February 26, 2017 |2 Corinthians 1: 3-4 | Anne Ellis –
I chose this image for my reflection, because standing up here, sharing this story isn’t easy, but it’s the truth. What I am going to share today is my own story, my own lived experience with mental health and mental illness. This story is personal and there may be parts of it that resonate with you and maybe parts that don’t. Severe depression and the realities of it can be difficult to listen too. I will be talking openly about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, panic attacks, self-harm and suicide this morning as they relate to my personal experiences.
I invited the youth to stay in service for this reflection, because my story begins when I was a teenager, not much older than all of them. I felt so alone at that age and I wish I’d heard someone speaking openly about their own struggles with mental illness when I was younger. If that had happened, maybe this whole story would be different. I speak the truth, here, for them. Not just a spiel about mental illness existing in general terms, but as me – a person, a friend, with a mental illness- A person who knows what it’s like to feel different from everyone else.
I was 14 years old when I had my first completely debilitating panic attack. Though, I’d always been an anxious child, it was in my early teens that anxiety turned to fear and terror. I never knew when or where or why I would experience a panic attack, they came on with little warning and the world around me became the scariest place I could imagine. Nowhere was safe, everyone was in danger – danger from what I couldn’t tell you. I still can’t, I don’t know what I was afraid of because I was afraid of everything.
At the same time I was falling deeper and deeper into severe depression. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I was tired, I wasn’t interested in doing anything or going anywhere. At first, I suppose, it was assumed it was the usual malaise of a disinterested teenager. But it was more than that.
I have few clear memories from that time, but it became worse and worse and paired with my increasing fear of the world around me – I was in a pretty bad place during my teens.
I suspect though, if you’d asked me at the time, I would have said I was fine, I would have said I was good, I probably would have even said I was happy, I have happy memories from then too; they just weren’t enough somehow. There wasn’t enough happiness to outweigh the unhappy or the sadness or the fear or the ever darkening world around me.
We talk about the light that shines in each of us with the Children and Youth here at Mt. Seymour. During that time in my life any light I might have had within me was smothered beneath the thickest blanket of such intense self loathing and pain it couldn’t shine.
Depression is painful. It hurts with an ache so deep you can’t even be sure where the pain is. There’s body pain, physical pain in your muscles and bones. And there’s this ethereal pain, this mental, emotional, spiritual pain somewhere in your body that we don’t have a name for.
Depression lies to you. Tells you that everything around you is bad, what you are feeling is wrong. Depression tells you to ‘get over yourself’, that ‘your life is great, so why can’t you just be happy?’ Depression tells you if you can’t be happy you’re ungrateful, weak, useless, unworthy.
I remember the day I was in so much pain, the sadness was so deep inside my soul that I thought my body would blow apart if I couldn’t release it somehow. Make it real somehow. Make it so I could say – this is what hurts. That was the day I first cut myself.
I hated myself for doing it. I hated everything about that day, but I was so desperate I had to do something, anything to stop feeling the way I did. And cutting my skin, making it bleed was somehow a release. Now I had something tangible to hurt. My arm, my thigh, my shoulder – these hurt, this was real hurt – and it could heal. It felt good to nurture these wounds and heal them and maybe the ethereal pain inside me would heal at the same time.
It didn’t, of course. It just grew worse and worse and I felt so alone. I was too ashamed of myself and what I’d done, to tell anyone. No one talked about these things, I didn’t even have the language for what I was feeling. And when words like depression, anxiety disorder, mental illness were said by others it was in shushed tones, and with darting glances – to make sure no one overheard, that couldn’t be what was wrong with me.
If there were places or people I could have reached out too, I didn’t know of them and I didn’t know how to ask. There was no internet, no social media, for me there was just the feeling of being utterly alone in the world.
And then it all became too much, cutting no longer released the pain and I found myself standing in my kitchen with a bottle of pills in my hand and sweet sweet comfort of knowing I could make the pain go away forever.
Oh, how I wanted to swallow all of them and crawl into my cozy bed, pull the covers over my head, dream away the pain and never feel this way again. What a relief it would be for myself and for everyone around me. I was convinced that because I was such a horrible person, I did such awful things, that the world would be a better place without me in it. In that moment it would have been impossible to believe anything else about myself.
Later in life I read a quote, “Suicide doesn’t end the pain, it just moves it to someone else.” Which, now, I know to be true. But not then, not when I was so deep in the midst of it that I couldn’t see past my own pain and the darkness.
Someone walked into the kitchen before I swallowed the pills. I don’t know what would have happened to me if they hadn’t. I was still in pain, still suffering inside my body and my head.
At some point, someone noticed. At some point my parents figured out that something wasn’t right and I got help. I went to a child psychiatrist, I tried different medications. I aged out of the psychiatrist and started seeing a psychologist. The medications made me feel funny so I stopped taking them.
Somewhere in my early 20’s I felt better. The happy days finally outweighed the dark ones. I was indeed very happy and in love with life. I had a baby and everyone around me watched me for postpartum depression. I watched myself for it, everyone was sure I would catch it, like it was a cold or a virus and I was determined not to.
And I hid it from everyone, including myself for five long years. Five great years, when I was so proud of myself for fooling everyone. I did it! I was in control of my mental illness and it would never again have control over me. I tucked it further and further away, pretending it didn’t exist and I was fine.
Until I wasn’t. Until the panic attacks returned, out of nowhere and with complete randomness.
Though it wasn’t out of nowhere, or random – things happened that reminded me of my past, made me remember things that were frightening and upsetting. And I began to slid back into severe depression and intense anxiety.
But I was different this time around. I was in my 30’s, I had a son to look after, I had a life I loved and I angry. Scratch that. I was F-ing furious.
This anger made me determined to not let it beat me. I swore to myself I was not going to sink back into the darkness. I would do everything in my power to make friends with my depression – to make it my dance partner and not my enemy.
I can gloss over all the work I’ve done for the last ten years, all the therapists and councillors I saw, all the books I read and I’ll make it sound like it was easy, simple and straightforward. Dancing with depression, waltzing with mental illness is none of those things. It hurts almost as much at the illness itself and the healing often doesn’t last.
I figured out one part of my illness only to have another part pop up. My anxiety shifted into some very unhealthy OCD behaviors that I continue to work at overcoming to this very day.
Three years ago, while in Winnipeg for school, I was clobbered with such an extreme bout of anxiety and depression that I didn’t go back. I had to put my school, my call to ministry, on hold so that I could deal with my mental illness. So that when I did go back I could do so with my mind and spirit in a better place.
This is what I’ve been doing for these last three years. My priority has been working on my mental health. It’s involved medication, lots and lots (and lots) of therapy, some hypnosis and plenty of meditation and prayer.
My therapist told me to learn how to knit – so I could shift my OCD habits to something healthy. So I knit, a lot. I meditate with my weekly Lectio Divina group and it helps me stay grounded and centered in spirit. I remembered that when I was a child, when I was afraid in the darkness I said the Lord’s Prayer to comfort me. I sang the lines from silent night, “all is calm, all is bright.’ over and over and over until I wasn’t afraid anymore. And there was light.
The other day, found myself thinking about a metaphor for this mental health journey; that of being a race car driver. Now, I know nothing about race cars or their drivers, except this: the driver sits in the car and makes it go around the track.
The driver, it seems, does this all alone, there’s only the one driver. But every so often the driver has to pull off the track, has to make a pit stop to get gas, have a short break, to recharge.
When this happens dozens of people appear out of nowhere, change the tires, check the oil, do other stuff to the car and probably talk to the driver about how the race is going, maybe ask what the driver needs, if they don’t already know.
And you realize that there’s no way the driver can win the race without those people in the pit.
This makes a lot of sense to me. Most of the time I’m pretty good at driving myself around. I can navigate and make decisions about winning my own race, but when I’m starting to run down, when the gas is low, the tire tread begins to wear – I need my pit crew. Mostly I’m good at knowing when I need to get off the track for a bit, and sometimes I need my crew to wave a big flag and say – “pull over and tend to your mental health”.
I need my team to help me get up and running again. My crew is my family, my friends, my therapist, the kids I work with here and other people here who probably have no idea that their smile, their friendship, their presence in my life makes any difference at all. Please know that It does. Everyday.
What also helps is the increasing awareness in our society has around mental health issues. It helps immensely that people are talking and stigma is lessening. Gillian Anderson, of X-Files fame, and someone I admire as a strong amazing person has opened up about her struggles with mental illness as a teen. She has ‘sworn’ to help support mental illness in young people.
Social media sites like Project UROK work to reduce the stigma of mental illness issues through video, photos and people sharing personal stories online. Closer to home, the ‘The Stigma Free Zone’ a Victoria based initiative works to bring awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental illnesses in all people.**
And there is Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries who bring education and awareness to churches. It is with them that we are creating our Mental Health Peer-Support Group here.
I no longer feel the same shame that I did as a teen about having a mental illness. I am no longer so frightened about being judged or excluded. Society is shifting away from seeing mental illness as something to keep hidden, to recognizing that mental illness affects us all. The Canadian Mental Health Association states 20% of the population will personally experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. That’s a lot of people. BC Mental Health Services states that 1 in 7 children in BC have experienced a mental health issue in their lifetime. (heretohelp.bc.ca)
I no longer see my mental illness as a weakness, in fact it’s given me far more strength than I ever thought possible. And that’s pretty cool.
It’s because of all of this I am so pleased we’re bring a mental health peer support group here and I have the opportunity to be a facilitator. I’m not a councillor, I’m not a therapist. What’s worked for me isn’t necessarily going to work for others. I don’t have any answers, but I do know my own story and parts of it will match with others and we can understand each other. We can know we’re not alone.
We can know that God comforts us in our troubles, and we can comfort those in trouble with the comfort that we’ve received. Our Song of Faith call’s us to be a church with purpose: faith nurtured and hearts comforted, be a place to defend human dignity, comfort the grieving, I would add comfort the suffering, guide the wandering and be a part of creations mending.
That’s a beautiful line – that we can mend creation by comforting those of us who feel broken. We can be the place where someone feeling alone and scared can come to for support. I can be on some else’s pit crew.
Throughout all of my life the very worst feeling was feeling completely and utterly alone, thinking I had no one to turn too, not knowing that there were other people out there feeling the way I was. I was young and scared and I didn’t know where to go for help.
So, if by standing up here and sharing this truth, even with my voice shaking, someone else doesn’t feel so alone, then it was worth the anxiety I’ve had all week about doing this. Thank you.