It’s fair to say when you hear the two terms, ‘church’ and ‘mental illness’, the image which comes to mind often isn’t of bedfellows, but of people at war.
Much of the Christian church today struggles to deal with matters of mental health. Either they brush them under the carpet and leave them unspoken, or, even worse, they deny the problems of mental health altogether.
Recently, on Twitter a Christian tweeted that PTSD was from God. A Christian actually tweeted that.
I’m a writer, I’ve had books out. I’m rarely lost for words. But even I was dumbstruck at that.
I’ve never actually had a mental health condition diagnosed. But many of those close to me, those who know the mental health world, who’ve heard my story, have all said I show classic symptoms of some kind of condition.
Some have said my symptoms resemble PTSD, others have said I may be at the very thin edge of the autistic spectrum. And many of the symptoms are there. So whilst I’ve never had anything officially diagnosed, it’s pretty clear I struggle with some kind of mental illness.
I’ve had periods of deep depression, very low moods, a desire to escape, insomnia, and more recently, the occasional panic attacks and anxiety attacks. I don’t quite pick up social cues as others do (though I’ve trained myself over the years to do so). Sudden, abrupt, changes of plan in my day make me feel uncomfortable and anxious. These have all been part of my life. Indeed, they are part of my life.
And I’m pretty sure, the major cause of this was a major trauma I experienced between the ages of 8 and 23. A perfect storm.
In 1985 my mother lost her short-term memory due to an severe asthma attack, an event which triggered a ten year spiral of trauma in my family. Alcoholism of a parent, parents fighting with each other violently, almost daily. And as the eldest, I subconsciously took responsibility for all these problems, blaming myself for not fixing them, breaking up fights – whilst my own daily hell of ongoing psychological bullying at school continued unchecked. Five years after this ended, just when things were calming down, asthma finally finished it’s work on my mother, and she passed away.
17 years have passed since then. Writing about that period is something for a book, not a blog post. But suffice to say, there was lots of counselling, and lots of prayer – all of which helped considerably. But in hindsight, this treated only the surface wound. It treated the symptoms, not the disease.
It’s only in the last 18 months, that I have finally began to confront the deeper trauma insider of me, the deeper mental and psychological damage this trauma had on me. And although it’s happened in the full glare of a home group linked to my church, I’ve never felt safer as part of that community. In fact, it was because of the grace, understanding, compassion and care of my church, that I’ve come so far.
Because my church is different.
Grace, Not Judgement
I’ve never, once felt fear at talking about my circumstances, feelings, or experiences at my church, or above all, my church home group – which, in many ways, is where the real work of church gets done. Indeed, it was leaders of my home group who, 18 months ago, were the first to recognise these issues.
One night, out of nowhere, I found myself physically pinned back to my seat, sharing all of my pain, my bitterness, my hurt, my grief. No one was holding me there physically – but it was like my physical body was being pushed back whilst my heart exploded out of it. The full mess of my trauma being stayed all over the room, for all to see.
People knew my story. They knew all I’d been through. But they had no idea before how deeply it had impacted me. Neither did I, to be honest. But my leaders did. That night, after splattering my heart everywhere, I got a big hug from them. They told me they’d seen this for a while and had been praying I would too.
No judgement. No condemnation. No denial. Just love. Acceptance. Grace.
That, I was to discover, was only the beginning of a long journey. A journey which challenged me to go to the darkest places of my soul, and instead of numbing the pain, actually live in it, experience it, show it to the light and confront it. It has meant lower moods, it has meant anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and excessive insomnia. It was like all this trauma had been buried and now was finally being released and showing it’s true colours.
In the short term, I got worse. My life got darker. But ultimately by exposing my darkness to the light, I’ve also begun to see signs of deeper healing and genuine transformation. (tweet)
My close friends told me that from the moment I first acknowledged this, I looked different. They tell me to his day, that since that night, it seemed like a burden had been taken off my shoulders, and I’m a different person now.
I believe this happened because that night I finally opened up my heart, and told my conscious self the truth of the deep trauma and psychological damage I was keeping buried. Scripture says the truth sets you free – and that’s never been more true for me than in the last 18 months.
I’ve been to some very low places since that first night. I still do. I’m still conforming this trauma and all it’s side effects. I’m working through some issues at the core of who I am, how I’ve trained myself to live, how I’ve seen myself and interacted with the world.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I got into the lowest of low moods – which is putting it lightly. In all truth, it’s was the darkest of dark nights of the soul. I experienced despair, anxiety, panic and fear all at once, and it overwhelmed me. All my desire to go out into the world had gone. I no longer felt anything. I no longer cared. If I felt anything, it was abandoned, alone, and without hope. Overwhelmed completely. Consumed by panic and anxiety.
I challenge anyone to tell me that was caused by God. The God I know, the one I’ve experienced in my life, and through others, didn’t cause this. No, precisely the opposite. He was with me in the midst of it.
In my desperation, I messaged one of the leaders of my church, also a friend. They invited me over. We talked. I explained my situation. We talked it through, honestly and openly. We prayed. And although I’ve had low moments since, and I still struggle with that lethargy, that sense of unexplained despair, what we talked and prayed through has become an anchor for me, something to hold on to, which has stopped me sinking deeper – and now I can say it’s helping me climb the wall to freedom.
There was no judgement. No condemnation. Just love, acceptance, understanding and support. It speaks volumes that my church is the first place I feel able to go to share about my struggles.
To be honest, the last 18 months feels like a prologue to a new journey. But all the way through, my church, and my home group, has been my support network. A place I’m loved, accepted and welcomed, as I am. With all the darkness, imperfections, challenges and struggles. I’ve gone deeper in my faith as a result of it. And it’s not impacted my role in the church – indeed, in that time I’ve even been asked to lead my own small group.
And this is how church should be towards those struggling with mental health conditions. Not exercising judgement. But loving people where they are, for who they are. Allowing people to own their stories, their traumas, their conditions and know they are loved, welcomed and accepted in the midst of them. This is what Jesus really stood for. Grace.
Those struggling with mental health issues should be able to see the church as a safe space, where we can go and be who we are, and know we are loved, understood, welcomed and accepted as we are. That’s what church should be. A beacon of grace to the world.
My church is an example that this is possible. It gives me hope that one day, the Christian church as a whole will be known as a friend to those with mental health issues – and not it’s enemy.
Buy my book ‘Mosaic of Grace’ here.
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Picture Sources: Andrei Niemimäki via Morguefile / James Prescott
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