My mental health – MHAW15

Mental health is a huge label to put onto the illness I have. It is sort of like going up to someone and saying ‘I have really bad physical health’ and them just sort of going ‘oh, I’m so sorry!’. It’s a great start to a conversation about where you might be at in life, but it doesn’t really give the other person any tools to support you.

Specifying the problem you have makes it a whole lot easier for friends and family to support you. The umbrella of mental health is as big and diverse as physical health. Yet, it is part of our terminology when talking about any specific mental health condition to refer to it as often by the umbrella term as by the specific.

Making the term ‘mental health’ overwhelming. However, the point of mental health awareness week is to make us aware of mental health, the fact that we all have it (emotional needs to be addressed), we all need to care for it and there are many ways in which it can go wrong. We don’t need to know the specifics of them all, in the same way we don’t know the name and symptoms of every physical health ailment – we just need to be aware of the existence, compassionate  in the meeting and accepting of the individual who presents themselves mental health condition and all.

So I am going to talk about what I know – depression and anxiety. I find it hard to fully describe what happens in my brain because honestly, I don’t know what is normal and what is not, but I will give it a go.

Getting up in the morning is the hardest part of any day, not because I am lazy, but because waking up hurts. I am so tired every minute of every day, that there is always a need for more sleep, but, I have to get up so I do. This is the first battle I face each day.

Then all I need to do is survive the day. From the moment I am up, I battle negative thoughts. For my whole adult life, I have been unable to look myself in the mirror as me. I always pretend to be someone else, it’s been easier that way. However, recently I have started to be me and it is very hard not to look at myself and hate what I see. This is not about my image so much as just seeing the face of someone you really don’t like so close. Learning to look myself in the eye and seek out something about myself that I actually like takes enormous energy and effort. This is the next big battle of my day.

The cycle of negative thoughts in my head is pretty non-stop, and this leads into my exhaustion. I fight the thoughts (as often as I have the energy) whenever they appear, but this takes up the majority of my mental capacity.

This means that I have very little capacity left for work. Which doesn’t help the negative thoughts. I work about 2 days a week, and that is the absolute limit, at the moment, of what I can achieve. This leaves a significant sense of failing as I look at all the things I hope to do and achieve, I watch friends who have larger issues than me, who survive and even thrive on a day to day basis. I am reminded by my capacity each day, that I am weak.

On top of this, I tackle the anxiety – a crowded space, unexpected change in plans, a stressful situation, or just those days when my brain is battling the negative so hard that there is no hope left in my head. All of these situations cause my heart to race, my breathing to speed up, my hands to sweat, my eyes to dart and my fear levels to shoot through the roof. It is as if I am under attack, but the attacker is inside my head and the only way to fight that attacker off is to beat my head with whatever is to hand.

I rarely have a day that ends with a feeling that I have won the battle, but I fight hard enough that I rarely end the day feeling like I lost. Me and my enemy are dug in trenches, each equally determined, each exhausted by the battle, but reconciliation feels like an impossibility.

I am exhausted by the fight. I feel like I am drowning in my own mind. I feel lost and broken, weak and hopeless. This is what mental health means to me. This is the life that I live, and the fight that I fight.

Despite it all, I have learnt compassion, empathy, joy and hope through journeying through the darkest places my mind can offer. I am happy with my life. I would prefer it depression and anxiety free, but for now – this is where I am at.

I’m sick

Yesterday morning I collapsed. Not mentally – I actually physically passed out. I even bit my lip in my unconscious state. It hurts. Since, I have mostly been in bed or on the sofa. I have felt sick, had a temperature, been all wobbly and shaky etc etc.

The thing is, I actually find myself feeling very satisfied when I am so visibly and tangibly ill. It is such a relief to know that I don’t need to justify in some way my not being up to doing stuff. I can cancel meetings, barely move and not be questioned as to why. Because, quite frankly, it is very obvious. When I stand up there is a risk I might fall over.

My point – and it will be brief, as the light of the laptop is kind of hurting my head, is that I don’t think it’s fair that I should find myself happy to be physically ill just because it is a nice relief from the mental illness explanations. I am sad that it is so much more understandable when you mention that you can’t come because you fainted, than that you can’t come because your brain is playing a merry game of ‘I hate myself’.

Maybe I am just whining because I am sick. But I am allowed to today. Because I am sick. Visibly so. And I like not having to explain that that is so.

Now back to sleep….

Fear

I have discovered in recent weeks that I am afraid. Very afraid. Life is such a huge adventure and I have hit a point  in the adventure where I don’t know how to move forwards. For a few months I have been hiding behind the half valid excuse of my mental health which impacts on every part of my life – but more recently it has been ruling it, in a way it does not need to.

I want to do a lot in my life, I want to live. But the fear I am living with is paralysing me, glueing me to this spot, where I am dreaming big and doing very little to achieve those dreams. I have been hiding behind the fact that, after business of the new year (for more info on what I was working on see here), I needed a break, time to recover. In February I really needed the space, at that time my mental health was needing me to stop and recover. March though, was a different story, I began to hide.

There have been so many changes in my life this year, I find I don’t know where to turn. Every fear I have ever had, every doubt in my own skill, every worry about my character has come out to play. How could I possibly achieve my dreams? How could I possibly fight for others? How could I live life in all it’s fullness, when I am just me? Weak, sick, not an expert in anything other than my own life and little more than the over vocal ABCD.

In my last post I talked a little about the absence of hope I found myself in, and as I regain the hope I find I want to fight harder against the crushing weight of fear that is currently dominating the skyline of my future, but I have no idea though where to find the courage to start.

The always wise Wendy Beech-Ward put me onto ‘Love Does‘ by Bob Goff. Here is a man who is ordinary and yet extraordinary. He is a man who DOES. I wish I was someone who did, but I am always holding back. What if people think I’m stupid, or even worse – I fail!?

But this book opens up the opportunity to do. I am inspired by his ability to respond to the situations that arise in his life, to take it all as a lesson rather than a test. It seems obvious, the do not fear thing, but it seems that all my theories have remained just that. I want to learn to step out and do. To be fearless.

Having said all this of course, I have no idea really of where to start. Maybe I will just begin with yes.

Despair

I love that the church calendar gives us time to reflect on the black despair of the death of Jesus before we move onto celebrating his rising from the dead. It is his rising from the dead that saved us, that opened up the opportunity of relationship with God and that gave us hope. But it is his death and the time between Friday and Sunday that remind us that God knows the pain of despair.

I was recently asked why I don’t believe that God will heal me. My instinctive response was ‘I do!’, but the more I think about that question the more I become aware of the fact that I have been steadily walking away from hope. I have been settling myself into life at a bit of a distance from God, because really, what good is he doing anyway? I am still struggling every day under the weight of a depression that, no matter how happy I am, insists that I can’t cope; anxiety, that makes any crowded space cause for much medication and panic; and an exhaustion, that increasingly is turning me into a recluse.

Becoming increasingly aware of this, I had big plans for lent. Read my bible, reconnect with God, find that hope again. They didn’t really work out. Yet, as I approached Easter I found that really, I had very little hope at all. I was increasingly aware that I was asking that question that I have, for the past few years, been refusing to ask. Why? 

I have always had such issue with that question, because I have always been determined that my hope was not in what happens in this world, but in Jesus. Yet, I found I had lost that hope. It wasn’t in Jesus anymore. Today, as I think of the death of Christ, I understand more than I ever have, that sense of despair his diciples must have had. My hope was founded in him, and he was gone, no longer tangible and out of my reach. 

When we talk about the story of our salvation, so often we forget that for a moment all felt lost. We forget that God doesn’t just understand the theory of loss and despair but that he knows the reality of it. Jesus cried out on the cross ‘why have you forsaken me?’ and for a time, all was black. All hope diminished and gone.

I love that we have the time to reflect on this loss. In the reflection of Christ’s depair, I find that I have new hope. He asked ‘why?’ and he got no answer. He was in despair and no help was apparent. And then, hope was born. It is this hope that I now cling to. Last Saturday someone put it like this ‘hope is not in the outcome to our prayers, but in Jesus’ and it is in this that I now find I hope again. 

It sounds like the same hope I had before, and I can’t really explain what is different. But I am thankful for the time to despair with the disciples, because it has made the bright light of the ressurection feel so much more real.

As we celebrate Easter this year, remember that for some, hope is a hard thing to find. Sometimes it can feel like Easter is never going to come, that time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday feels like it will never end. Like Jesus on the cross, we can feel forsaken and lost. We have a God who can empathise with that, who will sit with us in it, who will encourage us but not hurry us, who knows the pain of despair.

Christmas Pondering…

Christmas is one of my favourite points in the year (the other being my birthday, and this year we can throw in the wedding, which perhaps points to my love of gifts more than anything) but I find that the more I learn to live with the illness I have, the more Christmas comes to life.

The bible has many stories of suffering, but the birth of Christ is rarely put into that context – and yet, here you have a young couple, who stepped into scandal almost as soon as they met – pointed remarks and being ostracised was a very likely outcome to their dilemma of having been chosen to raise the son of God.

Despite the fact they both acted in faith, followed God and trusted in him, they came into a fair bit of trouble as a result of doing as he asked. They found themselves homeless, giving birth in a stable, with a bunch of outcasts and foreigners coming to worship their son. Then, eventually, they had to flee to ensure that their son was not amongst the hundreds of babies slaughtered – due to their presence.

Their story is one of hope, not because their life was a life of the ever serene school nativity, but because they struggled, they were chosen by God to the most important role imaginable. They followed God, and trusted in his plan and purpose – despite that leading them into times of exile, scandal, loneliness and fear for their lives.

Christmas is the story where God shows the world that he really does love it that much. He not only sends his son, but he does it in such a way that he demonstrates his love is for all. The common line of ‘Jesus wasn’t born in a palace’ may be much used, but it has good reason to be. He was born as an equaliser – his role was to demonstrate that God is an equal access God. The rich and educated are not excluded from the story, the poor and scandalous are not excluded from the story, the foreigners, the people for whom things never seem to go to plan, are not excluded from the story.

As time goes by and I find that my mental health is not improving, I find that the Christmas story is truly a story of hope. It is the story that tells me that in the very darkest moments God can be accessed – whether I feel it or not.
He didn’t send his son into a life of comfort, wealth and popularity, not because these things are bad in and of themselves, but because they are not accessible to everyone. He sent his son into the darkness, into a life that would end young, would start in poverty and would be lived for those that others exclude.

The Christmas story is one for those who struggle with the bright lights, tinsel, materialisation and family centred nature of the modern Christmas. In the chaos, when all is just too much, there is a story that we can immediately go back to. Mary and Joseph will have felt entirely overwhelmed, lost in the chaos of life, and just not really knowing what was coming next.

This is a huge comfort to me, in the moments when really I just want to run and hide, when I don’t want to have to deal with all the noise, business and celebration of Christmas, I know I am not alone. The Christmas story is a celebration, a story of hope – but of hope to come. And whilst we live with the knowledge of the cross, and the hope fulfilled – we still have to deal with the same situation Mary and Joseph had. The now (Jesus is here) and the not yet (we still have to live with the trials of living in a fallen world) is the reality we have, the same one they had.

It is ok not to be joyfully happy, or not have life all together, or not know what is to come at Christmas. The point of Christmas is that it shows us that we are not alone – Jesus has come, he has experienced the worst, and even when everything is just dark, we can know that he is there with us still.

All Things are Possible

Today I spoke at Premiers Woman to Woman conference, on the theme of ‘with God all things are possible. This is a tricky subject for me, as I do believe God can do anything, I just don’t often feel that he is going to do much for me. This is what I said – longer than a usual blog post!

With God all things are possible – but this does not mean that everything that we ask for will happen.

In my experience faith is incredibly messy. How do you reconcile what you believe to be true but have very little (if any) tangible proof of, with the world we live in and the lives that we lead?

I live with depression and anxiety and have done for the past ten years. Three years ago, everything I had thought was safe and had worked towards crumbled around me during a nervous breakdown. I was signed off sick for 5 months. I prayed for healing daily. For peace, for comfort, for change. I sought out healing prayer and yet suicidal thoughts and an overwhelming blackness did not fade. Since then, my mental health has been consistently poor and God has not made me well. With a recent diagnosis of a hot pot of anxiety disorders, it seems that rather than making me well, God is letting me live with this.

But if faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move a mountain, what does it mean that I live with this illness, with no sign of it improving? Is my faith just simply not big enough for this God of the impossible? Do I have less faith than a mustard seed?

No.

God may not answer our prayers in the way we hope or even expect. Psalm 73 says ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’ Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12 talks about the thorn in his flesh, but God said to him ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ Paul goes so far as to delight in his weakness, hardships, insults and persecutions because ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’.

This can, on occasion be of great comfort. It is an encouragement to know that being weak is not wrong. Having weakness and being able to acknowledge it, in fact, gives God an opportunity to work through us.

Recently, however, I have been losing hope. It has been getting harder and harder to find that I have become happier with my life and relationships, and yet still ill – and in many ways worse health wise than previously. I find more and more that I don’t know where to turn. I am so so tired of fighting. The idea that every day is another opportunity to battle the constant barrage of thoughts that inform me of my every weakness both perceived and real, is often too overwhelming to contemplate and the TV – that always friendly source of absolutely brain free entertainment is an increasingly constant friend.

I am exhausted, fed up and drained of any anticipation that this I am going to be released from this illness anytime soon. Paul and his thorn can feel like cold comfort and the hope I have had in the past few years of improvement and change is becoming increasingly hard to access, however, the journey I am on is never lonely. I have biblical precedent for living in a state of misery and despair beyond what I can even imagine. The psalmist is the most eloquent depressive I know. He can summarise a desire to curl up and fade away better than anyone else. Elijah and Jonah both had a desire to die. Job was very justifiably fed up – to say the least. And yet all of these people lived in awe and praise of God. They questioned him, challenged him and sought out hope.

They believed in the God who could destroy an entire nation, who showed up in battles and played an active part, who answered them – spoke to them through the prophets and directly. God was their guide, and he had brought them out of slavery and into freedom. Having seen him perform the impossible, they all still had moments of despair. What they were waiting for was not happening, or wasn’t happening quickly enough. Or life had just simply got far too much and God did not seem to do anything about it. This, their God, the God of the impossible, was not fixing it for them. And yet this never changed the fact that they wholeheartedly believed that he was still the God of the impossible, he would always come through, but it would be in his way and in his time.

This offers us an opportunity to let go of the pressure of what we ‘should’ do in order to receive the possible. The thing the prophets all did, was recognise that God is a mystery – bigger than our comprehension, his ways are mysterious. Jesus free’d us from the ‘should’ and broke down the barriers between us and God, creating an impossible relationship where we have the freedom to speak with him.

Recognising that God can do all things, is about looking beyond my own immediate desire for a happier less depressed life. Towards the end of Job, God speaks – he talks of his might and power, and reading it, it is easy to understand why Job came back to him saying ‘I won’t question you, I shouldn’t question you, you are awesome and big and mighty and wow!’ God has already done things that are considered impossible. Yet, he never forgets us.

He has shown me a picture of his love for me which goes deeper than ‘being happy’. When I am in my blackest and darkest place I have found that even though I often can’t even hear the words of anyone around me, I can find a sense of peace that can only come from the knowledge that God is sitting in the darkness with me.

It is this companionship, that makes him so awesome to me. Beyond his mighty acts of creation and saving and all that – he has time to sit and be with me. He makes space within his complete and absolute knowledge of the universe to think about how much he loves me and to take the time to let me know. A lot of the time I don’t want to hear about hope and healing. I want to find peace where I am. I don’t want to hear that God can do anything because my reality is that he isn’t doing the one thing I really want him to do.

Except, what he does do – in taking that time to sit in the darkness with me, to catch each one of my tears – is the impossible. Our call is to accept this impossible relationship, to recognise that actually God may do the impossible for us – the healing we hope for, but he may do it for our neighbour and leave us be. We need to stand together, God the trinity is an example of community, and within our community we need to recognise the joy of those who have experienced the impossible, and the pain of those who are longing for change.

The unifying part of this is that we all come together to praise the God with whom all things are possible. And to recognise that like the prophets within our community there will be the contrast of the now and the not yet and all the hope and pain that comes with that. If we stand together we will be able to love each other through the highs of the parting of the red sea and the disappointments of being taken into exile. Knowing all the way that God is in love with us. Present with us. And that he is seeking the relationship that for many in the Old Testament was entirely impossible.

My God

I feel like I am at the bottom of a cliff. I’m in the water and the waves are crashing over me one after another. It seems to never end. I guess it’s tidal because every now and then I get a couple of months pause, where breathing is temporarily easier. Like the waves are smaller and I can keep my head above the water. Generally though, I feel as though I am drowning but never dying. It’s exhausting.

I have so much to be thankful for, and there is a part of me which feels horribly guilty for the fact that I – who has so much – should still feel so hopeless. And I find myself despairing when, so often, I don’t recognise the God so many other people seem to know. I often wonder why no one else appears to be drowning. The testimonies never end with ‘and I still don’t have a job’ or ‘and I still have chronic back pain’. The preacher never says ‘I don’t know how to get through the week’ or ‘life really is pretty rubbish most of the time’. My experience is that it is in the darkest places that we find the most hope – even if the darkness doesn’t appear to have the testimony ready ending. This doesn’t mean that there are not tons of people that feel the same way as me, but it seems that the God who lets me be bashed against the base of a cliff, tossed about by the waves, gasping for breath, is not the God that I am meant to know.

The thing is, I can understand why! What use is a hero who lets us take hit after hit with no relief? I mean isn’t God meant to make it all a bit easier? Isn’t he meant to make it a bit more bearable? Doesn’t the bible say that God will not give us more than we can bear?

This idea though, has always slightly jarred with me. The idea that God does not give us more than we can bear seems so at odds with the bible. The story of David or Job, the cries that come out favouring death over continuing in that pain. Were the women of Bethlehem strong enough to bear their sons being slaughtered? The bible is the book which tells me suffering is normal, it tells me that I am normal. The often quoted verse – 1Corinthians 10:13 – seems at odds in so many ways with the rest of the book:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Yet, in an article from Relevant magazine, Michael Hidalgo unpicks this idea that somehow we are supposed to ‘bear’ our suffering, otherwise God wouldn’t have ‘given’ it to us.

Jesus himself felt forgotten by God whilst dying on the cross. The night before he died he despaired, and God didn’t save him. This idea that suffering is not something we bear, it is not temptation where we can choose what we do but is just what happens, seems to line up so much more clearly with my God.

My God doesn’t make my life ‘easier’, he doesn’t seem to want to take away the constant daily battering my brain seems to think I deserve. My God is the one who dives off the cliff to offer me his breath to breathe in the violence of the waves. He is the one who gives me the strength to swim just a little longer, the one who gives me the hope of land.

My God is not the God of the happy pill. He is the God who came to earth and bled, who felt what I have felt but so so much more. Who had relationship with God but allowed himself to be abandoned so that I never would be.

On my way home from work today I was miserable, I feel like there has been one wave too many in the last few years. I had this image of being stuck at the bottom of a cliff, drowning but not dying, stuck in this place of breathlessness, and ‘I Will Exalt’ by Bethel Music came on.

Your presence is all I need
It’s all I want, all I seek
Without it, without it there’s no meaning
Your presence is the air I breath
The song I sing, the love I need
Without it, without it I’m not living

I will exalt You, Lord, I will exalt You, Lord
There is no one like You God
I will exalt You, Lord, I will exalt You, Lord
No other name be lifted high

There will be no one like You
And no one beside You
You alone are worthy of all praise
There will be no one like You
And no one beside You
You alone are worthy of all praise

I guess I will just gurgle this out until I start to feel the tide shift and I find my feet on land again.

It is a real challenge to end such a depressing post on a light note – and yet I feel I ought to. However, my brain is not in a joking mood so I will settle with stating the feelings expressed above are a manifestation of an illness I have. I am fortunate enough to be happily married, in a safe home, with wonderful friends and family. Many people struggle with these thoughts and much much worse and feel they cannot talk to anyone. If you recognise something from this within yourself or someone you know and don’t know where to turn to for help, there are many places but I would take a look at Mind and Soul for some good signposts and resources.