Friday, 25 January 2013

Faith, hope and mental illness

This isn't about the news, although today the Mail apparently carries an article on how brisk walking prevents Alzheimer's. This is about me, my brain, and how it doesn't really work properly.
I am suffering from a severe episode of a recurrent depressive disorder. This episode has so far lasted around 18 months; it's difficult to pinpoint the start and the harder I look, the more I can see signs earlier than that. I'm a lot better than I was 18 months ago. I can walk, I don't fall over for no reason and most days I can get up and maybe be vageuly productive. Occasionally I can manage to apply the techniques I learned from CBT. But I still suffer from extremely low energy levels, lack of interest in things I enjoy (it's a bad sign if I don't want to read, I used to read in the bathroom, at school under the table, in bed under the covers) and a level of anxiety which makes me worry about answering the phone or even talking to my closest friends and family members. I can only concentrate on one thing, and if someone talks to me while I'm doing it I'll probably shout at them out of sheer panic. I can't remember what I just did, or whether I just did it. I am short tempered and impatient. Worst of all are the times when the "brain rubbish" floats to the surface and I hate myself, think I am worthless and conclude that the world would be a better place without me in it.
The first time this happened I was so terrified that I hyperventilated and collapsed. It doesn't happen very often now, or with such intensity, and I have learned how to deal with it. I am no longer ashamed of these thoughts because I know that they are a fruit of my illness and not of my will. I have discovered that the best way to deal with them is to share them, rather than hide them, (although one has to choose carefully who to share them with!). I struggle with my anger and impatience more and it is impossible to tell to what extent they come under lack of personal conversion, and how far they come under depression. I cannot simply fight, fight, fight because there is an element of chemical imbalance involved. I cannot attribute them entirely to my illness because I know that I was impatient before that. Now when I lose my temper, I see it happening and get so frustrated with myself that I am acting like a small child (yes, I am also lacking in humility) that I get even more stressed out and more grumpy, and so it goes on. All this isn't helped by the fact that I often can't sleep and that when I do I have crazy, but strangely real dreams which are hardly restful.
I say I am not ashamed, but I rarely tell anyone I have depression. I don't want to have to deal with their judgements. I don't look ill (except for being a little paler than usual on really bad days, and they are the days on which no-one sees me), and even I often have a hard time accepting or recognising that I am (sometimes I feel like it is a daily lesson!), so why would anyone else believe it? At the same time, as a healthcare professional and a Christian, I feel I have a responsibility to help end the silence and stigma which surrounds mental illness. I read this week that GPs are overprescribing anti-depressants. Similar stories about sleeping tablets have been in the news for weeks. And yes, they probably are overprescribed. People have this expectation that life is happily ever after and when something difficult comes up, or they aren't happy because they are looking for happiness in places where it cannot be found they think they have depression (I speak in terms of the illness, rather than  the emotion). They want a tablet to make them feel better and it isn't going to help. It annoys me: it reduces my illness to a lifestyle issue rather than a disease. But it also makes me really sad for them: they are reducing themselves to a merely biological level, they do not know the happiness that comes from loving God and I want them to: I want to tell them all. 
Faith in God, Christian life and frequenting the sacraments will not prevent illness of any kind, including depression. Christian life is not some kind of fluffy, light-hearted dream where everything us 'nice' and goes according to plan. It is a joyous battle, which has already been won. It is falling over and getting up again, over and over. It is a relationship with a real person. But happiness is not a feeling. True happiness is the peace which comes from knowing God and fulfilling his plan, being 'right' with Him, if you will. I may rarely feel happy, but I know I am happy and I can say that with all honesty. I may suffer from severe anxiety but I know that, with God, suffering transcends my daily experience of it, and can have meaning and even purpose. I don't just know that intellectually, I experience it regularly. I have hope that my life won't be like this for ever, but that even if it is, that God is with me in this suffering and that with Him, as a wise friend once said, the best is always ahead of us. And I am slowly learning that I can't be in control of everything (and this is a struggle which extends long before and after this particular episode of depression), that I have to allow God take charge in my life because I know and believe that His plan is the best plan. I have long believed that the difference between the saints and the rest of us is that they recognised suffering and mortification as an opportunity to grow in holiness, grow closer to God, at the moment when it was happening and made the most of it whereas the rest of us either miss them completely, don't realise until afterwards, or stay on the level of "poor me". So this is me, half way between a pity party and the foot of the cross, where my Mother stands with and looks upon her Son. That is the only place where any of this makes sense.


  1. Dear Recusant, I would just like to say that I am touched by your openness in talking about your depression. I feel for you - depression is so difficult to deal with; it is so often misunderstood and belittled. May the Lord keep you always in His loving heart - and may you feel it, too! ~CC

  2. Thanks, CC. It is so difficult to find the balance between "I'm am so much better" and "I'm not well". Trying to remember them both at the same time is tricky! I think depression is something that needs talking about.

  3. I find posts like this truly humbling: they put my own ups and downs - and my petty reactions to them - into perspective. SO thank you for that.

    But more importantly, you are right: issues of mental health and depression do need to be more openly discussed and more widely understood.

    It is good that people like you are courageous enough, and have enough insight, to shine the light on them in this helpful way.


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