My friend is tall and willowy, with strawberry blonde hair (more strawberry than blonde) that swings freely around her face. She moves with purpose, yet gracefully, and has an immediate smile and a quick laugh that somehow covers two octaves. She has the most beautiful, melodic singing voice. She is a kind and gentle woman who stops and listens, truly listens, while you are talking, and it is easy to sense her genuine empathy. She is conscientious regarding her faith, with a very deep and obvious love for the Lord. She chooses her words with care: not once have I heard her speak critically of anyone. We’ve been friends for many years, and she is a woman I deeply respect. Yet there were times when I felt her skirting the edge of our friendship, holding me at gentle arm’s length. I occasionally wondered if I’d hurt her somehow, but I never asked. I wish I had. What I didn’t know was this: my gentle friend was desperately hurting; fighting a private, silent, dreadful, prolonged battle. Like a wilted dandelion blown and beaten by the wind, she was merely trying to hang on, while little pieces of her whirled away into the sky. She was simply exhausted; depleted by the struggle, and this world nearly—just nearly—lost her beautiful light.
I thank God that that didn’t happen. Her plan failed, and she immediately and bravely went into intensive therapy. With help, she is learning more and more about herself, about her brain, and about boundaries and coping skills. She is finding her voice and learning to advocate for herself and for others. She is slowly remembering how to talk with the Lord. Buckets of nourishing rainwater have been drenching her parched dandelion heart and mind, enabling little roots to dig down just enough to begin giving her hope and motivation. That hope is propelling her to educate and encourage others who, like her, have mental illnesses. She is motivated to put an end to the many painful, faulty stigmas attached to mental illness.
My friend was diagnosed with Major Depression Disorder. Social anxiety severely crippled her relationships, though she did her best to overcome it. Her harsh, belittling thoughts were reserved only for herself. Spiritually, although she said that “God was my lifeline forever,” she felt she did not have the mental capacity to concentrate on scripture, nor to sing or to hear lessons, because, she said, “I was already in the throes of condemning myself.” Prayer was lost, because she said “I couldn’t speak the words to pray…it was just too difficult and painful to think my relationship with Him was lost, and that I was the whole cause of it.” My heart broke when she told me, “My brain was fighting to live, but my mind wanted to die.” As much as she shared with me so that I might understand, I imagine that she only scratched the surface of the grief she endured. My prayer is that her silent suffering and desperation will be turned around into joy and hope. I want to help her share the light that is gradually returning to her beautiful life.
Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, there are stereotypes surrounding mental illness. Socially, we may tend to associate mental illness with violent offenders like Ted Kaczynski (who suffered from a chronic, severe mental disorder called Paranoid Schizophrenia.) Or, as my friend said, we imagine a scenario like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” within hospitals that provide therapy. Medications for diabetes or high blood pressure go unquestioned, but some may take issue with medication for a chemical imbalance in the brain. Our education about mental illness may come from the whispers we’ve heard in the past, or from books that were written prior to more recent, helpful discoveries and treatments. Because we may not understand or have personal experience with mental illness, sometimes we are tempted to avoid our friends who are suffering with them. Though not maliciously, we may talk about them, but not to them; we are concerned for them, but we are afraid to express that with them. All of this, I suspect, leads to further trauma and pain, causing the ones we love (who are already suffering mightily) to isolate and withdraw even more.
Morally, the stigma may be even more hurtful. For those who are spiritually strong and yet struggling with mental illness (and there are more than you may think)—if we ask if they’ve prayed about it or studied their Bibles, we may unintentionally heap even more guilt and shame upon their wounded hearts. As my friend said, “I asked myself, ‘what else can I pray?’ Maybe I prayed wrong, or not hard enough, not long enough…I’m already condemning myself. That just puts you in a deeper place when you didn’t think you could go any deeper—and there’s no way out of that hole, especially when you care so much about God, so much about loving Him and honoring Him with your life.” Consider this, too: the reason we want to ask those questions is because they are relevant. I know with a certainty that God’s word holds answers to our toughest questions and that prayer is a lifeline to the One who formed us; who knows and loves us most. However, to those whose minds aren’t thinking rationally, our well-meaning questions may sound more like accusations, and simply inflict more wounds.
My friends, if you see yourself within these paragraphs, we want you to know that you are not alone! We want to give you hope. Though difficult to hear while in the midst of it, depression and mental illness can be managed with help. Please reach out and ask for that help. Tell your trusted friend or your spouse or your parent that you are struggling. Please see a doctor and be truthful with him/her about how you are feeling. Let others hold you up when you cannot stand on your own. Try not to believe the lies that Satan wants to tell you, that you are unfaithful, unworthy, or unlovable—instead, turn your eyes on God’s truth, knowing that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” (Psalm 34:18). Did you know that mighty men and women of God in scripture also struggled with the challenges of life, begging for His help, and He bent down to listen (Ps. 40:1)? Did you know that He will bend down to hear you, too? Did you know that when your heart can’t find the words, the Holy Spirit, our Helper, will step in for you, pleading on your behalf (Rom. 8:26)?
If someone you love is struggling with these issues, please remember that their difficulty isn’t about you. Please don’t pile more anguish upon them with comments about your feelings: “How could you do this to me?” “Think what you could have done to those of us who love you!” These comments, though maybe true, are selfish and unhelpful.
If someone has reached out to you for help, I know it can be scary. We can be filled with self-doubt and fear—will I know what to say or how to help? What if I say the wrong thing? But remember: you may be God’s answer to their desperate prayer. You may be the one God intended to step in to be His hands and feet, to show His love and concern. You have been given the blessing to help lift and carry their burden (Gal. 6:2), relieving them of a load that has become too heavy to bear, and you can give the gift of compassion and comfort to those who are fainthearted (1 Thes. 5:14). If you can simply listen, care, and love, you will be a blessing to them. You shouldn’t try to fix them or solve all of their problems: simply listen and care.
I sat next to my friend recently as our congregation sang the beautiful song “Magnificat”. Her clear soprano voice, previously strong and bold, was tentative, but it was the most beautiful sound to my heart because she is still here, and she is resolute and growing strong. My sisters in Christ, I pray that we will extend hands of hope and compassion to one another, uniting to fight against any darkness that threatens to engulf us. The Lord sees you—He takes note of you: “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite (crippled, broken) in spirit…” (Isa 66:2), and He “binds up their wounds,” (Psa.147:3).