by Sash Vale
This year is a significant year for me. It is in 2019 that I will turn 40. I think back to some twenty years ago (half of my lifetime) and realise what a transformed life I lead these days – in my detached suburban home, with wife and one-year-old daughter, having passionate faith in God which gives me a great purpose to live for. I never dreamed of any of these things back when I was just 20.
In fact, the only vision of my future that I foresaw throughout my entire adolescence and young adulthood was one which I would purposely bring to an abrupt end. I fully anticipated the depression I experienced becoming too much to bear, and one day totally obscuring any hope I had of finding pleasure or meaning in my life. Because I saw no way to escape my depression, suicide was a very real notion for me and it was the only future I could foresee. The only question really was, ‘when?’.
The degree to which I would experience depression would vary from season to season, or even from day to day. These bouts of depression certainly took their toll on my young life. I was disinterested in school and had few ambitions due to my anticipation of a short life. I avoided meaningful relationships in a vain attempt to protect people from my misery. I didn’t think anyone would want to spend time with someone susceptible to such lows. I settled for menial, uninteresting jobs and didn’t care if I got sacked due to absence. In those days it wasn’t uncommon for me to feel too low to get to work.
In so many ways my poor mental health was getting the better of me, directing the course of important life decisions and having a negative impact on virtually all areas of life. By and large, I somehow kept up appearances. Perhaps I was too proud, or afraid, to admit to anyone that I wasn’t well. I even complicated matters further with my own efforts to ‘cope’ – withdrawing from people and using a cocktail of legal and illegal substances to self-medicate on what became a daily basis.
Things were getting worse and, aged 25, after careful planning and years of consideration, I began to take steps towards ending my life in a neat and ordered way, all choreographed in the hope of making things easier for those around me. These steps included redecorating my room in the family home where I’d grown up and neatly organising personal belongings in a way that would make them easy to sort out and dispose of. Amongst some other more valuable possessions I sold my motorbike, handed in my notice for the job I’d been doing for the previous seven years and began letting people know of my plans to travel the world – all the time knowing this was the smoke screen that would allow me to mysteriously ‘disappear’. I wanted my death to look like an accident and, sparing the details, had a plan that would give that appearance.
This was not what I had truly wanted. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be well. I didn’t want to cause anyone else to feel grief. I wanted everything to be OK but, no matter how hard I had tried, I couldn’t shake off this depression. I had become convinced it was just ‘who I was’, and that I could never be better.
Before I finally went through with my plans I made every effort to make a last ‘go of things’. My never-ending battle with a poor mental state was still getting the better of me. I’d found a new job, and it was a decent one. I tried all sorts to get free from my dependence on substances. After just a few weeks of this new life I had to accept that nothing had changed, nor could I ever see positive change lasting. My carefully laid plans were cast aside when, one day, I was on my knees in desperation and ready to take my life in a far more crude and immediate way.
It was in what felt like these final moments, as I truly assessed whether there was anything good worth fighting for, or whether I could ever win that fight, that I believe I first encountered the God of truth, hope and love. I had the simple revelation that love is real. The love I felt for others stood apart from everything else. From there I discovered that God is love, and the source of everything that is good in the universe, including the very life I’d been given – and that He loved me.
To cut what might be a very long story short for the purposes of this blog, I discovered that Christ died for me, in order to bring me into the meaningful and purposeful daily relationship with God. It was this relationship that I had been created to experience, and I was lost without it.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away [from God] have been brought near by the blood of Christ.’
My ‘spiritual life’, my connection to God, newly discovered at aged 25, is a huge factor for me experiencing wellbeing in my mental health to this day. It is His comfort, love and the strength He gives to me that have carried me through times of great challenge and brought me joy and a wholeness that I never thought possible.
The initial realisation that I am God’s child, and that my loving Father in heaven could bring hope and healing into the deepest reaches of my mind and soul, brought about a transformation that now leaves my life before Christ virtually unrecognisable.
Part of me wishes this was the whole story – miraculously transformed, healed instantly and set free from depression. I have to admit this has not entirely been the case.
It is, perhaps, my willingness to admit that I still experience depression that is amongst the most profound areas of transformation that Christ has brought about since I began to know him.
There is now, in society, a far more open attitude towards mental health issues than existed even twenty years ago, and my attitude towards my own depression has most certainly changed too. As a young man in my twenties I was convinced that being open about my depression would only bring more harm. I wrongly thought that seeking treatment, which would involve openly admitting to my feelings, would result in being stigmatised – by family and friends, and also by potential employers. I thought talking about my feeling would result in my being misunderstood, unloved, unaccepted and unemployable. These fears kept me from the help I so desperately needed, and forced me to keep ‘going it alone’ which was no help at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When I first entered the church, I found love, acceptance and phenomenal support. However, once I’d settled in to my new life as a maturing Christian, and then continued to experience depression, the temptation returned to try to carry on as if everything was OK. Now I had to overcome the added pressure that I would simply be told ‘Christ was sufficient’, or that I’d ‘already been healed’ and that I had been given ‘all I needed in Him’. I had even tried to convince myself of these lines too. Surely knowing Jesus leads to everlasting joy, right? The trouble was everything was not OK, and it wasn’t down to a simple lack of faith and I knew it wasn’t right to try to go it alone again.
When I did find the courage, and the right people to open up to, it wasn’t met with glib advice but with sincere compassion and genuine help.
I liken my experience with mental health to that of difficulties I’ve had with my physical health. As with diet and exercise, there are certain things I can do to maintain a good level of mental health. My ‘spiritual life’ plays an enormous role for me in this respect. Repenting, forgiving, praying, genuine fellowship and renewing my mind with the truth of scripture all play an enormous part in my general sense of mental and emotional wellbeing. But, as with physical illness, there are times when things come along that require intervention.
I have had the misfortune of enduring more than one rare and exotic disease! When these come along, even the best diet and exercise are not the cure. At those times I needed expert help and time to recover.
There is a wealth of information and resources available to us regarding help with a whole range of mental health problems, not only depression. Also, there are people all around us who are able to listen and support us in finding the right kind of help that many of us, at times, may need. These good listeners would include our own Pastoral Team here at Life Church or maybe your Life Group leader.
There are many avenues of help available to explore, through the church, employers, the NHS and the GP, books, groups and privately available therapies. There are Christian counsellors who are prayerful and know Jesus and the Bible, which can be of help for those of us who believe. There are also some very effective medicines available, and all kinds of secular tools and resources to provide treatment or helpful strategies that will help us stay mentally and emotionally healthy. I would suggest that some of these tools and resources require passing through our Christian ‘filter’, so that we can make the most of them in light of the revelation we’ve received of Christ crucified but, nevertheless, they can be of exceptional value!
If you, like myself, have suffered in silence and tried to carry on regardless, may I recommend finding the right person to speak to as a first step – a friend, a fellow believer, your Life Group leader or a member of the Life Church Pastoral Team.
There is always a risk in being open and honest, especially when there is stigma attached to what you are feeling, but I have found that the rewards of getting help have been immeasurable. Christ came to give us fullness of life and we can trust that He is bringing about His great redemptive purposes in a myriad of ways in each of our lives, and it is His restorative work in my life that gives me such joy, and an unshakeable hope for the future.
To find out more about the Pastoral Team, or to contact them and find support for yourself or for another, please find details of the team, along with a contact form, on the Pastoral Team page of the Life Church website.
Also, this simple resource sets out some helpful Do’s and Don’ts as we learn to offer love and compassion to those around us as they open up about struggles with their mental health: A Quick Guide to Mental Health Care and Inclusion