At my wedding last month, everybody in my life saw my arms exposed, many for the first time. They, like other parts of my body, bear slivery silver lines all over them - scars that speak of my history.
Now that it's out there, ... rather than it being this awkward shameful thing, I want to talk, and break the stigma a little. I also want to share some reflections on my condition that may be helpful to others who find themselves in a similar situation.
I have an extensive history of battling with mental illness, and it is not over...I don't know if it ever will be in this life. It is something the doctors believe I was born with - problems in my brain. I've battled with my mental condition for as long as I can remember.
My condition is always there...lurking...waiting to rear its ugly head. And sometimes I feel like that is all I do: wait. When things are good I live in wait of the next episode, and when things are bad I am just struggling to get to the next day, the next moment; waiting for it to end.
I struggle with severe depression, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies. I have, by the grace of God alone, made it through many plans to kill myself. These days I am on medication and in very regular therapy with my psychologist and psychiatrist, and ... I am able to function, and for that I am unceasingly thankful, but the condition is still a part of my life.
There is a lot of confusion about mental illness. People think it's just a cry for attention, or an inability to take control of your thoughts or emotions...true mental illness is more than this. It's not just being a bit sad or needing a break. At my worst I have been unable to do anything...not just less motivated, but lying in bed not having eaten, showered or cleaned anything for a week...wanting to die. Not reading. Not watching movies. Not dozing peacefully. Just lying there, in mental anguish.
Depression is hard work, and it is a pit ...
There are as many different stories of depression as there are people who have experienced it. Some depression is related to problems in life. Some of it is about negative thinking. Some of it is self-centred, and other times it is completely rational in light of circumstances. For me, however, depression is an anomaly.
When I sought help, the concern was that I was a positive-thinking person who was in fantastic life circumstances, yet I was still depressed. The problem for me is that my thoughts, circumstances and emotions do not line up. ... One of the key roles of my medication is to put my mind back in control of my emotions. When I think negative things, I feel bad. When I think positive things, I feel good. Normal. It doesn't always accomplish this, but that is the idea. A lot of the time it does a pretty good job of it.
One of the things I've had to rectify within myself is the place of depression, and mental health issues in general, within a Christian worldview. I do personally believe that most problems, including most manifestations of depression, are best treated with Biblical counselling by mature Christians. The Gospel is the balm for all our wounds.
Yet in my circumstances there is nothing to counsel. My thinking is sound. My circumstances are great. What to do there? And to answer that question I considered other mental illnesses. Nobody would suggest treating bipolar or schizophrenia with Biblical counselling alone. There clearly are illnesses of the mind which are not about sinful thinking. In my case, the doctors were convinced that it was this sort of physiological condition we are dealing with.
I decided, after examining my heart and my thinking carefully to look for sinful patterns (of course my thinking isn't perfect...but there are no patterns of harmful thinking, and it does not seem to be tied to my depression) I decided to trust the doctors and try medication. This confirmed things the most for me.
The medication dealt with the problems in my brain and dramatically improved things extremely quickly. Normally they just free up a person to work on what needs to be changed, but in my case the doctors see it as just enabling me to go about my life less hampered by my condition. The fact that they did this so well, they took to confirm their suspicions. Again, I decided to trust them on that.
This has proved best for me. Normally I would be very very cautious about jumping to medication for mental illness; we are an over-medicated society. However, when I was fearing for my life at my own hands I was prepared to try anything: and the doctors proved trustworthy. I don't say this to advocate medication or suggest that anyone else should go on meds.
The key things I have been carefully meditating upon throughout the treatment of my condition are these:
Jesus is my Saviour: Medication, and the medical field, are not. While medication helps me get through my life, I know that the answers to every problem of this world lie with Christ. I don't take medication to mask problems or 'save me' in any sense. I don't go to secular psychologists and psychiatrists expecting them to have the deepest answers for the problems of this world.
Mental illness is an illness that needs to be treated. ... Mental illness is tricky, and medication is not always the answer, but in some cases it is necessary and vital.
God is in control of my suffering. I fully believe that God has allowed me to struggle with mental illness for a reason ... I believe that He is using it to make me more like Christ. I don't seek secular help to outrun this or try to outsmart God. He is also in control of how well my medication works on any given days. I still have to deal with my condition daily, and trust His grace for each moment.
Good things come from my suffering. I have learnt many lessons from my mental health struggles that could not have been more effectively taught. One of the most important is this: I am utterly dependent on Christ. ... Mental illness takes the bottom out of your world. There is no room left for trusting yourself. This sends me to the foot of the Cross daily. We all rely on God's grace to make it through the day - but when I'm in bed unable to get up, or battling suicidal ideations, it becomes abundantly clear just how much I rely on Him. I rely on His strength for every breath.
Not everything is a result of my mental condition. One of the things I, as a mentally ill person, must carefully guard against, is the tendency to excuse every sin in my heart, mind, and behaviour as a by-product of my illness. I am a sinful being, and that is not my brain's fault....it is my fault. I am a rebellious sinner by nature, and Jesus paid for that on the cross.
Thus, as I examine my life and reflect on my illness, I need to remain diligent in guarding against sin...and when I see it in my life, repenting and working to eliminate it by God's grace. Excusing it or telling myself I can't help it is lazy and dishonest. I need to ask God to show me where there is sin in my heart, and to distinguish that from the fruit of my condition.
One day I will be free from the pain my mental illness causes me. As a Christian, I have the assurance of eternity ahead of me. This "light and momentary affliction" will pass by, and I will slip into endless peace and joy present with Christ forever. When life seems unbearable, and it often does, I need to remind myself of the radiance of God's glory, and the promises of my future secure with Him. That puts things here in perspective.
So that is my story I suppose, and the things I'm learning from the experience. I am thankful for my struggles, and the way God is using them in my life and heart. It is by no means easy. Every day is an exhausting battle - but such is life. So much good is coming from it that what else can I do but rest in His strength and rejoice.
If you are reading this, and you are struggling with depression, self harm, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, bipolar, an eating disorder, or any other form of mental illness, please do not be afraid to seek help, and do not be afraid to speak out. Maybe start by sending me an email and we can chat?
Thank you, Maddi.