On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.
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What’s normal anyway?

To those whom much has been given much will be expected – or something like that. It’s the Bible’s equivalent of the maxim directed at Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Much what, though?
To two learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, ankylosing spondylitis, I recently had added a diagnosis of AD(H)D. I but the ‘H’ in brackets because we’re not sure yet quite how much ‘h’ there is in me – the hyperactivity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been on Ritalin, the medication of choice for this, for a couple of months now and the effect of it has been transformative. Is this what I’ve been missing out on all this time? Does everybody really have the capacity to sit down and just get on with stuff and not be fighting a permanent battle of distraction? I thought my magpie mind was symptomatic of the human condition, not a quirk of my brain.
There’s often a worry with treating this kind of thing that in doing so you lose some of the spark that makes someone unique, the fire of creativity, the fingerprint of the personality. I’m still learning about that, and how to make sure my whole family gets the benefit of the more focussed me – not just those who happen to come across my orbit in working hours. There’s much for me to learn, and yes I’ve been leant A Useful Book that does actually appear to be useful.
It’s quite a cocktail of diagnoses now. One would be more than enough, but there’s web of corollary, apparently between them. People with A.S. get depressed; people with depression get anxious. People with ADHD have learning disabilities. Chicken? Egg? Who knows.
None of them are going to kill me (I suppose you could argue that depression could, but you know what I mean); all of them are limiting, restricting in some way. It’s quite a collection of limits that I’m constantly learning to live within, to navigate around. Someone said to me that I now have a better idea of what makes me unique and special which is an interesting way to look at it. I’ve been living with me for a long time now and don’t think of me as unique – in my eyes, I’m normal. No matter if I’m normal or unique (or both), it feels as if this collection of defining characteristics is enough to be getting on with. If much is required of whom much is given, then what exactly is the much expected of me? Some days getting out of bed feels like an achievement (I spent 3 hours in a hospital waiting room for someone else yesterday; as a result of the dodgy chairs my A.S. is flaring which makes every moment of ‘normality’ today a victory); some days, filling out a form by hand is too much (thanks, dysgraphia!). Is the much that’s expected of me just to live, exist in a way that most people would recognise? Or is there more? What’s God’s call? To live within the limits, or transcend them like a bad afternoon tv-movie?
If only we all came with some sort of personalised users manual, telling how to get the best out of us. Everyone has to wrestle with these issues, of course – what am I for? It’s just that when you seem to have more quirks than others, it feels trickier to navigate.
We don’t come with user manuals, of course. We do come with an image, an imprint of a creator but that feels increasingly marred and chipped and cracked. And how do you speak of that when there’s so much about you that feels like it doesn’t bear the stamp of a wise and good creator? Is the image of God about perfection because God is perfect, or is it something more complex than that? There’s something there about our calling  – to steward creation on God’s behalf, and that creation presumably includes ourselves. So what does stewarding myself mean when the reflection is warped?
Questions, and few answers. Assuming that I now have the last of the diagnoses – at least for a while – maybe I can start to discern a way forward. Today this is less of dead-weight then it is a challenge to be surmounted, a puzzle to solve. It doesn’t oppress me today, but it does present these questions to which I struggle discern answers.
My only conclusion: normal is an illusion. There is both no such thing as normal; and also that normal is whatever your state is, wherever you habitually land. It’s not a target to be reached; if you see it that way it will always be out of reach. Instead it’s simply what you are.

Shadow sides 6: Elijah and his depression

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

The epidemic of mental health issues is well-recorded, yet it continues to be difficult for many Christians to see it as it is: an illness no more sinful or shameful than a broken leg. Anyone can break their leg, no matter how holy they are. In the same way, anyone’s mind can end up in plaster. Depression’s regular companion is anxiety; add in a side-serving of PTSD and you have my trio. Charles Spurgeon, widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in British history, suffered from at times crippling depression. Trevor Noah, South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, has wrestled with it. Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘the black dog’ for his battles. Psalm 42 describes tears as food and the soul as downcast; Jesus’ sorrow overwhelms Him to the point of death (Matthew 26); yet for many mental health issues are the Christian’s dirty little secret.

Consider Elijah, whose story is found in 1 Kings 17-19. The people of God are in a bad way, wandering far from where they should be. Elijah’s life and ministry is to call them back to how they should be. For two chapters we get the sense that his is the ministry of mountain-tops and ecstasy; miracles, fire from heaven, slaughtering opponents, standing bravely for God, speaking truth to power. Yet in the wake of his biggest vindication, Elijah crashes. In chapter 19 he fears for his life and runs for the wilderness; he’s suicidal. All told, this episode will last somewhere in the region of 40 days – Biblical speak, we know, for a long time. He asks God to kill him.

What God does – and doesn’t  – do with his prophet is instructive on how we should deal with depression in ourselves and others. There’s no magic cure; first off it’s sleep and food. The latter is miraculously provided, but Elijah scarcely notices; sometimes when you’re depressed just eating a meal can seem like a major achievement. Here begins the hallmark of God’s treatment of Elijah’s depression – gentleness. He doesn’t tell Elijah to stop wallowing in self-pity; He doesn’t tell Elijah’s he’s sinning; He doesn’t tell Elijah to pull himself together. He moves towards Elijah; he meets Elijah where He is and doesn’t ask him to change. Instead, when he’s ready, He lets Elijah talk. He asks open-ended, ‘why’ questions; not closed ‘yes/no’ questions. It doesn’t matter to God that Elijah’s answer to those questions barely changes; He just lets Elijah talk. Neither does He overwhelm Elijah with another intense spiritual experience; earthquake, wind, fire (the mode of God’s presence on Carmel) all pass by with no hint of God’s presence. Instead He’s in the quiet whisper.

At the end of all this, there’s no indication that Elijah is better, that his depression has lifted. His answer to God’s questions are still the same; we don’t know if his desire to die has gone. Elijah’s role hasn’t changed, though. He’s still a prophet; God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. God reminds him of that and gives him a new mission. We don’t get to hear if Elijah even carries it out; as is so often the case for many of us, there is no resolution, no suggestion that Elijah’s problems are solved. Despite his depression – or maybe because of it – Elijah still has a role to play and a job to do.

If God doesn’t dismiss someone with depression, who are we to do so? Add to Elijah’s treatment plan therapy, medication and friends willing to play God’s role, and you have the right prescription. As with Thomas’ doubt, Paul’s thorn in the flesh and more besides, the label doesn’t concern God. If Elijah were in ministry today he might be told to take a sabbatical or change careers or find a less stressful job; in 1 Kings 19, however, God simply embraces Elijah, draws close to him and reminds him of his mission. It seems that God is less choosy about who He uses than we might be.

If there’s stigma, there shouldn’t be; but it’s not my problem. Hanging from a cursed cross, outside the city walls, bearing sin that wasn’t His, we follow a stigmatised Saviour. Which is God’s master-plan for all we need; in Him, God draws close to us whose minds are in plaster. If we know others for whom this is also the case, then let us sit with them. As the stigmatised Saviour does with all of us.

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

Esther: from whom God was absent

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Robin Williams and Gaza: it just got a little bit darker

image from popwatch.ew.com

Not him. Please not him.

Robin Williams was one of the first people to make me laugh as a professional in the cause. He died today, apparently at his own hand, in the throes of an ongoing battle with depression and addiction.

There’s a lot of rough stuff, dark stuff, painful stuff in the world right now, but this makes it all a little darker.

For people like me, he was the comic voice of a generation. We grew up on his shows and his movies, laughing even at the jokes we didn’t want to admit to teenage friends that we didn’t really understand. He also – let’s be honest here, it does no one any good to gloss over – made some total rubbish. He could ‘do serious’ so very well. Which shouldn’t be a surprise because good comedy is just as hard to carry off, if not harder, than good drama. I have a little acting experience and know that to be true. To be as funny as he was took real genius; so drama should and did come easily to him. In all cases he just needed the right script – the better to improvise from and around.

That’s one reason this news overshadows much else, for a time. When you lose someone you grew up with, you need to take some moments.

Sadder still that he’s another in the litany of those wrestling with mental illness and who wanted out. We need to pause when we hear this news because to those of us who struggle with depression or love those who do, moments like this can feel like a dangerous affirmation of the choice to end the struggle on our terms. If he’s done it, why can’t I?

You can say as much you like that it doesn’t work like that and it’s worth hanging on, but it makes no difference; possibly suicidal depression has a dark internal logic as irresistible as a whirlpool’s pull. News like this can seem to add a little more gravity’s inexorable, inevitable power.

So pay attention. This matters, as much as Iraq and Gaza. Differently, but as much. Do not condemn those who seemed unmoved by Gaza or Iraq but appear to be paralysed by the death of someone they’d never met. You’re on dangerous, holy ground if you’re with them.

If you are feeling suicidal, or know someone who may be, please click here

Christmas (and cricket) for people who don’t like it

Cricket is a strange sport. Steeped in tradition and the nebulous ‘spirit of cricket’; decency, fair-play and public-spiritedness are all part of the sport’s rich history. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and despite what the defenders of the sport may seek to say, it’s much like any other sport. Don’t get me wrong; I love cricket, especially test match cricket, with a passion. But it can be a dark, aggressive, lonely sport.

I once heard a talk by someone who had worked closely with the England team over a good span of years (this is some time ago now – when the current players were still at school); the speaker was reflecting on the loneliness and boredom that can overtake players on foreign tours. He told us that he knew for a fact that on one tour not a single player was faithful to his partner whilst he was away. He was well placed to know that. Times have changed for the better in that regard – wives, girlfriends and children are actively encouraged to travel with the England team for parts of the tour. But darkness remains in cricket’s heart.

Whether it’s sledging – verbal on-field insults aimed to achieve the famed ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent  – or fast-bowling aiming a small, hard leather object in the vicinity of the opponent’s head at 90 miles per hour, intimidation with word and deed has been part of the game since well before England’s attempts to squeeze the all-time great Australian Don Bradman out of the game led to a full scale international diplomatic incident. Any individual or team who claims to be above this is simply one that hasn’t yet been caught at it.

This is all because cricket  – especially the long version of it – is a game played in the head. It’s a team sport that depends on individuals to excel as individuals within a team context; hours spent in a lonely fielding position; running in to bowl 120 times a day in sweltering heat whilst your colleagues stand stationary waiting for something to happen; long stretches in a dressing room watching others do brilliantly or terribly, all of which adds to the stress and strain when it comes to your turn.

All this and more has been bought into sharp relief when one of the world’s leading batsmen (England’s Jonathan Trott) left England’s scarcely begun tour of Australia with a ‘stress-related condition’ in the wake of the allegedly unrelated comments by an Australian cricketer that Trott was scared and weak.  Whatever the cause, he’s the latest in a line of cricketer’s to have his mental health thrust into the spotlight; despite claims that cricket and those who play it are no less prone to mental health issues than anyone else, it does appear to be a sport in which these things at the very least gain more publicity than they might otherwise. The same speaker who told me of English cricketers’ infidelity also told me of a high level of depression, suicidal tendencies and attempts amongst cricketers at all levels.

There is some good coming out of this – if mental health issues, especially those of prominent, admired men  – are being talked about openly that does give to the many who think they are alone some much-needed solace and maybe an encouragement to seek help. If cricket does something to people, so does the Christmas season. All the family issues, the excess of food and drink, financial pressures exacerbated by the pressure to spend, the insistence that we must be jolly whilst doing so, the round after round of socialising, the darker days and harsher weather (in the northern hemisphere). It’s a tough holiday season, especially if you add in the heightened reminders of recent bereavements and other loss whilst others celebrate their families. Depression, suicide and general misery seems to rocket in line with the enforced jollity.

Cricket and Christmas force us inside ourselves (imagine, then, for a moment what it’s like for a cricketer, struggling with his profession, away from home for months, over Christmas); they both force the participant into a space where mental frailties and fractures are likely to be pressured to breaking point. Duty or love or some combination of the 2 forces us into situations where we may not like what gets forced to the surface. How to survive? A few tips, whether you love cricket or hate it …

1) Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to some invitations if they’re not going to put you in a beneficial space. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to another drink or helping if it’s bad for you. It’s OK not to enjoy what others are enjoying. In short, it’s OK to be the person God has made you to be even if she or he doesn’t quite fit in with what’s going on around them.

2) Plan things you know you’ll enjoy. Whether it’s a book you love, a place you like to walk or a film that’s special to you or a favourite piece of music – if the season is full of hard things you know won’t energise you, make sure you actively plan stuff that you like.

3) Remember, when you’re feeling frail and weak, that Christmas is about God packing himself into the frail and weak skin and bones of a helpless baby. If you’re feeling frail and weak you are in good company. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15).

4) If you know you’re going to be in some situations you will find difficult, make a plan for what you’ll say and do when the things you expect to happen do happen. Write them down on your phone or tablet or diary – pull them out to look at them if you need to. You’ll have a safety net and will feel much more confident as a result.

5) January is often harder for people than Christmas. Make plans for positive things in January now.

6) Remember that the worst may not happen. As well as thinking about the bad things you expect to happen, think what the best case scenarios might be and what you might be able to do to help bring them about.

7) Keep reminding yourself that God rejoices over youThe Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Since I first wrote this article, David Warner has issued an apology for his comments about Jonathan Trott.

A question; an answer; a question

“What have you got to be depressed about?”

The question is a tenacious one.

What have I got to be depressed about?

I was born into one of the most privileged, advanced, secure societies in humanity’s history.

I now live in the world’s most economically unequal country; but it’s OK. I have a house, running water a toilet and health care. That puts me on the plus side of the inequality equation.

What have I got to be depressed about?

I know people who live in the middle of a gang war. I know people who have to walk through the region’s most crime-affected areas after dark in the rain to get to a toilet. A toilet of sorts, by the standards of most of us who will read this.

What have I got to be depressed about?

Unlike many in my community, I have never been threatened with being forcibly removed from the family home and relocated to places with inadequate drainage, exposed to the worst of the wind and the rain.

In the grip of a depressive episode I could, should, would feel guilty.

That makes sense, seems right, makes sense of the universe, doesn’t it?

If your leg is in plaster people ask why. You explain. They understand and make allowances.

I’ve never broken my leg, never had a part of my body visibly in plaster.

My chronic arthritic spinal condition is invisible. The reasons for it can be guessed at but not explained. The pain ebbs and flows like a temperamental tide.

I’ve been told I’m too young to have a ‘bad back’. That I need to see a chiropractor/exercise more/take different exercise/apply ice/apply heat/sleep more/sleep less/sleep on a harder bed/sleep on a softer bed … (delete as appropriate).

None of these will work. At least not as a fully as the advice-givers expect. I have the same condition as the captain of the Australian cricket team and a former English captain in the same sport. My symptoms are more advanced than both because I am older and a roll of the biological dice has deemed it thus.

The invisible needs explanation to be understood. If it can’t be understood, it must be curable in familiar ways. What works for me must work for you, surely. Ignorance leads to empty advice, kindly meant but building up over time to frustration and snapped responses.

It’s the same with depression. You can’t see it, so when you or someone you know is depressed you feel you must have a peg to hang it on, a circumstance to explain it, something that can be altered to alter the condition.

As with the arthritic pain, sometimes that may be true. A plane ride leads to 48 hours of pain; a circumstance of life can lead to a depressive episode. Counselling may help; changing something may help.

Sometimes. Sometimes not, though. Sometimes my back or neck or joint pain flares for no known biological reason. Sometimes I may experience an episode of depression for no other reason than fluctuation of chemicals I don’t understand.

The cruel trick is that in both cases I can feel guilty. I look at those in plaster, I look at my gender and age and think I should be able to do more than biology allows. So I feel guilty even if everyone around me is terribly nice and supportive. I look around at the need, pain and suffering of the city in which I live and I see people with real reasons to plough to a stop with depression, but they keep going. So I feel soft, guilty, pathetic. What have I got to be in pain about? What have I got to be depressed about?

And most of the time,  these are the questions of healing as well as doubt.

What have I got to be in pain about, depressed about?

Nothing. Sometimes, I just am in pain. I just am depressed. Others may understand or they may not. They may be helpful or they may make it worse, like the unsought advice.

But He knows. As mysteriously as I may have been made, He does know. He sees the heart and serotonin. He sees the mis-firing immune system causing waves of pain.

Did Jesus get ill? Did he feel sickness and pain creeping up on him; not on the cross … I mean bent over the carpenter’s bench, getting out of bed. Not from sin, just from existing. He did feel pain on the cross – does that mean he felt pain of the sort I do? Were the chemicals in his brain prone to unpredictability, or was He perfectly ordered, perfectly centered?

Did He? Does He? Unanswerable speculation or healthy questions?

I don’t know.

But it’s a good place to take the creeping guilt, the nagging sense I should be different.

What have I got to be depressed about. As a British comedian has recently said, you might as well ask “What have you got to have a broken leg for”.

Outside the walls

This week is Depression Awareness Week in the UK.

I know a man who had to take some time off from his job in a church. A working relationship had broken down to the point of him becoming ill, experiencing a serious bout of depression. Relationship break-downs are complex affairs and as a result the church as a whole wasn’t told why he was absent. Complex as it was, this was a mistake; rumours started to circulate of absence from work for reasons of illegality or immorality, none of which were fully denied by those who had the power to do so. When some of those aspects of the truth which were appropriate for the public domain were allowed into the open, it was too late for some relationships. By then the man was within minutes of suicide.

What’s at the heart of that? A lot, to be sure. There’s a much longer story to be told. Maybe one day it can be revisited; maybe not. There’s explanations, qualifications and different sides of the truth which would doubtless have to be explored and explained. What can be said is that there’s something at play here which speaks to a wider truth; that many of us Christians – and especially we charismatic-evangelical ones, for this was in a charismatic church – are scared to bring issues of mental illness in our communities into the light. Some of us are scared; and when we’re scared of something because we don’t fully understand it, it’s easy to end up with stigma. We keep the thing we’re scared of at arm’s length, away in a locked room, unspoken of and unnamed; or given a different, more comfortable, more morally quantifiable name. We prefer explanations that are easier to explain – illegality  or immorality, in the case of this man. That’s much easier than naming it depression, mental health problems; we know where we stand on pastors who have affairs or who break the law. We’re less certain when it comes to Christians (and especially Christian leaders) with depression. Christians are meant to rejoice and walk in victory, so depression doesn’t fit. So some of us push it away and give it another name, find a different box to put it in. Very few, if any, of the people involved in that story I told are likely to articulate it thus; but it’s there in the subtle ways we find to come up with alternative narratives. It’s a human reflex, a knee-jerk reaction which can seem as inbuilt as hair colour or height.

Stigma. The hiding of the dirty secret which may not actually be that dirty, but can make you feel soiled. It alienates, distances, lies, covers-ups … and depends on a lot of other factors to be maintained. It springs from fear that others will see us differently, fear of something we can’t quite understand or explain, something which once it’s out of the box can’t be controlled and can’t be put back in. Stigma stains, soaks into the fabric and can’t be washed out.

That’s understandable – we believe God heals and we want to see that happen. We don’t know, though, how to pray when confronted by some things. Does a person need deliverance or healing? Does he need love or medicating? Des she need prayer or a professional practioner? The question really should be: why do we have to choose?

Here’s the breaking news: the box is open. The tragic death of Matthew Warren, mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s son who took his own life after a long battle with depression, has lifted the lid. If ever it was really securely on in the first place. Now there’s no hint or suggestion that he was stigmatised for his illness. Everything we’ve seen suggests he was held with love, compassion, dignity and grace. But the public stage of this sad story has taken the issue of depression, mental health and suicide in evangelical christianity and thrust it blinking into the spotlight. A perfect storm of stigma, circumstances, panic attacks and depression nearly killed the man of whom I spoke. He didn’t take his own life, but he was mighty close to it. He felt so trapped, so locked away, that for a while only one way out made sense. It’s hard to argue with that dark logic.

I know another man. A man who was stigmatised. Rumour, spite, manipulation, violence, cowardice and religion led him to be tortured and to hang bleeding and suffocating and dying naked on a cursed cross outside a wall, mocked and sneered at, his clothes won and lost by his executioners on the rolls of dice.

Stigma borne. Stigma owned by the one who shouldn’t have to hold it.

There’s a lid to be thrown away, questions to be asked, conversations to be had. It should start with the consideration of a man who chose stigma and let it lead Him to glory. Then it must move to those forced by omission or commission to carry stigma; it must continue with sorrow, repentance, forgiveness and understanding. It must continue thus until we’re left together at the foot of the stigmatised cross, with an ear open to the one we mistake for a gardener, calling us by name.

I have the man’s full permission to share what I did of his story. I also checked this post out with a handful of independent advisers to comment on appropriateness before finalising and posting.