May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in 3 days, it will be over. I began writing this blog post in April, with every intention to post it. In a frenetic flurry of activity, May has virtually come and gone. May is insane for everyone (or, as I like to say, “May is Cray”), but especially parents with end-of-the-year programs, recitals, activities, and graduations. Ryan Reynolds, the actor, bravely shared this just the other day, inspiring me to stop and finish writing this post with a few dwindling days remaining on the calendar before droning on with our lives and forward into June.
Did you even know that May was Mental Health Awareness Month? Shockingly, we haven’t heard more buzz about it from our government, on social media, and even nonprofits, especially emerging from the context of a global pandemic and considering the toll that has taken on our collective mental health. My heart is with our veterans as we approach Memorial Day, brutally reminding us of those who have served our country and lost in battle on the physical fields of foreign wars as well as those who have fought and lost battles in their own minds to suicide.
To be honest, I have heard more buzz about the Friends Reunion. That seems healthy.
I have struggled with generalized anxiety disorder since I was a kid, and I hate this about myself. I hate the way it feels, and I hate the way it makes me appear to the world as emotionally weak, unstable, and incompetent. It is a constant source of shame, embarrassment, and condemnation – a condition that I try to keep hidden, well-managed, and maintained. Along with the ever-present stigma of mental illness, it is even more complicated as a Christian because if I have been given the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead, why is it such a struggle for me on certain days to even get out of bed? With verses like Philippians 4:6-7, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus,” I constantly wonder what I am doing wrong. Why won’t God heal me and give me peace? If I could snap my fingers and change one thing about myself, it would be this. I thought that when I became a Christian at 19 that it would go away. I’ve prayed. I have fasted. I have begged God to forgive me, change me, and give me more faith. I have prayed countless times, “God, I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”
I manage my entire life around anxiety. I plan. I prepare. I run (when I am not currently recovering from an ACL repair). I eat clean. I try to get enough sleep when the monster of insomnia isn’t nipping at my heels. I stay away from alcohol due to a generational history and pattern of self-medicating mental ill-health. I have spent more hours in counseling than I can count. I do the things. I quote the verses. I read the books. Seriously. Please don’t recommend a book – I promise you I have already read it. And please don’t give me another tip or to-do for my task list because I will probably delete it. I have heard them and done them all. Every tip or suggestion offered feels like another weight added to my already overloaded rucksack. It’s exhausting work, keeping my head above water when all I want to do is catch a breath and rest. Sometimes, though, it just catches up to me. My arms tire of treading, and I sink. I have to process through it. Trust me. No one wants to be a Debbie Downer because we know that no one wants to be around one either. We want to be the fun ones, the ones that everyone loves. In this results-driven world we live in, the extroverts, the enthusiasts, and the bubbly ones are praised, promoted, and rewarded.
I have prayed so many times for God to change me, to make me more like “them.” To remove this thorn from my side. And every time I do, He reminds me that He is with me. The Bible tells me that I have been given the mind of Christ in the middle of my present struggles and that His power is somehow made gloriously perfect in my weaknesses. How all of that works is a mystery and remains to be seen. He doesn’t take my weaknesses away, unfortunately, imbuing me with superhuman strength. The sci-fi geek in me would LOVE that alternative. Instead, we suffer with Him becoming more like Him in the process if we allow it and cooperate with the work He is doing. And then He leads me to stories of actual flesh and blood people in the Bible that regularly battled with their thoughts like Elijah, David, Jonah, and even Jesus himself.
“He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.”Isaiah 53:3 NLT
This verse and others like it tell me that Jesus, in all of His humanity and divinity, knows precisely how I feel. He knew grief, not just superficially and not just head knowledge, but deeply knew it. He was misunderstood. He experienced rejection. Yes, He poured out. He had the joy of the Father, but we neglect the fact that He also carried around the weight of the world’s sin on His shoulders. He spent a lot of time in solitude with His Heavenly Father, grieving, praying, and weeping for a lost and dying world. Because in this world, things are not as they ought to be. Yes Jesus was divine, but I think we overlook just how human He really was. Let me relieve the pressure you feel to always be on for people. We need to see each other as human, not as fake people always killing it because that’s a lie.
In a world that prefers the shiny, happy, golden people, this verse tells me that Jesus knows exactly how I feel, even if no one else does. I am not alone. When the world rejects me, He never does. He draws near and pulls me close when everyone else is too afraid to come near. This is the greatest news in the world: the God of the universe who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves loves us in spite of all our shame and weaknesses and beckons us to run to Him.
The presence of the battle doesn’t make us weak. We show strength every time we run to Jesus and ask Him to fight for us. When you have trouble turning your thoughts off, or the accusatory voices in your head are louder than everyone else’s who tell you what you know to be true, but you are just having trouble believing, and you can’t sleep, remember this: You are loved by your Heavenly Father exactly as you are. You are not rejected or despised for the weight that you carry. You are seen, you are known, and your cries are counted, collected, and heard. You don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to fake it. You can be real and honest with Him. There is hope. His name is Jesus. And He won’t run away even if and when everyone else does.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.Hebrews 4:15-16 ESV
Here’s what I know to be true too. Just because you sometimes get anxious or depressed, that doesn’t mean that that’s who you are. Just because you struggle, that is not your identity. Yes, we struggle, but yes, we are also in Christ. His perfectly sound mind is now ours that we have access to; even though we still wrestle with the side effects of these broken bodies we have been temporarily issued. It is in Him that we have our victory. Both can be true. I may struggle, but I am not my struggles, and the battle does not have the final say – Jesus does. We experience persecution, but Jesus does not abandon us in the fight. We may get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. If we are in Christ, we are His children, and we are who He says we are; we have spiritual blessings and inheritance beyond what our mortal bodies limit us to. His joy is our strength. He will not abandon us. He walks with us. He never leaves us or forsakes us.
I wish more people talked openly about this. When I do, I get flooded with responses. I know more people struggle than they let on. We are all just afraid to be authentic. It’s uncomfortable. Hiding and covering ourselves with fig leaves is so much easier than being honest and vulnerable with one another. Naked and unashamed. Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with the deepest grief. He knew pain, rejection, and suffering. And if you carry this around with you, as I do, then you are not alone. You are in the world’s best company.
I don’t know why some of us struggle with this and others do not. But what I do know is that if God chooses not to heal me this side of Heaven, and for whatever reason, it brings Him more glory for me to suffer, then so be it. He is big enough for me to lean on. He is strong enough to carry me. And if this points someone else towards leaning on Him too, then all glory be unto Him.
If you are one of the fortunate ones who do not struggle mentally but have someone in your life that does, here are a few things you can do. Accept them. Love them. See them. Don’t try to change them or make them be more like you. For the love of God, don’t start sentences with, “Well, here’s what you should do…” Especially if you don’t know what it’s like. Don’t try to make them match your pace. You may even have to slow yours down to meet theirs for a moment and hold up their arms. Encourage them. Challenge them and believe in them. Believe in their ability to accomplish much even though they struggle and that God can still use them and accomplish much through them despite their weaknesses, not penalized or rejected because of them. Don’t count them out. We are afraid to truly show our faces and be seen because of past rejections. We need visibility, awareness, acceptance, and more of us speaking out about it. It’s embarrassing that we don’t talk about it more. Thanks, Ryan, for opening up the conversation.