When God’s Plans Hurt

As Christians we accept that God has good plans for our lives. It’s the phrase that comes out whenever you hit any kind of bump in the road. We are comfortable with what the words mean, separately and together. We are familiar with the theory but we struggle more with the practical outworking of it. Why do God’s plans lead some people on paths littered with illness and grief? Where are these good plans when we watch those we love suffer? Or when we find ourselves digging through the last dregs of our strength, for yet another battle?

The truth is that sometimes God’s good plans hurt. Sometimes the way ahead looks so tangled with thorns you can’t even find the energy to attempt it. The battle rages around you and far from being fearless and courageous you are waving a white flag of surrender desperate for peace. When your cheeks are red raw from the tears you’ve been wiping from your face and yet they still keep falling.

Sometimes God bestows on you blessings you don’t deserve. Other times you’re grasping at the threads of dreams that fall through your fingers like mist. Some nights are not followed by joy coming in the morning. There may be times where in the place of words of comfort there is just pain, a pain that would consume you if you let it.

On these days, far from boldly declaring God’s promises at the darkness you whimper and whisper them. Words that are both familiar and entirely alien to your state of mind. You want them to still hold true but they start to feel like the fairytales you clung onto as a child, comfortable but intangible.

These are days where you catch yourself thinking if this is God prospering me, I wonder what the alternative looks like. And then you remember God gave the promise of Jeremiah 29 to the Israelites as they faced decades of enslavement and exile. Some of those hearing these words would never see their homes again. They were not a platitude but a promise that no matter how bad things got there was a purpose and a plan, that they were not forgotten or abandoned. It was not an assurance they would see the purpose this side of heaven or that this plan wouldn’t involve pain.

We do not follow a God whose hands are tied when suffering and pain enters our lives, left to watch feebly on from the sidelines. He is sovereign over every aspect of his creation, able to change our circumstances in an instant, to give and take away. Yet his purposes and plans won’t always line up with our own. His goal is not our earthly happiness but his eternal glory. And he uses trials and pain as an instrument to teach and shape us, to become more and more who we were meant to be. To be vessels shining out his glory into this fallen world, leading people to him.

Whatever comes my way I know God is still good. I still trust him. His character has not and will never be dependent on my circumstances. But that doesn’t make the pain any less real. And at times it can make the pain even more complicated to process, knowing God could have spared me it but chose not to, for reasons I may never understand.

But I think the thing I’m learning is it’s okay to sit with the uncertainty and conflict that pain causes. Emotions have to be felt before they can fade. There may not be words that will lessen the blows and perhaps we can be too quick to paper over the cracks with our platitudes. Sometimes we have to spend time confronting the gap, that exists between our hopes and expectations, and the reality we’re faced with. But we must know that God is still with us, no matter how vast the chasm we’re contemplating.

And somehow through the pain and the tears, his power will be made perfect in our weakness. Mysteriously he will work all things together for good. Some day we may look back and see his loving purpose over it all. What was sown into hard ground, and watered with tears, will be reaped with rejoicing.

And each day, no matter how much it costs us to say it, there will always be hope.

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6 Things Learned Whilst Taking Time Off Work For My Depression

This post was published first on The Mighty

I have struggled depression on and off for the last 10 years. From the outside most people wouldn’t know — I have prided myself on managing to keep going with a smile plastered on my face. But over the last stressful situations at work combined with the ongoing pressure of living with chronic illness caused my mental health to deteriorate to a point where I needed to take time off work. What followed were eight weeks where I was signed off work to start the recovery process. Here are some of the lessons I learned during that time.

1. Reach out and ask for help.

Being away from work can be incredibly lonely. As someone who lives alone with limited energy for social activities, work was the place where I connected with people. Without that the weeks stretched before me frighteningly empty. People do care, they care deeply. But a lot of people will struggle to translate that care into a form that is useful for you. Thoughts and prayers of loved ones alone won’t get you through the dark days. You have to learn to reach out, to let other people walk alongside you during this time, people who can bring you hope and comfort on the days you can’t find it yourself.

2. You will have good days and bad days.

Recovery from depression is a rollercoaster. One day you may be able to experience the joy in life again, the next you could be so low you’re not even sure you want to be alive. On the good days, you will feel like you should be running straight back into work, as though you are a fraud for being off work in the first place. On the bad days, you will worry you will never work again. The key is to not over-promise or overdo it on the good days or wallow in the hopelessness on the bad days. Take your average day as the best indicator of where to go from there. 

3. Don’t listen to the guilt.

One of the most debilitating symptoms of depression is guilt. The weight of it can make you believe you are a bad person, that you’re letting everyone down, that you’re a burden and don’t deserve happiness. You can be so overwhelmed with it that you are unable to recognize it as just a symptom of your illness. But the truth is that, whatever words guilt is speaking, it’s lying to you. It’s not your fault you are ill, the brain gets sick just like the rest of the body does. It’s not a sign of failure or an indicator of your value as a person. This may be a season where you need to lean on other people. But this doesn’t make you a burden, it just makes you human.

4. Celebrate the small things.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of setting unrealistic goals for your recovery. As a perfectionist, I wanted to do recovery “right.” when in reality there is no right way to do it. Instead of planning too far into the future, it’s important to take each day or even each hour at a time. And celebrate the small things. It may be that you got up and dressed, it could be that you spent some time doing a hobby you would normally enjoy or it may be as simple as texting a friend. Every victory is a moment where depression didn’t get to dictate all the rules, you fought back and took care of yourself in spite of it. That takes a huge amount of energy and should be celebrated.

5. Recovery will take longer than you think.

In my mind I was going to be off work for two weeks and then I would be back to my usual self. Safe to say after two weeks I was far from better and it would be another six weeks after that before I was ready to gradually start working again. It’s scary to stay off work until you actually feel better, especially when you have no idea how long it could take. I had to keep reminding myself that no job is as important as my health. Work can come and go, but we only have one body. I wish there was a magic recipe for a speedy recovery from depression, and everyone will need different things to recover. But the one thing we will all need is time. 

Recovery is a journey rather than a destination, it doesn’t end when we walk back into the office for the first time. However long it lasts, we need to be kind and patient with ourselves, giving ourselves the time and space to heal.

6. There’s always hope.

Depression wants you to believe that the situation is hopeless, that you will always feel this way and recovery isn’t worth it. But that’s simply not true. These feelings will pass. No matter how dark the night you find yourself in, the dawn will come and scatter the darkness. Some days hope may only be a whisper, but it’s still there in the embrace of your loved ones, in those little moments that spark joy or in the promise of brighter tomorrows. Don’t give up on hope.

Those weeks away from work recovering from depression were hard, but I think every day was worth it. It made me realize that my mental health is just as important as my physical health and needs just as much care and attention paid to it. I believe giving my mind the time and space to heal will make me stronger and happier in the long run. 

Hope in the Darkness

I am doing better. I know I am doing better because of all the things I have been achieving at work and at home. I know these last three weeks have been filled with progress and baby steps in the right direction.

But the truth is that in the midst of all this progress I have been feeling worse. I am finding the reality is that as your brain recovers, and you move out of the survival mode you have been existing in, life can feel harder. All the big questions about life, that you’d been too tired to think about, suddenly seem to matter a great deal. As you process all that’s happened, there can be a part of you that wonders if it is all worth it. The irony being that as you are getting better, hope can feel more distant, and at times absent altogether. Over the past few weeks I have been working my way out of that darker place.

It’s easy to think of hope as an emotion, one that can flitter in and out of your life, with the unpredictability and fragility of a butterfly. Beautiful but difficult to pin down. But that is not how I view hope. I believe hope is a certainty, a truth that supersedes our emotions. I believe in hope even when I don’t feel it.

For me hope is like the moon, there are phases where it is full and shining for all to see. Times when you can’t believe life was ever any different. Yet there are also times where it is only a sliver or hidden from view altogether. Times when you feel like you are scrambling around in the dark, looking for the light. But I don’t believe hope stops being there just because you can no longer see it. And experience tells me it won’t be long before it comes back into view again.

Hope can be so much more than a feeling. For me these last weeks it has been snowy adventures, watching my little God daughter try to catch snowflakes on her tongue, or holding my baby godson as he eagerly waves out the window at any passerby. It’s the friend who stocked my freezer with homemade meals, making each meal a reminder that I am seen and loved. Hope is the countless people who are there on the good days and the bad days, who whisper words of hope into your life even when you have lost the words. And sometimes hope is the little things, like a cosy warm bed, your favourite food, or flowers blooming to remind you spring is coming.

I have also learnt that the best way to feel hope again is to live as though you already do. To show up to each day with the expectation that you may be surprised, that joy can arrive unannounced and let the light in. It’s believing that each new day can be different from all the yesterdays that have gone before, that the future is a blank page with an invitation to pick up the pen. It’s knowing that if you keep going long enough then hope will find you again.

I don’t just believe hope is only for the future, the far off hope that one day God will make all things right, that there will be no more crying and pain. I believe hope is for now. I believe that our lives matter, that everything we go through serves a purpose, that none of our experiences will be wasted. I believe I have been created uniquely, with skills and gifts preparing me for a job that no one else can do. To be a beautifully imperfect vessel for God to shine his light through into the darkness. I believe every conversation, every interaction, every relationship matters. That the success of our lives will not be measured in the balance of our bank accounts or how far we go in our careers, but in how well we love. My hope is pinned on the one who has promised to be with me always.

The darkness in our lives or our hearts can be strong and overpowering. But the light of hope is always there whether we feel it or not. There will always be light shining in the darkness, that the darkness will not overcome.

“And our landscapes shift in sunshine and in shade. There is light. There is, look for it, look for it shining over your shoulder, on the past. It was light where you went once. It is light where you are now. It will be light where you will go again. ”

-Call The Midwife, BBC

Baby Steps

I am now back at work on a phased return after 8 weeks off for depression. It is a relief to be back and able to get stuck back into one of my jobs. But I am finding it difficult not to be too hard on myself.

The truth is I am not happy with the version of me that is back. I am not firing on all cylinders or yet up to speed. Things that would have taken me no time before I went off, take longer now. And I know it is just me that is critical of this new me, I am the only one keeping score of the areas I’m lacking. Rationally I know these two weeks have been no small achievement, that I’m doing well, making progress. But somehow the emotional response is still ‘I’m not doing well enough’.

I suppose I hoped with my return to work I may get back to how I was before I got ill. I think I dreamt that time would have undone some of the damage that’s been done, that I could somehow rewind the clock and be able to make different choices.

But that’s not how life works. In life there is no going backwards, only forwards. And we as people are constantly changing and evolving. It’s true I am not the person I was six months ago but neither am I the one I was five minutes ago. And I suppose if there’s no going back you only have two options, to stand still or to move. And perhaps that helps me to see that even baby steps are steps forward.

We carry with us all the damage from the battles we’ve fought, those we’ve won and lost. We carry the frustration and the heartache, the hurt and the healing. We bear the scars from the experiences that have marked us, and sometimes they don’t fade completely. But whilst scars may tell us where we’ve been, they don’t tell us where we’re going. We are not defined or explained by the scars we carry.

I think I’ve been thinking of recovery as a finish line, one I get to sprint over and then I’m fixed. It’s easy to overlook that recovery isn’t linear and it may be a journey I’ll always be on. Mental health is a sliding scale we will all find ourselves on. The truth is it’s painful. It’s hard work to stitch back those threads that should tether us to life, when they have become frayed or snapped altogether. It takes patience and community, along with daily servings of hope. You have to keep finding the beauty within the shades of grey. And fight each day to keep moving forwards, one baby step at a time.

The Stories We Cherish

I grew up buried within stories. Whether it was those read to me or the books I devoured myself, there were always so many new and beautiful places to go. Many of the life lessons I still value came from the pages of these stories. Whether it was Atticus in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ who taught me that courage is ‘knowing you are ‘licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what’. Or Gandalf in ‘The Lord of The rings’ who declared, in the face of doubts and regrets: ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’ Or the wise words of Dumbledore in ‘Harry Potter’ who says, amongst many things: ‘We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.’

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There is something about stories that make them universally loved. Perhaps it is the simple act of escapism. We can step right out of our dreary and mundane lives into far-off lands or fantastical kingdoms. We can get some rest bite from the stresses and strains of our own world by walking into the life of another. To see, if only for a short while, the world through their eyes. We can experience and see things we may never see on our own.

But the true magic of stories is not the fantasy world they create, but the way they can empower us to see the gifts we carry within us. As we watch our heroes and heroines fight their battles we are reminded that we too have the strength within us, enough to fight whatever demons we’re facing. Dreaming with them can reawaken those dreams that time has faded, encouraging us to try again. And as we grieve their losses we can give ourselves permission to grieve our own, allowing the author’s words to channel emotions we don’t have our own words for.

And when looking into the lives of our favourite characters it can be easier to see the beauty dwelling alongside the pain. The balm of friendship to the grieving heart. The pure courage of facing down an enemy greater than yourself.

No matter how old we get our longing for ‘happy endings’ remains. We need to see that sometimes the bad guy is defeated, that evil can be overcome by good. We need to know that the struggle does end, that there can be some kind of sanctuary after the storm has passed. We want to believe that our damaged heroes can still be happy, that joy can still blossom within bruised and broken hearts.

But if we lose ourselves too deep within stories we can forget one important truth. We forget that our lives are also stories. That we are the storytellers, only we get to choose how we tell these stories.

We can’t decide which circumstances and trials will come our way, which battles we will have to face. But we can choose how we react to these trials, whether we will rise above them or let them overcome us. We get to choose which parts of our stories we highlight, which things will define our lives, the people we will weave into the fabric of our stories. We can pick what the overarching message will be, one of hope and love, or loss and fear.

If I have children of my own I will teach them the power and beauty of stories. I want them to get lost in magical places, transported by the pages of a book. But I also want them to know that the most precious of stories is their own. That no one else can tell it for them, or write those pages. I hope I one day get to watch those stories unfold.

The God Who Keeps His Promises

I have mixed feelings about Christmas this year. On the one hand it is the first Christmas in my new house and I took great pleasure in shopping for and putting up decorations. I wanted so much to enjoy every element of the season. But when advent rolled around, somewhere in the middle of what will be 8 weeks off work with depression, I just wasn’t in the mood. I can’t listen to Christmas songs without a slight queasy feeling in my stomach and skived all my christmas choir rehearsals and concert. I couldn’t face the prospect of going into town to do Christmas shopping. And my Christmas cards sat unwritten on my coffee table until the last moment.

You see Christmas isn’t always the most wonderful time of the year. When you struggle with depression, other illnesses or even bereavement and relationship breakdown, it can be a season to dread. There is so much pressure and expectation piled onto Christmas. You are expected to be happy and joyful, to have a wonderful day filled with celebration and laughter. But the reality is illness or life circumstances don’t take a holiday for Christmas and they can be much harder to bear against a background of tinsel and jollity.

I have lost count of the number of Christmas I have spent struggling with depression to one degree or another. Over the years there have probably been many an argument, Christmas day tears and bad temperedness on my part. I have stood at Christmas parties feeling like an alien from another planet, out of place and different. And when you are stuck in the middle of your own personal storm, the whole season can look rather empty and fabricated.

I have always taken comfort in the fact that when you strip away the tinsel and presents, at the heart of Christmas is the story of Jesus’ birth, which is something I can celebrate whatever I’m feeling. But this year I am having difficulty finding myself within the nativity. I find it hard to look at Mary and Joseph without feeling an ache for finding a relationship and having children of my own. The wise men seem to exhibit a dedication and energy that feels remote from me right now. Perhaps the shepherds are more realistic, coming as they are, shabby and imperfect. But I worry that their simple joy is just out of reach.

As I thought about it I remembered that, whilst we celebrate it ever year, this nativity was a long time coming. The Israelites had 700 long years to wait from when Isaiah foretold of Jesus’ birth to his arrival. They were years filled with exile and suffering and doubt and questioning. Years where the people doubted God’s plans for them. Generations went to the grave without seeing the messiah, the promise perhaps loosing some of its clarity and certainty in the waiting. You can’t blame them for wondering why God didn’t show up right away, why he didn’t intervene earlier with his rescue plan.

I suppose I see a lot of myself in the waiting, questioning, Israelites. I know God’s promises are true but with each passing day they cost a little more to hold onto. I know God can bring breakthrough in a heart beat but yet his timing often involves long periods of waiting. And sometimes my patience wears thin.

But God doesn’t make us wait forever. And seven hundred years later Jesus came, to a people who had all but stopped looking for him. He came just as promised, with no obstacle preventing God orchestrating every detail of his birth. He came to a world that would reject and murder him. He stepped into a society that was broken and wounded, coming into the mess of humanity to bring hope and rescue. And sometimes when we focus too hard on the picture perfect characters of that first nativity, we miss the father God behind it, who keeps his promises.

It doesn’t matter that I am not full of the christmas spirit. You can keep your christmas card nativity, the wide eyed Marys, regal kings and scruffy shephards. Give me the one behind it all, whose plans cannot be thwarted no matter the obstacles put in his way. The God who keeps his promises. Yesterday, today and forever.

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.

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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