Not Enough Spoons

I am exhausted. Not the kind of tired you get after working too hard, fixed by a good holiday. Nor the kind of shattered you get as a parent running round after small children, fixed goodness knows when. Or the kind of fatigue you get after running a race, longing for a chair to collapse into.

It’s more like the kind of exhausted you get after a bad virus, where your limbs are heavy and getting off the sofa feels like exertion. Where you wake up exhausted and go to bed even more so. But even then that only works if you’ve been getting over a virus for the last six years. That in essence what life is like for me living with ME otherwise known as Chronic fatigue syndrome. But this persistent fatigue is likely one we share with our cousins with various chronic illnesses.

And so may I introduce you to ‘spoon theory’. This is a theory used by the chronic illness community to explain what life can be like with chronic conditions. The idea is you only have a set amount of spoons each day, a number which may be less than normal if you’ve slept badly or missed medication. Every activity in your day takes a certain amount of spoons, whether it be getting out of bed, getting dressed, going to the shops, going to work. Once you’ve used up your spoons they are gone, you don’t get any more. The question becomes how do you best use your spoons?

Collection of silver table spoons

It may sound like silly illustration, it’s hard to care a lot about cutlery. But it’s a metaphor that illustrates the kind of complex calculations you have to do when you’re living with chronic physical or mental illness, and have limited energy and capacity. No decision is straightforward or without repercussions.

This last fortnight I have been in a bad flare of fatigue, I am completely exhausted with less spoons than usual. Whatever the trigger for this particular episode it’s brought into sharper contrast because recently my ME has been relegated to the background by an eating disorder.

Over last year eighteen months or so the eating disorder has been holding all the spoons and lying about how many we’ve got. She was always on hand to assert that we had enough spoons for that long daily walk, no excuses accepted. Day by day becoming less in tune with my body, ignoring what didn’t fit with the narrative. She’s been playing fast and loose with the calculations, running up debts that we can’t afford and she never intended to pay. From the outside it looked like my spoons had multiplied, in reality they were dwindling by the day.

The problem is that despite how destructive an eating disorder is it did allow me to maintain a life closer to my perception of normality. I liked my long daily walks and the freedom they gave me. You have to understand the unrelenting grind of chronic fatigue to see why giving into the eating disorder became so appealing. It’s so all consuming there’s barely time to register you’re tired. And in place of your spoon calculations there is simply a set of non negotiable activities.

The thing is I desperately want some more spoons. There is no cure for ME and most treatment centres around managing the spoons you have. There is no magic spoon fairy to swoop down and give you some more. It’s an illness that is poorly understood or accepted by the medical community. Previously it’s not been the kind of chronic illness anyone cares about. That is until long Covid came on the scene and post viral chronic fatigue started making the headlines. It was cathartic watching the medical community, many of whom have denied the existence of chronic fatigue, have to bow to the overwhelming evidence. But still I doubt that this interest and thirst for research will benefit those of us who have been putting the chronic in chronic fatigue for years.

I feel like all the time I have to say how lucky I am to not have it worse. That I get to get out of bed and hold down a job. I know that’s a privilege many with my illness don’t get. But honestly some days I don’t feel lucky. I just feel done. Done with juggling spoons, those careful calculations. I just want to wake up in the morning with energy. For just a few hours where the first adjective I use to describe myself isn’t ‘tired’.

But there is always much to be grateful for. I am blessed to be able to spend time with family and friends, for those who find fatigue friendly activities we can do together. I am thankful for an understanding workplace that means I can keep doing a job I love. I am grateful to have a safe home filled with lovely things and a sofa to sink into on the days when fatigue is heavy. And for a furry friend who’s a big fan of naps herself.

Calico cat asleep with paw over face

Life rarely deals us the cards we would like. It’s okay to feel frustrated about that, to grieve for how life could have been. We don’t have to deny our feelings and pretend to be thrilled with whatever difficult situation we’ve been confronted with. But sooner or later we have to dust ourselves off and muster our courage to make the most of the life we have now. Which is why I will go back to managing my spoons, appreciating the things I am able to do. And whilst there may not be a magic spoon fairy there is a God who loves me, who could one day shower me with spoons.

Glad You’re Here

It was my 30th birthday last week. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with birthdays. I look forward to them when they’re a safe distance away and make plans to celebrate. But then the closer it comes the more I panic, the stronger the urge to cancel all my plans and spend the day with the duvet over my head. I remember how much I hate to be the centre of attention.

Thirty also feels like an intimidating milestone. I hoped to achieve more by this point, to have settled down with a family of my own. But I am still decidedly single and childless. And it’s hard to reflect back on a year that has held so many difficult and painful days. No matter how many times I am wished ‘happy’ on my birthday it’s unlikely to change the reality of mental illness.

However in spite of all my reservations and anxieties I had a lovely birthday. I cherished being able to spend time with friends. I was blessed with beautiful cards, messages and presents. I felt loved and valued.

Strings of bunting across a street

We are so used to celebrating birthdays that we forget what we’re celebrating. They can so easily become about being a particular age, an excuse to throw a party and receive gifts. But we’re actually celebrating the day of someone’s birth. We’re saying we’re glad you were born. We’re celebrating that life and the impact it’s had on our own. Ultimately we’re saying we’re glad you’re here.

It’s only looking back that I realise that message is one I desperately needed to hear. You see over the last twelve months there have been many days where I haven’t wanted to be here. Where life has felt like a burden too heavy for me to carry. Nights of trying to convince myself the world would be better off without me.

Depression hinders the part of your brain that helps you to experience feelings of connection. You can know that you are loved and people care, but you can’t feel it. It’s as though the threads that tie you to life have been cut one by one, until you feel alone in the dark. You are untethered, waiting to either cling onto something or let yourself drift away.

I have sat late at night and scribbled down the names of all the people who might miss me if I was gone. No matter how tenuous the links. I have wondered what people would say about me if I was not around to listen. Attempted to use these epitaphs as motivation to keep going. Choosing each day to stay for the people who love me.

I think I needed a birthday. Every card, message or gift a reminder that I am connected to other people, that I am loved. Lighting little beacons in the darkness, small sparks of hope. I needed the reminder from colleagues that I am a valued part of the team and not the failure I so often feel like. I needed the reminder from friends that I am more than my struggles, that they appreciate our friendship. I needed the reminder that life is worth celebrating.

It’s easy to leave it till too late to let the people we love know how special they are to us. Funerals can be full of words that were never said. Tragedies the trigger to impart value onto a life. We assume our unspoken sentiments are already known. That the other sees themselves the way we see them, feels our love. They know how glad we are that they’re around.

We don’t know who may need to hear today that we’re glad you’re here. That we’re grateful for all the work that goes into staying present in our lives, the battles they fight that we may never even know about. That we honour not just that day decades ago when they were born but every day since then. Each small step forward, living life true to themselves, embracing the unique irreplaceable parts of who they are.

Birthday or not if you’re reading this today I want you to know that you are loved and valued for who you are. The world needs you to keep showing up and being yourself. Whether this day finds you happy or sad, hurting or healed, broken or whole: you matter very much. And I’m glad you’re here.

Bruised Faith

My heart is heavy right now. Mental health recovery is an absolute roller coaster and it’s really knocking me for six currently. I would love to get off long enough to get some decent rest but I seem to be strapped in for the long haul.

I work for a Christian organisation and a couple of times a year we have conferences, with one this week. Attending these conferences is normally the closest I come to panic attacks. I thought it was just all the crowds and the noise, busy and overwhelming. But as I sat streaming it from home I felt the same anxiety rising and realised it was more than that.

I think I end up feeling suffocated by the perceived weight of expectation for my faith to look a particular way, to be out worked the same way as those around me. The motivational talks that should spur me into action leave me feeling shamed and condemned. Whilst that’s never the intention it can feel like I’m handed a list of things I’m supposed to be or do. I feel like I should be able to find in myself the charismatic, joyful, enthusiastic, evangelistic Christian that I see around me and am inspired by. But most days all I can think about is survival.

When I’m depressed I don’t know how to be a cheerful Christian. Joy is an abstract concept rather than a feeling within my own heart. I can’t pioneer a ministry when even eating lunch feels like failure. When just getting through each day takes all my energy. I am no advertisement for Christianity when my life looks like a catalogue of brokenness. I have no ‘before and after’ testimony, a life transformed when I first found God. I have only a ‘clinging on by my fingertips’ testimony, every painful and difficult experience happening in spite of my faith or maybe because of it, who even knows.

And as the tears filled my eyes in the final worship song I realised that the last two years have taken a significant toll on my faith. The nights of crying out to Him and hearing nothing, stumbling around in the dark unable to find a light switch. Living with the reality of an all powerful God who could take the suffering away in an instant but for whatever reason doesn’t. Unable to feel His closeness, some days wondering if He’s even there. Daily getting to the end of my rope and desperately tying a knot and trying to hang on.

My faith is battered and bruised as though we’ve done ten rounds with Mike Tyson. And maybe we have. My heart has been constantly under siege, trying to survive as best it can.

Some days my heart is cold as ice, adrift in the vacuum of those long dark nights. It is isolated and disconnected, the life and colour sucked out of it. Beyond the reach of the sun’s warmth. Empty and silent. It’s last defence to seal itself shut against the missiles aimed at it.

Other days my heart is hot and pulsating with pain, each beat screaming for relief. It’s bleeding from wounds I don’t know how to heal and try in vain to stitch together with sticky tape. It’s all noise and ferocious chaotic life. Feeling each emotion with such depth it’s excruciating.

I don’t know which is worse. But I do know it’s going to take a lot of time and healing for my heart to find some equilibrium once more. And my bruised faith may need it’s own recuperation period. It’s going to need compassion, patience and a whole heap of grace.

I can see how I react to these feelings is key. I can criticise myself for feeling this way and pile on condemnation. I can tell myself I’m beyond redemption, that I’ve fallen too far even for grace. But then there can be no path to healing. I would have already given up.

But if I give these feelings the space they need, allowing them to be as they are. If I accept them as houseguests that may be unwanted but still have to be treated kindly. Binding their wounds and nurturing them back to health. If I lay them each day in the arms of my Father, trusting that He will bring restoration in His timing. Then I hope healing will come, little by little.

Deep bruises have to surface before they can heal. Their darkening and growing a necessary stage before the fading can begin. They speak of the fights we’ve been in, the barriers we’ve come up against. As painful as they can be they aren’t permanent.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to sit through sermons or worship without feeling a knot of pain in my stomach. But I know I’ll keep trying anyway. I don’t know when my heart will be able to feel the warmth of God’s love again. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I don’t know how long till the dawn breaks and scatters the darkness. But I believe it will come.

As I was thinking this passage from 2 Corinthians came to mind:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

2 Corinthians 4: 7-10

I have never felt more like a jar of clay, fragile and breakable, unsure if the pressures of life will fracture me into pieces. I may at times feel hard pressed, confused and struck down. But I do believe I carry something within me that cannot be crushed or destroyed, that the treasure of God’s presence and power can be revealed through the cracks. I don’t know what’s happening right now but I still believe God has a plan. Faith after all is still faith, bruised or not.

Fragile Hope

Last weekend was one of the highlights of the year so far. I was able to get away for a lovely weekend staying with friends. You forget how nice it is to just be around loved ones after so long apart. Few things warm my heart quite like bedtime stories with my goddaughter or getting to know her little brother, born in lockdown. We are made for community and relationships, to be held within friendships that feel like family. To have safe spaces where we can be accepted for who we are, with all our scars and sharp edges. It’s within these relationships that healing can take place.

The last few weeks I have begun to feel cautiously hopeful. As though a little chink of light has started to break through the darkness. For the first time in eighteen months I am starting to believe that life might be worth the battle, that the future could bring good things rather than just pain and struggle. I can picture a day where I will be glad that I fought for recovery, where I will have a real taste of freedom and wholeness. The future still feels scary and intimidating but now I can see myself in it. For the first time in so long most of me wants to stay.

But this hope feels fragile, like a butterfly that I can crush if I hold onto it too tightly. It’s a whisper so soft that you can easily mistake for the breeze. It’s like sand that can easily slip through your fingers.

White butterfly resting on purple flowers

It’s the kind of fragile hope that hinges on so many things. Like being able to be together with loved ones, getting to be a part of all the little lives I’m invested in, bedtime stories and baking afternoons. It’s dependent on this vile virus no longer subjecting us to lonely lockdowns. It’s dependent on therapy working and making progress with the dietitian. And on the eating disorder, depression and anxiety shutting up for long enough for me to work out what even makes me happy.

It requires me to rediscover the things I want to be alive for. To find a way to accept what’s happened, the relapse and the self destruction, the ten years on the recovery clock set back to zero. It’s dependent on me not messing up at work or exhausting the grace of my ever patient colleagues. To be able to cope with the world opening up once more, working in a noisy, busy office.

It’s fragile and any one of these things could crush it. But it’s a glimmer, an ember that maybe I can fan into flames.

Right now my faith feels fragile too. I know I’m probably supposed to look back on the dark days and see how God carried me. Maybe one day I will, but right now I don’t feel carried. Sure I can see little ways He intervened but I am still hurt that He left me in what has felt like excruciating emotional pain for so long.

I don’t believe in a God who can’t intervene. I don’t think His hands are tied because the world is fallen and people have free will. I believe He is sovereign over all. And whilst I don’t believe suffering comes from Him, I do believe like in the story of Job that it can’t enter my life without His permission. He could have taken all this away in an instant. But He didn’t. And that’s hard to come to terms with. I know it’s foolish to expect to get an answer to the question of ‘why’ but I’m not ready to let Him off the hook yet. Something inside me still needs to keep wrestling with Him.

And I suppose all things are fragile, in one way or another. Our lives are made up of countless threads connecting us to our world and one another, each delicate and able to snap at any moment. None of us know the length of our lives or even what tomorrow will hold. It’s a fragility that is brought home to me especially today on the anniversary of a friend’s death. I still don’t understand why he only got 21 years, torn from life so abruptly we will forever be holding the threads.

Neither Depression or Anorexia are willing to relinquish their grip on me easily. This week I have felt some of their suffocating heaviness again, entangled with cords that want to keep me broken and grounded. I am still in a battle for my life and there’s no room for complacency. Hopeful or not I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, little by little moving closer to where I want to be.

I write this both heavy hearted and cautiously hopeful. Fragility mixed with strength. I am exhausted but still moving forward. Finding courage blooming amongst the fear. I am both hurt and healing. My heart is broken but still beating. Carrying faith flavoured with doubt. I am not where I need to be, but for the first time in months I believe that maybe I can get there. I will cradle my fragile hope, let it strengthen and grow, trusting that one day we will take flight together.

A is for Anxiety

I never used to think of myself as anxious. Sure as a child butterflies in my stomach could be an everyday thing. Parties were the source of much apprehension and nervousness, every step felt like I was embarrassing myself. I was the kid in school who dreaded breaks and lunchtimes, more comfortable with my teachers than my peers.

But as I grew up I learnt to avoid the situations that would make me anxious. Swapping clubbing and nightlife for dinner parties and coffee shops. When I couldn’t avoid social anxiety I had distraction tactics, gravitating to children or animals or failing that helping clear up. There used to be only a limited number of situations where my anxiety became apparent to the outside world, work conferences were particularly my nemesis. But you can cope with tears and panic a couple of times a year, it was easy to persuade myself it wasn’t an issue.

All this changed in 2018 when a stressful incident at work led to anxiety spilling over into every day life. I changed jobs and things became calmer but the anxiety didn’t dissipate entirely. And then the pandemic hit. Anxiety became a constant stream trickling under the surface. Every news article screamed death and catastrophe, it was so easy to be taken in.

I was scared of getting sick but much more scared of the isolation. My home went from being a safe place to a prison. For the first twelve weeks it was against the rules for me to see anyone in real life. Already struggling with the relapse of an eating disorder this was not just difficult but downright dangerous. The world felt like it was careening off its axis, all the things I knew would help my mental health I couldn’t do. I felt completely out of control.

At it’s core anxiety leads us to feel unsafe. It’s the body’s reaction when it perceives a threat, pumping us full of adrenaline poised to fight, flee or freeze. Perfect for coming up against a wolf or bear but no use against a global pandemic. The prolonged stress led to me being stuck in ‘freeze mode’, constantly feeling threatened, paralysed in a state of crisis that at times felt unbearable. Living with a perpetual lion in the room.

When we feel unsafe we look for safety in other places. Routines and habits that used to be flexible become set in stone. Maybe we find refuge in a relationship or friendship. We might throw ourselves into hobbies and interests with a sense of desperation. Or we can take to our beds literally pulling the covers over our heads.

Over the last fifteen months I’ve found safety in a number of different places. I used to find it in the arms of my eating disorder, controlling what I ate, inventing every increasing rules to live within. I felt safe with my body being a particular size and shape, channeling my fears into smallness and emptiness. Then there was exercise, feeling safe if I’d done the right amount of steps in a day. For a while I found safety within my counselling sessions before that came to an end.

To cope I have endeavoured to pull down the shutters and keep the world at bay. I stopped reading the news, only watching programmes without any kind of emotional intensity, stopping reading fiction for fear of what their pages could hold.

More recently I have found safety within the rules and restrictions around the pandemic. I have been lucky enough to have been able to go into the office to work for most of the last twelve months. It’s a place where I feel safe, held within the guidelines to protect us. I feel safe when everyone follows the rules and I can control my own environment. If I feel anxious I can reach for a bottle of hand sanitiser or disinfectant wipes. My little corner of the office has been a haven from the storms raging in my personal life.

But soon there will be no rules and regulations to find safety within. And there can be no eating disorder rules to fall back on. Unsurprisingly over the last week or so my anxiety has been spilling over again. Filling my body with unnecessary adrenaline, giving that constant edgy, tight chested feeling as though you’ve had too much caffeine.

It seems I have a lot of fears. I’m afraid of loosing the sanctuary of the office, knowing full well what working from home life did to me. I’m afraid of another wave of the virus, afraid of getting sick or being forced into isolation. I’m afraid of loosing the mental health support I’m receiving when the avalanche of need hits already stretched services.

Perhaps my biggest fear is of being alone. I have always been an introvert, restoring my energy reserves from time by myself. I used to be perfectly content spending several days in a row just at home pottering about, entertaining myself. But now the prospect of a whole day on my own fills me with dread. It takes me back to those first lonely weeks of lockdown number one. I have to leave the house. I have to make plans to keep my mind and body busy. I have forgotten how to rest and have been running on empty for most of the last year, getting steadily more exhausted with each passing day.

I find security in feeling in control of my own life. When I loose that control anxiety steps in to fill the gap. Fears fuelling the fire, ushering rational thinking out the door. Last Saturday I managed to convince myself that my peacefully sleeping cat was in fact dying of heart failure, anxiety nagging at me until it was all I could think about. It seems silly now but at the time it was so real.

Often anxiety doesn’t make much sense and it’s easy to get frustrated and let it consume you. You can fight against it all you like but it’s not something you can rationalise your way out of. And the more you focus on it the more it grows.

One thing mindfulness and therapy has been teaching me is that sometimes you have to make space for emotions you don’t like. Rather than try to suppress or deny them you have to allow them to be. You have to notice and accept that they’re there and give them the space to exist alongside your other thoughts and feelings. By observing rather than engaging with the feeling you give it the opportunity to dissipate. It won’t stop a feeling like anxiety resurfacing again, but it makes the experience of it less intense and more manageable.

It’s easy to be critical and harsh towards ourselves when we’re struggling. But it’s these times when we most need to try to extend some compassion to ourselves, something which I still find very difficult. To look beyond our struggles and see the strength with which we bear them. To acknowledge that we are beautifully intricate tapestries made up of so many threads. Maybe anxiety is one of them but if we wait and trust who knows what picture that thread can be woven into. Our lives are stories still being written, each day a new invitation to pick up the pen. I don’t know what tomorrow may hold but I know there’s strength enough for whatever we may face. There will be safety and refuge from the storm in the arms of our heavenly Father. We will not be overcome.

Rainbow over a tree in a field

Emerging

This week in the UK there’s been a further easing of coronavirus restrictions. We’re finally able to socialise indoors for the first time in goodness knows how long. Much has changed and is changing, there’s plenty to adjust to, old rules to unlearn, new situations to cautiously enter into. The landscape is altering day by day and we’re expected to move with it, to find safe paths to navigate through, to take steps forward rather than backwards.

It feels like we’re being asked to emerge from lockdown and the pandemic that has dominated the last fourteen months. Some people are embracing it, sprinting into new freedoms as though someone has fired the starting pistol. Others are more cautious, calculating what feels safe, wondering if these relaxations will last, unsure what they are supposed to do.

I’ve heard sermon analogies describe this time as like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon. It’s true that we have endured a season of intense change. Many of us may have felt like our old selves have been dissolved in the turmoil of the pandemic, like those caterpillars. But I’d be lying if I said I felt anything like a butterfly. I don’t imagine many of us have developed dazzling new wings through this pandemic.

It’s true I am not the same person I was last March. Maybe in time that will feel like a good thing. Perhaps I have grown and learnt in ways that I can’t see yet. It could be that one day I will look back and see purpose in these long hard months. But right now I just feel broken.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is finding emerging from this pandemic difficult. The rules and restrictions were isolating and exhausting but over time you found safety within them. It’s been a year where we’ve been taught to fear. We fear the cough of a stranger walking past us, the incorrectly fitted mask in the supermarket, that friend standing a little too close. In such a climate anxiety has taken root and grown, thriving off the worry and constant cycles of bad news.

This year many of us have grown accustomed to loneliness, to the ache of being separated from people we love. Some of us have walked this year largely alone, at times forgotten or not considered by a government so busy fire fighting. It is wonderful to be able to embrace our loved ones again but that will not erase the pain we have carried for so long. And knowing what isolation feels like, now we fear it, anxious about future lockdowns, holding onto friends a little longer than we would before.

We all have so much to process. Processing that is impossible when you are in the middle of a crisis and can only now begin as the storm passes. Many of us are grieving, for loved ones who can’t emerge with us, for businesses destroyed and financial landscapes changed for ever, for moments lost and time we can never get back.

The price of the pandemic has been high for many of us, not just in lives lost but in deteriorating mental and physical health. Few of us will have been left unmarked by these unprecedented times. Many of us have been battered and bruised, having to fight to keep going in such a chaotic and strange new world. Maybe we feel defeated, unsure whether emerging is even worth it anymore, disillusioned with a life that has brought more than it’s fair share of pain.

In this season of transition it’s so important we give people the grace to emerge at their own pace. Not everyone is ready to throw themselves into this new version of ‘normality’. Many of us will need the space to heal, to bind up our wounds and come to terms with all that has happened.

It’s okay if today you’re anxious rather than excited about the future. It’s okay if there are situations you don’t feel equipped to handle right now, skills that need to be relearnt. It’s okay if you’re still trying to find your footing on this ever changing ground. These things take time.

One song has been an anthem for me in these last few anxious months. It’s called ‘Hold on to me‘ by Lauren Daigle, the lyrics are as follows:

When the best of me is barely breathin’
When I’m not somebody I believe in
Hold on to me

When I miss the light the night has stolen
When I’m slammin’ all the doors You’ve opened
Hold on to me


Hold on to me when it’s too dark to see You
When I am sure I have reached the end
Hold on to me when I forget I need You
When I let go, hold me again

When I don’t feel like I’m worth defending
When I’m tired of all my pretending
Hold on to me

When I start to break in desperation
Underneath the weight of expectation
Hold on to me

Wherever you find yourself today, I hope you can take a breath and acknowledge just how much you’ve fought through this last year. You’ve weathered storms that none of us could have predicted, persevered through isolation and confusion, kept showing up for each new day even when the future looked dark and bleak.

By all means emerge from lockdown slowly and cautiously. But emerge knowing you are strong and courageous, deserving of love, hope and healing. Step into the light knowing the darkness did not defeat you. With God’s help it never will.

Bird flying away from a branch

Thoughts from the Edge

Last week was Mental Health Awareness week. Rightly or wrongly I have been frustrated by this year’s theme of ‘nature’. I understand the importance of time outdoors for your mental health. Walks are often the only time my anxiety calms and I feel something close to peaceful. I’ve come to know every inch of my local park during lockdown, venturing out in all weather conditions. I love the feel of the wind in my hair, the carpet of bluebells and the smell of wild garlic that spring brings.

But no matter how powerful nature is it doesn’t go any way to breaking the stigma around mental illness. It won’t help someone who is desperate and struggling feel any less alone. It won’t highlight the chronically underfunded services that are abandoning so many who are brave enough to ask for help. It won’t help start conversations that can be literally life saving.

Why do I care so much? Because this last year I have lived my life on the edge. As someone with high functioning depression and an eating disorder I have been straddling two worlds. One foot in the world of the healthy, holding down a job, trying to be there for friends, securing my mask in place each morning to face the day. And another foot in the world of serious mental illness, battling to make it through each night, a constantly changing rotation of professionals supposed to help, crying on my kitchen floor, scared and alone.

I’ve been living my life on the edge of what most would consider normal. An expert at pretending, trying to hide the uglier signs and symptoms. I don’t fit into either world. Appearing too functional to be mentally ill, too damaged to be ‘well’.

Living on the edge you learn a lot. You learn that a smile is the best camouflage. If you can keep one on your face you can blend in. Most people won’t dig too deep or ask too many questions. Because if you’re smiling you’re happy right? If you’re depressed shouldn’t you look sad? A smile says you’re coping. A smile says you’ve got this. A smile says all is well.

I’ve learnt that mental illness can make you voiceless. You can be at the mercy of health professionals who can make decisions about you without even talking to you. You become a ‘service user’, a statistic in an overstretched and breaking system. Few have time to put themselves in your shoes and imagine what these interactions must feel like. This week I had to do an intimate and sensitive mental health assessment with a new doctor, with little empathy or understanding. Sat in a massive room with two other professionals silent and watching, there for no good reason I could discern. They were out of my line of sight, listening to my life story and noting down goodness knows what. I left the room my cheeks burning with what I would come to realise was humiliation. You come out of those appointments feeling small and stupid, an inconvenient problem that no one wants to solve.

I’ve learnt that living with mental illness takes grit and determination. Every moment of every day you are fighting yourself. Wrestling with thoughts and feelings to find the truth. Battling darkness that feels like it will overcome you. Pushing forward into recovery for the sake of those who love you. Always exhausted and afraid. Somehow finding the strength to advocate for yourself because no on else can.

I’ve learnt that faith does not keep the darkness at bay. Some days it gives you the drive to keep going, scraping the bottom of a barrel that never quite runs out. Other days it leaves you confused and hurt. Believing that God could take the pain away but chooses not to. Trying somehow to reconcile your circumstances with a father who loves you. Whilst most days feeling unlovable.

I’ve learnt that we need other people. We were made for community not isolation. Whether that be a loved one on the end of the phone, a windswept walk with a friend or the colleagues we work alongside, we can’t do life alone. The pandemic has endeavoured to trap us within our houses, separated and alone. But this year more than any other has taught me how dangerous disconnection can be. We must fight to reconnect, to emerge and do life together again. So much depends on it.

I’ve learnt that no matter how intense and unbearable emotions can feel, they can’t break you. Things that feel impossible rarely are. Feelings will crash like waves on the seashore, but if you give them time they will pass. No emotion good or bad can last forever. There will always be gaps where the light comes through, even briefly.

Wave moving towards the shore

Most importantly I’ve learnt that hope is not a feeling but a truth. It’s the truth that we’re loved not just by friends and family but also by our heavenly father. The truth that the end of our story isn’t written yet, we can always pick up the pen and turn over the page. We are not defined by our pain, our scars, our deeds or our suffering. We are, and can be, so much more.

Feeling hopeless doesn’t mean hope is lost. We may have a crowd of different voices in our heads, shouting for attention. But hope is still there whispering in the darkness, speaking of the dawn, telling us not to give up. One day these months living on the edge will be a memory. A time will come when your broken heart is healed and whole. No matter how long and dark the night has been the morning will come. It has to.

Standing Firm

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Finding words for the chaotic mess of emotions and thoughts swirling round my head has been difficult. There’s been times when I’ve tried and the sentences have felt hollow and empty, so far from capturing the meaning behind them. Pain can be an ocean, vast and treacherous. The calm ripples on the surface tell nothing of the creatures and monsters dwelling within.

A few weeks ago I was thinking on Ephesians 6:13:

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

At the time I was reflecting on how this verse is a call to endure. That we are simply being asked to come through suffering and trials still standing. We’re not expected to slay the enemy or take massive strides forward but to hold our ground and remain on our feet. Reading it then it didn’t sound like too much to ask, a reassuringly low expectation.

But in the weeks that followed these thoughts there came multiple situations that brought me to my knees. And looking back this last year has been full of them. Moments where the rug has been pulled out from under me and I have tripped, clutching at the hands of loved ones. Times where battling ill health has felt like free-falling onto the mercy of health professionals. Every day my legs threaten to give way under the weight of exhaustion, pain and expectation.

When life throws its worst at us there is nothing easy about standing firm. To stay standing through grief and loss, sickness and despair, poverty and hardship. Sometimes it’s a big ask and requires all of our strength, energy and trust. The history books are full of believers who when push came to shove and the suffering hit, couldn’t stand firm. It’s easy to judge them when we haven’t walked in their shoes.

The journey of recovery from mental illness can be a disorientating roller coaster. You live your life at the limit of endurance. You are constantly at war with yourself, hope against despair, healing against destruction, wellbeing against disorder. To get through the week I rely a lot on the rational part of my brain to do the heavy lifting. But some days she just shrugs her shoulders, resigned and out of ideas. Sometimes I have to remind myself the sun is shining because I see the world in greys and the warmth struggles to penetrate my skin.

Moorland with a grey filter

When you are caught within suffering and hardship it feels permanent. It’s like looking out of the window in a rainstorm. You can see the rain coming down, the sky dark, the landscape drowned and bleak. Maybe the forecast is telling you that tomorrow will be sunny and dry, but you can’t picture it. It seems hard to believe that the ground will dry, the clouds will part and the sun shine again. It seems so alien.

But it won’t rain forever and in the same way pain and suffering is not permanent. And we weren’t designed to endure it alone.

The truth is we were never meant to stand firm in our own strength. That passage in Ephesians goes onto describe all the armour of God we have at our disposal. At times like these it’s so easy to feel distant from God. Suffering can be a fertile soil for doubt, we can imagine ourselves disconnected and abandoned. There have been many times over the last year where I have questioned where God is, crying out to him and hearing no answer, waiting for a breakthrough that doesn’t come. But God’s character does not change with our circumstances. Our perception of Him may shift but He has not changed.

In spite of all that has happened I still believe that when we stumble and fall we are held within God’s love. It may not feel that way at the time, but I trust that one day we will look back and see how his arms caught us and carried us through the darkest nights. I may not see Him yet but I won’t stop looking. When life forces me to my knees I will kneel at His feet, waiting, trusting and listening for hope.

Waiting for the Dawn

I was supposed to write this on Good Friday or Saturday. On the days where melancholy and lament are acceptable reflections. Delayed as I am I almost abandoned it altogether. An Easter Sunday post should be one of celebration, joy and new life. It’s true that after church today my heart feels lighter, but there’s still a heaviness within me that doesn’t change with the calendar. It may be Sunday but my heart lingers in Good Friday or Saturday. I wonder if I’m the only one.

It’s hard to ignore the pain of the Easter story, for Jesus and all who loved him. He was betrayed by a friend, arrested, ridiculed and abused. He stood trial alone and abandoned by all He loved. He suffered and died the worst death imaginable. And felt the complete separation from God that should have been ours, weighed down by all our failures.

Good Friday would have been traumatic for the disciples too. They had watched their friend taken away by an armed mob. From a distance they would have watched his humiliation, shocked and appalled. And at least some of them stood at the foot of the cross, watching the traumatic death of someone they thought was going to set them free from the Roman occupation. A man they loved and had given up everything to follow.

But it’s Easter Saturday which speaks to me this year. The adrenaline would have left the disciples system, the shock starting to drain away. The reality of the loss and the trauma would have settled heavy on their hearts. They were in pain and confused, feeling as though they had been abandoned. Their world had been turned upside down and they were left holding the threads of a future that had been seemingly ripped from their grasp. These experiences would have left behind scars, reminders of what they had witnessed which may never have faded completely.

There is much about this last year that has felt like Easter Saturday. The initial shock and adrenaline of the pandemic faded leaving behind loss and confusion. We have been left processing what has at times felt like a collective trauma. Separated from people we love and desperately want to see again. It has felt like life as we know it has been ripped away and we’re struggling to see God’s purpose in it. It’s been easy to feel isolated and abandoned, wrestling with doubts and burdened with pain.

Thinking about the Easter story again it strikes me that God could have raised Jesus from the dead straight away. Instead He waited until the third day, leaving this period of grief and mourning. Why? What was the purpose of the waiting?

I can only speculate but I wonder if it was to teach us that in this fallen world not everything will be given to us immediately. That our prayers may not be answered in our timescales. That pain and suffering is a reality that we have to live with. We will all have ‘Easter Saturday’ seasons where we are hurting and confused, waiting and hoping for a resolution we can’t yet see.

I think it’s important that the gospel allows us to see the disciples’ suffering through the lens of the resurrection. We know the story has a happy ending but they did not. And that’s often the case in our own lives. As we suffer we have no idea of the purpose in it or how long it will last. Our mourning may feel endless even when in reality we may just be in the darkness right before the dawn. The Easter story allows us to trust that there is a different perspective to our own pain. To hope that even when we are weighed down by suffering that Sunday is coming.

The mourning and pain of Easter Saturday was short-lived for the disciples. Sunday came and with it rejoicing and celebration. Jesus rose from the dead and defeated death. He made a way for us to be at peace with God. The Easter story is one of selfless love and sacrifice but also of triumph and victory.

Cross made out of flowers

But maybe like me your heart is still lingering in grief, pain and confusion. It’s okay if you’re celebrating today with a heavy heart. It’s okay if you’re still waiting for the sun to dawn on your Easter Sunday. You may be weighed down by a cross you’re struggling to bear even with God’s help. Your smile forced because you’re still haunted by the trauma of the ‘Good Fridays’ of your life. Maybe like the disciples on that first Easter you’re still hurting and afraid.

The joy of the resurrection may feel beyond you today but the truth of it isn’t. That Jesus suffered and died for us so that even the messiest and most painful of situations can be redeemed and restored. That He is with us even as we’re hurting and grieving, suffering and crying. We are never forgotten or abandoned no matter how alone we feel. There is no path we can walk that He doesn’t walk beside us. Even in the valley of the shadow of death.

I wish a few words could bring the dawn for all of us facing darkness today. That I could bring the sun to obliterate all the pain and sorrow of the night into glorious light. I would love to guarantee brighter tomorrows for all of us. Instead all I can offer is that if you find yourself waiting for the dawn today, know that God is there, waiting beside you. There will come a day when the darkness is only a memory. The night may feel long but the dawn will come. For all of us.

Living with a Lion in the room

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Life at the moment is a long hard slog. It feels like surviving rather than living. Starting the day not sure how I’ll get to the end of it but attempting to put my best foot forward anyway. There’s so much noise in my head it can be hard to know what to listen to and find what’s true in amongst it all. There’s many plates in the air. In between the appointments, eating disorder recovery, chronic illness, depression, anxiety and trying to hold down a job, I worry I’m going to drop something important. And I don’t know how calamitous the smash would be.

My Psychologist said to me a few weeks ago that she thinks I’m still living my life in threat mode. Which means my brain is always perceiving danger, triggering the adrenaline-fuelled fight, flight or freeze response. She put it simply when she said it’s like there’s always a lion in the room.

And for the most part it makes sense. With a lion in the room it’s unsurprising that I’ve been struggling to concentrate. It’s understandable that my brain would not be firing on all cylinders, struggling to problem solve and process difficult thoughts and feelings. It explains the rolling anxiety that’s always churning under the surface. Why I’ve been struggling to make progress and move forward. I can see why I would feel so exhausted, struggling to sleep or rest well. And after so long like this it makes sense that life would feel unbearable and my mood painfully low.

The problem is I don’t always know what the lion in the room is. I know he prowls around hungrily every time I eat. Every meal or snack can tip me straight into crisis mode, full of anxiety and guilt. There’s definitely a part of me that’s increasingly alarmed by my changing body. Uncomfortable with the size and shape of me. The process of weight restoration and stabilising my diet has often felt overwhelming and unsafe. Maybe my eating disorder has taken the physical form of this vicious cat.

But sometimes the lion feels like Covid. He’s restless during every conversation about the virus, lockdown and vaccines. My brain has decided now is the time to panic about coronavirus, after being mainly level headed about it throughout the last year. Right now, with things opening up, I’m scared of getting the virus. Having ME isn’t considered enough of an ‘underlying condition’ by the NHS to get me the vaccine. But I worry that as someone who already developed post-viral chronic fatigue, throwing another virus into the mix could significantly exacerbate it. And with my mental health on a knife edge I’m not even sure how I would cope with the enforced isolation. The lion definitely doesn’t think I stand a chance.

And sometimes the lion seems to embody every fear or emotion that feels out of control. He can be my fear of failure, that I’ll crash and burn at work, letting everyone down. Or my insecurity, that I’m a disappointment, that I should be trying harder, doing better. Sometimes he’s depression, persistently growling about how the future is hopeless and not worth hanging on for. He can be loneliness taking on flesh and taunting me. The lion can be anything and everything all at once, big or small, mundane or extraordinary.

Even if I understand what this lion represents, what am I supposed to do with him? Am I supposed to befriend him? Do I give him a name, make up a bed and hope he doesn’t eat the cat when I’m not looking? Or can someone tell me how I kick him out the door once and for all?

The problem is the good coping strategies feel ineffective against a lion. Sure mindfulness, prayer and breathing exercises can give me a few moments peace. Maybe even send him to sleep for a bit. But you still have to keep at least one eye on a sleeping lion, as you don’t know when he’ll wake up. He’s the best behaved when I’m in motion, walking outside in the fresh air. Maybe in doing so I’m engaging in the flight response, rather than being permanently stuck in freeze mode. But, exhausted as I am, I can’t walk forever.

My besieged brain is also unhelpfully digging up more difficult things to throw into the mix. In life we’ll all encounter experiences and situations that cause pain and leave their mark on us. It might be a seemingly every day event that for us was hugely significant and affected us deeply. Or it could be moments of tragedy and disaster that turn our world upside down and cut us to our core. Both can be traumatic and leave us bruised and unsure how to move forward.

Without the right support early enough our brains can struggle to process traumatic events. And in an attempt to protect ourselves we can put these situations in a box and tie the lid shut, so we can go along with everyday life. This is what I had done with some small situations and one big one. I thought I’d processed them properly but in reality I’d done what I could on my own and then buried what remained. But the thing with therapy, and eating disorder recovery, is that it blows the lids off all these boxes. All the emotions that you’d been burying and hiding from, with the help of the eating disorder, come to the surface. And these are hard enough to deal with in normal circumstances, let alone with a lion in the room.

If someone had a magic wand and could get rid of the lion and all the difficult emotions and memories, I would take it in an instant. Right now I’m not okay, I’m not even in the same ballpark as okay. But I can’t help but think of Daniel when he was thrown into the lions den. God didn’t kill the lions or make them disappear, but he did keep their mouths shut and keep Daniel safe till morning. And as righteous and God fearing as Daniel was, he must have been terrified. He wouldn’t have been able to deny the reality of the beasts in front of him but he trusted God was bigger.

I may feel completely out of my depth but God never is. I have to trust that the God who can shut the mouths of lions will see me through this dark night and into the morning again.

Back and white photo of sunrise over hillside