Internally, I live 2 lives. On the outside, in terms of productivity, ethics and my responsibilities, I always do what must be done. I am responsible. No matter what is going on inside, I look the same on the outside. But on the inside, for months at a time, I can be living one of these two lives.
Internal Life 1: I feel energetic, clear, motivated, centered and solid. Inside, everything makes sense. My inner life is defined by peace; I sleep well. I have long, wonderful times with the Lord. I love being with people and gain energy from relationships. I am filled with hope. I feel strong and on top of the world. I occasionally get upset or irritated but it’s situational and evaporates as soon as the challenge is over. Here, food is a source for energy not a crutch to navigate life. I exercise often and it’s fun. I feel in control. I love new things and when I find something interesting —a hobby or a topic—I study it with vigor. I am creative and am life-giving to others. I am carefree. Life is good. I enjoy living it.
Internal Life 2: This is what I call, ‘survival mode’. Life feels hard. I feel like I’m moving through molasses all day. It is harder to stick to a routine. Beyond what I must do, I just want to be alone. I begin to withdraw into myself. In my head, I feel safe. The outside world feels like hard, cold wind on exposed skin. If I can be alone, I can live in a cave of solitude. It feels comfortable but lonely. I am able to be present to others but it requires concerted effort that is exhausting. At times, I am irritable and my inner space shrinks. I feel overwhelmed. My thoughts are scattered and focus becomes a discipline of sheer will. Life loses its beauty and everything seems grey. Life feels like perpetual evening dragging into night. Sleep can either be non-existent or I can feel sleepy all the time. Exercise feels like torture. Here, food is ‘helpful’ in mood management, a crutch to manage sadness and anxiety. But food used as pain management has its own negative effects—less confidence, health consequences, less energy and reinforces a joyless life. Internal life #2 feels hard.
These are the lives that make up my life. For all my life, at least as long as I can remember, I have dealt with depression, anxiety and ADHD. During my Christian life, I have bore these realities and pressed my way through them. I survive and most of the time I thrive. I have gone to therapy off and on since being a teenager. At times, medication has been a life saver. Through it all, my wife and my close, Christian friends have been beacons of hope. For the life of me, I cannot tell you what causes one life to thrive and the other to lay dormant. Or what causes the switch from one to the other. My external life can be tumultuous but the inside filled with peace. Then other times, all can be well outside and the inside feels like purgatory.
Sometimes I thrive inside and out, one long summer day. Other times, I really struggle within. I feel like I am climbing Mount Everest and making no headway. Life can be good, challenging and filled with constant moments of joy. It can also be hard and filled with suffering. You never know what is happening on the inside of a person.
Since 1949, the month of May has been set aside to raise awareness for mental health. As I consider my own story, my role as a pastor, and being in the month of May, I would like to share the following truths I have learned.
- The gospel is good news for those who suffer with mental health. This quote from Thomas Watson says it all:
What upheld Daniel in the lion’s den? Jonah in the whale’s belly? The three Hebrews in the furnace? Only the power of God. Is it not strange to see a bruised reed grow and flourish? How is a weak Christian able, not only to endure affliction, but to rejoice in it? He is upheld by the arms of the Almighty. “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. xii. 9).
If you are suffering with mental health, God is not overwhelmed or impotent to help. He can be trusted in and through it all. He is good news; I know from experience.
- Christ desires that his church be a safe haven for those who suffer mentally. The roots of mental illness are complex—historical, spiritual, biological and personal choices—and is the result of a fallen world. The church doesn’t have all the answers, but we know the answer. His name is Jesus. It’s time to declare the good news to those who suffer on the inside. It’s time to provide safe places for people to share, to be journeyed with and to be loved. We all deserve these gifts of grace.
- Licensed therapists and medical doctors are gifts from God. Everything good comes from Him. Psychiatrists and counselors go through extensive training and licensing to provide care to facilitate mental health. I thank God for them personally (I’m married to a counselor! Free therapy!). God has made provision for our mental health and we should use it. No one should ever feel shame or marginalized for getting professional help.
- Christian kindness and grace go a long way in the healing of a person. I am thankful for the church and it’s members who have almost always been good representatives of Christ. Let’s be gracious and kind to one another. This is what I know, mental illness is not because sufferers are lazy or lack discipline. Instead, mental illness is just another crack in our broken world. It is a crack that love can be a great help in its mending. Let’s be gentler with one another as we pursue hope and transformation together.
Know if you struggle with your mental health you are not alone. Have hope. Never give up. Morning is coming. To those who are not struggling right now, be kind. Make the gospel available to all. Make room at the table of fellowship. And to everyone remember, there is a million ways to be broken but Christ with all his gifts is the only way to be made whole.