I have spent the last 5 years working for a debt counselling charity, helping some of the most vulnerable people in the UK find their way out of debt. A significant number of our clients struggle with mental health problems, so I am accustomed to being that comforting voice at the end of the phone, dealing with all the chaos and disorder that can come with mental illness. I have spoken to many people who have struggled with suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide. And during these years my own mental health has been largely good, after a number of years struggling with depression. It has meant I’ve been able to bring a lot of empathy to the role whilst having increasing distance from my own difficulties. The more years that passed the more some of my experiences faded, and I started to forget how crippling mental illness can be.
But things have changed. I am now off work for depression, at the mercy of the side effects of a change in medication, desperately waiting for it to start working. I find myself having crossed over the line that seems to separate the mentally well from the mentally ill. I’m now the one who needs support instead of the one supporting others.
And no amount of mental health training, therapy or even personal experience prepares you for how frustrating and overwhelming it can be. It is hard to describe how disconcerting it is when your normal emotions and reactions are no longer accessible in your brain, as though someone has rewired you completely. You are doing things you would normally enjoy but it’s as though you’re an actor pretending to enjoy yourself rather than actually finding joy in it. You are a pale reflection of yourself, your normal skills and abilities just out of reach.
The most crippling symptom of depression is not the low mood, the lethargy, the exhaustion or even suicidal thoughts. The most crippling symptom of depression is guilt. Guilt that makes you believe you have let absolutely everyone down, failed your work colleagues, your family and friends. A guilt that erodes your confidence and sense of self. It blurs the lines between who you are and the illness so completely that you feel entirely to blame for being ill. You may not even recognise that the guilt is a symptom, seeing it instead as a fair reflection of your failings. It leaves you in constant need of reassurance, struggling to make and trust your own decisions. It is the guilt and shame that goes with it that can allow you to believe people would be better off without you.
And there is so much isolation that comes with depression. There’s the physical isolation, with people simply not knowing what to say or how to help, choosing instead to keep their distance. Without the daily human interaction that work provides it’s easy to feel adrift and alone, at a time when you need company more than ever. Where previously a good week would be one with as much alone time as possible, now the challenge is to manage your dwindling energy so you can fit enough time with people into your week. There is also the emotional isolation. Many of the feelings and emotions that go with depression are irrational and so, even if you can find the words to describe what’s going through your head, it is difficult to make another understand. You feel different from those around you, marked and damaged. Meaning it’s possible to feel completely alone even in a crowded room.
Try as you might you can’t rationalise your way out of depression. If your sky has turned green, sure you can keep telling yourself it is actually blue, and will be blue again. But it doesn’t change the fact that you are seeing green. And there will always be a small part of you that wonders if perhaps the sky was green all along. Knowing your eyes are deceiving you is not the same as seeing the real colour again. I wish it was.
Recovery is not all yoga mats and juicing, deep conversations and walks in the park. Neither is it always tears and doctors and lying awake crying out to God. A lot of recovery is patience. Learning to sit with the emotions that are weighing you down and gently encourage them to change. Letting the feelings come and go, discovering that they eventually fade. It’s telling yourself time and time again that you matter, that you are worthy of care, love and compassion. It’s extended grace to yourself on the good days and the bad. And listening out for hope’s whisper through the storm of raging inside you.
The world looks different here on the other side, but God is still the same. Just like the moon stays the same size no matter what phase is visible, God’s goodness and character doesn’t change with our perspective. I learnt long ago that who God is doesn’t depend on where I am in life. That doesn’t mean that periods of depression don’t impact my relationship with him, there are days when I cry out to him, angry and frustrated. I may not always understand or sometimes agree with what he’s doing in my life, but I know who he is. And I trust him, even on the days where that trust costs me dearly. In these seasons where I have no choice but to cling onto him, he shows me what it really means for his power to be made perfect in my weakness.
God’s promises are still true even on the days when they don’t feel true. He remains a safe harbour and refuge no matter what is going on in your life.
‘Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’