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.

Worn

It’s been a tough week. I packed far too much into June, and whilst they were lovely things that I don’t regret doing, my body was very cross with me by the time I reached last weekend. It has been a week of enforced rest to try and appease my weak and weary body. I should have been at a big family gathering this weekend but instead I have been rotating from my bed to the sofa. It has brought home to me just how fragile life with a Chronic illness can be. The line between doing enough and too much can be so hard to judge at times, but the punishment when you cross it can be debilitating.

I am feeling worn down and worn out. It’s like I’ve got a puncture somewhere and the life is slowly dripping out of me. It is hard to keep track of hope when every day seems to be the same, as the weeks turn into months and the months to years. Maintaining normal life is a daily battle and sometimes I’m not sure I’m winning the war. There are times when I just don’t know how many more days like this I’ve got in me. I want to move forward but every step is like trudging through treacle and  I’m loosing all sense of direction.

My faith is feeling worn down too. It’s being tested at those weak points, whose threads have been teased at time and time again. It is struggling to find the same enthusiasm to trust God on day four hundred as it did on day one. A faith that is still grappling with a God who is almighty and able to heal, but chooses not to. It is hard to feel his love when you look back at the struggles and storms this last decade has held. Are we not done yet? When will we reach those green pastures?

My faith is both the steel that goes through me and the rope that I can use to tie myself up in knots. It goes deep, through all I am, but is messy with some sharp edges that I still get stuck on. From the outside I don’t think it looks how you would expect.

It’s like a marriage that you are determined to keep working at, but sometimes communication shuts down and you doubt their love. It’s the mirror that shows both the best and worst of yourself at the same time. It’s the father who promises to stay with you and do the best for you, but sometimes leads you down paths that cut your feet and leave you battered and bruised.

I often feel like a fraud among other Christians because my faith doesn’t look as shiny or enthusiastic as I think it should. When you don’t have the energy for life, you know every shade of apathy. I know there are things I should care about, that I just don’t care about right now. So many of the worship songs feel empty to me in this place. I look around at people worshipping around me and feel a rising feeling of panic. Tears spill out of my eyes, not holy tears at how wonderful God is, tears because I’m hurting and worship has always been the place I can be real with Him. But I don’t want my tears to wet the floor of crowded halls or church buildings, betraying me and opening wounds I don’t know how to heal.

It is hard to keep track of who you are, when some days your greatest achievement is that you got dressed and showered. Every task suddenly looks meaningless when pitted against the sheer mass of exhaustion. I know if I clean the bathroom it will be dirty again in a week, so is it really worth my last ounce of energy? If I go for a walk I will need to lie down afterwards, is sunshine that precious? Can I afford to spend energy cooking nice meals when I will be hungry again in a few hours? When it comes down to it, is anything worth it?

I keep smiling because that is what I’m supposed to do. I am the actress starring in the play of my life. If the façade slips my world could start unravelling. I am not sure the person you see when you look at me is who I am inside. I am not an inspiration for keeping going, my feet are moving forwards because they are scared of what happens when they have to stop. Each day is a mixture of successes and failures, but it is the failures that will keep me awake at night.

This worn-down state is a lonely place to be. All the people who love you tell you it’ll be okay and desperately want you to believe it. And so you pretend their words are the salve that they are intended to be. You act like you believe them even on the days when all platitudes feel like some kind of cruel joke. When you are so tired you want the world to stop turning, you feel so horribly alone.

As sometimes happens there is one song that could be my heart’s cry right now. It’s a song called ‘Worn’ by Tenth Avenue North. All the words ring true to me but the chorus is especially poignant:

“And I know that you can give me rest
So I cry out with all that I have left

Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart that’s frail and torn

I want to know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
‘Cause I’m worn”

In my weakness I have to keep choosing to look to the one with the power to redeem this situation. The one who can heal my body and my heart. I don’t understand what his purpose is in this, but I know him to be faithful and trustworthy. He’s still in control of my life.

I know these feelings will pass. And that my emotions are as always a poor judge of truth. I know God hasn’t left me even on the days that he feels distant. In my head I know it will be okay, even when my heart begs to differ.

But this will take some time. Be patient with me. My smile may be forced for a while and that’s okay. I have to work my way through this, to give myself space to feel the array of emotions and then let them fade. This exhausting roller-coaster of grief and frustration at my illness, has to run its course. When it does I hope to arrive at a place that looks more like acceptance.

“ 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.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

2 Corinthians 4:8-12

The Things I Don’t Let You See

An edit of this post was published on The Mighty

I am lucky enough to be able to work part-time whilst managing my Chronic Illness. To do so means I have to keep a lot hidden from view, behind a more presentable mask. I do my best to smile through the bad days and to not let my symptoms show.

If you catch me at the right moment I might give you an honest response when you see me at work and ask “How are you?”. And I see confusion cloud your face when my answer doesn’t match up with what you were expecting. Sometimes I have to hold my tongue as you correct my response or offer your own assessment on how I am doing.

I can see how easy it is to imagine that the me you see here at work, extends beyond 5pm into my evenings and days off. That this put together functioning person continues into an active social life. To think that this elaborate façade is all there is to me.

But what I need you to understand is that you only see the very best of me. There is much more I will never let you see.

You don’t see the isolation, the days spent propped up on my bed desperately trying to refresh my weary body. When no amount of inactivity can make my body remember how to store energy. You won’t know just how boring and frustrating rest can be, when it is forced upon you. When your companions are head aches, muscle pain and the characters on the television. On those days you try not to open Facebook because seeing all those happy smiling faces leaves you feeling horribly alone. It is as though you are moving in slow motion, whilst the rest of the world is speeding past.

I don’t let you see the fear. How terrifying it is to have a body that is seemingly out of control. To not have any idea what the future holds and watch you life deviate from what you had planned. I get worried when each new thing I try to help, doesn’t make my symptoms better. Or panic when my memory fails and important things like my postcode slip out of my mind. You don’t see how afraid I am that there will come a day when I can no longer force my body to go into work. That this job may be another thing that my illness will take from me.

I don’t let you see the times when tears fill my eyes at my desk because my brain is so tired and so full of fog that the noise in the office feels like a special kind of torture. Or the days where I don’t leave this floor because stairs would just be a step too far. Or when I have had to stand up longer than my muscles could cope with and I sink into my chair, my body shaking from the effort of it. All the time knowing I’m going home to a flat that I will be too tired to clean and to food I don’t have the energy to cook.

And when you see me at a social event. You don’t see the careful planning that has gone into minimising the damage. How I’ve tried to ration my energy all day to save it for this. You won’t see the inevitable crash afterwards, because no amount of preparation ever prevents the fallout. You can’t know that I will be paying for this outing for days or even weeks to come. That sometimes the worry about how high the cost will be, can stop me from enjoying whatever it is I’m doing in the first place.

And I don’t expect you to know all this. I know there are many parts of your life that I also don’t see. I don’t know what your smile is covering.

But I would ask that you stop for a moment when I tell you how I’m doing. Before you dismiss my words and give your own opinion on my situation. Stop and remember that there are parts of my life that you don’t see. And I will try and remember the same for you.

Finding The Horizon

The thing that gets to you about living with Chronic Fatigue is not that every day is acutely bad, but rather that every day is the same. Each day I wake up exhausted, I battle through the day, to then go to bed with my head and body aching from the weight of fatigue. You can get overwhelmed when the days seem to stretch before you without end.

It’s like I’m swimming across the ocean, every day forcing my muscles to inch forward against the currents. But after so many days you become disorientated. What’s one more stroke against the vastness of the ocean? How do you know the shore is even still there when you can’t see it? What if this ocean never ends?

I think in the early months of this year I lost my sense of direction. I have been so consumed by the struggle of persevering that I didn’t notice how much of myself I was loosing along the way. Somewhere along the line, feeling unable to cope with my illness became feeling unable to cope with life. I didn’t want to swim any more.

My mind was having a hard time coping with the pressure of all those days swimming. I couldn’t see the horizon, all I could see was water. I didn’t know what I was swimming towards, or if I would ever reach it.

Where is the line between exhaustion and depression? I think sometimes when the weight of the days, months and years has become too much. Too much for a tired mind, one can slip into the other. I didn’t want to have to keep coping. I was frustrated with a body that I couldn’t control and a brain that was always full of fog. The gulf between who I was and who I wanted to be seemed ever wider. The storm was making the waves come up over my head, threatening to engulf me.

And it’s hard. It’s hard to keep trusting in a God who can do the miraculous but doesn’t always. It’s hard to sit in Christian settings and hear stories of amazing transformation and wonder if maybe God doesn’t love you as much as them.

I think the reality is that as I try and let go of some of the guilt I have been carrying there may first be anger that takes it’s place. If it isn’t my fault, than why me? If God is for me then why has life been so hard?

I know that God can calm the storms I come up against, like he did for the disciples all those years ago. But sometimes he asks us to trust that it’s enough that he’s simply in the boat. And that doesn’t always feel like enough.

April and May have been brighter so far. I have increased my medication for the first time in years. And whilst it has hurt my pride, it has brightened my world. Some more colour has come back into my life. I only realised how much had drained away once it had come back.

I am realising how important it will be for me to fix my eyes on the horizon. Especially on the days where the ocean, I am swimming in, seems endless.

My horizon has to be who God is and who I am in him. It is the truth of his promises, the enormity of his love and grace, the freedom that is mine in him. The vastness of his faithfulness stretches across as far as the eye can see.

And as I watch the horizon, I know that breakthrough will come. One day I will see land rising out of the skyline, rising up like freedom, magnificent and longed for. I won’t be swimming for ever. There will come a day when I will feel sand beneath my feet and my tired muscles will awaken with strength again.

Maybe I will find there was purpose in my swimming. Maybe I will have my own transformation tale to tell. Maybe you will too.

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