What Spirituality offers Mental Illness

I truly feel for those who face mental illness without God.  I mean, I have a family that loves me and friends who want to help me and that still wasn’t enough without Him.  We need an ever-present someone who can comfort us when we’re lying awake in the middle of the night anxious about what tomorrow will bring.  We need a solid, unwavering reason to keep pushing ourselves to go on day after day when we’re so depressed that it doesn’t seem worth it anymore.  And in my case—like some of you—I needed a deeply meaningful way to believe I was a precious human being with a purpose so I could stop cutting myself on a regular basis.

Many mistake Christianity for just another religion; and I suppose our church services and the moral framework we strive to live by might make it look like other religions in some ways.  However, the unique relational component between God and a person makes it distinct.  This is not a one-way relationship in either direction where people commune with a nebulous force that does not communicate back or a “vending machine” deity that keeps giving us things without asking anything of us.  The relationship is a connection prized by both the believer and God in which they lovingly reach out to each other not because they have to but because they want to.  Yes, I do ask Him for things many times but more often than that, I pray because I enjoy being extra conscious of His presence.  It is a source of encouragement to me in my struggles.  I believe the most powerful thing God gives us every day beyond guidance and reprieve from suffering is Himself, which fills the cracks in our souls that lead to a search for meaning and purpose in damaging, unfulfilling places.

God meets us at the heart of our weaknesses with the desire to take us to a healthier state and an infinite amount of patience to escort us there.  A lot of people believe that God likes to sit in a cloud and judge us from afar or that He’s completely uninvolved in our lives.  I think those are ideas we have about God when we haven’t experienced the richer interpersonal aspect of a relationship with Him.  To that end, I would like to outline some of what I consider to be the most practically helpful ways God can help us in regard to mental illness.

1.) God gives us a reason to live. Each of us were intentionally designed to carry out a purpose.  Our being here is neither a mistake nor an accident that suicide can correct.  The strengths we possess—creativity, encouragement, selflessness, etc.—are abilities He gave us wishing that we would use them to make the world a bit of a better place.  True goodness and God have the same likeness, so in spreading goodness throughout the world, we make it easier for others to recognize His work in it and come to know and love Him the same way we have.

2.) The promise of Heaven gives us hope that things will get better in the next life if not in this one. Through this perspective, we recognize that suffering is ultimately temporary for believers.  Even if our lives are riddled with it now, we can always look forward to things eventually getting better for us.  When we’re so consumed by depression that our perspective on life becomes so bleak, He offers us a way to see light beyond our dark circumstances.  And when we think about it, our suffering is actually quite small against the backdrop of eternal joy that will be ours.  This lets us take heart when dealing with our own circumstances in the present.

3.) God is in control so we don’t have to be. All that anxiety we feel about situations that slip from our grasp and don’t work the way we want them to can be laid to rest in the knowledge that the direction our lives take answers to Him.  He has control over it and sometimes allows things to play out differently than we would choose because He wants to teach us something that will make us a better person in the long run who is strong enough to overcome more difficult obstacles in the future.  If He wasn’t presiding over it all, painful events that happen in our lives truly would be senseless and no good could come from them.  It’s because of His mercy that He forges good things from the bad so that we actually benefit from them instead of being left devastated by them and never having anything to show for it.  Whatever happens, it’s accounted for in God’s plan for our good.

4.) God loves us so much that He sees us as treasures worth dying for. Jesus didn’t sacrifice Himself for us because He had to…He wanted to. He would rather go through all that pain on our behalf than spend eternity without us.  Wow.  That’s a lot of love.  Something about that just splits low self-esteem in half and makes you glow with the awareness that someone relishes you to a depth and intensity of the soul that not even you can see in yourself.  If you hate yourself inside and out, then you’re not seeing what the all-knowing God sees is there.  Whose opinion is more accurate?

Why God? Why?!

I doubt any of us have been spared from experiencing heartache in one form or another.  Whether it’s our own condition or someone else’s tragedy, it can rock us to the depth of our souls and make us wonder how something so terrible could happen.  We find ourselves endlessly screaming in our heads, if not out loud, why this had to happen.  We take out our frustration on God by doubting His love for us or even His existence.  Why would He do this to me?  If He is real, He must not care about _____ or this wouldn’t have happened to them.

I’ve had my share of heartache about pain that comes to my loved ones, me and people on the other side of the world that I’ll never have the privilege of knowing personally.  I didn’t re-question His existence because I’ve never looked back down that road after letting Him reign in my heart as King.  The nature of my more tormented prayers consisted of a mix of heartbroken pleas for the pain to go away and angry yelling because it wouldn’t.

First of all, I want to say something that isn’t always made clear in churches today.  God can handle your anger.  Some would-be believers treat Him like He’s a nice Sunday school idea that is too fragile to hold up to the stresses of real life or the darkness of tragedy…like He must not be questioned for fear that He will break or be proven inadequate.  If the god you serve can’t stand up to reality, then he’s not what he claims to be and you are doing yourself a favor by setting yourself free from him.  The real God is so much more powerful than we can imagine, yet He is approachable because He desires a relationship with us.  That means we can lay out the darkest pieces of our lives and talk to Him about all of them.  He can handle our tough questions and hurt emotions.

While I don’t recommend angrily hurling them at Him like projectiles, if you’re in so much pain that’s the only way you can bring yourself to approach Him, it’s better than refusing to engage Him at all.  I was so angry and in so much pain that I had to start like that before I could regain my reverence for Him and consult Him about my problems with a what-can-we-do-to-make-this- issue-better attitude.  It is best to approach God in a respectful manner but don’t feel like you have to be so polite that you can’t talk with Him about what breaks your heart.  He already knows what it is anyway; it’s safe to be honest with Him about how you feel.

A common source of frustration with God is why He would do something so terrible to us.  I was so quick to cast blame on Him until one day it occurred to me that I was actually more upset with Him than I was with Satan.  That was a wakeup call.  Somehow, I’d forgotten to consider the one who’d dedicated himself to feasting on the downfall of mankind.  It made little sense to credit God with the sadistic tendencies or heartlessness characteristic of Satan.  How does it make more sense that God is inflicting suffering on us as opposed to Satan?  The latter has certainly expressed a strong desire to harm us while the former speaks of His plans for our good.  I think it’s vitally important to remember Satan is a part of the equation too.  He wins when we mistakenly blame God for his actions.

However even after realizing this, we’re still partly mad at God because He let something terrible happen when He could have stopped it.  After all, wouldn’t someone be guilty in the eyes of the law for failing to intervene when they could’ve?  The problem with this is that in order to prevent all suffering, God would have to take away our free will because the choices we make can hurt other people.  Adam and Eve exercised their free will and thus opened the door to earth being corrupted.  Even natural disasters are the result of living in a broken world.  On my better days, I think about how much more I will be able to appreciate the lack of suffering in Heaven when I get there because of the abundance of suffering here.  It doesn’t make me okay with everything going on here, but it reminds me that He will put an end to it someday and give us the peace we crave.

But still…All of this doesn’t satisfy our cries for why He “did” or “let” something terrible happen.  This is perhaps the most stinging part of our rage toward God.  It took me a long time to realize that the “why” has more to do with placating our emotions than satisfying an intellectual need to know.  For some, the pain of their loss has been so enormous that even if they knew why, the explanation would never suffice; it wouldn’t take away their pain or make it worth enduring.  I think when we’re shouting “WHY?!” at God, what we’re really saying is, “I DON’T CARE WHY!!!! JUST MAKE IT STOP!”  And I wonder if that is precisely why He remains silent.

I believe that God in His mercy sometimes—not always—lets us know “why” later when we are more accepting of what His reasons might be.  This could be after we’ve seen the fruits of our labor to overcome tremendous difficulty or after we’ve seen beautiful things rise like phoenixes from the ashes of torment.  While typing this post, I was humbled nearly to tears at the thought of how many times my heart has broken for other people who were suffering and how badly I prayed for them to receive help.  In my life, a lot of the suffering I’ve gone through has given me the credibility and experience I needed to be more effective in coming alongside others who struggle with similar issues.  I think I know why God lets me suffer—it’s an answer to my prayers for someone else not to go through something horrible alone.  I can’t be angry with God because He chose to use me as part of the answer to my own prayer.

Self-Harm And Destructive Thought Patterns

A very insightful read on anxious thoughts and self harm!

The Unmarked Road

I have a terrible habit of feeling overwhelmed.

I would go as far as saying I struggle with these feelings on a daily basis, although very mildly in comparison to the effect it used to have on me. When I look at experts within my field, those I look up to, I can’t help that inner panic rise like bile, as I wonder ‘How on Earth can I achieve even a fraction of what they have? It’s too hard! I’m not good enough!’ I deal with these intrusive thoughts through many different ways including meditation and my writing. I can also hand on heart say that if it wasn’t for the encouragement from those around me, if it wasn’t for the sheer blind belief and faith that people have in me, I may well not be here telling my story.

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Relentless in the Face of Depression

I know I’m not the only one who lies in bed in the morning wishing the cloud of depression that makes getting up seem so fruitless and meaningless would just disappear.  It gets so old when it’s there more often than not.  There’s this void, this chasm between me and the energy I have for life and no technique I’ve been taught in therapy helps me cross it.  The joys and relationships that keep me going during the day just don’t seem worth getting up for as I conspire about who I can reschedule with to hang out later and how many tasks can be pushed off to another day.

My secret to getting out of bed and going on with my day wasn’t as a glamorous as I’d hoped.  It never occurred to me in a great epiphany.  It just became what the answer had to be—get up and keep going because you have to.  I wanted an answer that had more sensitivity toward my crushed and depleted feelings, one that removed the problem and reinvigorated me to deal with everything.  This is one of those hard truths that I think I grew stronger for gradually accepting because it taught me how to press on even when I don’t have all the answers to my problems.

I don’t know what the future holds for me and I’m actually glad for that.  It would be pretty bleak if it went exactly how I imagine it might when anxiety and depression are at their worst.  I’m grateful to be loved by a Lord who promises that His plans for me are for my good because that means there’s a light and a hope for me beyond what I see for myself.  There are unpredictable, wonderful moments ahead; He knows I need them to carry on.  I wouldn’t be able to endure through depression’s draining toll without the reassuring knowledge that He will give me what I need to make it through each day even if it’s just barely enough.

Pushing through each day may not seem like much.  However, after a while you start to realize that if you hadn’t gotten up and soldiered on that the happy moment you cherished yesterday or the meaningful moment that made you feel a bit more fulfilled today wouldn’t have happened if you let depression keep you in bed.  So when you’re struggling to get up, it could be beneficial to ask yourself how many good things in your life would you not have been able to witness if you didn’t push?   What might happen today that you would miss?  Let your desire to feel good motivate your feet as you take the first step of your day into the exploration of joyful mysteries yet to unfold.

Thank You

Usually I go looking for a gem of wisdom. This is the treasure trove! This post showcases a timeless beauty from wisdom forged in the heart of our suffering not just in a moment but spread throughout a lifetime. It brought me hope and I pray you will find some from it as well 🙂

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Thank you to the lies. You have taught me to be more mindful with where I place my trust.

Thank you to the pain. You have allowed me to see what I can endure.

Thank you to deception. You have shown me to question and to not just accept.

Thank you to the struggles. You have proven to me my ability to overcome.

Thank you to emptiness. You have made me appreciate when my heart and my arms are full.

Thank you to sadness. You have shown me the joy in simple happiness.

Thank you to grief. You have shown me to appreciate and be thankful for my life.

Thank you to loneliness. You have shown me how to love being alone.

Thank you to hatred. You have helped me learn to let go.

Thank you to my darkness. You have shown me how to love the depth of it…

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Fighting the Stigma

We often speak about the importance of spreading awareness about various mental health issues to decrease misinformation and stigmatization.  I am a staunch advocate for that cause; however, I’ve been spending more time lately how these problems arose in the first place.  It makes a lot of sense to me that misinformation could be the result of ignorance on the subject or a simple lack of experience being around people with a particular diagnosis.  I also see how some of that could feed stigmatization but there seems like there’s something more going on there than a mere lack of knowledge.  What is the basis by which people discriminate against and ostracize others?  It can’t solely be fear of the unknown or of that which is different from them because then providing them with the correct information should remedy the majority of the problem.

I wonder if the reason for the counterproductive attitude toward those suffering from psychological problems has more to do with the person casting judgment than the struggling individual.  Perhaps it’s an inability to have empathy/sympathy or a fundamental unwillingness to love those whose who wear their suffering on their sleeve instead of hiding it.  If the latter is the case, then I highly doubt educating them about mental health is going to get very far.  What do we do when our message falls on ears that do not care or wish to be our allies?  This is a sticky predicament because I’m not sure that we can teach them to love when they have already chosen not to.  Fortunately, I do believe there is something valuable to be said about the human heart’s capacity to be inspired to grander heights.  The question then is centered on how might we go about inspiring them?

The wise saying “lead by example” has a lot to offer here.  We can always model the selfless understanding attitude we wish them to adopt.  We can take care to not to define people by always using their conditions to refer to them, especially around them (ex. Referring to a person as “someone who struggles with schizophrenia” instead of “a schizophrenic”).  Our words can highlight the sacred value of human life by paying immense respect to it in every conversation that provides us an opportunity.  Extending patience in public to those we can clearly see are wrestling with mental health issues as well as their family members is perhaps the most beautiful, influential way we can shine a light on this important matter.  Our cause will always be a work in progress but the grace we show one another could add together and create an greater impact that we could’ve accomplished alone.

What Suicide Won’t Tell You

Wrestling with depression is an uphill battle, particularly when anxiety, self-injury and other burdensome factors are at play.  If you’re at all like me, you’ve probably asked yourself on numerous occasions why you bother to keep pushing day after day through a pain you’re not sure will ever go away.  Discouragement seeps in and you just want to give up.  I’ve woken up and stared at the ceiling with such musings swimming around in my head more times than I care to admit.  I kept lying there determined to figure out the magic solution that could make everything all right.  What I found instead of a cure for pain was a priceless realization that made my battle worth fighting.

Many people choose not to commit suicide because they don’t want to deeply wound their loved ones.  This has always been one of my strongest reasons keeping me anchored to this world.  However, reflecting on my values has doubly enhanced my motivation to stay alive during extreme difficulty.  There are things I want to stand for, causes I believe in that are greater than myself.  For instance, I would like my life to have reinforced in my own mind and to all who knew me the idea that good triumphs over evil.  But if I one day stare in the face all the evil in my life—everything that causes me to suffer and screams that I am worthless—and decide those voices are somehow more credible than the ones that taught me to hope, love and persevere, then I am announcing that evil wins…especially if I forfeit my life because of it.  I earnestly wish to leave behind a legacy that inspires others to believe in the beauty of life.  I never want my actions to violate that message.

More than anything, I believe I was designed for a purpose by my Creator.  I want to live long enough to find out what it is.  If I said this life was too difficult and left, I would leave my purpose unknown, unfulfilled.  I’d never discover what my true potential was.  I would never know the answer to the question I’m haunted by each morning—Will it ever get better?  I am certain of one thing; it will never have the chance to if I don’t continue working at it.  I’d rather go down fighting than give up even when it is very very very challenging.  I also remind myself that my life is not my own to take.  My Father will call me home when He’s ready to.  I have no plans to leave a moment before then.

Those of you who are losing hope in your own battles, I urge you to reflect on your motivations for fighting.  Are they holding up?  Are they serving you well?  If not, perhaps it’s time to dig down deeply into your values and ask yourself what you would like to stand for and ultimately what message you would like to be sending to those who know you.  Have you spent a significant amount of time wondering about the purpose for your life or who you might turn out to be in 5-10 years?  Are you curious to find out?  Please know you are not alone in your battles, whatever they may be.  Multitudes of people fight the same ones every day and God is also actively living your hopes and pains with you at the very moments you experience them.  Find someone you can talk to in your darkest moments and whenever no one’s around, He is always available 🙂

Relief from Panic Attacks

I want to give a shout out to everyone who’s ever had a panic attack before.  People who have never experienced one personally just don’t understand it.  They can read about it and think they’ve gotten the gist of it but there will always be that intense, drowning aspect of it that inevitably escapes those who haven’t had to suffer through it.  That being said, I applaud the multitude of counseling professionals who have still managed to impart effective coping skills to us like controlled breathing and thought out plans about what to do when we feeling it coming on.  Those of us who have fought to hold on to reality in the midst of terror are in a unique position to offer support and encouragement to one another.  I’d like to do my part by offering up the helpful bits of knowledge I wish someone had passed on to me a long time ago.

First of all, panic attacks aren’t signs that you’re crazy.  Someone may have told you otherwise but they were likely swept up in the misconceptions society has about mental health and frankly…someone who speaks to you like that is uninterested in treating you with the respect and dignity you deserve.  You are also not somehow less of a human being for experiencing panic attacks.  They’re an indication that you’re exceptionally overwhelmed by worry/anxiety.  I was told by a psychiatrist a few years back that my brain was so used to having them that it would just misfire every now and then and cause one for no discernable reason.

I struggled for years with believing that I had made some sort of mistake when I was overtaken by a panic attack and therefore was responsible for them plaguing me.  Even though I definitely needed to learn how to handle anxiety better, it was an oversimplification to say I was directly responsible for each panic attack.  Yes, I had more growing up to do but I was also stuck in an impossible position by my parents that led to my overbearing stress and that was not my fault.  If only I’d been able to acknowledge that truth sooner and saved myself so many late nights of kicking myself over how stupid I believed myself to be for not knowing what to do or understanding what panic attacks were.  Please don’t berate yourself for the fact that they happen to you while still realizing there may be more tools for minimizing them than you’ve encountered.

Arguably, nothing helps more in the midst of a panic attack than being as merciful to yourself as you can be possibly be.  Don’t blame yourself.  Don’t focus on everything in life that’s upsetting you.  Don’t even try to go solving your biggest life problems right then.  This is the time to be lenient and understanding toward yourself because you’re overloading.  Piling more stressful thoughts on your brain is not going to help.  Just recognize that it’s happening and let the realization pass without condemning yourself.

I find it incredibly hard to direct my thoughts to a more positive place than that, so I keep certain items available in my room that remind me in one sensory capacity or another of times where I felt safe—a soft blanket my cousin used to wrap around me when I was shaking uncontrollably, a scent I found soothing and recordings of people’s voices saying encouraging things to me.  I even have a small, portable electronic metronome that I set to 40 BPM to help me pace the inhale/exhale routine one of my former therapists taught me when everything in me is racing too quickly to keep track of anything without help.

I know it’s extremely difficult to believe this when you’re actually having one but please remind yourself, even if you have to write it down next to your bed, that you’re not going to die.  It WILL pass.  Eventually.  The best way you can speed up the process is not dwell on something that will add to your upset.  Focus every fiber of your concentration on a memory of what it felt like to be safe and imagine yourself in the safest place you can.  You will come to that place again; you just have to wait it out and then you’ll be there again.