Still in her early 30s, author Jo Swinney has had enough real life experience to rival someone twice her age. Speaking to Jo, I found her honest and open about her struggle with depression, and radiating a sense of hope despite the stigma often attached to those who suffer.
For those fortunate enough not to have first hand experience, depression is something that happens to someone else and in later life. For Jo Swinney and thousands like her, the invisible, debilitating illness struck her in her most vulnerable school-age years.
Life as a lonely Christian
Growing up in the Algarve and the only Christian in her school, Jo recalls, “There were 15 of us in the class and seven nationalities. I was a squeaky clean English kid with a bad haircut,” Bullied for her Christian faith, she says, “by the age of 10 or 11, I started to think it wasn’t worth the hassle and was considering not being a Christian.”
Then, out on a beach and out of the blue, she had an experience of the Holy Spirit that literally knocked her flat. “I had no understanding of the gifts of the spirit or the term 'charismatic'. I got flattened on my back, laughed drunkenly for about two or three hours and received the gift of tongues. I had no clue what was going on but that was the beginning of knowing God was real and cared about me and loved me.
Faith and facing depression
Jo’s is no simplistic story of how faith ‘cures’ depression. The illness effected her faith in deep ways. “At times I [wrongly] thought I needed depression to make me need God. When I was low that was the time I really hung onto God. I felt I was crying to God with the same intensity as some of the psalmists.”
I had some really big episodes that I look back on and they are like black holes in my life story
She describes her illness as feeling like there were two versions of herself. The depressed one having the ability to “pop up and ruin the fun of the other one” at any point. “I had some really big episodes,” she admits, “that I look back on, and they are like black holes in my life story,”
Studying for her Masters in Christian Studies at Regents College, Vancouver brought the breakthrough she needed when someone put her in touch with a Christian physiatrist. Initially dismissive, Jo thought she was "wasting her time...I didn’t think there was any point in navel gazing.”
Even so, she soon realised that the baseline she thought was normal wasn’t. She was unwell and didn’t need to be. “There were things I could do to get better."
"I ended up seeing her every week for three years. She got me on medication that years later I’m still on.”
Spitting mad and speaking out
Now a mother of two, writer, speaker, keen cook and gardener Jo is passionate about educating the Church on the issue and visibly frustrated by negative Christian attitudes toward depression. “I have been told to repent and find the sin that’s causing my depression. That makes me spitting mad!”
“It’s really rare to meet someone who hasn’t been depressed themselves or doesn’t know someone who has been.”
Ever positive, Jo does believe that progress is being made. “More and more people will confess to it without shame.” She says, “It’s really rare to meet someone who hasn’t been depressed themselves or doesn’t know someone who has been.”
Jo wrote up her own story as an inspiration to other sufferers, and published it as Through The Dark Woods : A Young Woman’s Journey Out of Depression. Enthusiastic reviews spurred Jo to continue writing and speaking on depression and attitudes towards those who suffer with it.
Her latest published book, God Hunting: A Journey of Spiritual Discovery relates her experiences with six spiritual disciplines including solitude, simplicity and fasting. “Everyone feels other Christians are doing so much better than them’” she explains, “people have been really encouraged by it because I’m quite honest about how rubbish I am!”
Keeping faith and keeping family
Now, Jo is gearing up for another book launch. Keeping Faith is due for release this September and attempts to build bridges between Christians and their grown-up children who have turned away from faith.What has she learned?
“The parents feel desperately responsible so they carry that burden of failure into their relationship with their kids. From the kids point of view if your parents feel you’ve failed because of how you’ve turned out, that’s a real damning statement on who you are.”
Asked about a model for what to do when children do leave the family faith, Jo observed that parents enjoyed a freer kind of relationship when, “parents loved their child unconditionally, were interested and proud in their life, prayed for them, didn’t give up hope in them coming to know God but didn’t feel it was their responsibility.”
From the children’s point of view Jo explains that “A lot felt like they hadn’t the ability to ask questions. Parents seemed incredibly defensive and fearful and would just shut them down and give them pat answers.”
How ever I might wander around, he’s sticking with me!
Talking to people who have rejected Christianity while also witnessing a trusted family friend leave his faith behind has led to what Jo describes as “scary questions” which have been a “jolt” to her faith.
“I think that what I have felt God saying to me through that is it’s OK to ask the questions and the phrase Deuteronomy ‘never will I leave you never will I forsake you’. However I might wander around, he’s sticking with me.”
It's been a difficult road for Jo. But with a quiet confidence in God, she's continued to make progress. Thanks to her honesty, thousands have been helped by reading her words on depression. With more exciting speaking engagements and books in the pipeline, it looks like there's plenty more to come from this talented author.
July 11th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes