JOE LAGUARDIA: When depression hits, remember God is always present

I've been writing columns on spiritual disciplines this month.

I intend to continue that series, but since the weatherman is insisting that this weekend will be cold and wet, I'd like to shift gears. This column is for readers who struggle with seasonal affective disorder or mild depression during the winter months.

More than 12 years ago, I didn't realize how widespread seasonal depression was in our state because, being from sunny Florida, I didn't even know such a thing existed.

In the first year we moved, there was a snowstorm in Atlanta and my wife and I didn't waste time in building snowmen, making snow angels, and tossing around a few snowballs for fun. We took pictures of our snow-covered cars for family in Florida. It was really fun.

The seasons changed, and I appreciated all that God had to offer in creation: from the springtime mating calls of birds to the autumnal change of the leaves. But then, about the second or third year here, I started to feel differently in the winter time.

I believe it was in the dead winter of 2004-2005 when I went to a friend -- a social worker who knew more about counseling than I -- to tell her that I had feelings of isolation and depression that I had never felt before in my life. She recommended a therapist, and I went with great results.

Spring came, and I recovered quite well from the whole ordeal. Our first child turned 1, and things moved right along. Then, when winter hit again the following year, those same feelings erupted. I became melancholy and lethargic; I gained weight.

Although my withdrawal wasn't as severe as the previous winter, I definitely felt differently.

I noticed a pattern as the years passed. Winter came and I would get severe mood swings. Finally, when last year's winter proved mild, I got scared: winter came, then springtime, but I never recovered.

I was burning out, and my family and friends noticed a difference. My best friend of 20 years told me that I seemed depressed to him, and he mentioned on more than one occasion that I was always the life of the party, what had happened?

Although we ministers -- and Christians in general -- like to spiritualize things and blame either Satan, sin, or dysfunction for mood swings and illness, I acknowledged that I was no different than roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population that struggles with what many doctors call seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

SAD is not uncommon for people who face harsh winters or, in the least, winters in which very little sunlight is available.

It can be a symptom of mild depression on the one hand or, in severe cases, bipolar emotional disorder or chronic depression. It often overlaps one of these conditions, though it can simply affect people who face too much stress in their lives, pastors not withstanding.

The more I acknowledged my own wrestling match with this illness, the more I opened up about it with folks at church. Turns out, I wasn't alone: by the time March hit, I managed to gather a small support system of like-minded people who face depression in one way or another.

We inquire about each other's health every so often. We send encouraging texts and emails (especially on overcast days). We share resources. (Just the other day, one sent me an e-devotional on depression.)

No Christian who struggles with depression or SAD is alone. Though "sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning" (Psalm 30:5b). God, though seemingly distant, is always present; and, I can bear witness to the fact that reaching out and getting help can make all the difference in the world.

If you struggle with a similar disorder, I encourage you to seek help, speak with a trusted counselor, doctor or therapist, and hang in there.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.