When lies take a foothold inside his mind, Josiah knows from years of experience that suicidal thoughts will soon creep in, and he will make plans to destroy himself. Once, he’d convinced himself that the world would be better off if he wasn’t here and he headed to the train tracks. He’d fully intended to step in front of the next train, but God had a different idea.
Until now, suffering two to three times a year with depression to the point of making plans to kill himself was not something Josiah Stroh has felt comfortable sharing. He thought people might doubt him or question why he’s in ministry.
“There is a social stigma associated with any mental illness, of which depression is one, especially from people who have never experienced it before. It’s not discussed much in the church, but in my house church and community we talk about it a lot. It’s a very real problem when your brain’s not working right, you know it’s not working right, and there’s no real explanation. Telling someone with depression to cheer up or pull yourself up by your bootstraps is like telling someone who has cancer to just stop having your cancer. It’s not an answer! It doesn’t help. That’s the problem; it’s not something that you can control.”
After fifteen years of suffering its symptoms, Josiah feels strongly that depression, or any mental illness, needs to be shared. He described what depression looks like for him, what techniques he uses to combat his symptoms, and the support he’s constructed to, in his own words, “make sure he doesn’t kill himself.”
“It usually starts with not as much joy or interest in life any more. A dampening, if you will. Normally I enjoy things: the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and life is good. I feel joy until all that emotion gets depressed or squished.”
“When the darkness starts to come, it’s brutal. I can still function and do my work well, but relationally, I am closed down. I feel like people are simply tolerating my presence. Lies begin with thoughts like, ‘life really isn’t as good as it should be’ or ‘the world would be better off if I wasn’t here.’ But where do they come from? Is it a spiritual attack or because I didn’t eat right, or sleep well, or haven’t exercised? Is it physiological or a chemical imbalance? Is it one thing, or all things building together?”
When the lies take a foothold inside his mind, he knows from years of experience that suicidal thoughts will soon creep in and he will begin making plans.
During a really dark time in college, he hated himself and figured God felt the same way. He was convinced he should destroy himself. He walked to the train tracks near his university intending to step in front of a moving train. He hurled accusations at God as he went.
“God, you don’t love me! I’ve got no reason to exist!”
A few paces from the track a man he’d met at a Campus Crusade meeting was pushing his bike along the path. “He recognized me, which was significant because there were 700 people a week at our Crusade meetings.”
The man asked him, “How are you doing?”
Josiah lied and said, “I’m fine.”
The man looked puzzled. “You’ve just got a really weird aura about you.”
Josiah blew him off and kept walking. From over his shoulder he heard the man say, “I’ll pray for you.”
“It kinda threw me a little bit. I said, “God, how dare you send someone.” I heard Him say in my brain, “That’s not the only one I’ve got praying for you.” That really ticked me off. I said, “Why would you do this?” Then, as clear as if someone had said it aloud, I heard God say, “I would move Heaven and Earth to get to you because I love you.” I stopped. “Okay. This is good,” I thought. I turned around and went home. It was the first time I felt truly loved by anyone. It blew me away.”
Josiah uses that experience as his first defense when his symptoms begin. He remembers where he was when God came and got him, “when I wasn’t worth getting, but He still did it. I can hold on to this truth and ride out all the feelings.”
His next step is to contact his quad. “My brothers. They know I deal with it and they know it’s not rational. They are quick to remind me: ‘This is what the gospel is, this is who God is, and this is who you are.’ Another level is a handful of people I deal with daily, my co-workers, who can be that check, and help keep me from doing anything stupid.”
“I find when I’m helping people and interacting with others, it helps in a small way to deflate the feelings. A lot of depression is centered on ‘me, me, me,’ very inward focused. I quickly try to serve somebody else, get someone a cup of coffee, anything to get the eyes off of me helps quicken the cycle.”
There are points where Josiah has turned to professional counseling. “If it’s physiological, there’s a chemical problem in your brain and it makes sense to try and get it fixed. But mostly it’s community, it’s having people who care enough to say ‘I love you, I’m not going to try to rationalize what you're going through because that’s not possible. I’m here with you until this is over, and then we can have fun again.”
He would recommend to anyone battling depression to tell the people who love you what’s going on. “Until you are willing to be vulnerable, you will go through it alone. And going through it alone is very, very dangerous. It’s just you and the voices you are hearing. Listen to the voices of your friends who you trust and you know aren’t going to steer you wrong.”
Josiah says it’s freeing to know that he doesn’t have to be strong all the time. “There are people that God has sent to catch me when I am weak. Praise God, I can be there to catch them when they are weak. Depression sucks, but there’s that verse about Paul where he talks about the thorn in the flesh, and he asks God to take it away. And God says, ‘no I have given you this to keep you humble and in your weakness I am strong.’ So when my depression comes I have learned to rely on Christ and the body of Christ. In my weakness He shows himself strong, not once, but every time.”
Author: Carrie Kempisty
Photographer: Sarah Maiger