed that he was recently hospitalized for depression. It’s been a condition he’s struggled with since his 20s, but recently his situation has worsened.
“I would encourage anyone with this malady to keep a journal,” Mike said. “At the bottom of my recent depression, I did a plus and minus, a pro and con, of me. Of being myself. The plus side, as you’d imagine, was short. The minus side included the most frightful clichés: ‘You are a burden to your friends.’ ‘You have no future.’ ‘No one would miss you.’ The scary thing is that these things felt completely true when I wrote them. At that moment, realism seemed to require hopelessness.” He added:
But then you reach your breaking point—and do not break. With patience and the right medicine, the fog in your brain begins to thin. If you are lucky, as I was, you encounter doctors and nurses who know parts of your mind better than you do. There are friends who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you, and acquaintances who become friends. You meet other patients, from entirely different backgrounds, who share your symptoms, creating a community of the wounded. And you learn of the valor they show in lonely rooms.
Over time, you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.
His words had reach and resonance. I heard from people who know of my relationship with Mike, expressing how moved they were by what he said. One person who struggles with depression emailed several of his friends, saying he was profoundly grateful for Mike’s words. “I have bookmarked them so I can return to them when my own darkness closes in,” he said. Another individual, a pastor of a church in the South, said, “I applaud your friend Michael for sharing some of his story with such transparency. As one who has suffered depression myself, I can attest to the fact that knowing you are not alone makes all the difference.” And a person with a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, after listening to Gerson’s sermon, told me,
We’re getting better at being able to talk about brain disorders as medical realities, not with the myths that have contributed to silence and shame for so long. We have a long way to go; disclosures like this will get us there more quickly. He’s spot on in terms of chemical vulnerability—the reality of the incredible power it can have over our lives, the personal toll it takes, and the absolute need for hope and faith when the distortions convince the brain that lies are truths.
This is one of the most insidious effects of depression, especially when it is accompanied by isolation. Falsehoods about ourselves and the world around us go unchecked and unchallenged, until they warp reality. We begin to believe that what we’re experiencing is unique, and this in turn can make us feel like a freak, shameful, guilty. That’s why public figures speaking about their own struggles can be such a help to others. Their words put things in perspective and create a feeling of solidarity, even with people they’ve never met.