I am mentally ill, and I miss myself sometimes. Often, for long stretches of time, there is peace, and I am me. Eventually, however, something shifts, darkness descends, and the battle begins. I feel the change immediately. It is invisible and hard to quantify, but it is unmistakable. Suddenly, I feel as if I am drowning, weighed down, unable to kick my way to the surface. Treading water is impossible. I am either drowning, or struggling to be free. There is no in-between. During these periods, the “print in grayscale” option characterizes my days. No color. No anticipation. No delight. No energy. Just inertia, compounded by fatigue. The smallest things seem monumental, and there is nothing, at all, that is not an effort.
I feel everything deeply. I always have. Until I do not. Inexplicably, like an unwelcome houseguest, days, weeks, or months intrude that are devoid of feeling entirely. Feeling nothing is exhausting. To feel nothing, paradoxically, is to feel everything. Depression leaves in its wake a vacuum inexorably filled with despair and fear. It is an insistent, pervasive, unremitting type of fear that this time will be worse—that no relief will come—that I will forget how it feels to be me.
On those days…
I miss the Beverly for whom laughter comes freely. I miss how it feels to breathe easily. I miss the squeals that puppies, babies, and meteor showers normally elicit. I miss the palpable delight that a crescent moon produces, or a perfectly formed seashell, or a gardenia bush in full bloom. I miss looking forward to things. I miss marveling over ladybugs. I miss clapping my hands over surprises or discoveries that would previously have knocked my socks off. I miss being moved by music. I miss being bowled over by literature. I miss how it feels to be me.
I have done many adventurous things in my life. I have skydived at 13,000 feet. I have bungee jumped over the mouth of the Nile River. I have zip lined through Costa Rican rain forests. I was scared each time.
I am scared now. I am exponentially more afraid now, because I am acutely aware that publishing this post is not an adventure. It is a risk. I understand the very real possibility that I will be dismissed—that my writing will no longer have merit, that my teaching will be tainted, that my behavior will be scrutinized, and that my impact will be minimized. After all, Christians are not supposed to struggle with mental illness.
I was led to believe that for years. It simply is not true. It is a fallacy that leads to shame, pretense, isolation, anguish, and, sometimes, death. The erroneous assertion that depression, or any other type of mental illness, is the result of spiritual failure or weakness, often results in years of unnecessary suffering. I read, at some point, that “suffering qualifies us to speak”. Well, believe me, I have suffered, and with my husband’s support and encouragement, I am now speaking.
I feel your pain. I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that there is help. I want you to know that it is okay to come out of hiding. I want you to know that it is not your fault.
Shame kept me silent for years, and thwarted attempts at honesty for far too long. Several years ago, with my husband’s prompting, I sought professional help. I am blessed with a husband who gets it. Consequently, our church is blessed with a pastor who gets it. He has been God’s tangible grace to me, and has loved me, extravagantly, through all of it.
We are not experts on mental illness. We do, however, know that it is real, and deadly. After decades of being told otherwise, we finally came to the realization that clinical depression cannot be cured by claiming scripture, or trying harder, or praying more. I attempted all of it in my quest to be free. It was the “perfect and only solution for healing”. I had been told just that by well-meaning, yet woefully misguided, misinformed spiritual “leaders” for years. I clung to those harmful, false, assurances, though, because they presented hope—a way out—a foolproof method for me to be me again, without anyone ever knowing.
It was an exercise in futility. What was left, after all the trying, was an inauthentic, disillusioned, weary, defeated shell of a woman. A mask-wearer. A pretender. “A fake it till you make it, kick your feelings under the door, we don’t lead by sympathy, we lead by strength” imposter. It was soul crushing.
Lest you misunderstand, and pronounce me a heretic, let me be clear. I believe, wholeheartedly, that spiritual disciplines are vital in the fight against mental illness. They are a crucial, necessary component. They are not, however, the sole answer. They are not the cure.
In my case, as in most cases, there is a physiological root cause. There is, quite literally, something wrong with my brain. Synapses, neurons, electrical impulses, circuits, neurotransmitters, chemical receptors, neural pathways—something, somewhere, inside my brain, has gone awry.
Under the long-term care of a wise, Christian psychiatrist, and with the implementation of medications for my particular diagnoses, I have more good days, now, than bad. Dark days occasionally creep in, and I still miss me sometimes, but I am Beverly most of the time. I have accepted the fact that I will always require medications, and I no longer lament the need for them. I have chosen, rather, to be thankful that I live in an age, and a place, where they are available.
Physical conditions cannot successfully be treated with spiritual means. That statement is an incontrovertible fact. Can God heal? Absolutely. Does God heal? Yes. Will He always? No. He has chosen not to heal me, and that is okay. He is redeeming what He has allowed, and for me, that is enough.
We are exhorted, in scripture, to pray for physical healing of all sorts. We pray fervently, but with deference, understanding that God is sovereign, and that healing does not always come the way we pray it will. In those instances, we seek doctors, treatments, and medications to address our physical ailments. We think nothing of seeking medical attention, or availing ourselves to prescriptions or interventions that serve to cure, mitigate, or relieve the myriad illnesses that befall us.
No one is made to feel a failure who takes chemo, or dialysis, or beta blockers, or blood pressure meds. Cancer is not scandalous. Lupus is not disgraceful. Diabetes is not humiliating.
Why, then, does the same not hold true for those of us who suffer from mental illness? Why, with mental illness only, does there seem to be an unwritten moratorium on pursuing professional help? Why is mental illness the only affliction where prayer is guaranteed to prevail and restore? Why is prayer emphatically proclaimed as not just the answer, but the responsibility of those who suffer?
I do not know the answers, but I do know the results. The stigma grows. The masquerade continues, and the suffering intensifies. Change and understanding will only begin when those of us who suffer muster up the courage to come out of the shadows and be honest. We will only feel free to do that, once those of you who do not suffer, choose to offer love, acceptance, and grace, despite your inability to truly understand. It may not be easy, but it is one of the most noble, Christ-like things you will ever do.
For those of you, like me, who struggle, please resolve to not waste one more moment living in defeat and shame. Understand that you are of infinite value to God, and capable of significant impact for the Kingdom. Appropriate the magnificent promise that suffering does not preclude you from serving God. Quite the opposite is true. It qualifies you for service in ways that no other gifting can. Your significance for the Kingdom is enhanced by your suffering. Pain is never wasted by God, because in His economy, nothing of value is ever forfeited.
Finally, above all, hear my heart. Benefit from my struggles, and the lessons they have taught me: You are not your mental illness. Your diagnosis does not define you. You are not unfit. You are not disqualified. You are not damaged goods. You are not unworthy.
You may currently miss yourself, but hang in there. You will be you again. I promise. Do not despair. Do not give up. Do not throw in the towel.
I have walked your painful path, and, in spite of it all, I am convinced that you will find your way back. You will know peace. You will feel joy. You will find purpose. You will be loved. Be encouraged today.
“Of one thing I am perfectly sure: God’s story never ends with ashes.”
~ Elizabeth Elliott