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.

I’m just trying to help!

I like to think that i have a fairly positive view of human nature. I think that everyone, deep down (some much deeper than others) have a desire to do good. I honestly feel that its our instinct to help people wherever possible.

This has recenlty demonstrated by the phenomenon whic is the ALS ice-bucket challenge. Now yes, pouring buckets of freezing cold water over yourself is crazy, and rather unpleasant. Yes, it appeals to the attention-seeking part of us. Yes, it moved away to a certain extent from raising money from ALS charities to money going out to hundreds of different of causes. However, it did raise millions of pounds/dollars/euros/yen and other currencies for some very good causes as well as raising awareness of ALS which, maybe, wasn’t what it should have been.

Sadly, that’s not enough for some. The Ice Bucket challenge has come under fire from some quarters. One criticism has been that it deflects attention away from other “more deserving” causes (it doesn’t, and I’m sure ALS suffered are pretty deserving!) and that it wastes water (true, but nature will recycle that water pretty quickly, and some have donated to Water Aid whilst doing it).

And that’s the thing. People try to do the right thing, but there are still those who just want to go on about how wrong it is, picking fault in their efforts and turning it round to be a bad thing rather than a genuine attempt to help people.

This came to mind today when I saw this posted by several people on social media. I can see where this is coming from, trying to correct some people’s view of depression, but…

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Great! People are openly talking about mental illness, trying to encourage those who may not yet have sought help for it to do so, yet they’re wrong for doing so. You can’t do right for doing wrong, it seems.

And that is what people are doing, encouraging people to recognise that they have a problem and to get help for it. Not once have I seen a “do not be like him” comment, although I’m willing to accept that some may have been posted, but that’s not the point. Depression is just like any other illness in that, sometimes, people don’t pick up on the signs of it and don’t get the help they need for it.

One comment I read suggested that telling people they need to get help places the responsibility on the sufferer and that this is counter-productive. So, it’s perfectly acceptable to have large campaigns showing us how to check for breast cancer or testicular cancer or how to spot the signs of diabetes, but when it comes to depression this is wrong? I’m sorry, but no. The reason that so many people have posted online to ask people to get help if they are struggling is because many of us have been there ourselves, not seeking help until somebody else has told us to do so.

We sometimes need a jolt to make us realise that something is wrong with us and we need to do something about it. We all need to take responsibility for our own health, wherever possible. We all need to seek help when we realise that we may need it.

So I’m not going to stop telling people to ask for help. I’m not going to say that you will beat depression if you do, recent events have shown that isn’t always the case, but I will say that you have a much better chance of beating it if you do. But I also ask that you realise that the intentions behind me doing this aren’t ill-thought out, they come from personal experience and are aimed at those not currently getting treatment.

We need to lay off of people trying to do good. If they’re going about things in the wrong way, at least recognise the intention before attempting to correct the action. We see enough bad in this world without discouraging the good.

The ignorance of illness

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When someone famous dies it always causes a wave of public comment. When someone takes their own life it always causes a lack of belief or comprehension of how someone could do such a thing by those who fail to understand mental illness. So when someone famous takes their own life those comments of ignorance will always be hugely multiplied.

Robin Williams has been one of the most of the best loved actors, comedians and all-round entertainers in the world for the best part of four decades. His ability to make people laugh and cry in equal measure have seen him pack out arenas with his stand-up comedy and win Oscars. So, his death from an apparent suicide has been met with an immense amount of sorrow and grief from friends, family and millions who never met him.

It has also led to stuff like this.

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This is just a snapshot of some of the ignorance surrounding depression and suicide. Fox News’ Shep Smith described Robin Williams as ‘a coward’ for his actions.

A coward!

I have mild depression. I am not suicidal, although the odd thought has flashed through my mind. However, if I describe my own symptoms and you then multiply them by a factor of 10, 50 or 100 then you may start to understand how people succumb to this awful illness.

Some days, weeks, or even months, everything is great. The world is vibrant, colours are bright, everyone is smiling and you are unstoppable. All is right with the world, all is right with you. You see the joy in the smallest things, you find hope everywhere and you love life and yourself.

Then one day, for no reason and with no warning, you wake up and…  You know immediately that something has changed and that there is no reason for it.

Let me repeat that. There. Is. No. Reason. For. It.

Suddenly, all that joy and hope you saw is replaced with a crushing feeling of hopelessness. All of those colours which stood out so brightly are dull greys and blacks. The smiles are gone and frowns, worries and tears seem to take their place around you.

And that feeling that you can do anything, be anyone, is gone. There is no feeling, no happiness, no confidence. Just a throbbing numbness interspersed with sorrow and pain.

And there’s a voice. It sounds like your voice, but it’s the depression talking. It tells you that you’re nobody. You’ll achieve nothing. Nobody likes you. You make everything worse. The world, your friends and your family would be better off without you.

And that voice doesn’t just speak in your head, it speaks throughout your whole being. You move slower, you feel tired, you don’t want to do anything, say anything, go anywhere or see anyone.

I am lucky. I have it mildly. I can overcome the urge to just stay, locked away from the world. I can, just about, recognise that voice for the liar it is. I can mask my desolation, either by acting normal or by zoning out and allowing myself to focus on single tasks to keep my mind busy. I can live with it.

But not everyone can. Imagine that it is so bad that you can’t fight it. You can’t physically do anything or interact with anyone. You feel so numb that you forget what it was ever like to feel. And you believe the voice. You believe that you are nothing, nobody, evil, worthless, a burden… and that to end everything is not only to end your own pain, but to free people from the pain that your very existence causes them.

Imagine that. Then tell me that you don’t understand how somebody can take their own life.

Depression is no respecter of class, talent, religion, race, gender, popularity or anything else. It’s a sickness which affects more people than you probably realise. And it kills. Yes, people take their own lives, but it’s the depression which kills them. It’s not cowardice. It’s not selfishness. It happens to people who, on the outside, have everything going for them.

Because it is an illness. An illness which kills.

Robin Williams was a wonderful actor and comedian. He brought joy to millions, including me.

But he was ill. And it beat him.

Rest in peace O Captain! My Captain!

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.

Uncomfortably Slow

“Travelling again
I know exactly how it’s gonna end
The routine day dream starts as I get off
I’m holding up the queue
Because my ticket won’t go through
I know it should be simple but it’s not

So don’t take my photograph
Cos I don’t wanna know how it looks
To feel like this
As cars and people pass
It feels like standing still but I know
I’m just moving uncomfortably slow

Something’s gotta change
I know i’m lucky in a lot of ways
So why do I want more
Than what I have?
Brace myself to hear the lies
I wonder if they know that I
Don’t get the jokes but I just
Need to laugh

So don’t take my photograph
Cos I don’t wanna know how it looks
To feel like this
As cars and people pass
It feels like standing still but I know
I’m just moving uncomfortably slow”

The lyrics above are from the song ‘Uncomfortably Slow’ by Newton Faulkner off his album ‘Hand Built By Robots’ (Awesome album, buy it!). I was on the bus on my way to work this morning, listening to music on my phone when this song came on. I had a wry, somewhat joyless smile on my face as it neatly summed up how I have been feeling on my bad days, including the last 2-3 days.

“The routine daydream” is exactly that. Getting through on autopilot, as if it’s happening to someone else, but I still have to interact with everything and everyone. Humdrum, routine, same old thing day in, day out until it ceases to feel real. I really don’t want to know how it feels to look like this. Who does?

Hearing someone else articulating those feelings is somewhat comforting. It helps me to get out of the confines of my own head and realise that feeling this way is far from uncommon. Knowing that I’m not alone in going through this crap in my mind means that I can move away from feeling that I’m being totally self absorbed, but rather that I’m ill and need to try and get better.

The thing is that, as much as I love this song, it only offers me despair. It only reflects depression back upon the people listening to the song who are living with it. I need to hear something which talks about the black thoughts in their head, but demonstrates that there is also hope. Thank God for the Psalms,

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:1-11 ESV)

The Psalmist writes of a depression way beyond anything I have ever experienced, I’m glad to say. Tears are his food and drink, his soul is “cast down” and in turmoil. He fears that God has forgotten him, whilst his enemies ask where his God has gone. He is at a desperately low ebb, constantly reflecting on the same dark thoughts and feelings as if he is in a cycle which he just can’t break free from.

Sounds familiar.

However, unlike Newton Faulkner, the Psalmist offers hope. Rather, that is, God offers hope. As he falls deeper into the pit of depression he keeps coming back to the one thing which he can cling onto with any certainty. The one, constant, unchanging hope in his life.

” Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”

He will continue to praise God in order that he will, once again, praise God. It seems like an oxymoron, but what he’s doing is praising God with his head because he knows that God will lift him out of the pit and put his feet on solid ground (as he says in Psalm 40). Then he will be able to praise God with his head, heart and soul as he will have been set free.

I have no doubt that, by writing his feelings down, as I am with this blog, he will have been helped a great deal. Getting your feelings out of the muddle in your head and expressing them to others is amazing therapy for some, including myself. On its own, though, it’s not quite enough. Help and support from loved ones, therapy from trained people and medication all help too. The best remedy, however, is the best hope we have. The one, true hope of life. The one who the Psalmist put his hope in.

And so will I.

Encouragement

On Sunday I ran a session with the youth group in my Church around Acts 9:19-31. In it, the newly converted Saul (soon to become Paul, author of a large bulk of the New Testament) starts preaching the Gospel. Many of the believers are terrified of him because he had previously persecuted Christians and was present at the killing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.

The session looked at how many of us, if not all of us, have at least occasional feelings of not being good enough. Of worthlessness. Of being no use to anybody, let alone any use to God. All of the kids in my group admitted that they felt that way about themselves occasionally and sometimes felt it about others.

The irony of this is my own frame of mind. For a while now, although it’s only recently been diagnosed, I have had depression. Thankfully it’s not severe to the extent of some people I know. I manage to get out of bed in the mornings, go to work, do my job, look after my family, go to Church, run the youth group and do all the things I need to day to day. However, my emotions are rarely above flat and very often hit horrible lows. I feel worthless, not good enough, no use to man or God, and feel that other people have that view of me too.

The thing is, Saul was good enough, despite his past. Despite what fears other believers held about him. Despite the feelings of despair he had about himself at times. God decided that even Saul/Paul was good enough to bring His good news to an almost global audience and establish Christianity throughout the Roman world. He is viewed as a man who shaped the faith in a way which is second only to Jesus. Not bad for a guy whose main intent on the road to Damascus was to kill Christians and destroy the faith in its infancy.

Saul didn’t do it alone though. He had an encourager. Literally, as it happens, as the name Barnabas means “he who encourages”. Barnabas stood up for Saul at a time when others wanted nothing to do with him. He convinced the others, and Saul himself, that he deserved a chance. His conversion was genuine. He is worth taking the same risk on that God himself did.

We all need a Barnabas. I have mine. I have an incredibly supportive family, for a start. That’s only part of the story, though. In the last few weeks it has been as though people are going out of the way to boost my self confidence and self esteem. I’ve had loads of people letting me know how much better I look recently (I’ve lost 3 1/2 stones in the last year). I’ve had so many positive remarks about things I’ve done in Church. My last blog post really struck a chord both in the way I wrote it and what I wrote. It feels almost as if people are being prompted in some way to improve my self esteem. Most don’t know about the depression, but I believe they are being prompted. I feel that God is telling me that, while I may not feel it to myself, I am worth it to Him. I am His child and He loves me unconditionally, like I love my own kids, but in a more amazing way. He loves me enough to have sent His son to die for me.

I still feel low and flat. I’m taking the right medication to help. I also know that the feelings of worthlessness are depression lying to me. I am not good enough for God, but I’m good enough for Him at the same time. We all are. And that helps.