Hope, Health and Healing: how God and faith is helping my mental health
I first started to really struggle with mental illness in my late teens. I have always been driven, a high achiever, a perfectionist, a people pleaser. For a long time that seemed to be fine, good even. But combined with a series of damaging and manipulative relationships, self-discipline turned into self-punishment. I had struggled with some panic attacks before, but now they became regular. I had struggled with patches of feeling down and numb before, but now it became a constant. The words other people had spoken over me became my dominant form of self-identification – that I wasn't enough and never would be, that my failures meant other people were hurting, that I needed to be better, stronger, more perfect.
Eventually it all got too much, and I started self-harming. It was a means of control and release, and it quickly spiraled out of control. It became the only thing that got me through the day, and before I knew it I was addicted. Eventually I told my Mum, and we went to the doctors. I began taking antidepressants, I was referred to the psychiatrist, and I was all set up to see a counselor when I got to university. But the problems continued. Soon after I started university, my existing issues with food developed into bulimia. It wasn't long before it took over. I was referred to the eating disorders unit at the hospital, where they officially diagnosed me and increased the dosage of my antidepressants.
And yet, God was preparing a way for me. When I arrived at university, he had already set people around me who listened, who loved me, and who also loved him. So I kept going to Church, and I kept clinging on for dear life, even when I was angry with God, even when I didn't understand why all of this was happening, because I knew that it was the only real life-line I had left.
Things didn't start to appear better for a while. My depression and anxiety grew worse, and suicidal impulses started to take over my thoughts. I hit an ultimate low, and I was determined that this was it, and I needed to end my life. I started to go through the motions, but something happened, and it was as if I woke up. I realised what I was doing, and I stopped, and it suddenly became very real for me. This was serious, and if I didn't start fighting with God's strength, this was going to be it. I knew in that moment that God was refusing to let me go, and that was when I decided that I needed to do the same.
I think what stands out to me most about how that looked practically was the role worship played. Some days I would stand, stubbornly mute, as those around me were signing. But I was still there, and I was with God. Before long, singing worship songs became the only thing that was getting me through. There was power in singing words of faith, words of promise and hope, words I wouldn't have been able to speak. I had grown up being part of the worship team in my home church, but it was only when I was singing these things in the face of despair that I really felt the power of worship to transform, bring healing, and give hope and strength. God brought me through my darkest times singing, and it is still how he speaks to me most now. It was in those times that he showed me that he had given me gifts, and he asked me to use them. Whenever I use those gifts now, I still sing knowing what he has brought me through and knowing what he has saved me from, and there is power in that. It is still what gets me through my times of fear and anger and anxiety.
There is one particular time of worship that stands out for me as fundamental and pivotal. I went to a weekend away with my new church at the end of my first term of university. I was angry and anxious and despairing, but the friends who God had already given me were there. We went to a worship evening together, and as we were signing, they began to pray for me. They shared a picture from the Bible: Exodus 17. Moses was standing on the mountain, looking down on God's people, the Israelites, fighting the Amalekites. As long as he held his arms up, the Israelites were winning. But his arms were growing weary. So Aaron and Hur came alongside him, they sat him down and they held up his arms. They refused to leave his side; they joined in his struggle, they fought together. That is my story. My friends and family have come alongside me and fought with me. They have spent countless hours praying with me, not just for me. They have held my arms up through the times when I was weary, and I have done the same for them. God prepared a way for me, and it has seen times of despair and times of triumph. It has seen me being carried, and me being leant upon. God doesn't demand that we are 'fixed' or 'well' before we come to him, or before we serve him. God didn't need me to be perfect before he called me, and I slowly learned, as he gave me responsibility and showed me how to use my gifts, that I did not need to punish myself for my lack of perfection, because his power was made perfect in my weakness.
What's so important to realise is that this pivotal moment came somewhere near the beginning of all of the experiences I have described. It came before my bulimia became very dangerous, it came before I nearly took my life, it came before I increased the dosage of my antidepressants. Things didn't suddenly become perfect. I think sometimes it is easy to become disillusioned with faith in such circumstances, because we so desperately want it all to end, or perhaps we feel people expect us to be quickly 'fixed'. Even now I have patches where I am particularly anxious, and panic attacks begin to resurface. I still struggle with insomnia, and I struggle with food. I still rely on God everyday and have to remind myself of his promises to make me new. God did miraculously heal me from my addiction to self-harm. One day it was there, and the next day, it was gone. I didn’t pray for it that day, I didn’t go forward in church, God just did it. I don’t know why he chose that to heal, and I don’t know why I still struggle with other aspects of my mental health. But both that immediate healing and the slow and gentle healing that is still going on are his perfect works, and knowing that his Spirit lives and works in me keeps me going and keeps me trusting that his plans are good, and he will never leave me nor forsake me.