Voices: Dark and deep: Living with mental illness

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on mental illness. Part 2 will explore the hope God provides even in the darkest times. If you are in a dark time and need immediate help, call 911 or the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Many years ago, I was with some friends on the Virginia Tech University campus when we received word that a fellow believer was experiencing severe distress in and about himself. We went to see him, and for quite a while, my friends sought to console, to encourage and to reason with him.

They reminded him of God’s love and his adoption into the Father’s family, along with many other words of encouragement. Yet no words seemed to make a difference.

It appeared to me that he was in a black hole—a pit—and seemed to feel desperate and meaningless. It was like his candle’s flame was but a dying ember. Everything looked dark, the kind of dark you experience in a cavern when the light is extinguished, a dark you can virtually feel, pressing into you, scarring and leaving you feeling lost and disoriented.

The anguish of mental illness

We all experience anguish of various types at some point in our life. Some of those experiences can be prolonged and difficult to manage. We can struggle to have faith in God’s love and care. For some, the experience is more profound. It is the disease of the brain we call mental illness.

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I have a mental illness. Like the young man at Virginia Tech, I also have lived in the darkness. I have been near the edge of the abyss and dared not look down into it.

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My first encounter with a depressive episode was during my junior year of high school. I was overcome with confusion—a sense of “what’s happening to me”—exhaustion and tears.

I had another episode a few months after graduating from college that left me unable to function for a week.

Twenty-six years later, a doctor named what had been happening to me—dysthymia.

What depression can feel like

It was like having a low-grade fever for days and weeks and years, a low and heavy overcast in my head, pressing down on my brow. It was like having seven sea anchors hooked on my back.

Some days, it literally took all the energy I had just to stand up.

My diagnosis later was changed to major depressive disorder—mild to moderate, which is a fancy medical name for collapsing in a heap on the floor because the pain in my head was so great, tears uncontrollably flowing. Other times, I hid in the closet, trying to get away or flee, but unable to escape.

My feelings and thoughts accused me of worthlessness, of being fundamentally flawed, stained, lower than manure.

There were times I saw no relief, no meaning and no purpose. Suicidal ideation cropped up in my thinking. The doctor said I was experiencing “mild to moderate” depression. It was a living hell.

Responding to depression

The darkness that enveloped me all my adult life was caused, so I thought, by character flaws and lack of faith, weakness and fear, even by demon influence.

After exhausting all the possible reasons for my failing to have joy and a healthy Christ-centered life and outlook, I was left with only one other reason for my fight with depression. There was something wrong with how my brain was functioning.

I began a course of treatment, which included medication. The darkness began to lighten. Now the darkness, which is caused by my brain’s malfunction, is being managed, not cured, but managed.

How depression is different than the blues

Everybody feels the blues at one time or another. Counsel like “Shake it off and keep going,” “Think about something different,” “Change your attitude,” “Do something positive,” or “Get outside of yourself, and focus on others” can work to overcome the blues.

Mental illness is different. In the case of depression and anxiety—often occurring together—the brain is malfunctioning and drives a person into the pit of darkness, keeping him or her locked in its shackles.

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says mental illnesses “may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.”

Treating mental illness

Mental illnesses, though complicated, are like any other physical ailments involving damage to or malfunction of an organ. Many mental illnesses are treatable and manageable.

Typically, a multifaceted approach is needed. This includes medicine, therapy, and spiritual and moral support from family and other caring people—especially the family of God. These components are essential to provide management of mental illness.

For me, all these components are present and working. As a result, I am finding more and more experiences of joy and thanksgiving in Christ as my life provider.

I also am receiving good support from those around me. A support system helps each of us carry the burdens of life.  By allowing someone to help carry the burden, there is the opportunity for a sense of joy and thanksgiving to enter each person’s life.

Being aware of mental illness around us

Those with mental illness often are portrayed as violent. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes over the general population.”

Community Impact Newspaper reported in 2017 that in the state of Texas there are “more than 500,000 Texans” suffer “from serious or persistent mental illness and 1 in 5 Texans” experience “a mental health condition each year.”

In a congregation the size of The Woodlands First Baptist, the statistics suggest more than 300 people in the church have had or are experiencing some form of mental illness. Of those, more than 80 may be dealing with a more serious disorder, such as bipolar or schizophrenia.

Many people in churches are dealing with eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses. Additionally, many have an addiction disorder.

Sadly, every 40 seconds worldwide someone who has lost hope and sees only meaninglessness takes his or her life.

This ought not be. Do we need to give up and lose hope? No. God is greater than our illnesses—mental or otherwise. As Christians, we also have the promise of our transformation and God’s ultimate promise of complete redemption.

In the second part, we will explore God’s hope available to us even in the deepest and darkest times and places.

John Hereford is the pastoral ministry associate at The Woodlands First Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. The Woodlands First provides several mental health resources. If you are in a dark time and need immediate help, call 911 or the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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