Interview with Susie Oppelt on Depression
This interview is the third in our five-part Hope in Darkness: Journeying Through Mental Illness series for the months of July & August. Learn more about the series here.
Susie Oppelt is a lover of flowers, animals, knitting, writing letters, and dad jokes. She lives in Colorado, where she was lucky enough to grow up, and enjoys daily walks with her dog Nutmeg. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the John Paul II Institute, where she studied a lot of theology. She's the proud godmother to five children and is trying to imbue her love of the faith (and of flowers) into them as best as she can.
Tell us a little about your story with depression. When did you start noticing symptoms? How did it affect your daily life?
Looking back now, I can recognize signs I was depressed all the way back in college, if not even before then. I was good at chalking up my feelings at that time to other factors––stress from school, homesickness, prayers that didn't seem ever to be answered or even heard. It got so bad that I took off a semester my junior year of college and lived at home. I thought it would make me happier and solve some of my problems to be home again. Spoiler alert: it did not, and I almost immediately regretted my decision and couldn't wait to get back to school the following semester.
Despite all that, I always thought talking to a counselor would be unhelpful for me; but, even after returning to school, my feelings of inadequacy, restlessness, loneliness, feeling like I didn't fit in anywhere––none of those feelings went away. I was happier in some respects but the deeper issues lingered. My excessive worrying and overthinking stuck around. My belief that I'd be happy "if only [x] were different," or "if only I had [y].” Those lies hovered over me and kept compounding on each other. Throughout the rest of college, grad school, and various jobs I've held since, nothing really changed. I remained unhappy, dealing with the same struggles, confessing the same sins, always yearning for something to feel different.
I was reluctant to be truly open and honest and vulnerable with people because I was afraid they'd reject me. I felt like God was disappointed in me for not being happier with the life He had given me. I was critical of myself and others. Everything seemed tinged with this darkness that came from believing my life would simply always be defined by my crosses, and joy was something elusive I could only look forward to as a reward for eventually getting to heaven. It wasn't something I thought I would be allowed to experience while on earth. [In my mind,] earthly joy [to me] was for other people––the ones God had decided would live joyful lives.
The last couple of years before I started on medication, I found myself crying more and more often (unusual for me, who is not typically prone to tears). They would come unexpectedly and would sometimes wholly overwhelm me, often out of proportion for whatever had brought them on (if I could even pinpoint what that was). By the time I started seeing a counselor––and especially by the time I decided to go on medication––my day-to-day life was very affected by my mental health, and NOT for the better.
When did you know it was time to ask for help? What did that look like?
In April 2016 I had my first surgery (of three so far) for endometriosis. Until that point I didn't know that I had endometriosis. The surgery, diagnosis, and recovery were pretty hard for me, especially emotionally. A few months later, I sought out a counselor for the first time in my life. It had all become too heavy for me to bear alone. I'm glad I was able to take that first step and start trying to get help. I knew I needed to figure out how to deal with the painful disappointments life had handed me, in a healthy manner, and I couldn't do it alone.
The next big step came shortly after I had switched counselors. I had also gotten a spiritual director by that time, and she was the one I finally listened to when she suggested considering antidepressants. She wasn't the first to suggest it, and I wasn’t necessarily against it; I just didn’t think it would help me. Making the call to my doctor's office after confirming with my counselor that medication would be a good idea was honestly one of the toughest things I've done. It was also one of the best things I've done for myself and I'm still really proud I was able to make that phone call and voice out loud that I needed to talk to a doctor about antidepressants.
Who or what has been most helpful throughout your journey?
Throughout my journey with depression, my parents have always been there for me, especially my mom––loving me, wanting the best for me. Plus, my mom has endured a lot of my complaining and sadness that she couldn't do anything to fix, and she's never rejected me because of it.
The other person I'm so grateful for is my spiritual director. She knows when and how to challenge me; she sees things about me that I might not, and her experience in life and with me combined together well so that when she suggested considering medication, I was finally open to it and ready to listen to that suggestion. Spiritual directors can be hard to find, but God brought this one into my life at the right time for me, and I'm so thankful for that!
In addition to antidepressants, which turned things around for me in some incredible ways, the Mass and sacraments, especially the sacrament of confession, have been a huge help. The graces I’ve received throughout this whole process have been very real and very sustaining for me through the worst of times, even when I felt I didn't deserve it or even want it.
How was your faith tested through your experience?
My struggle with mental health has tested my faith mostly in terms of believing myself to be worthy of God's love and believing that, even if I admitted to needing medication to help regulate my brain, I was (and am) still worthy in God’s eyes.
There is sometimes an attitude among Christians that if you trust in God enough and are "good enough" He will heal you without needing any other help. My trust and faith in God has grown so much since finding the healing. But trying to get through it all on my own by trying to pray more and pray harder made me feel like a failure as a person and as a Catholic. It felt like there was no hope for me because God apparently didn't want me healed.
My mental health journey has made me evaluate more deeply what is true about God and about His Church. It has made me more aware of God's promises. I used to think that if I loved God better, or if I were more lovable to Him (as if I could do anything that would make Him love me more or less than He does!), then my depression would go away. It made me realize, eventually, how harmful "prosperity gospel" thinking is, and also how easy it is to fall into that kind of thinking. Thankfully, my experiences have made me more aware of that and helped me to recognize it more in my own thinking and in others––and put a stop to it before it becomes harmful.
What's something you want Catholics to know about mental health?
I want Catholics to know that it's okay to struggle with mental health. It's not a moral failure and doesn't make those who struggle any less worthy or less loved by God. He desires our freedom and our healing, and sometimes that requires leaning on others (or letting others lean on you when they need it). I think it makes Him really happy when we can admit we need help from others, because we weren't made to go through all the trials of life alone. He wants us to be able to recognize the beauty inherent in everyone regardless of their crosses or struggles, and to be able to extend grace to those experiencing suffering.
We all have times when we struggle, whether it be mental health, physical issues, spiritual dryness, financial problems, etc. We all have our crosses. The crosses that I've experienced, including my depression, have made it easier to recognize others' crosses. It's given me a better ability to love others well and to see that maybe they're acting a certain way because they're where I was three or five or ten years ago. Or maybe they're struggling with something I don't understand and can't identify with, but because I know the loneliness of suffering, I am better able to be there for them.
Struggling with mental health is not a moral failing. It's part of the human experience for a lot of people.
What advice would you give to women who think they might be struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illness?
The best piece of advice I can give is don't give up. Keep searching for healing. Ask for help. Find those who know you, and whose opinions you trust, and ask them to be there for you however they can. I know how hard it is to admit that you can't handle something on your own, but God loves you immeasurably, and He gave us other people to walk with us through the difficult times. He also made some people to be counselors and therapists, and He made others to be doctors, and both of those groups of people are there and want to help you, too. You're not alone.