Alex's Story

8 months ago, I was admitted to psychiatric hospital with a severe physical manifestation of anxiety and depression. My brain slowed down to a crawl, my short-term memory was completely shot, I could barely speak and was slurring my words, and when I read my journal entries from those first few days, they look like they were written by a 5-year old. I was in the hospital for 5 weeks, and it was there that I first accepted the transformative power of faith.

As a child, I was always afraid. I was brought up in a volatile home, with one very religious parent, and one atheist. My mother had her own mental health struggles, and as the eldest child, with a father who showed his love through working to provide, I became her support from a very early age. My memories of this time are scattered and painful, with intermittent sprinklings of laughter and love. My journey has enabled me to see my parents for what they were, imperfect humans doing the absolute best they knew how. I associated a lot of the rigid nature of my home with my father’s faith, and would hide to avoid going to church with him. I found the services dull, uninspiring and didn’t connect with anything I heard.

Knowing this now, I can see that my hyper-vigilance was a natural response to my volatile and unpredictable surroundings. I learnt to be on constant alert for danger, anything that might rock the boat, and to be ready to jump to the rescue at any given point. In my later years, the vigilance stopped serving me, it held me back. I couldn't see evidence that my father’s faith was making any positive difference whatsoever, and it meant that I was terrified in almost any situation. The low-level hum of anxiety and the knot in my stomach became uncomfortable fellows that I took with me everywhere. 

At the age of 14, I discovered alcohol, and it was the first relief from that fear that I had found. At 15, my aunt took her own life. She was my godmother and had been my safe space where I felt able to be a child. Following her death, I totally rejected faith, and medicated myself with alcohol on and off for 13 years. I used it to chase away the fear, thinking that it made me the person other people wanted me to be. 

At 24 I ran away to South Africa, thinking that my family, friends and London were the problem. I taught in the townships for two years, and although the work fed my soul like nothing before, I had not dealt with any of my past. As soon as any quiet time arose, the fear would rear its ugly head. I encountered my first admission to psychiatric hospital and began to unpick my past before moving back home in February 2017. 

Three weeks after moving home, I decided to get sober. Part of the 12-step program is handing your life and will over to a power greater than yourself. I comforted myself with thoughts of ‘the universe’ and found it helped me hand over control of the day-to-day, but I still struggled with forgiving myself and others for my past. I had cultivated lots of friends with faith over the years, people who I admired and loved and with whom I would often have incredible conversations about life and faith. I now see this as God’s hand in leading me back to Him. Any time I would engage in a conversation about faith and forgiveness, I would become overwhelmed with emotion and burst into tears. At the time, I dismissed this as me being vulnerable and overly sensitive. I now know it was the Holy Spirit gently leading me back to Him.

When I was admitted to hospital for the third time, my neighbour came to visit me and asked me if she could pray for me. I reluctantly agreed and didn’t think anything of it. She had suggested the alpha course before and offered to introduce me to a friend of hers who would be attending at HTB. I anxiously agreed to meet her and went for dinner. The calm and joy that radiated from them both blew me away. I loved her friend immediately and agreed to attend the course. Since then, I have slowly but surely reignited my love for faith. I have grown in my relationship with God and started to build a relationship with Jesus. Something that I never pursued or understood before.

I have been relieved of my unmanageability. I have been sober for 2.5 years, stabilised my medication, moved into my own little flat with my adorable puppy, and am an active member of the church. My faith has given me a life I could never have imagined. Being able to practice daily prayer, connecting with God and acknowledging that I do not run the show, has taken a weight off my shoulders that I genuinely thought I would carry for the rest of my life. I have become part of a beautiful community that believes in love and compassion above all. A community which accepts me with my past, flaws and all. I am reminded daily that I am forgiven and loved, just as I am, and can, therefore, forgive and love others freely and with complete abandon.

It is a daily journey, with daily maintenance, and one I happily acknowledge will continue until I am no longer on this Earth. I freely hand over my life and my will to the care of God, and I know he will hold me. I am safe.

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Alex O'Byrne, 27/08/2019
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