About 18 months ago, I invited a group of relative strangers into my home, and embracing the hope that vulnerability begets intimacy, I told them my story.
“Hi, we’ve only known each other for a few weeks, but here is all the dirt behind who I am, and all the reality of how convoluted my brain is, and how messed up my relationship with God has been.”
I sat in my living room, telling my story with a group of couples we had met in what was essentially a church-sponsored speed dating event, and prayed that either they would embrace me for who I am, or walk away from our burgeoning relationships. Either way, I wouldn’t have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t.
A bit after that, I reached out to a friend who runs a faith-based dance studio in our area and told her that I had struggled with anxiety and depression since childhood, and I wanted to talk to the teens at her studio to let them know that it was ok to need help, and ok to reach out. She was overjoyed to have me come bumble through, nervously tapping my fingers together, as I told this group of mostly teenage girls that they were worthy and lovely and loved by God – no matter what their brain might be telling them. They sat in silence, with a few tear-rimmed eyes as I offered a story of hope and love of a God who loves you as you are. Later, my friend confided that several of the teens in her studio struggled with anxiety, and with feelings of worthlessness.
And then I started a blog. Like a crazy girl from the late 90s, I decided the world needed my story…. so I started writing about my illness, my relationship with God and the church, the things that break my heart and the things that put me back together. I’ve written about what it’s like to hide mental illness out of shame, and what it’s like to believe that you are failing as a Christian because of anxiety and depression. I’ve written about how I swore at God, and how He stayed and waited for me, even in my darkness. I’ve written about how I’ve come so far, and yet still struggle in so many ways. And I’ve written about the anger and grace, and the pain and the hope.
And I’ve found support everywhere – in ways that I’d hoped for, and in ways I had never expected. My family, my small group, my old friends who knew my story well for years and years. Friends I hadn’t really talked to in years. At my gym, with comments and encouragement on the days I’m holding back tears. Comments from strangers left online. A weekly support group that I started attending.
And some of this support comes from people that aren’t interested in my thoughts on Jesus or Christianity at all. And I 100% am SO GLAD that something I’ve written or said or done has spoken to them in some small way. (To be clear – you do not have to love Jesus at all for me to love you and want to support you and help you find peace with your illness.)
But going outside of my comfort zone with talking about my illness, was fueled a good deal by the idea that historically, the Christian Church has not done a great job of supporting mental health issues, and I wanted to be a voice that stood up and called that out. Anxiety and Depression and a host of other mental illnesses are just that – ILLNESSES. Not dictated or influenced by your faith or lack thereof. Not indicative of your relationship with God. Not a punishment for sin. It’s an illness. And just as we believe that physical illness can and should be treated medically, so too should mental illness. Without shame. Without a stigma of not trusting God for healing. But treated by doctors and therapists and medicine and the love and support of our friends.
I don’t really believe that I’ve made much of a difference in the grand scheme of things when it comes to ending the stigma of mental illness within the Church – but I do know this: I have been loved on and supported by the Jesus followers I know. I’ve talked several Christian friends through the season of seeking treatment, either for themselves or their children – friends that might not have come to me had I not spoken up, friends that needed that assurance that this was ok. I’ve had conversations with family members that I never would have had, and conversations with my children so that they know that seeking help is always an option and that God loves them always.
And so in that grand scheme, of that person, that child, that friend, I believe that speaking up has been completely worth it.
And then a few months ago, our family walked into a church that was new for us, in our small southern town. A few hundred people and my anxiety crawled around my shoulders wondering if this is the kind of place that will accept me for who I am.
On the second week we attended, the sermon was on stress and anxiousness. And the famous verse comes rolling out. . . ”Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6.)”
I feel myself tense up. My jaw clenches and my shoulders pinch together in defense.
I’m waiting for the part where they tell me that I’m just not praying enough or trusting enough, that anxiety isn’t a thing for Christians with true faith.
But the man on stage surprises me, says that he needs to take a moment to differentiate between stress, or worry around situational issues – and anxiety disorders. He doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand him. That, as well as depression and other mental illnesses, is a very real illness that needs to be dealt with medically. That the church has professional counselors that they would happily refer you to, counselors that believe in medication for such illnesses.
I just kept replaying that moment in my mind over and over. I was so relieved, both for myself and for anyone else in the room who might be needing to hear those words. And so relieved that progress is being made.
I’m making it in my own life. My friends are making it in theirs.
And the church is making it as well.
It’s out there – for each of us individually, both in society and with Jesus.
And for the church as a whole, that we will be a people that loves, supports, encourages, and understands.