On Sunday, the 10th March 2019 my mother sent me a message on Facebook. “I am not doing well, hon”. Further discussion ensued, with my discovery that she had been suffering with anxiety and depression for a couple of months. Earlier in the year she had contacted me in the middle of the night in the USA (early morning in the UK) to tell me she had severe insomnia. She had struggled with insomnia years ago, and was terrified about facing it again. We chatted for a while, and she eventually fell asleep. I had no idea that her struggle was increasingly worsening over the next couple months – not until she contacted me on the 10th March.
We spoke for hours on that night – she had been suffering with severe panic attacks over the past few months. As noted in a previous post – she was convinced that the root of this panic was anxiety. And the problem with her anxiety, she believed, was solely spiritual. If she could just trust God enough, this anxiety would cease. When my husband returned home that evening around 9pm he called her immediately and spoke to her for over an hour. She had asked to speak to him for some ‘pastoral advice’ from her son-in-law – something she had never done in our nearly 7 years of marriage.
After my mother hanged herself in early April, my family and I scoured through her life to try to understand exactly what was going on. I expect this is something that many who have experienced this situation could share. We looked through her journals (many of her old ones she had burned, believing they were poor examples of her spiritual life, so we were limited with what remained). We perused texts, emails and conversations to try to find an answer. Our investigation remains incomplete, though our discoveries did allow us some additional insight into her condition. This, combined with our conversations with her through the month of March unearthed a few obvious problems – problems which we want to address and hope will help those who struggle with mental health, and their friends and family members to better address these situations.
One of my mother’s main fixations through the month of March was, as discussed in this post, the cause of her anxiety. This, unsurprisingly, directly influenced her solution. The day after she reached out to me, on 11th March, she had unfortunately worsened. Our talks did not seem to help. She contacted me again, frantic. She couldn’t stop trembling. She was convinced she was doomed. Hell had begun for her – she couldn’t imagine anything worse than what she was experiencing in that moment. My sister rushed her to the hospital where she was prescribed psychiatric medication, which she never took. We immediately discovered a significant problem in her approach to her escalating problem : she believed that medicine was the wrong way to address her anxiety.
Now, there are myriad ways to address anxiety and depression – and there is certainly not one correct way for everyone. Some of these aids will, hopefully, be addressed in future posts. What works for one person may not work for you or your loved one. However, this reality should not prevent you from exploring other options. My mother believed that medicine or therapy were both wrong ways to address her problem. And we discovered that she was being encouraged by some of her friends to believe this was true.
My mother believed in a collection of teachings which argued that mental illness – especially anxiety and depression – are solely sin issues which must be addressed. She believe that the only way to address these problems was to increase her trust in God and study the Bible. Therapy, Psychiatric assistance, and Medication – were all out.
On one hand – it is true that all mental illnesses should certainly include a spiritual perspective. It is likewise true that some people suffering with worry, a stint of anxiety, or depression might find a sole spiritual approach to be enough to improve their condition. My mother was not one of these people. Her issue, ultimately, was two-fold:
- She believed that addressing the spiritual condition should automatically cure her of her anxiety and depression. This is a significant (and unhelpful) fallacy. There are myriads of Christians who suffer with these conditions, and have learned to trust God despite their anxiety or depression. They find hope through the anguish.
- She failed to imbibe the complex reality of her condition. It was not limited only to spiritual issues – but also included physical, emotional and mental problems. All needed to be addressed, and there are a myriad of ways these issues can be addressed.
“Friends, our Enemy who is in this world would like nothing more than for us to continue walking around with a veil over our eyes, thinking depression is no more than a delusion. That those who are depressed are simply looking at the glass half empty, and need to change their perspective because they really can just snap their fingers and make everything ok. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
My mother seemed like she was coming to terms with this reality, through our many discussions through March. Her physical symptoms were so severe that she was unable to go to work; she could barely get out of bed. She was contantly shaking, felt nauseaus, exhausted. Some of us, in our family, knew eactly what she was going through; we had experienced the same types of panic attacks. We encouraged her to consider whether therapy and medicine might be options that might help her – even for the short-term.
She seemed like she was improving. She told us she was taking medication. Many conversations with me the following weeks were encouraging; she told me she was improving physically – felt like she could finally think straight.
Then she took her life. We discovered that she was beset with guilt over her decision to try medication and therapy to aid her condition. She had some Christian friends advising her that medicine was a poor decision – it would only make her worse. From evidence left behind, we discovered that she had a pattern of taking, and then stopping her medication. She would take medication until she felt better, and then stop – since she believed it was the wrong way to help her issue.
The point of sharing this story is not to point blame at those who advised her (in my opinion, ineptly) in the negative about taking medicine. It is also not to persuade readers that the answer to every mental health issue is medication – this is likewise not true.
What, however, IS true is the need to recognise the complexity of mental illness. It impacts the entire person – and if a sufferer is debilitated physically, it is unlikely they will be able to think clearly enough to address any other facets of their condition reasonably. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, medical professional, and famous early 20th century preacher, makes this astute observation:
“If it is right to use insulin in replacement therapy for the pancreas, why is it wrong to take tablets which influence the good chemistry of the brain? I think we must get hold of the concept that mental illness is really something that has an ‘organic’ basis. It is something that can be explained chemically…We can, therefore, reassure those who believe that it is sinful to take drugs which relate to brain function that, where clinical trial and proper use have shown them to be valuable, they should be received with thanksgiving. All things in nature and scientific knowledge are the gifts of God and should be used to his glory”Healing and the Scriptures
Medicine, therapy, spiritual counselling, alternative options – all ought to be considered. The right mix of these will differ for each person. This is a subject my husband and I have become passionate about; in our March edition of a live chat with our church we discussed it here. While the conversation below, and the many personal conversations we held with my mother, failed to ultimately assist her – we hope and pray it will be useful for others who suffer, or know those close to them who do.