Fighting Depression with Hope and Faith

The wife of Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman almost let depression get the best of her. See what brought her back from the edge.

- Posted on Feb 17, 2014

Mary Beth Chapman fought depression with faith.

I pulled the bedcovers over my head and closed my eyes tight, trying to shut out the world, the pain, everything.

It was Thursday afternoon, and my three youngest kids were home from school. At that moment all I wanted was to escape. I didn’t want to be the wife of Steven Curtis Chapman, Christian music superstar, didn’t want to be mother to our five children. I couldn’t handle it.

Everything was coming at me at once. The kids’ March basketball tournaments. Doctor’s appointments. Daughter Shaoey’s third-grade project due tomorrow. Then there was our son Caleb’s approaching wedding to think about and the high-school graduation of another son, Will Franklin. It was just too much for me in this state, this terribly familiar state. All I wanted was to be left alone with the sadness inside me, a sadness that seemed to go deeper than it ever had before.

Ten months had passed since Maria, our five-year-old, daughter, had died in a tragic accident at our home. I sobbed for weeks as if my heart had been ripped in two. I love all of my children, of course, but she had been the spark...I missed her endless questions. Her impish grin. I wanted so badly to see her running around the house wearing her fairy wings and Buzz Lightyear costume. Why? Why did she have to die? I’d cried out to God over and over, but it seemed as if he was someplace I couldn’t reach.

My first instinct had been to take care of my kids. I had leaped to action, found them counselors, talked to them about their feelings, how it was okay to feel sad, even angry. That’s my nature, to fix things. But it was overwhelming. How could I fix this? Slowly my grief had turned to anger, then to a hopelessness that refused to lift no matter how I struggled against it. I fought with all my strength, to no avail. I recognized it for what it was: depression, an illness I’d battled most of my life.

I’d been raised to believe that we make our own way in the world, that God helps those who help themselves. I needed everything to be perfect, needed to always be in control, to know what was coming next, so I could manage it. Yet nothing in my life had seemed to go according to my plan. In college I’d envisioned myself settling down with an accountant, someone like me who appreciated order. Instead I married a musician and artist.

My entire marriage, no matter how hard I tried, so little of what I did ever seemed good enough. To me, at least. The fatigue and despair overwhelmed me. Finally Steven talked me into getting help. Through medication and counseling I found a way out of the darkness. And that’s when I discovered God’s grace. I found that through prayer, intense and committed prayer, I could learn to let go—that God would be there to take my self-imposed burdens from me.

Now I burrowed down deeper under the covers, pulling the comforter tight around me. I was searching for that comfort I’d always been able to turn to before. But instead…I felt only isolation, as if I were deep in a dark forest. This wasn’t like the other times I’d been depressed. Maria was dead and my entire world seemed shattered. How was I supposed to pick up the pieces and go on? Would I ever feel anything like happiness again? Lord, where are you? I heard myself cry. Why have you left me?

“Mom! Maaahm!” It was Shaoey yelling from somewhere in the house. “I need you to help me.”

I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and exhaled slowly. I had promised her that I would work with her on her project. She needed me, just as Emily, Caleb, Will Franklin and Stevey Joy did. I couldn’t just stop being a mother. We were all hurting. I needed to make sure they were all right. It took a herculean effort to get out of bed. I stood, almost too debilitated to put one foot in front of the other.

Tomorrow was Pioneer Day at school. Shaoey had finished reading and writing a report on Little House in the Big Woods, the first of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Now she had to create a diorama of a scene from the book. She was always well organized. I hoped we could get it done quickly and I could burrow back under the covers.

I willed myself down the hall. “I’m coming, honey,” I shouted. There had been times before when hiding under the covers wasn’t enough. Steven would find me and hold me for hours while I cried, but there was nothing either one of us could do to make me feel better. He was hurting too.

When I reached the dining-room table I was surprised to see that Shaoey had started without me. She was ever-so-carefully cutting brown paper to wrap around a shoebox she had managed to find. I slipped into a chair next to her, not wanting to disturb her concentration. “So what are you doing?” I asked when she finished.

“I want to show Laura, the girl in the book, in her bed,” she said.

I breathed a small sigh of relief. That didn’t seem too difficult.

“I need to make Laura and her bed, with a rug under her bed. And she needs to be sleeping under a blanket. There’s a rocking chair. The window has a shutter that closes from the inside. And the walls need to look like a cabin.”

I nodded. “You’re sure that’s all?” I asked.

“Do you think we should do more?” she said. “That’s everything that was in the book.”

I could feel the anxiety building inside me. What she had planned was going to take hours. But that was only the beginning. Tomorrow at Pioneer Day the kids would learn to churn butter, wash clothes in a creek, run three-legged races. All the parents would be there. Then Shaoey had a basketball game in the evening. More games over the weekend if her team won. I wanted to be supportive and join in the fun. But I felt both numb and terrified—if that makes sense—as if I were sleepwalking through reality. If only there was some way to make it all stop. I just needed some time alone to get everything back under control, to stop this avalanche of hopelessness. To somehow get God to come to me.

Shaoey’s questioning face brought me back to the present. “What?” I said. “No, I think that’s definitely enough.” After a quick search, I found some Popsicle sticks and glue. “Why don’t you get started making the bed while I find some material for the rug and blanket?”

I went upstairs to a closet where I had saved odds and ends from art projects over the years in a box filled with bits of cloth, yarn, buttons, beads, pipe cleaners, feathers.… I scanned the surface, but nothing jumped out at me. I could spend half an hour searching and still not find anything useful. What then? I’d have to start all over again. It all seemed so meaningless and exhausting.

I wondered how long it would be before Shaoey even noticed that I was gone. If I lie down for just a few minutes. Maybe I would feel better then.

I hesitated. What good would it do? Even under the covers, stillness all around, God wasn’t there. I’d begged him to reveal himself, in even the smallest way, only to hear silence in return. It seemed nothing could help. Not even my appointment with the psychiatrist two days ago. “Isn’t there something else I can take?” I’d pleaded.

“This will help,” he said after he had prescribed an additional medication. “But you are not going to get over Maria’s death. It is always going to be part of your life. You will get through it, but that will take time.” How was that even possible? I wondered.

Slowly, I dug down through the assorted arts-and-crafts materials. Finally, in a corner of the box I spied some old handkerchiefs and a heavy piece of brown fabric that might do.

Steven was at the table. He and Shaoey had made a bed from Popsicle sticks and rolled-up paper.

“How about these?” I asked, handing my daughter what I’d found.

“Let’s see,” Shaoey said. She cut the cloth for the rug into an oval and laid it in the box, setting the bed, holding a clothespin Laura on top of it. Then she carefully covered her with a handkerchief, like a mother lovingly tucking in a child. She seemed older somehow, able to do so much on her own.

“It’s great, Mom!” Shaoey said. “Thanks.”

Suddenly I reached down and hugged her, hugged her tight and long, and in that moment something lifted. I felt God present with me and Shaoey and all the overwhelming things I had to do with her and the other kids. This was the “getting through” part that my therapist had talked about. It would come in small, hesitant steps taken one at a time: Pioneer Day, basketball games, a graduation and a wedding, the constant, natural ebb and flow of life. I’d get through it as I had weathered severe depression in the past. I would find God in the small moments when we are at our most human—imperfect, confused and longing for hope. That is where God would meet me, not cowering under the bedcovers.

Shaoey took a brown marker and sketched in a window and logs for the cabin walls. Then she and Steven rolled strips of paper tightly and attached them to pieces of a Popsicle stick to craft a rocker. Slowly the scene came together. She cut a piece of construction paper and glued it next to the window for a shutter. Then she was finished, too soon. “What do you think?” she asked.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. And it was a beautiful moment. I wasn’t all better. Not yet. Depression doesn’t work that way. It is a gradual clearing of the mind and heart. There would be difficult days to get through. And yet there was hope and the assurance that along the way God would meet me in the moment, moments of light.

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