Someone once asked me what was the most painful injury I have ever experienced. My questioner knew that I had played rugby into my early thirties and no doubt expected me to say a broken bone, a popped cartilage or a ruptured ligament. But, even though these things hurt my most painful and enduring injury is in fact a combination of depression and anxiety. In my experience there is something permanent about anxiety and depression. Even when I am not feeling acutely anxious or deeply depressed I know that my very own twin impostors are lurking in the background ready to colonize my mind. Yes, I live with their constant threat.
The good news is that I am not alone, for I now know that many, many people live with and suffer from mental illness. In fact I would like to suggest that helping people live with and through the threat or reality of mental illness is one of the church’s challenges. Naming and acknowledging mental illness perhaps needs to be normative to the church’s healing ministry?
Thinking about mental illness and healing has been at the forefront of my ponderings these last few months. I minister in what looks like a very ordinary market town. Of course it isn’t really ‘ordinary’ because there is no such thing. Inside each and every person and community is to be found a complex and competing relationship between light and dark, pain and joy, hope and despair.
In looking after myself and ministering to my community it is important to help create the situation where light, hope and joy stand a chance of winning through. In many ways this is how I now understand the concept of Christian healing. In saying this I in no way wish to discount the possibility for the miraculous, rather I simply want to stress the ‘ing’ in healing. The ‘ing’ helps me see healing as an ongoing process rather than an event.
This year I have had to look the worst consequences of depression and anxiety squarely in the face. In my very ordinary parish I have taken funerals for those who have simply been unable to find the means to carry on, and it has been heart rendering. I have also spoken to many people who feel that life is either not worth living or is a never-ending uphill struggle. Such conversations are part and parcel of my ordinary pastoral ministry. Such conversations demand that I take my own vulnerability seriously.
For many years I tried to hide the fact that I have suffered. I was ashamed of my ‘fragility.’ I strongly felt that I shouldn’t feel as I sometimes do. I thought I was a freak, a uniquely tortured specimen. The more ‘successful’ I became the more tortured I felt. I both felt and thought that I was always on the verge of being found out, uncovered and revealed for the sham that I thought that I was. Being a Christian didn’t help, after all as someone of faith surely I shouldn’t think and feel anxious and depressed? Surely God is all the medication that I need? But, as I have already suggested, the good news is that I am not uniquely tortured. Just like me other people have a whole collection of scratched records stuck on constant play in the jukebox of their minds. Through the healing process I have come to learn that the jukebox doesn’t need to be on constant play and, that other songs can be added to the play list of the mind.
Nowadays I carefully and selectively choose to share my vulnerability. It helps me and, hopefully, others. Sharing and caring builds up a feeling of solidarity and ‘ubuntu.’ Ubuntu is the African philosophy / theology that stresses that we are all in it together: ‘without you there is no me.’ When we care and share we build up that most precious of all commodities: good neighbourliness. Thanks to the help of doctors, specialists and friends I now have a range of strategies open to me to help me not only cope but occasionally thrive. Not everything I have tried has worked and this means I am very careful about making too many recommendations. There is no one single cure-all. If there was I would have found it and taken it. So, although anxiety and depression are commonplace each individual needs, with assistance, to find their own means of firstly surviving and then, hopefully, flourishing. For what it is worth prayer, meditation, exercise and writing are all core elements in my from surviving to thriving strategy. And, yes, medication has also, at times, played a significant role. I know that many, many people appreciate and find significant value in ‘talking therapies.’ In all honesty I didn’t.
Having said that I am loath to offer general recommendations I would like to ‘big up’ two resources and one possible strategy. I do so with some nervousness!
Recently Bishop Steven (Oxon) has been reflecting on depression and anxiety. In November he gave a wonderful presidential address to the diocesan synod and has subsequently written a very gentle reflection on the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of healing. It is available though the link below:
The other resource that I would highly recommend is Katharine Welby-Robert’s ‘I thought there would be cake.’ It is (again) gentle, grounded, humane, honest, reflective and funny. Oh, and its realistic. Katharine talks about her own battles with anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue. For me she is an exemplar of the importance of ‘ing’ in healing. At only £7:99 her book is great value for money.
The strategy I would suggest is laughter therapy. I am nervous about suggesting this and recognise that for someone staring into the abyss my suggestion might appear to be a little insensitive. If I have offended you please accept my apologies. Recently I attended a seminar on ‘laughter, mirth and merriment,’ during which I took part in something called Laughter-Yoga. Fortunately for me , and the other participants, I was able to remove my cynical hat and found the session intriguing. Someone very close to me suffers with permanent and chronic pain (alongside other conditions) and I told her that I had attended the workshop. A few days later she phoned me back to tell me that she had, with a friend, done some ‘purposeful laughing’ and that it had paid dividends. So why not google ‘laughter therapy’ and give it a go?
I am extremely grateful to the likes of +Steven, Katherine Welby-Roberts and Ian MacDonald (who led the course on Laughter, Mirth and Merriment) for helping create the conditions whereby naming and acknowledging the cruel reality of mental health problems paves the way for the breaking through of light, hope and joy; healing in other words.
For all who are suffering; prayers.