Rick Warren and son, Matthew

I was unimaginably brokenhearted as I heard a few days ago that Matthew Warren, the 27 year old son of pastor Rick Warren, had taken his life. An autopsy revealed that Matthew died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

I cannot imagine the grief that the Warren family is going through right now. Their whole world has caved in upon them. I suspect that they are weeping uncontrollably at times. At other times, they may wonder if there was anything they could have done to keep this from happening. Sometimes, there’s even a little bit of anger in the mix when a loved one takes their life. While I am praying for them, I cannot speak knowledgeably about what they are feeling because I’ve never been in their shoes.

However, in my late teens and early 20s, I battled with the same sort of thoughts that led Matthew to take his life. I have debated whether or not to share some of the things you will read below. I would be content to leave those dark days in the past. I also find it somewhat painful to think back on some of the things I will say in this post.

Yet, I believe that as the themes of depression and suicide have recently hit the Christian community, it may be time for some believers to speak frankly about their own struggles in hopes of curtailing future losses. In sharing some of our stories, maybe we can give hope to someone who is battling with suicidal thoughts. Further, maybe we can help those who have never had suicidal thoughts to develop an understanding of what it’s like in the mind of someone who is suffering from severe depression.

But, before I begin, let me say that while my current life has it’s ups and downs, I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything in the world! I’ve got a wonderful relationship with my wife, three incredible boys that frequently cause my wife’s and my heart to well up with gratitude to God, a vibrant relationship with the Lord, an adventuresome job as a pastor and many other things that make for a wonderful life. About 20 years ago, I could have never imagined that I would have it so good.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It’s no bed of roses. There are trials and difficulties. But, overall, a horribly bad day at present is exponentially better than the best days I was having about 20 years ago.

How did it all start?

While I suspect that there are many, many catalysts that bring about depression, mine came about as a result of an inability to make the necessary adjustments in a new chapter in my life. I had lived with my family on Houston’s east side for about 10 years and developed many wonderful relationships in my church and school. I did well academically and enjoyed excelling in things like band, chorus, baseball, etc. I can’t remember ever battling depression during those years. So, I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I moved away to college at the age of 19 in 1989.

For me, I believe my period of depression was due to many factors that simply converged at the same time.

  • Stress – When I arrived in Lexington, Kentucky to attend college, I had no job prospects. I had only a little money in my pocket and I was too proud to call my parents for help.  The stress of finding a job(s), working a ridiculous amount of hours to make financial ends meet, trying to keep up with expensive car repair bills that I couldn’t afford and many other difficulties proved too much for me. The stress felt like a boulder on my chest.
  • Lack of sleep – I had to work a crazy number of hours each week on top of the hours I dedicated to school/study just to meet my meager financial obligations. On average, I believe I got about 4-5 hours of sleep a night during the most serious point of my depression. The depression was compounded by the fact that people who are depressed have a greater need for (more) sleep.
  • Lack of proper nutrition – I should have developed a relationship with the little old ladies of the church. I could have enjoyed some great meals. Unfortunately, I didn’t. Because of my financial condition, my inability to cook and my lack of time to dedicate to preparing meals, my food typically came out of a box, a package, a can or a fast-food window. Bad choices!
  • Lack of exercise – I have come to understand just how vital exercise is to a happy attitude. There’s a reason why people who run, bike, swim, walk or engage in some other aerobic exercise keep doing what they’re doing. They may look tired and sweaty but they know something that many people don’t know … they’re experiencing the positive effects of endorphins. Endorphins are the ‘feel good’ hormone that are released into your brain when you exercise. Besides, exercise relieves the body of tension, it flushes out toxins, provides a positive sense of accomplishment, etc. Well, I didn’t exercise at all back then. If I went for a walk, it was so slow that it barely elevated my heart rate.
  • Lonely – All of the above was compounded by (and probably caused) my feelings of loneliness. It’s not that I didn’t have friends. I just wasn’t able to enjoy those relationships. I had settled into a hopelessness that made it feel like I was a bucket with a hole in the bottom. Virtually everything that went in seeped out leaving me feeling just as empty. Things that I do now that bring fulfillment didn’t satisfy back then.

As I look over that list now, I can’t believe that it caused such a deep depression. I believe that with all God has brought me through that I would respond in a much more positive and constructive way if those things were to happen again. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that it caused a very deep, painful depression 20 years ago.

Couldn’t you just snap out of it?

While severe depression may be brought on by sin (but not necessarily), it seems to me that it becomes more physiological as it progresses – chemical imbalances begin to take place. For me, if the inability to make adjustments when I moved away to college was what started me down the road of depression, I think that some chemical imbalances developed inside of me that reinforced the depression. After awhile, it seemed almost impossible to change my thinking. 

I tried over and over to change my thought patterns. I read books on ‘positive thinking’ and ‘depression’ and I read plenty of Scripture (the book of Psalms in particular). I was convinced that if I could change my thinking, my behavior would follow. While that is ordinarily true, the rules may be a little different for those suffering from severe depression because of the chemical imbalances.

To someone who has never experienced severe depression, they may wonder why folks don’t just snap out of it. They wrongly assume that the one who is depressed is thinking correctly. As I look back 20 years, I realize that my mind was not functioning correctly at all. I couldn’t just snap out of it because I lacked the cognitive ability to do so. I think a poor diet, lack of sleep, overwhelming stress and some chemical imbalances completely incapacitated my brain.

It felt like my brain was in a fog most of the time. I couldn’t process things. I couldn’t remember. If the brain is an 8-cylinder engine, I felt like I was running on 1 or 2. In fact, my brain ‘hurt.’ It felt like a bunch of mush was stuffed between my two ears and I often found comfort only when I closed my eyes and tried to focus on nothing at all. My mind was in no shape whatsoever to ‘just snap out of it.’ 

If you have interactions with someone who is battling depression, please do not assume that they are able to think as clearly and rationally as you. They may be the most logical, intelligent person you know. But depression undermines their brain’s ability to function properly.

How did it affect you?

Severe depression affects the body. The best I can describe it, I felt like the blood in my veins had been replaced with sludge. My body felt heavy and ached all the time. It felt similar to the painful body ache you experience when you have the flu. Sometimes, my depression became so bad that moving became more than an ache – it was flat out painful. In those cases, I sometimes skipped class and tried to lie still in bed. If I dared to venture out into the day, I felt like I was forced to go in slow motion because every movement was labored.

I mentioned above how depression affected my thinking. Simply put, I couldn’t think clearly. Problems that would have been a cinch to figure out a couple of years before or after the depression seemed to take an enormous amount of brain power to figure out. Thinking was hard and painful.
 
Another powerful way that depression affected me was the deep sense of hopelessness that I had. When someone comes to the end of their hope, they come to the end of their rope. I thoroughly believed that tomorrow was going to be the same or worse than today … and today stunk! I felt that I was in a deep, dark pit and was never going to get out of it.

It is this feeling of hopelessness that drives someone to take their own life. They irrationally believe that there is no fix, there is no way that things will get better. They cannot imagine going on with the horrible pain that is both mental and physical. The fact that some take their own life testifies to just how desperate some folks become to rid themselves of the pain. Yet, suicide also speaks to how irrational someone has become in their response to difficulty.

How did you get fixed?

In my lowest times, I entertained thoughts of suicide. I believe the only thing that kept me from following through was knowing how bad it would hurt my Dad, Mom, and siblings. If I could have figured out a way to end the pain I was experiencing while not causing overwhelming grief to my family, I may have followed through with my plans. 

Yet, God spared me and enabled me to get out from under the weight of depression. Here are a few of the more noteworthy actions I took that are necessary to beat depression:

– Tell someone what you are going through

I told my Dad and Mom of my depression and suicidal thoughts. In doing so, I was able to secure someone who could think rationally through the mess and provide some help.

I think this is a REALLY important step. If you ever get to the point where you feel like harming yourself, PLEASE tell someone who cares about you before you do it. Give them a chance to help you through the ordeal.

– Seek professional help

I saw a Christian counselor for awhile. He was able to help me dig into some of the issues that sent me into the depression. Once those things were dealt with, I was free to experience a recovery.

– Focus on diet, exercise and sleep

My job situation changed a bit and I was able to go full time at one job. This cut down on the stress, financial woes and increased the time that I could sleep. I also strived to be a little more careful in what kinds of food I was putting in my mouth. I still had a lot to learn (I was a single guy, after all) but I definitely focused on doing better.

– Serve others

I realized that to beat depression, I needed the ‘good feeling’ of helping others. I needed to get my mind off of my problems and focus on helping others with their problems. So, I began volunteering every Friday evening at a homeless shelter in Lexington, Kentucky. Seeing how horrible others had it and being able to help them in some small way enabled me to realize that I had it better than I thought and it moved me to be more grateful to God.

– Spend much time with Jesus

During the depression, I believed a lie. The lie – I was convinced that Jesus was just as displeased with me as I was. That thought was in the background of my mind and overshadowed everything I did throughout the day, including my Bible reading time and prayer time. However, I came to realize that my view of who Jesus was didn’t line up with Scripture. Jesus wasn’t condemning me (Romans 8:1). He genuinely cared for me and wanted to help me out of the mess I was in.

I began enjoying time in Bible reading and prayer realizing that Jesus enjoyed spending time with me just like I was enjoying spending time with Him. That was a MAJOR breakthrough for me. It was also in this renewed relationship that my ‘hope’ began to resurface. I knew that Jesus was walking with me through each day and so each day was a blessing filled with opportunities (Psalm 118:24). I also knew that Heaven was waiting on me when my life was done.

What would you tell someone who is battling depression?

Adding to the steps I just mentioned, I would say that I am enjoying a life now that I thought completely impossible 20 years ago. I looked into the faces of my wife and three sons this morning as they headed off to work/school and realized that if I had succumbed to my irrational cravings 20 years ago, I would never have experienced the joy that I am experiencing now. I just needed to get through the storm. It took determination. It took reliance upon the Lord. It took the help of others. But it was worth it!

I did it! So can you!
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Here’s a fun video of a recent outing with my family. I’m so glad that God brought me through the depression and has blessed me in more ways than I can count!