Ever since Brandon, her boyfriend of three years, broke up with her, she’d stayed inside with the blinds pulled, eating cereal and watching television. The daytime programs that she wouldn’t normally watch (soap operas and talk shows) reminded her how cut off she was from the rest of the world. But she couldn’t go to work. She couldn’t focus through the emotional pain and constant urge to nap. She wondered if she’d ever feel better. She knew she needed help, but talking to someone, even her best friend, was the last thing she wanted to do. The only person she wanted to see was Brandon, and he was gone. She was alone and in anguish.
But how was Jenny supposed to react when Brandon dumped her? Was she supposed to put on a happy face? If she showed up at class doing somersaults and singing show tunes, that would’ve been weird. In fact, if Jenny didn’t have feelings of sadness and take time to mourn, it wouldn’t be healthy. However, missing class and gorging herself on Cocoa Puffs and Jerry Springer only made her feel worse. That’s the problem: There’s a fine line between sadness and depression, and discerning between the two is crucial. Sadness is a necessary, important part of being human. Depression sucks away your humanity.
Depression has spawned an entire industry designed to keep us smiling. First, there are the pills: Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin and about a dozen others. But homeopathic folks aren’t shy about getting in the game, too. They can get St. John’s Wort and Ginseng over the counter. Then there are self-help books by the ton, physical and mental exercise programs, online Bible studies and a dozen types of psychotherapy that promise to wash away the blues. Some people need to embrace these types of help in order to get their life back from a disorder that shackles the soul, while other people just need to give feelings of sadness their appropriate time and space. This means you have to know the difference between depression and sadness.
True depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, is a serious psychological and physiological condition. One of the biggest signs of depression is a negative change in your lifestyle that lasts more than two weeks. For example, if Jenny ditches class and stays under the covers eating bonbons and burning pictures of Brandon but goes back to Comp 101 the next day, she’s sad. In fact, she needed that time and space to experience some appropriate pain. However, if she does this for a couple of weeks, she’s depressed.
Another big clue is a loss of pleasure or, in psychobabble, “anhedonia.” This means the things that once got you excited no longer do. If you normally adore Wilco, but find yourself not caring if their tour bus explodes, you’re probably depressed. Anhedonia can also result in cutting yourself off from friends. Isolation and apathy are big signs of depression.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of depression is suicidal feelings. When someone is sad, they don’t want to die. It takes the excruciating feelings that accompany depression for that to happen. When someone is suicidal, it means that they’ve lost hope in ever feeling better. Death isn’t even what they want; they want the pain to go away, but they believe death is the only remedy. If you’ve had suicidal thoughts that are anything but rare and fleeting, you’re depressed and need to reach out for help.
There are other signs: weight loss or weight gain, sleeping too much, irritability and a loss of concentration. Depression has chemical components that can make it more akin to a medical problem than a purely emotional one. It’s a bit like having mononucleosis. If you had mono, you’d go to the doctor. If you’re depressed, you need to do the same.
First, you need to talk to someone. If the idea of talking to a pastor or a therapist is too big of a step right now, talk to a friend you trust and respect. They’ll help you figure out if you’re just sad or in an unusually bad place. However, true depression requires the help of a professional. Counselors, from pastors to psychologists, have dozens of strategies to help you. You may only need some extra coping skills, or maybe you need to address some deeper hurts. Sigmund Freud described depression as “anger turned inward,” and fixing depression sometimes means uncovering buried feelings with the guidance of someone else.
Then there’s medication (cue scary music). If I had a dollar for every time someone freaked out when I brought up psychotropic medication, I’d be living next to a golf course in Palm Springs eating fresh guacamole. Yes, you might need medication, though not everyone does. And I’ve got a secret about those mysterious little pills: they don’t make you happy. You’ll still feel sadness, anger and anxiety. You’ll still get irritated when your mother says you could save money by living at home. But it won’t feel like depression robbed your soul and took your lunch money. You can get on with life. Most people don’t require medication for the rest of their life, and if you try it and don’t like how it makes you feel, you can stop.
Being depressed doesn’t make you “abnormal,” by the way. According to one study, depression affects everyone at least once during their lifetime. That practically makes it normal. Depression is something that happens to you, not something you cause by being weak or sinful. It’s sadness run amok, passing the point where it can help you grow if you face it alone. But if you get help, you can get back to your old self and face the world again.
That’s depression. Sadness is a different story.
A Sad Face is Good for the Heart
It only takes a glance at the Bible to learn that sadness isn’t only OK, it’s important. While depression needs to be addressed and remedied, “A sad face is good for the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:3). Plenty of biblical figures experienced sadness in a way that brought them closer to God and others. Abraham, Jonah, Job, Elijah, Saul, Jeremiah, David, Peter and Paul all grew spiritually as a result of going into a funk. And Jesus wept for Lazarus. Think about that for a second. He knew He was going to resurrect the guy in five minutes, but He cried anyway. He loved Lazarus, and His friend’s death pained Him. It was an expression of how much Jesus cared for him. Jesus didn’t cry because He was never going to see Lazarus again; He cried because His friend deserved His tears.
Sadness can be a gift in many ways. Sometimes it represents a brush with the reality we often ignore. We live in a fallen, sinful world filled with pain. Indifferent glee in the face of suffering is calloused and cold. To reach out to the world, we need to let ourselves feel its pain from time to time.
Sometimes sadness is a signal that we need others. Maybe you’ve been toughing it out for too long, white-knuckling your way through life all alone. God built us for relationships. In this case, sadness can be a telegram from God, saying, “Stop trying to act like you don’t need anybody else.” Sadness can push us to be vulnerable and rely on others. Weakness often brings people together in a much more authentic way than false bravado. Ecclesiastes 4:10 says: “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” Or, as Bono sings, “Sometimes you can’t make it on your own.”
Sadness can also be a sign that there are areas of hurt in your life needing to be addressed. We all have wounds: old ones, fresh ones and ones that we don’t even see. Sadness can make you reflective, helping you pay attention to those hurts. It takes you to deeper emotional and spiritual places than oblivious contentment. In the movie The Devil’s Advocate, Satan tempts Keanu Reeves’ character with “bliss on tap,” pleasure whenever he wants it. It’s one of the devil’s favorite cons. If we remain blissfully ignorant of our wounds, whether it’s our own sin or a hurt someone else gave us, we don’t grow.
At other times sadness is nothing more than God whacking us on the head and saying, “Hey! Remember Me? I’m the source of your joy, pal. If it takes you going into a funk to realize you need Me, so be it. You’re gonna cry at the end of every episode of Smallville until you remember to get on your knees, crack open that Book I gave you and stop sleeping in with Reverend Bedpost on Sundays.” Though sadness isn’t always a sign of distance from God, forgetting who you belong to will make you moody faster than you can say Prozac.
Mourning Into Dancing
Both sadness and depression can intensify times of joy once you’ve worked through them. If you’re depressed, get help. If you’re sad, don’t run from it. Learn and grow from the experience. Figure out what your sadness means and let it bring you closer to God and others. If you do, God will turn your “mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30:11, KJV). When you know how bad things can get, it gives you cause for celebration when things are good.
Depression is a sign that things have gotten out of balance, tipping too far toward the dark side. But sadness is a sign you have fullness of life. If we don’t accept pain and sadness, we become fakes who won’t understand God, others or ourselves. To deny pain is to deny our humanity and miss the joy of being fully human. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a few emotional lumps in exchange for that.