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Surprised to be loved

A persistent uneasiness follows me. Nights stretch on and worry edges out reason. My mind dwells on imperfections, unknowns and everything I ever said in error. The anxiety creates spaces of darkness that obscure light and hope. As the darkness grows opaque, I fight harder to avoid conflict, find perfection and bypass people. I feel smaller than everyone else. Deep down I know my thoughts are irrational, but they stay stubbornly affixed to my waking hours. I lock the door repeatedly, check the alarm clock dozens of times and touch my daughter’s lunchbox all the way to school to make sure it is still there. I worry everyone I love will die. Outside my window I see dark shadows. I feel like everyone hates me, that I will never become all I long to be and that God is ashamed of my inner life.

Anxiety and depression
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 percent of Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses, yet 49 percent who feel they suffer never seek professional help. Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world. In Canada, only one in five children who need mental health services receive them.

A kindergarten student wakes every morning to a stomachache. An 8-year-old boy sits in the school assembly with headphones to block out noise. Five minutes into a test, a middle school student leaves for the bathroom. A fifth grader struggles to fall asleep, worried that she might not wake up again. A pre-teen breaks a computer rule. She is still apologizing four weeks later. The questions come quickly and furiously – will there be a storm tonight? Will you be back in time to pick me up? Will our dog be with us forever? A college freshman leaves university after a semester.

Mental health and the church
In the spring of 2013, the pastor of Saddleback Community Church and author of Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren, lost his son to suicide. Tentative conversations about mental health within the walls of the church began. Pastor Warren started a mental health ministry at Saddleback and hosted the gathering “Mental Health and the Church.” A 2013 survey by Lifeway Resources found that half of those surveyed believed prayer and Bible study alone could solve mental illness.

Mental health symptoms are not always visible. When struggle takes place in the mental realm it’s easy for people to question its authenticity. I asked my blog readers about their experiences with mental health and the church. Here are some of their responses:

• I felt too much shame to ever talk about it . . . like it was somehow my fault. Something I was doing wrong.
• I started taking medicine. I felt like a better version of me. God was so close. Others cautioned me not to rely on the medicine and trust it more than God. I want to trust God, but maybe I should stop taking it. The thought terrifies me.
• I told about my anxiety . . . and no one ever said anything again . . . I think it was worse because it was just ignored.
• I have wasted so much of my life dealing with anxiety. It’s so misunderstood. I’ve heard I should just claim Jesus’ promises, it’s not a real medical issue, you’re just afraid.

A struggle with mental illness is often handed back to the sufferer. As if overcoming is entirely in their own power. In a world full of Pinterest perfection and beautiful Instagram smiles, no one wants to expose mental illness. Advice flows freely in chat forums and comments, but living through mental illness takes a holistic approach. No one has the exact same journey to wellness.

Asking for help
I lived 30 years before I realized that even my dreams unfolded in worry. By then, my hope lay paralyzed. The anxiety covered everything. God felt so far away. I was a young mom, and the wife of a pastor. I felt like a complete and utter failure. The internal tug to be perfect overruled everything else. I lived so very small.

I felt that if my faith was strong enough, I could fight it on my own. My prayers just needed to reach higher. I didn’t want people to think I was pessimistic, not thankful, a joy-sucker.
One day, I drove to urgent care, my heart beating out of my body, tiny cries escaping my mouth, crying hopeless tears. I thought I was so sick that I would surely die. Sitting in a chair waiting to be seen, I finally realized what was happening. I got up and left, unwilling to go there.

I told my husband that I needed help. It was by far the most difficult conversation I have ever had. He made an appointment, doing for me what I could not do for myself.

I know now that I need to get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise, pray. I write, because for me it edges out the dark. Those are the things I do and take responsibility for, but I need more.

For the rest of my life, I will also need to go to a counselor regularly. My counselor helps me discern reality from anxious thoughts. We find patterns, so I am aware of times when I feel myself slipping away again. I can speak my fears without burning out those who love me. I also take medication.

The first time I swallowed the prescribed pill, I was terrified of being a failure, of being weak, of losing sight of God. Within days light began to peek out. My spirit and body grew calm enough to look at the world around me rationally. I learned that thinking about the time you did something awkward in Grade 10 for two hours in the night is not normal. People didn’t look bigger than me anymore. I felt God’s presence in my life again. I thanked him for mental health professionals, medicine and for saving my life. He was not ashamed of me.

God cares for us
Sometimes I wonder how my life might be different if I had realized sooner. A thought that at one time would have consumed me is now welcome when it arrives. I understand what a gift it is to be healthy now. I realize some parts of my struggle make me who I am. I know to listen, to love, to understand. I have hope. This passage has become close to my heart from The Message translation of Psalm 18:19: “He stood me up in an open field; I stood there saved – surprised to be loved.”

People have chemical imbalances. They might occur for a variety of reasons. The imbalance may stay for a season or always follow someone. Whatever form mental illness takes, it is real. God cares for us and is not ashamed. As a sufferer, asking for help is the most courageous response you can have.

Christians and even people without faith often turn to the church first for help. How will we respond? How can we respond preemptively so help is not too late?

  • Lisa Van Engen is a freelance writer from Holland, Mich. She writes at aboutproximity.com.

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