Growing Pains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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People will say the wrong thing

This post appeared first on The Mighty

Every year we seem to make a little more progress in reducing the stigma around mental illness. In the last year, there have been plenty of triggers for conservations about mental illness. It feels like discussions about mental health are becoming increasingly socially acceptable. However, I have noticed that as these discussions have increased so has the backlash when someone says something wrong or insensitive.

I was reading an article the other week about Dr. Ranj Singh who was taking part in a segment on the UK breakfast show ‘This Morning’. He was talking about the rise of eating disorders and said we are seeing ‘eating disorders becoming more and more popular’. Twitter was in uproar over the comment, that seemed to imply that eating disorders were a choice. And whilst Dr. Ranj took to Twitter to explain he had simply made a mistake and had meant to say eating disorders were ‘more common’ rather popular. But it seemed the damage was already done.

Here’s the thing, if we want to have more openness when it comes to talking about
mental illness, then we have to be realistic and accept that people will say the wrong
thing sometimes. It might be the celebrity on social media, or it could be
your aunt or friend putting their foot in it. Maybe it’s a slip of the tongue, or a result of
lack of understanding or in some cases it could be malicious. Whatever the reason we
can be certain it will happen.
And how we react to these comments matters too. We can react in anger, taking our frustrations to social media, condemning and ridiculing the commenter. But the risk is
that instead of changing the conversation about mental illness, we shut it
down altogether. The next time mental illness comes up in conversation that person
may try and avoid it altogether, quickly changing the subject, increasing the stigma
those of us with mental illness may feel.

And it’s really hard. It’s hard because it’s never just about that one comment. Our reaction is a culmination of all the comments that have gone before, the unkind looks, the rejection and lost friendships. Many of us have been badly hurt by other people’s
reactions to our conditions in the past. And that hurt makes us quick to be on the
defensive when we feel threatened, firing shots over the walls we have put up.

Through all of this, it’s clear what we’re seeking from those around us is more
compassion and understanding. We want a world where having depression is no more
stigmatized then breaking your leg. But don’t we need to be demonstrating that same
compassion and understanding to that person who has made that hurtful comment?

Maybe what they said was a slip of the tongue, perhaps they didn’t realize how their
comment sounded. This could be the first time they’ve discussed mental illness, maybe
they have no idea what someone with mental illness looks like. Or their words could be
an indication of problems and issues going on in their lives that they’re not able to deal
with yet. Mental illness could be deeply personal to them, maybe they’re thinking of
that parent who was too ill to look after them or the friend they lost to suicide. In the
same way that they don’t know what it feels like to be you, you don’t know what’s going on with them.

So perhaps instead of reacting in anger, we can try to stay calm. If we have the opportunity we can continue the discussion, bringing into the encounter our own wisdom and experiences. We can give them a chance to explain their opinion or clear up any misunderstanding. And it’s okay if we still don’t agree, everyone sees the world differently. But it’s possible that the discussion you’ve had will have given more insight to both sides. And as a result, their next discussion about mental illness could be different.

People are going to say the wrong thing. And we have no control over what they may say. Instead, we have a chance to direct where the conversation goes from there. Hopefully, with more compassion and education we will be able to build a stigma-free future for the mentally ill.

In The Stillness

Sometimes life is a hurricane of activity and busyness. We race from one task to the next, carrying the weight of countless expectations on our shoulders, pretending we know exactly what we’re doing. Our heads are full of plans and chores that we must do, all the while worrying about other people’s problems, that we are powerless to fix. We lose ourselves in the stress-tinged joy of being needed. We fill up every gap and hole on our quest to make ourselves irreplaceable. We are so busy running towards something, that we forget what we’re really doing is running from ourselves. We are fleeing from the problems we can’t solve, the emotions we don’t know how to face.

And then the quiet comes, suddenly and abruptly like  passing into the eye of the storm. The stillness feels deafening, with nothing to hide behind. The echoes of the week fade to silence, the plans that have brought success or failure are behind you. You are alone, alone with your thoughts and your feelings, the aches and emptiness, the joys and the sorrow.

I suppose this is where I find myself today. January has flown by in a blur of activity. Work has been very busy, with no shortage of stress to bury myself within. At home there have been some unexpected dramas to contend with. And a lot of the people I love are going through hard times at the moment, bringing with them plenty of opportunities for empathy and reasonable doses of worry. There has been so much I can fill my mind with and hide behind.

But now I’m sat here in the silence and it’s clear the emotions I’ve been avoiding are demanding to be felt. The depression, which has stalked my last decade, is trying to take up residence again. I have not been always winning the battle to stay positive through the endless fatigue filled days. There is still a mess of anger, confusion and frustration with God who could take this away in a heartbeat, but doesn’t. My heart is full of dreams that I am loosing hope I will see fulfilled. And each day I am losing to exhaustion brings a drop of grief.

We are taught to distract ourselves from uncomfortable feelings and emotions. We can fear being alone with our own thoughts, worried we will be overwhelmed by the strength of our own feelings. There is so much we put in boxes and try to lock away inside ourselves.

But what if we sat here together in the stillness and let the emotions come?

Sit with me as the emotions crash against the walls of our hearts, like waves on the shore. As time passes each new wave becomes a little smaller, a bit less powerful. Watch as each wave fails to break us, stay here until you no longer fear it will.We’ll sit here until we can accept the waves are with us but don’t define or control us.

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In these moments we are beautifully and painfully human, as we grapple with the pain and grief that comes with our own frailty. As our every synapse burns with emotion we are so alive, so immersed in what it means to be ourselves in this moment.

And in this stillness, which we have filled with every hidden emotion, we are still so loved. Loved by our father who longs for us to bring our pain and anger to him. Loved by our family and friends who stand by us through the hurricane of life. And perhaps if we dig deep enough, loved by ourselves, as we try to forgive our failings and care for ourselves despite of our imperfections.

The Left Behind

Here we are on the verge of a new year. It feels like only yesterday that we were looking with hope into 2017, wondering what it would hold. It’s been a year of worrying headlines, political blunders, and humanitarian disasters.  But also filled with stories of light triumphing over darkness, and human kindness prevailing over terror and violence. It’s been a year where there have been many triggers for conversations about mental illness and suicide, more perhaps than any other year. As such, I hope we can carry a little less stigma with us into 2018. But as I’ve read of each celebrity who has lost their battle with suicide, it strikes me how much further we have to go and to wonder if we ever truly get to leave our demons behind.

For me, it’s felt like the world’s been flying past me ever faster this year. Or maybe I’ve been moving in slow motion. It turns out that being exhausted in 2017 is much the same as being exhausted in 2016. The progress and recovery I’d hoped for has yet to come to fruition. At times this has been a source of great frustration and conflict within me. There have been times when I have doubted God’s purpose in my life and wrestled with what the future could hold. And it has been a year characterised by a sense of grief. Grieving for the life I hoped to have by now, the limitations I wanted to be without, the energy that eludes me.

There have been many occasions where I have felt left behind this year. Very little has changed for me in twelve months. I had hoped to have bought a house this year, but my attempts so far have been unsuccessful. Around me, people are moving on to get married or have babies and I’m as single as ever. Sometimes that’s been an incredible blessing, being able to sit back and watch the joys and triumphs of my friends. To celebrate and watch them flourish and go down exciting new paths. And other times it’s been painful, watching others speed past me, wondering if I can ever catch up. Not always sure exactly what I’m catching up to.

I think it’s a sorrow we all share at one time or another, that sense of loss and fear that our lives are not where they should be. Sometimes it’s from dissatisfaction at the speed our life is going, compared to those around us. Other times it’s from looking back and seeing those we’ve left behind along the journey. We feel the holes left behind in our lives, without knowing what we will fill them with.

We miss the friends who were only in our lives for a season. We long for those loved ones who were taken from us too soon. We reminisce about the ones who got away. Our memories and dreams are littered with faces we haven’t seen in years, voices that used to be so familiar, and are now just out of reach.

And as we travel through life, we leave parts of ourselves behind. The carefree children we once were, when the world was big and full of possibilities. The dreams we let float away peacefully or watched break apart in our hands. The quirks and eccentricities of our character that we discarded as we grew older. Those pieces of our hearts that we will lose over the years, sometimes gifted, other times taken from us.

At this dawn of a new year, there is one more thing I want to leave behind me. I want to close the chapter on this grief I’ve been carrying with me, from when fatigue became such a big part of my life. I am done with being frustrated over things I can’t change. I need to learn to embrace the life I’m living now, not look wistfully at the one I would like to have.

In the face of the vastness of life and the seemingly innumerable achievements of others, it’s easy to think our life doesn’t matter. Sometimes our achievements pale in comparison to those of others. We want to do great things for the world, but instead we are left pouring all our love and passion into the small things we can do.

But every life matters, whether you’re sailing along in the fast lane, or sat watching the world go by. We all have a purpose and a future, regardless of the people and things we’ve left behind. You are enough, on the days you can face the world with a smile and the days you hide under the covers. No one can be the person you were created to be.

In 2018, I don’t plan on reinventing myself. I won’t set new year’s resolutions that will be forgotten by February. Instead, I hope to embrace each moment, knowing that no one’s eyes will see it quite like I will. It’s time to realize that I have not been left behind, but positioned on the path God needs me to be on, for reasons I don’t need to understand. I don’t know what 2018 will hold, but I trust the one who does.

Christians Get Depressed Too

I bought a book once purely for the title. It was a book called ‘Christians Get Depressed Too’ and at 19 years old, in the midst of another major depressive episode, it’s hard to explain how much I needed to believe those words. I felt confused, cut off and excluded from the Christian community, which had previously been a sanctuary to me. I was painfully aware that what doctors were calling an illness, was viewed by many in the church as lack of faith or selfishness. I was seeking reassurance that my illness was not incompatible with my faith. I needed to know that I was walking through valleys that had been trodden by brothers and sisters before me. I would love to say I found the answers in the pages of that book. Instead, every day since has been a journey towards acceptance and understanding.

For those of you who have not experienced it, depression is a lingering and often debilitating feeling of sadness and despair. Everyone experiences depression differently. For me, it was a crushing sadness and hopelessness that took all the colour out of my life. It felt like someone was torturing my mind, each day was excruciatingly painful and I couldn’t see an end in sight.

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Sometimes depression can be triggered by a difficult life event, the loss of a loved one, unemployment, a relationship breakdown or financial strain. Sometimes the cause can be a lot harder to pinpoint and can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. For me, there was no obvious explanation. The World Health Organisation estimates that 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression.

I will start by repeating those words: Christians get depressed too. And if those words sit too easily or comfortably then perhaps I need to add the caveat ‘goodChristians get depressed. I have encountered many people along the road who would readily accept the first statement, but the more you talked to them the more it emerged that they believed a certain calibre of Christians would be exempt from depression. Sure Christians could get depressed, but not Christians who read their bible and prayed every day, not those who lead Sunday school or house groups, not church leaders or pastors. And certainly not Christians like them. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they were entertaining the belief that their behaviour and service would prevent mental illness from striking. The reality is depression has never discriminated and cares not about your social standing or church activities.

And secondly, I will offer my apology, for what it’s worth. Many people who read a post like this will have been hurt by the actions of the church. It is true that the church has fallen short over the years of how it should love those with mental illness. It’s easy when we refer to ‘the church’ to distance ourselves from its actions, to dehumanise it. We forget that it has failed because we as its body have failed.

I too am guilty of practising judgement in the place of love, of fostering a community that excludes instead of includes, of using the gospel as a stick to hit people with, instead of a life raft to reach out to the broken. I am sorry for the pain and the wounds that have been inflicted on many a heart. I am sorry for the times those experiences have caused people to turn their back on churches altogether. I am sorry that the people we hurt are often the most vulnerable and in desperate need of a family to love them.

So why do I need to write this post? It is true that in my decade struggling with depression, the vast majority of my experiences with other Christians have been positive. I have encountered a wealth of love, support, friendship and compassion. I owe a lot to brothers and sisters who have walked with me through the valleys I have found myself in.

However, I have also had some difficult encounters. I have been told by some that my depression would go if I prayed or read my bible more. I have read articles that encouraged depressed Christians to stop taking anti-depressants and worship God instead. I have been in more than one debate on whether mental illness was a result of demon possession. And I have my fair share of ‘cheer up’ or ‘smile’ in the place of empathy.

I think most of these difficult interactions stem from the way the church separates mental and physical illness. We are mainly happy to leave physical illness in the hands of the doctors, albeit supported with prayer. We leave the treatment to the medical professionals and are instead on hand with casseroles or practical help and sympathy.

But in contrast, mental illness is often left in the realm of the spiritual.  Instead of signposting people to professional help we can try to weigh in on the state of the sufferer’s soul. We have historically struggled with the concept that the brain gets sick the same way the body does. And this separation between mental and physical illness can play out even when we aren’t aware.

I have seen this illustrated time and again in the way we pray for someone with a physical illness compared to someone with a mental illness. If someone is physically ill we are comfortable praying for healing, for comfort and strength. And whilst many may pray similar prayers for the mentally ill I have heard other phrases creep into prayers. Phrases like ‘casting out’, ‘breaking strongholds’ and ‘delivering from darkness’. Whether we realise it or not we have made mental illness a spiritual battleground, and left physical illness in the earthly realm.

I do think illness, both mental and physical, can become a spiritual battleground. I am experiencing now how physical illness can cause you to question God and doubt your faith. I believe that as we are spiritual beings, every illness has a spiritual component. I do believe there is an evil one who delights in all sickness and pain. And that living in a fallen world we will encounter illness. However,  I think we’re wrong to single mental illness out in that respect. I categorically do not believe that mental illness is a direct result of sin or demon possession.

The reality is that depression is a deadly mental illness. It can leave people in so much emotional pain that they feel the only option is to complete suicide. And whilst I believe having faith can help with combatting depression, I don’t believe it’s enough on its own. There will be Christians in churches across the country right now, struggling with suicidal thoughts. And without the right help and support, some of them will lose their battles.

At the risk of being controversial, I have to say it’s not enough just to pray for those with mental illness. When you’re depressed it is so hard to hear God’s voice, with so many other voices shouting in your head. It’s like listening for a whisper in a hurricane. So you need others to demonstrate God’s love to you. Often practical things will be appreciated, as with any other illness, like bringing round meals or helping with housework. But above all the depressed need your time. Time to demonstrate that they are not on their own, that people care for them and will continue to hold out hope for them.

And if you are supporting someone who is struggling with depression it’s important you are not afraid to ask difficult questions. Questions like: how bad is it right now? Do you feel safe? Are you feeling suicidal? And then you have to be ready for the answers you are trusted with. These are not easy conversations to have. But putting a thought into words takes some of the power out of it. It gives people an opportunity to reach out for the help they need.

Churches at their best can be families which can offer love, compassion and companionship for anyone going through difficult times. But there will always be a limit to what the church can and should do. We are not mental health professionals and should not be offering advice on whether an individual does or doesn’t need treatment or medication. Recovery will likely require the help and support of health professionals as well as friends and family. It may take medication and therapy. We have to be realistic about our limitations and be signposting people to the right help and support.

Our Churches should be safe places to be broken. We’re all broken in different ways and in need of God’s grace. We are made to be in community, loving and caring for each other. By reaching out to those with depression we allow our churches to become richer for the diversity of experience within them. The more we get it right, the more the lost, lonely and hurting will be drawn to our doors. And the more like Jesus we become.

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.

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.