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Less than Rosy

Diane Benge

Being a Christian who struggles with mental or emotional illness can be a long, lonely uphill road. Unlike physical illness – whose afflictions are often apparent to the casual observer, making it a rather public affair – people who struggle with the less visible symptoms of mental or emotional sickness often suffer in private, afraid of what others might think should they find out. For Christians in this predicament there is the added concern that their piety, along with their sanity, will be called into question.

Being a Christian who struggles with mental or emotional illness can be a long, lonely uphill road. Unlike physical illness – whose afflictions are often apparent to the casual observer, making it a rather public affair – people who struggle with the less visible symptoms of mental or emotional sickness often suffer in private, afraid of what others might think should they find out. For Christians in this predicament there is the added concern that their piety, along with their sanity, will be called into question.

Reality spoke to three such people (we'll call them Mary, Stephen and Robert) who shared their stories in the hope that those of us who count ourselves healthy may learn to understand something of their suffering and be sensitive to it.

"A few weeks ago", says Mary, who's in her mid-forties, "I had a depressive episode so severe that I couldn't get out of bed. I wanted to die. I felt no hope. I was in complete despair – and that was terrifying. I felt totally paralysed. And yet I am a Christian."

Mary wrote these words in her journal:

"I feel nothing, empty, tired, agitated, cornered, alone, trapped, crowded, sad."

This is not the first time she had felt like this, and she knew she had to get to her GP quickly.

"He asked me the same questions I have heard before: 'Are you considering doing yourself harm?' and 'Do you hear voices or see things that are not normally there?'

I felt shame – and yet I was powerless to 'pull myself together'. How can a Christian get to a position of such hopelessness and despair? Aren't we supposed to live victorious lives?"

Over the years Mary has tortured herself with questions.

"In confessing to mental illness am I putting a curse on myself?

"Could I, by admitting I'm depressed, be 'speaking into existence' something that should be no part of a Christian life?

"Isn't it the case that Christians who are living according to godly principles should never feel depressed? If they do, clearly there must be something wrong with their faith – because God doesn't allow this to happen to his beloved."

She has mulled over all these ideas: each one planted in her mind by some well meaning fellow Christian with whom she has shared her struggle with depression.

But worse than the 'helpful' comments, Mary says, is the silence.

"It's the averted looks; the inability to find something to say. Like the time the pastor came around to visit me and spent the entire afternoon talking rugby with my husband. I only found out a lot later that he had actually come to see me and to cast a pastoral eye over me. But in the event I was just part of the pattern on the wallpaper. He had no idea what to say to me.

"Then there was the time I went to the front of the church for prayer, and the man who was praying for me said, 'This is not really my department.'"

When, a few years ago, Mary found herself on her second round of anti-depressants, she decided to keep quiet about it. "I was ashamed to admit my illness and that I needed chemical intervention – that simply depending on 'the power of God' didn't work for me. "Depression is often viewed as a 'mysterious' illness – it carries superstitious and demonic overtones. Those of us who wrestle with depression are used to getting a glib response from fellow Christians, or worse, having Scripture used as a weapon against us."

But today Mary says she is no longer affected by this type of Christian response – in fact she says, "I no longer mix with those who hold this type of belief, and I have no desire to mix with them! Now, when I have a depressive period like the one I had a few weeks ago, I know God is with me even though I may not be able to practise any of my usual spiritual disciplines. I know I am protected and kept safe.

"Recently I read something written by Julian of Norwich who lived in the fourteenth century that was illuminating and freeing. It helped me through the darkest moments. At a time when she was gravely ill, she so wisely said:

. . . (I) felt all alone, deeply depressed and tired of my life, so fed up with myself that I could hardly bear to go on living. There was no comfort or calm for me now, only faith, hope and love, and I did not feel these, I only believed they were true. . . . . There were times when God once again gave me his comfort and rest; so satisfying and certain. In the times of joy I could have said with St Paul: "Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ"; and in pain I could have said with Peter: "Lord, save me, I am perishing!"1

"Julian's own personal experience, and the way she was able to interpret the human condition, reached into my soul. Another image of Julian's that I kept returning to was this:

It was at that time that the Lord gave me a spiritual understanding of the warm friendliness of his love. I saw that he is everything which is good and comfortable. He is our clothing; out of love for us he wraps us around, fastens the clasp, and enfolds us in his love, so that he will never leave us.2

"I have been able to cling to this image and call out to God", says Mary. "I am also grateful to sensible, understanding people who hold me in their love and prayers."

Describing himself as a forty-nine year old husband and father, Stephen recalls a particularly dark time in the mid-nineties.

"I was depressed, though I hadn't realised it. Not surprising when you are stuck at the bottom of a black-holed pit – you can't see any way out. Others might have guessed, but no one came alongside me and suggested that maybe I should see a doctor or something.

"No, instead week after week, month after month, I would scrape through each day and hide my crying. I would drive to work and discreetly place my first-of-the-day saturated handkerchief in the glove box. I would shut the door of my tiny little office and by lunchtime hide my second saturated handkerchief in the back of my top drawer. There'd be another wet handkerchief by the time I got home."

During those years, Stephen explained away his watering eyes as a succession of battles with various cold and flu viruses. "My work colleagues seemed to believe me and would understandingly nod at my exhausted red-eyedness."

But he couldn't go on indefinitely in this way. "After a while I started trying to be joyful – I couldn't quite manage that, so instead I simply became very good at masking what I was really feeling. Talk about denial. After all Spirit-filled, born again Christians aren't allowed to be depressed, are they?"

But the one place Stephen says he couldn't deny his tears was at church. "I would be at every altar call desperate, despite the horrendous sense of humiliation."

All this was happening during the 'Toronto Blessing' and Pensacola era. "People would be laughing . . . everyone seemed happy, joyful, and in some cases over the moon to the point of being slightly loony – but I was more than slightly loony and not in anyway joyful."

Standing at the altar Stephen did not find comfort or even understanding: "A person would come and pray for me. There would be a condescending smile, a gentle walk to the altar to retrieve the box of tissues, and then the prayers would start. 'Oh God give my brother a spirit of joy! Oh God let this man receive an almighty up-welling of laughter!'

"And I'd be thinking: 'Oh God, why did I bother . . . ?' Then I'd castigate myself for thinking so badly. Then I would worry that I'd offended God. Then the person praying would walk away, leaving me feeling that I was a hopeless case."

Since that time, he says, he has had real difficulty with overly positive Christian people with their too-ready answers to the problems they refuse to acknowledge. "You know the type: sparkly-bright shining eyes, gleeful teeth flashing in a wide happy 'life is sooo wonderful' smile. Why do these people upset me? I think it's the feeling of my insides sinking like a failed soufflé while I wait for their inevitable glib, trite, inanely enthusiastic assertions."

He's also had trouble reading St Paul. "I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that perhaps he had masochistic tendencies – because having suffered all the things he suffered he then says he 'counted it all joy for the sake of Christ'. God forgive me, but he had to have come from another planet! I can't even cope with a bout or two of depression – and then it leaves me battered for years!

"Needless to say my faith is never stirred by this sort of 'consummate conquering Christianity'. Instead I found Elijah's story was one of the most important turning points in helping me overcome my depression. Elijah, after performing his conquering rally-cry against the priests of Baal, winds up in the desert seeking death. 'Lord take my life I'm no better than my fathers', he says. (Only God knows how much I can identify with that statement.)

"And what does God do? He leads Elijah to a cave, where rather than blasting him, shaking him up or burning him – he instead reveals himself as a 'still small voice': speaking quietly, lovingly, calmly. Just as it was for Elijah back then, today I too can hear God's still small voice.

"I'm a much better person these days, and it is God's kindness and compassionate caring – his still small voice – that does it for me. Christ is the one I try to listen for. He has guided me out of the miry pit into new places and inspired new hope in me. That hasn't happened either quickly, or smoothly, but I believe that the patient graciousness of Christ will eventually light up any pit so that one's countenance is genuinely changed, gaining a 'radiance' that is more than just skin deep."

Robert was a 22 year-old student when he was diagnosed with depression in a university doctor's office. He recalls the sense of relief at finally having a name for the battle he had been fighting for the past eight and a half years.

"I was failing the degree I was halfway through, leading a student Christian group, sleeping with my girlfriend, lying to my parents, trying to trust God and struggling for hours each day not to kill myself.

"I was a Christian in bad shape and no one in my loving family or supportive church had any answers. Sure they had come up with the pat ones, like: 'pray more' – goodness, I was spending most of my days praying. I hated myself, my thoughts plagued me, but I loved God and I wanted to feel accepted by him.

"I knew in my head that Christ had died for me, it just didn't sound believable to my heart. I struggled with myself and the sin that caused this great rift between me and God. My prayer was just a heart crying out in pain most of the time, repenting again and again.

"I felt guilty that all I could see was my own pain. Others were quick to remind me of the countless orphans, homeless and starving that were much worse off than me. I knew all those things were true, but if I was to start loving my neighbour as much as I loved myself he or she was in for a rude shock!"

A few days later Robert found himself filling out an ACC form in a psychiatrist's office. "The doctor was convinced I needed medication, so here I was. I'd never been to see anyone like this before and to be frank, I doubted that anyone I knew would approve – we were all scared of mental illness, of words like 'depression', 'obsessive', 'compulsive', 'addictive'. Clearly Jesus had just been casting demons out of people, hadn't he? They weren't sick in the head, it was all 'spiritual'."

When some of Robert's friends found out what was happening they decided that he was in need of some serious spiritual intervention. "Apparently what I really needed was to fast and pray. The fact I hadn't improved after all the prayer so far, meant we needed to 'step it up a level'."

Robert hastens to point out that he's not knocking the power of God to change or deliver people as a result of fasting and prayer: "We did fast and pray and things happened alright. But I remained depressed."

Next step hidden sin: "Yep. That was pretty easy to spot. But my secret sinful life was the last thing I wanted to 'fess up about. My depression had started in my adolescent years when my current secret sins were not an issue. I didn't really see how letting someone else bash me up emotionally was going to help, I was doing a pretty fine job of that myself."

Robert knew he was in the wrong, but he also knew that he served a loving, merciful and gracious God. He believed that if he could just remain focussed on God, he would find a way through the darkness. But the darkness was pretty enveloping.

"You can hear that darkness in me can't you? I'm tainted. Cynical. Defensive. Abrasive. I struggle with things. I'm tired. I stay up late at night. I sleep in. I don't eat well. I don't take care of myself sometimes. But of course people only see little glimpses of that because these things are socially unacceptable, especially in church, so I have learned to pretend.

"I'm a good actor. I don't know how many times a day I meet someone and they ask me how I am. Do they really want to know? Hmm . . . let's see . . . 'I'm fine thanks, I didn't cut myself today, oh, but I did use my own belt to hit myself because I'm falling into sin again, I managed to convince myself not to overdose again, but enough about me . . . you look well.'"

Robert speaks of truth and lies, light and darkness, good and evil. "The war was on over my soul", he says, "and what a war it was." He admits it all sounds rather dramatic, "But you need to understand that I felt that struggle daily. My main aim in life was not to let the devil win, this is one life he wasn't going to have the satisfaction of wasting. It is probably the only reason why I'm still alive – I didn't want to kill myself and lose."

"Perhaps," he says, "this is all a little too much, a little too raw – but I hope that it gives a glimpse of what much of my life has been like."

It is now almost sixteen years since Robert received his diagnosis of depression. Since then he has married his girlfriend and finished a degree. And during that time, on doctor's advice, he has had periods of being medicated, each time for a couple of years.

"I'm back on medication again right now and I'm aware that there may come a day when it is better just to stay on it long term. My brain has a deficiency, so do my eyes. I'm happy to correct my vision – to use glasses to realign the light on the back of my retina – but somehow I balk at the thought of doing the same for my brain.

"I enjoy the clarity that medication brings. Yes, there can be side effects, but medication has given me the energy to begin to deal with my emotional pain. I'm working at being authentic in all areas of my life – and don't spend nearly so much time these days trying to convince myself not to commit suicide.

"I am a different person now. It is not just because I am older. God has healed me, though there is still much more healing to be had. I'm glad to say that while some members of the church have increased my suffering, others have been a Godsend. It is incredible to me that God could relieve my suffering through psychotherapy. I don't live with the pain that I once did and I am in no doubt who to thank.

"God is faithful, he is restoring me, he has always loved me and extended his great grace and mercy to me. I am learning to change. It is hard, but very valuable, like all discipline."

Robert says he once asked God why he had to walk the long slow hard road when he knew God could heal him instantaneously. He quotes Hebrews 12 ("Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed"3) as he shares God's reply: "I could heal you right now, but if I do you would not understand the path (to healing) and be able to lead others there also."