A mental health testimony by Joe Timmons
The following is not intended to provide professional information and advice but is offered as a description of a life journey with clinical depression. It is given to hopefully benefit those with concerns about and/or symptoms of clinical depression.
The beautiful Christian anthem “the Love of God”, suggests that God’s love ‘goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell’. May I suggest that ‘the highest star’ requires tremendous objective thinking and measurement? I choose to leave that to those extraordinary scientists who have invented and launched Voyager I and II and the incredible James Hunt Observatory Telescope. The terms and propositions they use, like heliosphere and light-years, are far beyond the comprehension of this octogenarian.
But ‘the lowest hell’ resonates quite subjectively with me. To some, hell may be a place of torment and separation in the afterlife, but I know a hell that is here and now and is intensely personal. There is little brightness there and like outer space, many black holes. I walked into that personal hell as an older mature adult and remained there more than three years. My black hole is called clinical depression and it is not measured by instruments or gauges, but by a sense of worthlessness and loss of much that is relevant to human joy and love.
My hell on earth, my clinical depression came at the close of my professional career, suddenly and unexpectedly. It started when a physician picked up the phone and said to my boss, “Joe Timmons is quite ill and won’t be back to work.” The illness was adult-onset asthma, brought on by stress and fatigue. Twelve hour work days had been my lifestyle for more than a decade.
I did not recognize how very much I had pinned my sense of self-worth on my job, my title, contracts and agreements; human measurements of success. I had not the faintest idea how quickly these indices would dissolve and disappear. And with that dissolution came a quagmire of separation and loss. That one phone call and my response to it in the next few months led me into a bottomless black swamp.
While the asthma took its toll on my strength and energy, it gave root for my innermost psyche to begin withdrawing from human interaction, from friendships, from church, and even from my family. It led to an ever-darkening loneliness and rejection of what was offered with grace and care. As it progressed my sense of self and self-worth slipped away and I found no time or place where I was comfortable. I often chose to remain in bed late into the day and missed meals. I can recall that I wanted as little human interaction as possible and was at times belligerent with those who cared for me. I stayed at home and deliberately missed appointments with friends and my personal physician. My weight fell and my appearance was disheveled. If it had not been for the instant relief offered by the prescribed inhaler I would have suffocated.
Most of all it was a sense of utter disconnect from human meaning and care and from any sense of God’s presence and His personal love for me. Prayer was without a sense of anyone being on the other end. Worship was a blob of meaningless gestures, a time to be escaped as soon as possible.
Yes, it inevitably led to thoughts of suicide. So much so that I marked a place and designed a plan to escape that black hole, that lowest hell. Thankfully, just the day before I planned to carry out my plan, I had a routine follow-up appointment with that same physician. Her staff recognized that my lack of communication was a serious call for help and quickly moved me to an exam room. She came into that exam room and, without questioning my behavior, held me to her bosom and told me she loved me and God loved me and repeatedly asked me to promise that I would do nothing rash without talking to her first. I recall promising to call her if I considered self-destruction. She then called a psychiatrist and set up an appointment.
I know that the Love of God does reach the lowest hell because of that day and the days that followed as He used trained professionals, carefully scripted medication and the patient longsuffering care of my family, my personal hell, my bottomless pit, began to form a floor. Please understand that there was not one spectacular burst of light and warmth, not a Damascus Road experience. No, it was more like a single pebble or stone was in place where I could put some weight until another was found and it lasted more than a year. And in the course of it, there were falls and stumbles. Slowly, and with the incredible love and care of my family and many friends, I began that journey back toward light and meaningful life.
Please understand that clinical depression as I know it is not a singular experience or an irregularity that is cured or removed from the patient. That lowest hell, that dark swamp remains as a possibility in my life journey. There are times when I can sense the beginnings of loss and a trajectory toward the black hole but fortunately with loving care from friends and family, wise professional advice and helpful medication I have been able to remain beyond its grasp.
And just as confident as I am about God’s love beyond the highest star, by personal experience, I can tell you God’s love does reach down and down to the lowest hell.