Empty

I’ve been hesitating to write this post. It’s not that I’ve been lacking the right words, but rather I wanted different words.

I wanted to write a different story. To write about answered prayer and miraculous intervention. I wanted words of celebration and jubilation. I wished I could weave my words into a fiction so powerful it became true.

But instead I will write about the one word that has kept coming back to me this last month: I feel empty.

They don’t warn you that months of struggling with chronic illness will take it’s toll mentally, physically and spiritually. That you will fight and push through until it feels like you are scraping the bottom of the barrel. That some days you will forget what you were fighting for in the first place.

My heart feels empty. I have cared so much about so many things. I have poured little bits of my heart into people and situations. I have thrown all of my passion and my drive into keeping going, only to find there is always one more day. That the morning always brings another battle to face.

And my hands feel empty, as though I have little to offer the world. When so much of your energy goes into keeping your head above water, there isn’t much left to give to other people. And I know that shouldn’t matter, that people love me for who I am, not what I can do. But fatigue seems set on turning nearly every ‘yes’ into a ‘no’, and I’m so desperate to turn the tables.

I feel spiritually empty too. I can cry my way through a worship set, singing words that I know are true. But somehow these days it costs more to sing them. It is hard to sing of freedom when at times you feel imprisoned by an illness you can’t escape from. It is costly to declare God’s goodness when your circumstances do not always seem to reflect it. And pouring out your sacrifice of praise can be painful when you are scraping out the last drops from an empty heart.

I would love to say that when I come to God empty, I leave filled to bursting. But that isn’t my experience right now. Sometimes his spirit and presence feels like more of a trickle than a flood. I can come with pleas and desperation and leave feeling the same. Maybe I’m doing something wrong or perhaps this is the desert place people talk about.

And I understand now why people lay down their faith in the face of suffering. I can see how it could be easier to tell yourself there is no God, than to accept he is letting you walk through this valley. When every day you are forced to wrestle with a loving God who allows you to suffer. And your prayers seem to fall unanswered like the tears that are running down your face. On those days lies can seem so much truer than the truth.

After years of depression I am familiar with emptiness. But back then there was always a plan. There was therapy or drugs to try, science and answers, doctors who were determined to find a solution. Right now I don’t have a plan. No one seems to understand what is causing my ME or cares about finding out how to fix it. Instead what I’m left with is acceptance and making the best of what I have. After trying everything at my disposal, I have abandoned the illusion that I am even remotely in the driving seat. And some days all I can find in me is frustration and confusion, and tears I am done crying.

I know God hasn’t changed, the sun doesn’t stop being there just because the clouds have covered it. In my head I know I am not lost, nor abandoned or beyond his love and grace. But sometimes I feel all those things.

I suppose whether we feel it or not, we are all empty vessels. Ready to be filled with God’s grace and spirit. It may be that I need to pour out more of myself so his light can shine through me brighter. Perhaps these days serve a purpose I can’t yet see.

And how we come to God, seems to matter less than the fact we keep coming. That whatever we’re feeling, we bring every broken and empty part of ourselves to our Father. All feelings will pass, but his love endures forever.

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Uncomfortably Slow

When I’m stressed I have a lot of anxiety dreams. The kinds of dreams that feature a lot are those where you’re trying madly to get ready for something. For example your plane is due to leave in an hour and somehow you forgot to pack, and so you’re running around trying to get things together. But you can’t do anything quickly, it’s like you’re wading through treacle and you can’t think straight. You know you will never be ready in time.

And that is the best way I can describe the feeling that has crept into my waking hours this last fortnight. I feel like I’m moving in slow motion through my life. As though I have a long list of tasks to do, that I can never quite finish. It’s like life is a job interview and I’ve shown up wholly and completely under-qualified for it. It feels as though I’m desperately trying to catch up to something important, but always just missing it. I am moving uncomfortably slow in a fast world.

There’s a song called ‘Uncomfortably Slow‘ by Newton Faulkner that I must have played hundreds of time.  I always resonated with it when I was depressed. But now in the lyrics I see the pain of wanting to move forward but being stuck.

“So, don’t take my photograph
‘Cause I don’t wanna know
How it looks to feel like this
As cars and people pass
It feels like standing still but I know
I’m just moving uncomfortably slow”

 

It’s hard to pin point where this feeling has come from. I think part of it is coming to terms with how ME is limiting what I can and cannot do. I have to carefully plan how I spend my energy. I am jealous of people who have energy to spare. I see photos of people playing sports or climbing mountains and for the first time ever I envy them. I was never that sporty or active, it seems silly to miss something I never really had. But sometimes my room feels like a prison and I long to step out of my carefully planned life into an adventure. I want to go back to a time when being tired was the result of doing something, rather than a permanent state of being.

I also feel like I’m moving slowly at work, as I watch colleagues take up opportunities and challenges that I would have loved to do. I am coming to terms with the fact that my career took a hit when I got ill and had to go part-time. Looking after my health has become my full time job. And I think to those on the outside, trusting me with more looks like too much of a gamble. I am frustrated knowing what my full potential could look like, and watching every day my tired brain not hitting it.

It can feel like everyone else is speeding past me. My Facebook feed is full of marriages and babies, celebrations and adventures. I watch on with empty arms, wondering if I will ever be able to catchup. My life is not where I thought it would have been by now. I don’t always feel like I’m even on the same road as everyone else.

I wonder if we all feel that sometimes, like we’re lagging behind. Like we’re not good enough, not successful enough, not accomplished enough. It might be the feeling the unites us.

Through this I’m realising more and more that I’m not the one who sets the speed of my life. I never had been. It can feel like we’re in the driving seat of our lives, choosing the speed and direction, deciding when to break and accelerate. But we forget we’re in push along cars, that are only moving because our father is behind them.We are not the ones in control.

Maybe I’m moving slowly because there are sights God wants me to appreciate on the journey. I believe every bump in the road has a purpose. Life was not supposed to be a competition or an exercise in comparison. Every person’s path is different, and the things we strive for are not always what God wants for us.

Regardless of how it might feel right now, this life is a gift. And it’s my job to live each day to the best of my ability, uncomfortably slow or not. Every step forward is progress, regardless of the speed.

Stay

Today is world suicide prevention day. It’s a day when we’re encouraged to talk about an issue that is too often shrouded in secrecy and shame. It’s a day to acknowledge that it’s okay to be not okay. And to speak words of hope into the darkness of pain.

Perhaps this year we have talked more about suicide than most. This year we have had the controversial series ’13 Reasons Why’ attempting to throw a spot light on suicide. Suicide has made the headlines when celebrities including Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell lost their battles. And last month the rapper Logic gave a moving performance of a song named after the US suicide prevention hotline, and was joined on the stage by dozens of survivors of suicide.

But as I sat down to write this I wonder whether this kind of publicity is really making a difference on the ground, in those ordinary conversations happening every day. Does it really make it any easier to admit when you’re struggling? Do these portrayals in the media encourage you to seek help or enforce the idea that the situation is hopeless?

As someone who suffered serious bouts depression for most of my teenage and early adult years, I am no stranger to suicidal thoughts. They are a common symptom of depression. I owe my recovery to a good support network and to friends and family who weren’t afraid to ask difficult questions. I am quite comfortable with writing about those experiences, as I did two years ago. There is safety in writing about the past.

But if I’m going to be completely honest, struggles with my mental health are still a part of my present. I have found over this last year in particular that my mental health has been increasingly impacted by the challenges with my physical health. Dealing with the impact of ME this last couple of years has taken a lot out of me. Being exhausted every moment of every day is a difficult reality to accept, and it is hard to stay positive when you can’t see the end in sight. There have been days when I have wanted out and have had a hard time seeing the good in life. Whilst I don’t want to die, I can’t say I’ve always wanted to be alive either.

And I’m okay, I know that thoughts and emotions pass. I am rational and extremely self-aware with plenty of tools in my tool box. I am no stranger to the darkness that depression can bring and I’ve found my way back into the light again many a time.

I would love to say that I have found those thoughts easy to verbalise. But even as someone who advocates for ending the stigma around mental illness, I have found those words hard to find. I am noticing afresh how the shame surrounding suicidal thoughts and mental illness is still there. And if anything it is harder in Christian contexts, where we are masters at platitudes and offering prayer sometimes instead of empathy and help.  Yet I would hazard a guess that I have walked past dozens of people having these same thoughts in the last month.

We are scared by suicidal thoughts, so much so that we often ostracise those experiencing them. I remember years ago a mental health professional telling me that suicidal thoughts are the mind’s warning sign that it’s under too much pressure. They are red flags rather than instructions to be acted on.

But we often only talk about suicide when someone has completed suicide. We rarely have a conversation around suicidal thoughts. Because of this disparity it can appear that everyone who has suicidal thoughts completes suicide. We don’t talk about the millions of people walking around today who have experienced suicidal thoughts and got better. We don’t talk about those who found a million and one reasons to stay.

And there are so many reasons to stay.

Please stay because you matter, not because of what you do or have achieved but because of who created you and loves you. Stay because your story hasn’t finished yet and leaving would be a final full stop in the middle of a chapter. And maybe the other chapters would have been the most beautiful. Stay because the good days can be like shooting stars that illuminate the dark nights.

Stay because the world needs people like you, who decided to put back the pieces of broken hearts. People who will learn to turn scarred hands into fists that will punch holes to let the light in.

Stay for the people you love and those who love you. Stay for the weddings and the births, for the smile on your face when your friend tells you good news. Stay for the laughter and the tears you’ll share. Stay for the kindness of friends and strangers. Stay because you will never be truly alone and you can still find a community where you belong.

And it’s okay to stay for the little things. Stay for the warmth of the summer sun or the crisp blanket of snow. Stay for your favourite television show or the sequel to a book you love. Stay for that song you love to sing along to on the radio. Stay for all the food you haven’t tasted and the flowers you’ve yet to smell. Stay for camp fires and fireworks and the leaves turning golden before they fall. Stay because staying will always hold more possibilities and opportunities than leaving.

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I can’t promise you that the dark days won’t come again for any of us. I won’t pretend to understand the depth of pain that can be held within another heart. Life is full of both beauty and tragedy and we weren’t meant to do it alone. We are made for community and we need one another.

So in honour of world suicide prevention day, I would encourage you to reach out. Reach out for the help you need and deserve. Reach out to that friend who you think may be struggling. Reach out to celebrate those who make your life brighter.

When Depression changes you

An edit of this post was published on The Mighty

Depression was a big part of my teenage and early adult years. There were years where the one thing that seemed certain was that the good days would not last, the next episode of depression would always come. Most of my memories from those times are still fuzzy.  But I can’t forget the weight of the darkness and despair. The excruciating pain of trying to get through a day, when it felt like my mind was being tortured. How there was a black hole that opened up inside me and sucked all the colour and happiness out of the world.

Now those years are part of my past rather than my present. Whilst there are good and bad days, mostly my mood is stable. However, I am noticing that as someone who has lived through depression my outlook is different from those who have never experienced it. Depression has changed me.

I can’t deny that my periods of depression have made me who I am today. The parts of my character I love and those I don’t have been moulded by those times. I am the product of all the days that have gone before.

Depression has made me wary of looking to the future. I have learnt to sun bathe with one eye on the horizon, watching for the storm cloud that is surely coming. I find it hard to be entirely present in the moment, because I know how fast the weather can change. One minute all is well and the next you’ve tripped and fallen down the rabbit hole. I struggle to trust happiness, because it has been a fleeting and fickle friend to me.

You also wouldn’t describe me as a positive person. It’s not that the glass is half full or half empty. But more that at times the glass has been jagged and drinking from it has cut my lips. And after that experience it doesn’t seem to matter how much water is in it.

But before you dismiss me as negative please remember that I chose to stay. Chose to keep pushing through and clinging into hope, even on the days where life felt like nothing more than a cruel joke. I chose to keep showing up for each new day, even when I wanted nothing more than to give up. That takes a strength and determination that you cannot fully understand until you’ve faced it yourself.

And it hasn’t been all bad, experiencing depression has deepened my empathy. It has meant I am someone who can sit with another in their pain, without platitudes just the knowledge they are not alone. I know how to keep loving someone even when you can’t fix what has broken inside them. I have seen that sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is your time, walking with them through the darkness.

Depression has made me fiercely passionate about hope. Hope has been the voice that has kept whispering in the darkness, the flickering flame that refused to go out. I will not forget the people who held onto hope for me, on the days when depression was shouting too loud for me to hear it. And surviving those dark nights has given me a wisdom that comes from seeing that all pain passes eventually.

Maybe laughter is sweeter when you’ve been caught in the teeth of despair. And there is a pure beauty in those flowers that bravely turn towards the sun, despite the shadows that surround them. Perhaps it’s not naive to believe that my pain will serve a greater purpose. Or foolish to continue to hope that there are greater things ahead than those I’ve left behind.

I am not the same person I was before depression came along. I cannot turn back time. And whilst I would not wish this journey on anyone, I am proud of the battles I’ve fought and won. I am choosing to believe that it has made me the person I need to be today. That the story I’ve been given is one another heart needs to hear. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know I have the strength and hope to face whatever comes.

A Faith That Doubts

Are you one of those people who believes in everything with one hundred percent certainty, someone who never questions a decision? Or are you someone for whom every decision, every belief comes with an element of doubt?

I have always been in the second camp, and I think the majority of people would join me there.

Doubt is human. We all have doubts. Doubts about God, our lives and our purpose. We question everything. From our earliest years we have been searching for answers, our world view is readjusted with each new piece of information.

And doubt is also a constant companion when you’re dealing with chronic illness. Every decision has repercussions and sometimes those aren’t predictable. Every time I spend energy and do something, I wonder if it’s the right thing to do. I am constantly analysing my actions, trying to work out if I’m doing too much or not enough. And with the internet serving up new ‘treatments’ every week it is hard to sort the truth from the fiction. I often doubt if I’m choosing correctly.

But this kind of doubt is socially acceptable. I would be happy to admit to it over a cup of coffee. But I’m writing this today because I’m having other doubts. And these doubts are around my faith.

After a challenging year, I find myself in a place of doubting God. I am not doubting his existence. But I am doubting his love for me, I am doubting his plan for my life and I am doubting his goodness.

And this, as a Christian, is an awkward place to be. Historically the church hasn’t been a safe place to be honest about your doubts. We have often been afraid of doubt, treating it like a dirty word. We have been guilty of side-lining doubters. We relegate them to special groups or chats with the minister, sometimes we push them all the way out of our churches. It is as though we are afraid that doubt is contagious, fearing the infection will spread through our congregations. We treat doubt as the ultimate contradiction to faith.

But the bible is full of doubters. We find Sarah in Genesis, laughing when God promises her a son, doubting God’s ability to bring it about in her old age. We read of the Israelites, after the parting of the red sea, doubting God’s ability to provide for them in the desert. The Psalms are littered with people questioning God’s character and goodness, doubting that he is on their side. And then we find the disciples doubting who Jesus is and his plan for creation. Until we arrive at poor Thomas, made famous for his doubt of Jesus’ resurrection. Faith and doubt have come together from the beginning.

I believe we will all, at some point in our life find ourselves doubting something about God. Often doubt comes from a place of hurt, whether by a person or circumstance. That hurt opens a wound within us and the pain causes us to question everything we knew to be true. It is tempting to hide that pain away, but wounds untreated will fester. And the longer we wait to speak our doubts out loud, the harder it will become. If we’re not careful they can completely overwhelm us.

I know my doubt comes from a place of wrestling with how a good God can allow life to be so hard. Exhaustion wears you down, until you start to loose your sense of direction and can’t always see the way ahead. The truths you clung onto on day one, have a greater cost on day four hundred. On those days you will struggle to answer how a good, loving God allows you to suffer. And it can be easy to come to the wrong conclusion, believing that perhaps God loves you a little less than others or maybe not at all. Our fallible human minds will never be able to completely understand the character of God. And doubts will linger, in the gaps between our knowledge and experience.

So where do we take these doubts? Ironically enough the safest place to take them is to God. The same God who blessed Sarah with a son in spite of her doubts, who gave the Israelites manna in the desert when they doubted his provision, the one who welcomed Thomas to touch Jesus so he could believe. He has seen it all before.

God created us and knows us intimately. He knows every doubt before we can form the words for it. And he still invites us to come to him with our questions, our anger and uncertainty. There may be no easy answers. But we will encounter a love that is bigger than us, a father who knows what we need, and a grace that covers our failures. And that may be enough for now.

Haunted

Mostly I live my life in the present and try to avoid dwelling too much on what has gone before. But some days the past weighs heavy on me and my mind lingers in all the days that have been. We often talk about people having skeletons in their closet. But I don’t think my closet contains anything as solid or silent as skeletons.  I have ghosts.

They are the pale reflections of the people I used to be. My Anorexic self, the girl who thrived off control and lived for emptiness. I feel her draw near sometimes, in the careless words of a friend, in the images on my television screen or the feel of my bones through my skin. She whispers that I will never be good enough. That no one can ever accept me with the baggage I carry. She promises freedom in her embrace, a way to control the uncontrollable. She reminds me of the seeming simplicity of the days that went before, when the only goal was seeing the number on the scale decrease, when your happiness depended only on the next dress size down.

Or the ghost of my depressed self. The girl who could not see beyond her own pain, beyond the gaping hole at the centre of herself. She visits when the days seem dark and the future stretches vast and uncertain. She whispers that there can be no solutions, no coping strategies, no victories. She believes one of the few certainties of life is that there will be pain. She reminds me how easy it is to forget that life is worth living.

And it’s strange. Few of the people I see every day knew these versions of me. I fumble for the words to speak of this haunting, but I am too afraid they won’t understand. And I wonder if it’s possible to understand the present me without understanding my ghosts. Will you understand why I hate targets if you didn’t know the hell on earth my perfectionism took me to? Will you get my sarcasm if you don’t know the scars it’s covering up? But then can one human being ever fully understand another?

And maybe recovery from mental illness is like this. Getting better doesn’t mean you forget what has gone before. You still look in the mirror and see different versions of yourself. You can’t flick through a photo album without being transported back to who you were on those days.

Underneath everything aren’t we all haunted by something? The bad decision we made when we were young, the words we wish had never left our mouths, or the person we let slip through our fingers? When you look in the mirror do you see only the person in front of you? Or all the other faces you have been, the masks you have worn and discarded? Can you ever forget the things your eyes have seen or your hands have touched? Is freedom found in embracing your past or denying it?

I don’t believe I am defined by my past but I also don’t believe it is possible to escape it entirely. I’m not sure you can have walked these roads and not be reminded of them every once in a while.

I am trying not to be afraid of my ghosts. They are a part of me, the hurting and scared parts of my past. I will not run away from them. Their influence threads through my history into my present. They fought for me, maybe in the wrong direction, and with an arsenal that they never should have chosen for the battle. But they kept fighting. It’s too late to punish or forget them. Perhaps the only way to quiet their voices is to forgive and comfort them, each time they make an appearance.

Breath in, breathe out. Feeling the air fill my lungs, the slow rise and fall of my chest. I am alive, full of life in this very moment. The past may throw up it’s spectres like dreams in the night. But they cannot hold me. Each day is a new page to be written. And those ghost girls pass the pen to me, waiting for me to write a different story.

The Questions Without Answers

I am sitting with a fair amount of uncertainty at the moment. I have had all the treatment for my ME that our health service can offer. I have done my course of CBT and I don’t have any more energy than I started. I now work four days a week, with one of them working from home, and I have yet to see a significant improvement.

Life is still challenging. I still have to battle my way to the end of each week. I still long for my body to remember what energy feels like. I am not better. And I’m struggling to know how to get better. I know I need to get from A to B, but most days it feels like someone has planted a massive mountain in between. All I can see is the climb to one of the many summits.

There are questions I really want answers to. Questions I ask myself daily or others ask me. Questions like: why aren’t things getting better? What are you going to do next? How long will this last? What is God’s purpose in this?

And in the place of answers there is silence.  Those spaces, where the words should be, open up like chasms within me. Turning into voids that suck away my hope. Some days I try to plug them with my own words. But the holes go too deep and my words sound uncertain and feeble. I fear that if I get too close to the edge I will trip into the depths and won’t be able to climb out again.

I like certainty. I want things to be black or white, with no grey areas. There has to be a right answer somewhere. But real life isn’t like that. Our problems and the choices we make are messy and complicated. We see the world through the lens of our own bias. We may never have enough information to know if a decision was the right one to make.  We may wait years to understand why something in our lives had to happen the way it did. There isn’t always a clear answer.

And sometimes we don’t get an answer at all. Sometimes the most God gives us is the privilege of asking our questions to him. He doesn’t promise to answer them, or at least not in the way we might expect. We are not God. He is not accountable to us and does not have to justify his actions.

We all have to sit with the uncertainty of those questions that don’t seem to have answers. Why are some taken from the world so young? Why are some lives blighted by suffering? Why is one person healed and another left sick? We all have our own questions we would dearly love answered. We all have our own spaces in our hearts, where the answers should be, testing our faith and trust.

All I am left to say is I don’t know. I don’t know why things aren’t getting better. I don’t know what I do next. I don’t know how long this season will last. I don’t know what God’s purpose is in this.

But God does know. And there are some things I know about him. He is wise and all powerful. He is sovereign over every aspect of my life and who I am. And he loves me, more than I can ever fully understand.

I don’t have the answers. But I am trying to let trust and grace build a bridge over the chasm of my uncertainty. To bring me to rest in the things I know to be true.