A few weeks ago I was attending a church service which included a few attendees giving their testimony before they were to be baptised and added as a member of the church. As a visitor, I didn’t know any of the candidates, but was eager to hear what they had to say. One young lady, probably around my age, got up and began to recount the tale of how she came to know the God of the Bible. This included a foray into some dark times of anxiety before she acquainted herself with this God.
As I listened I, myself somewhat anxious, awaited the anticipated ‘after effect’ of her narrative – which I was certain was going to exclaim that as soon as she came to know God through Christ, all of her anxiety faded away. This is a tale I have heard often and view with a measure of suspicion. To my great pleasure, however, she caveated her testimony by noting that her anxiety did not cease after this relationship grew – instead, she just found peace in her anxiety. A breath of fresh air to me – and precisely what I have learned over the past decade or so.
“Peace is not the absence of trouble, it’s the presence of Jesus.’The message
It’s Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, and this seems a reasonable cause for me to re-emerge from my week-long sabbatical of processing my mother’s death in a solitary fashion to share a bit more about my own story. I don’t expect my story to precisely match the experience of anyone else – though I hope it might raise awareness and offer solidarity to those who are going through something similar or know someone who is.
Mental health issues are a complex beast; even if two people are diagnosed with the exact same issue (for ex, anxiety) and share a host of similar symptoms, their actual interpretation of these events – their experience – can differ tremendously. I think this is a vote in favour of sharing mental health stories, rather than against: the more people hear about the diverse experiences, the more they can empathise; the more that people struggling with these issues learn about others struggles, the more comfort they can derive from understanding similarities and differences in their own experience. While I certainly experienced cycles of depression and anxiety as a teenager, it was not until I reached my early twenties that I dealt with these matters in acute form. Of course, I wonder if in another 30 years I will look back at my 20s as I do now on my teens – as being only a foretaste of what true suffering looks like…which is entirely possible. Hopefully this blog will still be around in a dated ‘computer archive’ for me to peruse.
My own journey with anxiety and depression probably dates back to my childhood. When I was 16 years old I began half-days at my local High School – spending the other half of the day at home taking ‘distance education’ through a local university. The internet was still primitive, so such arrangements entailed receiving a parcel of books in the post and corresponding with my instructor over the phone or snail mail. But I digress… these half-days were meant to be spent enthralled in my long-distance studies, though instead I spent most of them chatting with my mother. It was during this time, in my junior year of High School, that my mother truly became my best friend. We spoke about a host of issues – especially the bible, theology, romance, life…and, of course, mental health. My mother and I spoke about our tendencies towards anxiety, and we contemplated whether anxiety might have any genetic basis (it does). These conversations became increasingly common when I left home, began university, and entered adulthood.
After I graduated university, I intended to go into ministry. I was keenly interested in becoming a missionary teacher/ therapist, or working as a counsellor in a para-church ministry. I expected that the prequel to this goal would be church ministry, which catalysed my 3 month internship at an urban church in the USA, during which I engaged in multiple facets of ‘church ministry’.
It was a blissful time for me, as I believed that I was challenging myself to move outside my comfort zone in terms of dealing with myriads of social interaction and trying to acquaint myself with various aspects of church ministry that I felt were conducive to the future ministry I hoped to have. However, as with many things in life, my perspective was not equal to those around me. While in my mind I was doing well, in the mind of the church with which I was engaged I was not doing enough. I was praised for being an intellectual woman, but criticized for not being a social woman. Now, without getting into the gender issues which arose from this situation (which I certainly could do with my ‘academic hat’) I believe this experience was both of significant benefit and detriment to me.
The huge downside was that I fell into a severe depression. The end of my days at this internship included a host of criticisms from various people – some of which I believe was constructive and useful, and other bits which were unhelpful and rude. It was August, and I had been living with a host family (whom I grew to love quite a bit!) and I had asked if I could stay on for another year at the church to continue to grow and serve…and this was accepted. The plan also included me swapping residences to live with another family from the church, after their current intern also went home. In the interim few weeks before I moved from residence A to B, I was staying with a middle-aged lady who was vociferously passionate about her work in the church.
I recall that I came back one evening to her apartment and was immediately given the phone as I walked into the apartment and advised that the pastor of the church wanted to speak to me. The pastor, already on the phone, told me that unfortunately the elders had met together and decided that they did not think I should stay with the family at residence B. Further discussion revealed that I was being judged unsuitable for ministry work, and that I should probably head home and make other plans for my life.
This was undoubtedly the most severely depressed I’ve ever felt in my life. When I arrived back home, I slept 18 hours for three days in a row. I could barely eat. I wouldn’t say that I felt as if my life was ‘spiralling out of control’ as some might explain this type of jarring experience – I felt too numb to feel anything.
Casting aside how right or wrong the church was in judging my adequacy, I quickly discovered that my big problem was that their judgement meant too much to me. I consulted with numerous friends to discuss why ‘pleasing people’ seemed to be such an issue for me – noted especially by how hard I fell when it became clear that I was not pleasing people at all. I had discovered the sin which underlay my depression, so I hoped I could improve it and move on with my life. One thing I did not anticipate, however, was how deep a mark this would leave on me.
I think this is one element of mental health that religious people tend to forget – the impact it has on other elements of our lives. Though I had considered myself to be dealing with spiritual elements of my failure in that period, I soon realised that this was not alone enough to raise me out of the ‘funk’ I had found myself.
My life did continue, despite my depression… I ended up changing my ‘life goals’ to orientate around education, research, and librarianship – a choice I’ll never regret. Indeed, it was in this disheartening period that I recall telling my mom I did not want to go into ministry anymore…so what were my options? She suggested I try library/archiving work… which, at that point sounded good enough. Little did I know, it would become a huge part of my life!
And this was the significant upside of my experience; it caused tremendous suffering, it upended my life in a way I had not anticipated – yet, as the somewhat irritating cliché goes ‘God opened a window’.* A window into a world and life I could not have imagined. (*By the way, this is not a cliché I would recommend sharing with someone while they are in the midst of dealing with their suffering… this is best shared in hindsight…)
The all-encompassing impact of this event which occurred almost 10 years ago this Summer changed my life – both for good and bad. And it was my understanding of mental health developed here that I took with me as I moved forward. It was this understanding of the complexity of mental health that I clung to when I experienced the worst anxiety I had hitherto known in the years 2012-2015… culminating in severe panic attacks and fear that I would never improve. As I searched myself for ways I could improve my mental health, I reminded myself that mental health is all-encompassing – its impact can be profoundly felt on all levels of our person – spiritual, mental, emotional, physical.
Long-term and short-term ‘hopes’
In a sense the reality of the complexity of our personhood has given me great comfort. As a Christian, my greatest comfort and hope as I went through my periods of intense anxiety were my hope in Christ. I found comfort in the truth that, even if my anxiety continued to worsen until I withered away and died…at least it could go no longer. I had an eternal hope of ‘no more tears’ as I endured anxiety. That was enough to get me through my most painful panic attacks – knowledge that it wouldn’t last ‘forever’. This was also, what I might call, my long-term hope.
However, I also had a short-term hope – that is, what keeps me from reaching the point my mother did and deciding my anxiety and depression are too much, and concluding that I’d like to reach my ‘long-term hope’ more swiftly. These hopes are, I believe, drawn from the gifts God has given us. While the long-term hope is God himself in eternity, our short-term ‘hopes’ (or means of coping) are found in the everyday life.
I think it’s important to have short-term hopes to diminish the types of feelings that my mom so tragically bore. Indeed, I could write another post entirely (if not a book) about the detrimental effects of Christians who put all of their stock into ‘long-term hope’ believing that only spiritual things matter – as if you should find no enjoyment in this earthly life. It simply isn’t the case. Our physical, emotional, and mental well-beings matter too… and it’s important to cater to these as well.
Thus, I engaged in short-term hopes. As I dealt with depression 10 years ago, my short-term hope was finding joy in my new field of education and librarianship. It was also found in friendships – my mother being a key individual on my team to ‘wellness’. It’s important to find things in life that you enjoy, which give you reprieve from stress and anxiety found in every other element of life. And these enjoyments can, my dear Christian readers, be done for the God’s glory – as with everything we do.
As I dealt with substantial anxiety nearly 6 years ago my short-term hopes included considering medication to alleviate my physical symptoms (which I took for nearly a year) and cognitive behavioural therapy, which helped me create coping mechanisms which I still utilise to this very day. I continue to find ways to assist myself when anxiety arises such as exercise (which seems to be especially helpful for panic attacks), and engaging in creative exercises which help me tangibly actualise my feelings (for me, composing piano music).
So, if you – or someone you know – is experiencing severe anxiety or depression…and you remember nothing else from my post, please do remember this: We need to address our multi-faceted personhood. We need to ensure we consider how we can grow and improve spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally… utilising both long-term and short-term ‘hopes’ which can aid us in living each day as it comes. Peace can still be found, even within your mental difficulties – just live each day with hope.
2 Corinthians 12:9 – My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness