Lessons from the Other Side

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.

DSC_0943

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.’

Isaiah 40:30-31

Advertisements

The Lost Art of Self-Care

I am what some people would call a high functioning depressive. I’m not a fan of the term itself as to me it suggests illness is a competition with some people doing ‘better’ at it than others. But the fact remains that depression can look very different for different people and I, and many others, don’t match the stereotypical depressed person. We don’t stay in bed all day or shut ourselves away completely. Mostly we still make it into work with a smile papered over our faces, we can be high achievers, functional members of society. From the outside you wouldn’t be able to tell anything was wrong. But our depression can be just as serious and invasive as those showing more outward symptoms.

My worst episode of depression so far happened during my first year of University. I was lower than I’d ever been without the tools in my toolbox to manage it. Inside it felt like someone was torturing my mind and each day physically hurt. But I only ever missed one day of lectures for my mental health. And that was the day I was actively suicidal.

I remember how my tutor lost interest entirely once he realised I could pass my exams whilst being this ill. Or how my counsellor had to do some serious bending of the truth to get me a mental health referral. I learned that the world expected me to act in a particular way and that none of my words could hold as much weight as how I was perceived, how many boxes I did or didn’t tick.

I am currently off work for depression. One of my departments has been going through a stressful 12 months. And with my bucketloads of empathy, and an unfortunate habit of taking on other people’s problems as my own, I have absorbed the stress like a sponge. My mental health has been fragile recently due to the pressure and frustrations of chronic illness. The stress combined with a particularly unpleasant situation with a suicidal client, caused my depression to worsen to a point where I needed to do something about it.

So I am at the end of two weeks being signed off work. And for a high functioning depressive, being signed off felt an awful lot like failure. Maybe it’s my pride that has taken a beating, discovering there is a limit to the situations I can push through. Perhaps I’m scared I’ll find myself at the top of a slippery slope and I’ll tumble my way into unfamiliar landscapes, without a map to find my way. I can already feel my perfectionism raging at me that I haven’t ‘fixed’ myself yet.

But buried deep amongst these conflicting emotions is a powerful turning point for me. For once I have chosen self-care over self-sabotage. I have stopped pushing through before I reached complete breakdown. And instead of suppressing and ignoring my feelings I have held out the powerful truth to myself that my needs are just as important as anyone else’s, that my emotions are valid and worth taking note of, that my mental health is worth prioritising. It may not sound like much but it could be a game changer.

You see self-care isn’t a luxury it’s absolutely essential for us to function. But how often do we let the things we enjoy fall out of our lives, in favour of more work or commitments? We fill our lives with so much activity that to stop and care for ourselves feels outrageously selfish. Do we really understand what it means to simply be instead of do? Are we able to sit a while and slowly unpack the complex web of emotions we’re carrying? Or does that feel like pandora’s box, best locked away and buried deep, only to be confronted when it bursts open?

Whilst self-care is especially important when you struggle with mental illness. It’s a discipline we all need to practice. And it’s a skill that is becoming increasingly hard to prioritise in our busy, fast paced, internet-filled lives. Our young people are increasingly coming through education without the skills needed to tackle life’s obstacles. We should not be surprised that the incidence of mental illness and suicide amongst are teens is on the rise.

I would love to say that in two weeks I have cracked this self-care thing. The reality is it’s a work in progress, one that requires time, patience and compassion. Some days it’s as simple as spending time doing something you enjoy, even if you may not be able to enjoy it quite as much as you would normally. Or it’s recognising that people need other people and spending time with those who remind you that you are loved and needed. It’s trying to treat yourself with the kindness, understanding and respect that you hold out to other people.

And it can feel selfish and self indulgent. You can easily fall into the trap of worrying what other people will think. Or make looking after yourself conditional on having achieved ‘enough’ in your day, as though your earning a reward.

For me one of the things I did to inject some joy back into my life was to go ahead with the annual gingerbread house making weekend that I do with one of my friends. Before it started depression felt like it was too much effort and whispered that I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. My bed started looking increasingly appealing. But of course once we began I lost myself in the enjoyment of it all, spending relaxed time with a friend, doing something creative. It was feeding my heart with golden moments to keep the darkness at bay.

I will leave you with some words by Jamie Tworkowski, that help me on my darker days:

There is still some time

If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
If this world is too painful, stop and rest.
It’s okay to stop and rest.
If you need a break, it’s okay to say you need a break.
This life – it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win.
It’s okay to slow down.
You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by.
This life is not about status or opinion or appearance.
You don’t have to fake it.
You do not have to fake it.
Other people feel this way too.
If your heart is broken, it’s okay to say your heart is broken.
If you feel stuck, it’s okay to say you feel stuck.
If you can’t let go, it’s okay to say you can’t let go.
You are not alone in these places.
Other people feel how you feel.
You are more than just your pain. You are more than wounds, more than drugs, more than death and silence.
There is still some time to be surprised.
There is still some time to ask for help.
There is still some time to start again.
There is still some time for love to find you.
It’s not too late.
You’re not alone.
It’s okay – whatever you need and however long it takes – it’s okay.
It’s okay.
If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
There is still some time.

I Don’t Want to Be ‘Brave’ for Talking About Depression

I write and talk openly and honestly about my struggles with depression and history with Anorexia. One comment I get all the time is how strong and brave I am for talking about these things. And whilst I appreciate any encouragement or compliment, I struggle with the sentiment.

You see I don’t think there should be anything brave about talking about mental illness. Would you call me brave for informing you I had the flu last weekend? Or courageous for telling you the story of a broken leg? The way I see it, my brain is just as likely to get sick as the rest of my body. Why is it normal to talk about one kind of illness but not another?

And yet mental illness can still be shrouded in so much fear and misunderstanding. We are afraid that people will look at us differently if we are honest about our struggles. That our judgment and character will be called into question, our decisions analysed and criticised. We worry that people simply won’t understand, fearing those well intentioned but hurtful comments, the unsought advice and suggestions. We can be concerned that being open will lead to doors being closed, lost jobs, narrowing of opportunities, our paths being dictated for us by others.

It’s possible some of these things could happen, we can’t control the reactions of others. But I wonder who’s truly winning by our silence. Depression thrives on secrecy, it wants you to feel alone and isolated. Because if you feel you are alone, with these thoughts and feelings, then you believe you are far beyond the reach of those who could help. And without their help you are left to fight the hardest of battles single handed.

I believe that our strength and bravery doesn’t come from talking about these battles but the fact that we have lived through them. No words can describe the terror that comes from realising your illness is taking control and you are completely out of your depth, in desperate need of help. Or the immeasurable courage it takes to walk into you first counselling or psychiatric appointment, waiting with your stomach sick from nerves, preparing to open up to a stranger. Or the strength it takes to practice self-care even when every cell of your body is screaming that you are not worth it. That is where the true bravery lies.

And the fact I talk about it doesn’t make me any braver than the countless numbers of people who are suffering in silence, quietly and privately.

But I don’t want to be silent. I know that every day I am on this planet is a day I would not have had if depression or anorexia had taken me like they would have liked to. Every new friendship is one I only get to cherish because I’ve won more battles than I’ve lost. I am who I am now because I have been shaped and refined by my experience with mental illness. It is a part of my story, although will never define me.

I believe in a world where my future sons or daughters will be able to speak freely about their struggles mentally and physically. I hope that they will be able to tell their friends and family that they are struggling. That fewer families will find out for the first time in the heartbreaking words of a suicide note. I want conversations about mental health to be so mundane and everyday they even become boring, as unremarkable as talking about the weather.

And this glittering utopia of openness may be impossible. But one thing I do know: we don’t get there by staying silent. That the only way to ease the stigma around these conversations is to keep having them. Maybe today it will take a bit of courage but perhaps your words will unlock someone else’s story who will then go on to share it with another. Who knows where we can end up if we take it one conversation at a time.

Beautiful Contradictions

I was away at a conference this week. As a chronically ill introvert this is always a bit of a challenge. Christian conferences often awake feelings of insecurity in me, I see the faith of those around me and judge myself to be lacking. As I was stood in a worship session I was struck by how much of my life and faith feels like holding onto a series of contradicting truths.

My God is a healer and yet I am still sick. I know I have been set free and yet fatigue can bind me as tight as any chain. God gives strength to those who wait on him but I wait and wait and am still exhausted. I know God’s joy and yet I am depressed.

I am aware that to the secular world my faith may not make sense. People may question the wisdom in following a God who does not always appear to be answering our prayers and allows us to struggle and suffer. Some would argue that shows God is either not really there or does not love us.

But we live our lives in the tension between what is evident in our lives right now, and what is eternally true. If we look only at our current reality it’s like looking at the negative of a photograph. We get some idea of the picture but miss all of the beauty and depth of perspective.

Jesus himself was to many a man of apparent contradictions. He was somehow both fully God and fully human. The mighty ruler who came to serve. Despite being sinless he became sin for us. An innocent man crushed under the weight of judgment. The son both loved and cherished by God, but also abandoned whilst dying on the cross. Jesus lived his whole life within the tension of the here and now and what was to come.

It can be easy to dismiss this tension we live with, telling ourselves we just need to have more faith or ignore what is going on within our own lives. But I think this place of tension is a powerful place to be. Being able to hold the truth of our current circumstances in the light of eternity is what makes us distinctive as Christians. We should be people who will step into the gaps of our fallen world and speak out the truths of God’s character even when the reality appears to contradict it. These gaps between where our lives are, and where they will be in eternity, reminds us we were made for a different world, where all will be made new.

There is beauty here, in this place where our human reasoning fails us. We can’t understand why our lives are the way they are, we experience the reality of pain whilst looking to the joy set before us. It’s as though we are viewing the wrong side of a tapestry, we see only the tangle of knotted threads, knowing one day we will see the masterpiece. All we can do is bring the broken and battered pieces of ourselves to the one who can weave them into something beautiful.

It’s only when we truly embrace the beautiful contradiction of our own lives that we’ll be able to sing ‘it is well with my soul’ even when all is not well around us.

Joy in the Waiting

The last two months have passed in a blur of activity. I have successfully moved into my first home of my own, which has been a massive answer to prayer in itself. I have also just taken on a new role at work. It feels like a time of new beginnings and I am so grateful that some of the things I’ve been waiting for have come to pass. But at the same time I am conscious of all the situations where I am still longing for change, brought into sharp focus by this new season.

I am still waiting to have the energy and the health to live my life the way I would love to. I want to be able to show off my lovely new house to my friends, but I know that will have to wait until the increased fatigue from the new job has faded. I want to be able to start finally working through my to do list instead of endlessly adding to it. I long to be able to properly invest in my writing, instead of letting so many words get lost within the brain fog. I am weary of the elaborate balancing act that life with chronic fatigue becomes. I am desperate to remember what having strength feels like.

I am also waiting for an end to this season of singleness. Sometimes even a beautiful new home can feel somewhat empty. And it’s easy to become envious of those who have another person to share the joys and the challenges with. Sometimes the longing for companionship can be overwhelming. And I wake up heart heavy after dreaming of the children I may or may not have.

We are all waiting for something. It might be for that job in which we can flourish, where our strengths can be harnessed and developed. It could be waiting for that breakthrough, where healing blossoms in our own lives or the lives of those we love. Or maybe we’re waiting for God to speak to us, after a long period of silence. Waiting is a universal human experience.

But the longer the wait the more it can shake the very foundation of our faith and what we believe about God. I would be lying if I said there weren’t days where I wonder how a God of love allows his children to walk such rocky roads. That sometimes the gifts he gives us don’t feel altogether good. Or that sometimes holding onto faith and hope for a brighter future takes every ounce of your resolve.

Yet I am also finding that there can be joy in the waiting.

I may not win every battle with illness but there are always small victories to be celebrated. For me I’ve been celebrating the small jobs I’ve achieved around the house, things like changing a window handle may only be small but can still bring joy in the sense of achievement. And it’s true that sometimes our seasons of pain, where we are at our most vulnerable, bring the most opportunities for connection. Our relationships can take on a raw authenticity as we strip away the facade and show our true selves. This deepening of existing relationships and creation of new ones is precious and brings us closer to the perfect community God designed us to be a part of.

And as I wait and dream of a family of my own I am finding so much joy in those who are inviting me to be a part of their own little families. I am privileged to be god mother or an adopted auntie to some beautiful children. It’s impossible to look into their faces and not be reminded that there is so much good in the world. And watching my friends be fantastic parents to these little ones is an absolute delight. I am learning that you don’t have to have children of your own to help nurture and care for them.

As I continue in this place of waiting for healing I am reminded that Paul encourages us to ‘rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’ (Romans 5:3-4). Now when he calls us to rejoice I don’t think he is expecting us to be jumping for joy; none of us want to suffer. But he is encouraging us to recognise the valuable lessons we learn in these periods of suffering and waiting. Those lessons may be painful and difficult to learn, but they are worth learning.

You don’t really learn how to trust God until you are clinging onto to truths of his character by your finger tips. You don’t know what it means for God to provide until each day you are dependent on his provision. And you can not really understand the sufficiency of his grace until you are at your weakest and most in need of his strength to shine through.

So even in this continued season of waiting I refuse to call this place a desert, as I firmly believe I can still bear fruit here. I am a strong believer that we can serve God exactly where we are, with the strength he has given us. It’s one thing we don’t have to wait for. He is with us and working through us even in our weaknesses and limitations. His purpose and plans cannot be thwarted.

The older you get the more you learn life is far more grey than black and white. It’s possible to experience joy even alongside depression. You can know freedom whilst still being bound by sickness. And sometimes both hope and despair dwell together in the darkness. The beauty of being alive is there will always be moments of joy to find, whatever season we find ourselves in.

Perhaps the inspirational quote has is right after all: ‘life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.’

Through a Glass Darkly

It has been months since I have sat down to write. Months where a lot has happened and more is about to happen. It’s safe to say that buying a house at the same time as preparing to start a new role at work, alongside changing medication is challenging to say the least. On the brink of so much change, and with a medication that is so far not agreeing with me, my mind has been feeling the strain. I have found myself continuing the slide into depression.

For me depression takes some of the colour out of my life. The world looks different, dimmer and less distinct. As though my eyes are clouded, forced to find the colours through the mist. I am also different, a paler less dynamic reflection of myself. As though the person I want to be is just outside of my grasp. My emotions are strangely muted, as though I’m not fully present within my own life. And it becomes bizarre how much you long for the release that tears could bring, but you have forgotten how to cry.

I have navigated these valleys many times over the years. I am familiar with the pathways and confusing patchwork of emotions. But this time something is different.

This time I am not afraid.

I know this road, I know it is difficult and painful. But I also know that it doesn’t last forever. Even the longest night must end with the sunrise. And I know that over the years I have become strong, strong enough to face any battles that may come my way. So I am not scared.

And without that fear I can see that there’s something unique about this place, where the light meets the dark. Where the shades of grey appear so distinct they become their own colour palette, as though you could paint your own work of art. Every nuance of pain is alive to you, as though you are connected to every hurting soul in every age. Here you hold both the heaviness of depression with the lightness of hope. Your mind aches with the pain of being alive but your heart still kindles that spark of hope, waiting to ignite and brighten your tomorrows. And the faces of your loved ones light up the road, reminding you that depression may be a part of your journey but is never a destination.

DSC_0698

Maybe it’s the freedom of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing the shepherd is still beside you. Or the mystery of living with the reality of sickness, whilst knowing that there are no chains that can truly bind you. Perhaps the shades of grey are throwing into stark contrast our eternal future free from grief and pain, a world to come, in brilliant technicolour.

As I was thinking about writing this I was reminded of a verse in Corinthians:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)

I’ve always been drawn to this verse in the King James Version, for me ‘we see through a glass, darkly’ so perfectly encapsulates what depression is like. But it also reminds us that everything in this world is a pale reflection of what it should be. All the pain, heartache and violence of this world are a distortion of the world God intended. We are not supposed to be satisfied with this world, but to be homesick for the world the other side of the glass. Whilst we strive to do God’s work here we have to remember that God can and will one day set all things right.

Pain is always an unwelcome visitor to our lives. But I think the older I get the more I realise it can bring with it valuable lessons. God is still sovereign and in complete control of my life. Emotions will come and go like waves on the shore, but His love is eternal. It’s okay to acknowledge that for now I am seeing through a glass darkly. But I won’t lose hope that I will see clearly once more.

Growing Pains

I’ve never been very good at rejection. There is something about someone telling us we don’t the grade, that can cut deep. And often our self esteem can be fragile, a precarious collection of thoughts and feelings that can quickly unravel, revealing core beliefs that are darker and more negative. It’s amazing how I wasn’t as good as someone at this particular thing, can become ‘I’m no good’. We are taught to have our identity on Christ, but sometimes the realities in the world around us feel more concrete and easier to grasp onto than, the love of a God that we can’t always feel. We can be like grass buffeted about in the wind, chasing after affirmation wherever we can find it.

This is an issue I’ve been wrestling with recently, as this last month has contained more than it’s fair share of rejection. I have put my heart into chasing after opportunities and ultimately have not be chosen. And that can be painful for all of us. Rejection reignites those nagging questions within us. Questions like “Am I good enough?”, “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?”

There is a certain level of vulnerability in putting ourselves out there, chasing after the things we want. And when we fall short it is easy to listen to the voice inside our heads telling us not to try that again. Our instinct is to take steps to avoid that pain another time. But what if this pain is the tool through which we grow?

There are very few lessons I have learnt, over the course of my life, that haven’t been painful at the time. The reality is we tend to learn very little when life is going smoothly and our lives are full of praise and encouragement. When we are content and happy there is limited incentive to grow and develop our character. But when life is painful and we come across challenges or hurdles to overcome, we are forced to grow. Staying still is no longer an option, we have to move forward. As Paul writes in Romans pain can be an invaluable tool, that should in fact be celebrated for the gifts it can give us.

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5

When we come across road blocks in our lives we have two choices. Either we give up and sit ourselves down, trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible on this part of the road we’re stuck on. Or we turn around and find a different route. The first options is definitely easier, it gives us time and space to lick our wounds and dwell on our failures. But the second option is the only one that will allow us to grow.

You know the only sure fire way to get better at handling rejection? Practice. We have to continue to put ourselves out there, to try again and take more risks. And with any risk there is always the real possibility of failure. We will get things wrong, well fall short of our goals and won’t always make the grade. But if we persevere and continue to use each setback as an opportunity to grow, then we can be sure we’re growing more and more into who we were created to be.

And now with some distance from this last month I am grateful for the lessons that rejection has taught me. It may not have worked out this time but I am proud that I put myself out there and I am committed to continue to do so. Sure there will be growing pains, but I’m confident the growth will be worth it.

DSC_0796