Last week I was confronted with the requirement to reflect on ‘mental illness.’ On Monday I attended the funeral of a good friend, a ‘successful‘ man who had been ‘crippled’ with depression.
My friend’s successes were significant ones. He had played sport at the very highest level, for his country. He had a beautiful singing voice, a keen mind, a wonderful family, a vocation to which he was deeply committed and yet he was, on at least two occasions, ‘crippled’ with depression. So here are three lessons I re-learnt from my friend and his story:
- ‘Success’ does not immunize individuals from mental health problems. I too know this to be true. A successful business career, post-graduate qualifications, selection for ministry training, a healthy bank balance were, in my case, all entirely impotent as antidotes to depression and anxiety. Yet, as a society we are bizarrely hooked on success. Could it be that the obsession with success is a major contributor to mental health problems? I think so.
- Mental,physical and relational health are inextricably linked. In the funeral address my friend was described as having been ‘crippled’ with depression. The word I prefer to use in relation to my own depression and anxiety is ‘ravaged.’ When my depression and anxiety were at their worst I lost a huge amount of weight (mostly muscle) whilst cold sores, mouth ulcers, impetigo, leg, back and neck pains were my constant companions. Nausea was never far away and I used to experience a strange chemical reaction shooting through my forearms and wrists when the phone rang and I was in the mood to anticipate bad news. I used to go to bed at night praying that either God would take away my depression and anxiety, or that I simply wouldn’t wake up. It was crap. Thank God for my family, their love and their prayers. And, then there is the guilt because when I was really suffering I retained the self-awareness to know that I was putting my beloved others through the wringer. Guilt can of course lead to the persistent voice of nagging inferiority: ‘you are no good,’ ‘they would be better off without you,’ and so forth. Lies, of course, but lies experienced as truths.
- Healing is possible. I felt so guilty and so weak about being on therapeutic drugs. I really, sincerely, felt a huge sense of shame. Why? Because, being treated for depression and anxiety didn’t really fit with my self-construct. My friend encouraged me to ‘get real,’ and to accept that I was ‘wounded.’ He encouraged me to hope that one day I might become a ‘wounded healer.’ He encouraged me to be open and honest about my condition – sharing with those I felt I could trust. He encouraged me to see a Christian counselor and to take the doctor’s advice. One more thing – he avoided using pat Christian words and phrases, like ‘redeem.’ All he promised to do was to walk alongside me, and he did; gently and, with humility.
The man we mourned wasn’t the only Christian friend who walked alongside me, but he was the first Church of England Priest I knew who was utterly comfortable and unashamed in talking about mental health problems. In fact he had insisted that depression, the ‘dark night of the soul,’ was talked about at his funeral.
I can’t in all honesty say that I am 100% happy talking about depression and anxiety, maybe I never will be.
And, I don’t regard myself as being cured (even though I have been drug free for two years). I still get down and have a tendency to believe that the worst that can happen will happen. But, now it is an occasional tendency and, not my absolute default position.
I think I am being healed, day-by-day and, I am aware of the things that I need to do in order to make ongoing healing possible, starting with prayer (coming to God ‘Just as I am’). I also need to take regular exercise. As validated by neuro-science I firmly believe that prayer and exercise alter the functioning of the brain leading to positive mental (and physical) health outcomes.
Anxiety and depression negatively impact the mind, body and spirit, so healing must also be directed towards all three characteristics of human functioning.
Finally,I am grateful for the one-to-one ministerial encounters that allow me in some small way to be a ‘wounded healer.’ I never say to a fellow sufferer ‘I know how you are feeling,’ because I don’t. I know they feel truly crap, but I don’t know the specifics of their individual response to their unique problems.
But, because I have been able to open myself up to my suffering I do feel able to stand alongside the suffering; especially those whose suffering is not immediately visible to the wider world.
So although my friend was correct to avoid using terms like ‘redeem’ it does seem as though a positive and cautiously open attitude towards sharing about mental health problems, and my journey with them, has lead to some form of redemptive outcome.
Finally, I have avoided referring to my friend by name in this blog. I haven’t done so to protect his confidentiality for as I have said he wasn’t shy in talking about his illness. My reasoning is simply this: friendship is to the depressive perhaps one of the most important gifts you can make.