A Letter to the Church, From a Friend With Depression and Anxiety Sitting in the Aisle
I have mental illness, namely anxiety and depression. I fight a near constant battle with it; I have accepted it as part of my life, but it isn’t easy. I have panic attacks that can happen at any moment, with or without a trigger. My panic attacks are brutal, ugly and leave me cowering in a corner, sobbing as I try to gasp for breath. Most recently this happened while I was worshiping. I felt it coming and I hid in a bathroom stall, praying for it to stop. It did, 10 minutes later. Never have I felt more alone in my life.
Why should I feel alone? It’s because people often don’t understand it — that I am sick, that my brain is sick, that I’m wired differently.
Here’s some friendly advice. I love God. I love talking to God. I love worshiping Him. Sometimes though, my anxiety and my depression gets in the way of doing all that. Please don’t tell me I need to “get rid of my demons” or that my medication isn’t necessary. Please don’t tell me there is no such thing as depression, anxiety or mental illness, that it’s all in my head. Every time I confide in someone about my actual state of mind and I hear that, I shut down completely. I am in no need to be “fixed,” thank you very much. I want to talk to someone, tell them my hurts and that my anxiety is telling me I am not worth anyone’s time.
I have my coping methods, but sometimes it’s not enough. When I am unable to talk to God, it’s because my anxiety is so loud that I can’t function. Those are the days I need to be able to turn to someone and be able to just let it out, except I don’t. I have been hurt before, so I found a new home. Every now and then I hear the occasional sentiment from people who don’t understand mental illness, but that doesn’t bother me. I can always try to teach them about it.
My anxiety does make life difficult. My anxiety makes being around people, new people and old friends, difficult. It’s a constant, “Am I saying the right thing? What if they don’t like me? Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, that means I am not worth being liked.” The mental dialogue is never ending, even when I am alone at home. My anxiety means when I need to desperately say something, I don’t. Anxiety is caring too much. In the end, it becomes easier not to care at all. It becomes easier not to grow close to someone because that means they can’t hurt me later on.
The flip side of my mental illness coin is the depression. The talks I have had with God about the depression could span volumes. Usually the conversations are always about the same thing and go something like this:
Me: “I don’t want to get up today.”
God: “No, you have to. I have things I want you to do.”
Me: “But it’s really difficult for me.”
God: “I know, but if you don’t then you won’t be able to do what I have planned.”
Me: “Does it involve talking to people?”
God: “Yes, and it will benefit you.”
Me: “Fine, but getting up is really difficult for me today.”
God: “I’ve got you. Don’t worry.”
Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s really difficult just to have breakfast in the morning or do the things you know you have to do. Sometimes I just eat dinner because the effort to make food was just too much, and other days, I manage to finish the laundry, study, make three-course dinners, and walk the dogs. Sometimes I am extremely productive, and other days, I barely function. When I wake up in the mornings, I never know which day it’s going to be.
Depression is different for each person who has it. “Depression” is not a buzzword that can be casually thrown around just because your coffee order was wrong. Depression is amazing at making you feel like the most useless being on this earth, even while your dialogue with God tells you otherwise. It makes you feel unloved even among loved ones. It makes you feel like your biggest accomplishment was nothing. Throw anxiety into the mix, and all of a sudden you’re caring too much one moment, feeling nothing the next. “Dead inside” cannot be explained unless you have felt it. It’s not just a saying; your whole body feels numb. It feels as if your heart is deliberately beating slower, that your lungs are purposefully not taking in the oxygen you need to survive, that your blood isn’t running through your veins. It’s an unexplainable numbness.
God: “I know life is hard, but I’ve got you.”
Me: “Dad, please just take this pain away. I need to feel again. I’m tired of the fight. I am tired of doing my best, and it feeling like nothing. I am so extraordinarily tired.”
That’s what they don’t tell you about depression. I’m always tired. I’m always wanting to rest because I believe rest is good. Except I can rest too much. It’s not laziness, it’s just that the depression has made me fight it so long that I am mentally exhausted all the time. All the time. Eight hours of sleep make me feel as if I’ve had none. Eating well and exercising perks me up for a few hours, but the exhaustion sets in again.
Psalm 23 has more significance to me as someone who is going through depression: “I walk through the valley of death, yet I fear no evil.” Depression is a great, black giant pit, where pinpricks of light can only penetrate, but there is also a constant light. Suicidal thoughts, yes, I have them, and I have them often. It takes a lot out of me to fight them. God has never abandoned me during my deepest moments in my fight with depression. I may have lost sight of him, but he has always been there.
For me, it felt as if my life was unimportant. For God, that was not true and he showed me otherwise. Several times. I often feel as if even God is getting tired of me, but then I am reminded in several ways of His unending love for me, even when I feel unlovable.
So, dear church and the people in it, please don’t put a stigma on mental health. Don’t put a stigma on my depression or my anxiety, telling me what it is or isn’t. Don’t tell me how it can be overcome with God. Don’t tell me I am demon-possessed or that it’s all in my head. Don’t tell me I should stop believing lies.
However, listen when I talk, without answering, attempt to understand. Accept that my journey is way different to what I or anyone could have imagined. My journey is filled with cliffs and roadblocks. There are things in life I want to do that I can’t. Not yet anyway. Understand that my mental illness sometimes does stop me from talking to God but that He is always there for me. Know that sometimes my bad days far outnumber the good days, but I will never tell you that. Also know that my identity isn’t forged by the depression I have, or the anxiety I loathe; it is in Christ, but that identity is harder to find on the bad days. Sometimes, I will say I am fine when I am numb inside. Sometimes I am actually fine, or great, or had a really good run of great days.
I love my conversations with God. The ones where there is nothing getting in the way. They are the ones I don’t have to work for. The rest I fight for with all my strength because the depression, or the anxiety, or both, are standing in the way. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t.
My mental illness is not my definition, but it can be treated with sympathy, a kind word, and a little understanding. Be sensitive to those around you. Make them know that talking to you is a safe space for them.
Your friend in the aisle with depression and anxiety.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo by thanasus