Advent 5: Matthew 4:12-17, Isaiah 9:1-3, Matthew 5:13-16

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

That’s what the song says. It’s what we’re meant to do. But…

I’m writing this in the lounge of a hotel in Stirling whilst, upstairs, my work Christmas party is in full swing. A few hundred people who I spend most of my waking hours with. Those I know well, I really like. I enjoy their company and often have a laugh with.

Tonight, though, is different. Hundreds of folk dancing and drinking as loud music blares. I can’t hear or see properly and have started to feel suffocated, uncomfortable and panicky. Things started well, but suddenly, well, I’m not even sure that “this little light of mine” is even there anymore.

But I know it is. When Jesus said “you are the light of the world” he was talking to me. I mean, he was talking to all of us, but at this point of time he was talking to me. That light is still there. It’s dimmer than normal and struggling to be seen in the glare of others, but it’s there all the same.

So I’m going back in. And I’m going to let is shine. Just a little, but it’ll still shine.

A post for World Mental Health Day

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Today is World Mental Health Day (as you can tell by the picture above, I guess). Now, I am far from an expert on these things. Apart from my own depression and anxiety which, as I have said before, are relatively mild, I have no real experience of mental illness.

However, there are a few things I do know. There are things which are very common misconceptions regarding mental illness which I see and hear said a lot. In fact I have, in the past, said some of these myself. We all need to realise, though, that these things really are not true.

Depression is not when you feel a bit sad. Depression is a void which can get so bad that it is not just mental, but physical in its effects. It destroys all joy, hope, happiness, confidence and self-esteem. It is literally soul-destroying and so much more than just sadness.

Anxiety is not when you can’t handle stress. Anxiety is a crippling illness which makes certain situations, or life itself, pretty much impossible to cope with as you battle with horrific fear, stress, palpitations and panic attacks for no reason other than being ill.

Schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder. When someone says that they’re a bit schizophrenic, they think they are saying that their personality changes a bit from time to time. What they’re actually saying is that they hear voices in their head, constantly compelling them to harm themselves or others, that everybody is trying to kill them, that the world itself is evil. They are saying that they suffer hallucinations and are utterly detached from reality.

OCD is not where you have to straighten pictures, alphebatise your tins and wash your hands a lot. You feel the need to go through certain rituals because,  if you don’t,  you truly believe that awful things will happen. People’s wellbeing or lives depend on it. It is a disorder which compels you to do things because you are utterly obsessed.  The clue is in the name. And it is Hell for those who have it.

As I said, I’m not an expert. Some of what I’ve written comes from personal experience, some from what I’ve read of the experiences of others. The point of this is that we all have a great deal to learn when it comes to mental illness. There is so much misinformation and myth surrounding it that it leads to a lack of understanding.  That lack of understanding leads, in turn, to the stigma which is still very much attached to all forms of mental illness. So, we need to talk about it, read about it and listen to people who are living through it in the same way we would with physical illness.

That’s why I’ve written about my own depression. Not to gain sympathy, but to encourage openness and discussion about the issue. We need to get past the fear of talking about mental illness, whether we have it or not. It’s not shameful in any way, it’s just illness. Let’s all fight it and understand together.

What if?

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The next step of my long journey to training for the Readership comes along on Tuesday as I travel to Edinburgh for a 3 hour psychological assessment.

A 3 hour psychological assessment!

I sometimes worry about whether I’m stable enough to keep writing this blog, so the idea of going through something like that is terrifying! What if they realise that I’m only calm and confident on the outside (sometimes) and that, on the inside, I’m a crumbling wreck who is ready for the knacker’s yard? What if they see me as the fraud I am and kick me out of the office within minutes, deeming me unsuitable to even leave the house again, let alone hold a form of Christian ministry? What if…?

The two most destructive words in the English language, if used like this.

What if?

What if it all goes wrong? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m the wrong person? What if nobody agrees?

What if? What if? What if?

But God has a way of turning those destructive words into words of promise, grace and hope.

What if you try?

What if it works?

What if you don’t do it and regret it forever?

What if you are better than you think?

What if you’re stronger than you think?

What if you trust in Me? What if you let Me guide you? What if you let My words and will permeate your mind and soul?

What if? The two most exciting words in the English language if spoken by He through all things are possible?

What if God’s will is for me to preach His word and He has made me into the right person for the job? What if all my doubts, weaknesses and insecurities will actually make me a better preacher and teacher? What if my depression and anxiety are as important to my calling as my way with words and my presentation skills?

What if?

There’s only one way to find out.

Stand up to ridicule

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I actually don’t like being the centre of attention. I feel really self conscious when everyone is looking at me or listening to me. I always assume that everyone is looking or listening and rolling their eyes at me being a total idiot (yes, slight self-esteem issues). If I receive compliments then I don’t know how to react, beyond saying thanks, of course. I feel quite comfortable sitting at the back of a room or in a quiet corner and, as Jonah Lewie sang, you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties.

So, why do I always speak out in meetings? Why am I always cracking jokes in public places? Why do I write this blog? Why do I do amateur dramatics, taking principal roles in musicals? Why am I applying to be a reader in the Church of Scotland? Why do I train groups of people as part of my job?

And why, in the name of everything on this Earth which makes sense plus most of those which don’t, when my wife asked me what I want for my birthday did I say that I wanted to do a two day course on stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival? Seriously! I could have asked for anything; theatre tickets, a telescope, a new car… ok, not the car. But why did I ask for that?

My joke telling skills are legendary. Legendarily bad. Well, the jokes are legendarily bad, anyway. King of the crap one-liners and poor puns, I’m actually well known for it among friends and work colleagues. I don’t think I’m particularly funny and neither does anyone else.

I hear about comedians dying on stage, where it goes so badly that even the tumbleweed won’t roll across the stage as it doesn’t want the shame of being associated with the act. This is how I imagine things will go for me, only I will literally die on stage. 90 seconds into my set a shared insanity will grip the audience and they will rise as one, tearing my body apart as I attempt to make jokes about being “armless”, “not having a leg to stand on” and “have a heart, oh, I see you already have mine”. At the subsequent trial for murder the judge will ask what the audience’s defence is and they will produce a video of my set. The judge will free them immediately to a heroes’ welcome. Meanwhile, my family will have been forced to change their identity and emigrate to Peru to avoid the public humiliation.

And breathe…

Ok, maybe not that bad, but why does a guy with no experience, who doesn’t actually like the limelight, who doesn’t even think he’s funny and who suffers from anxiety want to put himself through possibly the scariest form of public performance there is? Because I really want to give it a bash. I don’t know why, but I’ve always fancied giving it a go. Just the once, I don’t want to suddenly change careers, but it just looks like really good fun. I intend to have a laugh learning some of the skills of stand-up and actually trying to perform it, even if it turns out that nobody else is laughing.

I think the reason I do all of this is twofold. Firstly, there’s a real adrenaline rush and sense of achievement involved. You get a buzz which is better than any drug (not that I have any experience in that area) which seems to grow the scarier the setting.

Secondly, I think it’s some sort of defence mechanism against my low self-esteem. It’s not a cry for acceptance, I would choose stuff which would leave me less open for criticism if that were the case. If, however, I throw myself into stuff like this then it stops me sitting quietly, moping about how useless I am. Instead, I give my mind something else to focus on which, because I’m doing it publicly, I have to focus on completely, without drifting into distractions.

So, one weekend in August, just after the 20th anniversary of my 21st birthday (that’s how I’m choosing to market my birthday this year) I will go on a two day stand-up course and perform to a group of strangers.

I’d better get my will sorted out.

What I want to do when I grow up.

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A pilot.

A professional footballer.

A psychologist.

A teacher.

A TV presenter.

An estate agent.

A hypnotherapist.

A Ghostbuster.

An inventor.

A stand-up comedian.

A photographer.

A journalist.

Many and varied things, none of which remotely relate to what I do for a job now.

But you make do. You plug on. You grin and bear it.

I don’t hate my job. I rather like it on some days.

On others I really don’t.

But it’s a job and, especially at these times, I’m glad to have one.

Sometimes I come home from work satisfied that I did a good thing that day. Sometimes I forget about my day before I’m even out the door. Sometimes I’m so stressed and anxious that it all spills out in a torrent as soon as I get home.

Today was the latter. Today was because of me. Because it’s been a day where my anxiety claimed a small victory and I allowed it to define my day and myself.

But I won’t let it win. I won’t let anxiety and depression be the defining aspects of my personality. There are too many good things in my life for those two destructive forces to beat me.

“Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” (Colossians 3:23 NLT)

So, this is what I’ll do. There is more to me than my job. More to me than the depressed and anxious me.

I wish I felt that more often, but I will not let it win.