“I don’t know if you can imagine losing your mind. My guess is that if you have never struggled with mental illness, you can’t. Speaking out of personal experience, my brain was probably the part of me I trusted the most, and took completely for granted….until it broke. And when mine broke, it was horrific. It felt horrific.
“Legs break,” people will say earnestly, trying to explain and to comfort: “If your leg was broken, everyone would be able to see it, so they wouldn’t think anything of it. Brains break too.”
It’s an analogy that I know is necessary. It can help people. But mental illness is much more than one of your organs malfunctioning. It’s your whole self being sucked into a cruel and relentless nightmare that you are powerless to get yourself out of. Perhaps at moments you can latch on to the idea that it’s not a nightmare based on present realities – that it is only the chemical product of synapses backfiring – but that only makes it worse because you still have to go through it, night after night, month after month. You’re still in a nightmare, a nightmare that seems infinitely more perverse because it’s not even real. You’re terrified and overwhelmed but outside the sun carries on shining and everything is ordinary. Everything seems calm, disturbingly calm. You can only conclude that the problem is you – you are broken, because how can you reasonably or practically separate yourself from your brain?
I fought against my illness so hard. I tried to defeat it. I tried to outthink it. I failed. It was much too big a storm, and it came inside – ferocious and clamouring. My mind was the storm.
I never imagined that I would lose my mind. I didn’t think it could happen to me. I thought – naively, probably – that God wouldn’t let things like that happen to his children. I’d envisaged serious personal suffering as a possibility – illness, loss – but never this: an apparently self-made prison where it’s impossible to distinguish between memories and nightmares, feelings and facts. Where you cannot ever finish one logical sequence of thought. Where you cannot communicate – understand, or be understood.
The experience itself was a profound shock, but what came afterwards was even more shocking.
I found that when all your foundations have been shaken up and smashed beyond recognition, something strangely beautiful comes out of the debris.
And that is the unchangeable love and acceptance of Jesus.
In my storm, he reached out and grabbed my feet. He did not discard me. He did not discount my fears or my feelings because they were ‘disordered’. He was with me and he defended me.
For me, being ill felt like balancing on the knife edge of complete terror. I wanted to curl up in a corner and cry. I wanted to scream my way through sleepless night after sleepless night. All of my senses were telling me to raise the alarm, to run, to lament. And yet I also knew that any behaviours that could be categorised as ‘disordered’ would end up being recorded and would be stuck onto me for the rest of my life – cold descriptions of symptoms in a world that seemed to have no ability to listen to or understand causes. So I bit down hard on my duvet at night. I tried to conceal my tears. I overacted “normal” with vicious rage.
And that is what made Jesus more devastating than the worst of it. I was thoroughly horrified by myself. I was failing on such a catastrophic level – I couldn’t even control my own mind. I could see the distress in my parents’ eyes. I could see that that I had a crossed a line, even for them. The shame of having succumbed to this appalling weakness flooded me, sweeping into every nook and cranny of my sense of self.
And yet I found that “crazy” is not a category for Jesus. He knows, he hears, and he cares. He really cares. And he welcomes in the outcast, the shamed, the bewildered.
I came out of the experience shell-shocked and with gaping insecurities. And yet at the same time I came out even more devastated by Jesus – the Jesus who went before me into my deepest nightmares, and who wasn’t ashamed to call me his sister. ‘He took our pain’ upon himself, says Isaiah – ‘he took up our infirmities’. He didn’t only not abandon me or reject me in my darkness – he deliberately went looking for me in my darkness. And he did so determined to take my darkness upon himself. He bore the weight. And he destroyed its power definitively and forever.
I wonder what you’d expect a Christian who has recently ‘lost their mind’ to be talking about, right after the worst of their struggle? If you’ve tried to kill yourself and ended up hospitalised, mired in deep depression, what do you when you come out of that? What would you just not be able to get out of your mind?
William Cowper provides us with a direct answer. He wrote the hymn ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’ in 1762 soon after a severe episode of mental illness. If you didn’t know that, go back and have a good look at the words. They’re incredibly lucid and unremittingly focussed on Jesus. There’s a real sense of joy and security that pulses through the hymn – a strength that could only have come from having seen how powerful Jesus is – how present Jesus is – in horrendous and persistent darkness.
‘There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.’
‘Dear Dying Lamb, thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God are saved to sin no more.’
‘E’er since by faith I saw the stream, his dying wounds supply
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die’.
It’s fair to say that losing my mind was the one thing that I would never have allowed God to put me through, had he given me the choice. It was not a place that I was prepared to go – for anything or anyone. But there I found in a truly wonderful way that I really could never experience anything or do anything that would make Jesus turn away from me. He held me fast.
Mental illness is devastating and brokenness is devastating. They shout loud. But Jesus has made sure that they will never have the final word.
His love is the final word.”