Thank you to Sharon for this wise and timely post. In it she talks about the little steps we can take, even when struggling with mental health issues.
“But I’m too ill… My thoughts are disordered… I can’t concentrate… God would understand…”
I was struggling with depression and at times my thoughts were bordering on psychotic…again. Living back in the community after four and a half months in hospital, I was coping, but only just. At the same time, I was determined to stay at home – to break the cycle of admissions and discharges (fifteen of them) that I had been stuck in for four years.
With the support of my mental health team, I was gradually implementing small changes intended to help me to stay as well as possible. I recognised that exercise was important and built walks and flexibility work into each day. I paid more attention to my diet, eating nutritious meals and regular snacks. I connected more frequently with friends, and reduced my activity on social media, using the time I regained to read or listen to audiobooks.
But I was not attending to my spiritual wellbeing – after all, God more than anyone understood that I was ill. Surely he didn’t expect too much from me.
Descent into crisis
But on one Friday afternoon I had a ‘lightbulb moment’. I had had a particularly challenging day mood-wise and was in an agitated state of heightened anxiety. I found myself losing control in our kitchen, screaming at my husband, Rob, who had only just arrived home after work, pulling at my hair and begging him to help me. And it wasn’t for the first time, either; this had happened all too often.
Suddenly, it was as if God pulled me two steps back and opened my eyes to the reality of the situation. I saw that Rob, already tired at the end of the working week, was stressed out by my behaviour, and distracted from a couple of important tasks he needed to get done before close of business at 5pm. I was looking to him for reassurance when I should have been looking to God, and I was both acting selfishly and failing to exercise any self-control.
In that instant, I recognised that my behaviour was un-Christlike and unacceptable, regardless of how ill I might be. God understood that I was unwell, but that did not give me license to act out. On that afternoon, I apologised to Rob and to God, vowing to make changes. From then on, when I felt my mental state deteriorating, I determined to proactively take emergency medication (rather than wait for Rob to administer it) and to remove myself to a quiet room until I had regained my composure, praying for peace and an awareness of God’s presence.
It was such a small, simple change, but it proved to be powerful. In time, I felt better in myself because I wasn’t letting my problems escalate, my relationship with Rob improved, and I felt less distant from God.
A fresh perspective
This experience led me to re-evaluate other areas of my life. I felt a new desire to live intentionally as a Christian – regardless of how depressed I might be. I realised that my health did affect my ability to participate fully in church life, but I felt that God was telling me to take small steps towards living in a way that reflected what I knew of him – that he holds me (Psalm 139:10), he is always good, and he gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).
- I may not have been able to construct coherent prayers of intercession or participate in my church’s prayer meetings, but I could always send ‘arrow prayers’ upwards when I or my friends needed God’s help, knowing that, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26)
- My concentration was too poor for in-depth Bible study, but I could ponder the ‘verse for the day’ from an app on my phone or read a short devotional.
- I may have been too unwell to attend church every week, but I could keep in touch through listening to sermon recordings and having a coffee with a friend from the congregation during the week.
- Living on disability benefits, I may not have been able to give as much as some others to the work of the church, but I could always set aside a little of what I did have, knowing how much Jesus valued the widow’s small offering (Luke 21:3).
- My health may have been too unreliable for me to commit to many opportunities for service within the church – leading in youth organisations or joining committees, for example – but I could help out in Sunday School and volunteer for a couple of hours per week with a mental health charity.
- I used to dream of taking part in overseas mission, something which my health no longer permits. Instead, I signed up to receive regular updates from a mission organisation and committed to praying for their overseas personnel.
- Having had an eating disorder and with changes in blood sugar affecting my mood, it may have been unwise for me to take part in organised fasting, but I could set aside an hour or two to ‘fast’ from social media or watching TV, so I was still creating space for God to speak to me.
I have been trying to take these small steps for around six months now. I have not always succeeded – there is no question that it is easier to surrender responsibility for prayer to other Christians around me with better health and energy levels, to justify my lack of engagement with scripture on the basis of depression, and to stop giving and drop out of serving because of mental ill health. But my sense of spiritual wellbeing has improved, and this has had unexpected consequences for my mental health too: Looking to God, I find that I can get through my most ‘depressed days’ a little more easily.
Any change in life takes courage, especially when you suffer from mental illness, but I would encourage you to join me in taking small steps towards wholeness and fulfilment in Christ. It is worth it!
“Rejoice in the Lord always… And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4,7)
Sharon is a medical doctor with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. She’s written an incredible book, ‘Wrestling with my thoughts’, which you can get here.