Depression and the Biggest Lie of All: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

This is the fifth in my Lenten series on the book Not Alone by Monica A. Coleman.

Let’s get this straight up front.  You survive depression. You learn that, as Billy Joel sings, “just surviving is a noble fight.”  My last entry focused on how Monica A. Coleman talks about depression changing you, ending the life you knew before (or before each episode) and birthing you into new life whether you want the new life or not.  This dying and coming back process is not glorious and there is nothing truly celebratory about it.  You grind it out, day by day if you have to.  There is no such thing really as redemptive suffering.  Living through it doesn’t necessarily make you stronger or better. In fact, often it leaves you battered, exhausted, and worried about how will cope if it returns.  You learn to better weather the depressive episodes, but surviving them doesn’t make you stronger.  Sometimes, for some people, each one takes just a little more life out of you.  I share Coleman’s distaste for the adage What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I often hear it in variations of the quote by the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Paul says the same thing very lyrically in 2 Corinthians 4: 8-9: We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

Coleman pulls no punches with this.  It just doesn’t work.  I agree.  What doesn’t kill you can leaves you maimed, crippled, shattered, hopeless.

So I’ll say it again: this idea that what doesn’t kill us serves to make us stronger is one of life’s more damaging lies. If only because life experience will teach us that there are things that kill us. And for those who do not die, some do not come out stronger or more encouraged. Some people come out of life’s traumas and sufferings as weaker, demoralized, and emptier shells of who they were. The fact that some people can survive difficulty, pain, death, sickness, and war is somehow attached to the grace and power of God. But the difference between those of us who survive and those of us who do not should not be measured by our level of faith, prayer, devotion, or inner fortitude. It’s better measured by access to informed and attentive friends, loving communities, healing resources, and societal acceptance. Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (pp. 45-46). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Contemporary American culture reinforces in all of us the need or even the demand of rugged individualism.  We are taught from an early age in this culture to be independent, not interdependent and that needing to depend on others is a sign of weakness. Coleman uses the example of the M.Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable, wherein one character is completely breakable and another is unbreakable.

Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis). Elijah Price was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta (also known as “Brittle Bone Disease”); his body does not make the kind of collagen that strengthens his bones. Thus, his bones break easily. In fact, he was born with broken limbs. On the other hand, David Dunn has extraordinary strength and lives through accidents and catastrophes that kill most people. He comes out of them without even a scratch. He seems to be unbreakable. Elijah tracks down David, and presents him with a theory that suggests that they are the remnants of an ancient system of storytelling where superheroes and their archenemies are based on real people like themselves: each other’s exact opposite.  Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 44). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The American myth that we need to completely independent, self sufficient, and strong to the point of being unbreakable is particularly difficult if not damaging for people living with depression.  We know there is no way we will ever be unbreakable.  We then end up desperately trying to hide the fact not only are we breakable, we seem fragile, too fragile at least to ourselves.  In this culture, even with the growing acceptance of depression, it’s still not OK.  There is a sense of failure in the need for medication, the need for therapy, the need for so much, well, just plain help. People living with depression know all to well that no one is unbreakable, that the human condition is a very breakable one and that being broken does not make you stronger, it just makes you broken.

Reflection questions from Not Alone:

How have you tried to seem unbreakable?

I tried for years to keep up the illusion that I did not have depression, that this didn’t make me angry, that I was so damn breakable.  I would pretend I was fine.  Even when it must have been appear ant that something was wrong or that I was emotionally troubled, I would insist that I was fine and the nothing was wrong.  It was as if I denied breaking, I wouldn’t be broken.  Only within the last two years have I largely given this up. I wish I could say it was some noble decision to allow myself to be more authentic, more real, less afraid and ashamed, but the reality is that I just no longer had the energy to try to be or even try to appear something I am not.  I had fallen off the shelf and died too many times and it hurt too much.  I needed more support and help than I ever let myself need or receive.  The only way I was going to make it was to be honest about what I needed and who I am and not worry any more what the world thought of me.  I just needed to survive, dammit, and perhaps the only survival strategy I had never really let myself use was being unafraid and unashamed of who I am.

How can you resist the myth of being unbreakable?

I resist the myth of being unbreakable by getting lots of help and being as honest as I can be with the people in my life.  This help includes regular visits with a counselor, a spiritual director, calls to friends when I feel myself getting darker (not after its already dark) and even inviting myself over for dinner if I have to so that I won’t be alone.  The more I let people in to the whole of my life, the less I feel the need to be seen as unbreakable.  Just letting people in to my life is my chief tactic for resistance.  Discovering, accepting, and believing that others love, accept and believe in me even though I break and have broken eliminates a lot of the need or desire to seem unbreakable.

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3 thoughts on “Depression and the Biggest Lie of All: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

  1. Don’t ever be alone. You have friends who care about you and who are proud of you for taking control of your life.

    Gene Stockton

  2. We ministers often think that we should be able to handle anything– by ourselves with a little prayer. There is a difference between clinical depression and the depression that comes with having a life challenge. I have had both. The clinical depression required medication. I had tried to pull myself out of it through prayer, meditation, counseling and a vacation. I still had this dullness, deep sadness, and feelings of hopelessness. I thought about checking out–yes, depression can lead to death. Getting on an anti-depressant changed my life. I felt a bit guilty at the time for turning to a drug and felt that I should be able to be healed through the” grace of God” and prayer. I don’t feel that way now, or rather I’ve come to see that sometimes God guides us to seek help or to accept it when it is offered. And because I have walked down this path and know what it feels like to experience this, I am a more compassionate minister. I now have a better understanding when a congregant comes to me who is experiencing depression.

    We ministers have to be willing to admit that sometimes we need help ourselves. I’ve known ministers who suffered in silence and one of them took his own life. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    • Amen, Carla. Amen. Even though there has been more acceptance of depression (and during this series I am talking about what is called “clinical depression”) there is still a stigma and colleagues are sometimes rightfully careful about being completely open about it. I agree with your comment and I am also aware that there’s real possibility people may still be treated prejudicially by colleagues, denominations and congregations for being open and honest about their depression.

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