I was asked this weekend to speak at a mental health awareness event at my church. My awesome, wonderful church. I was humbled, honored, and thrilled for this opportunity. We had about 30 people show up, and it made my heart sing to see so many people ready to be champions for mental health. [Also, whoever made the spicy meatballs and the pumpkin pie-ish dessert, THANK YOU. Yum.] If you feel so inclined to read it, the speech I gave at the event is below. Be well, and much love to you all.
My mind has always been an overly active one.
In many ways, I have found the time spent in my headspace to be some of the most joyful, life-giving moments of my life. The hours I’ve spent thinking, pondering, reading, writing, engaging in conversation – many of these have been greatly enjoyable, and in many instances I count them as gifts from God.
But it has also been my mind that I have struggled with more than any one thing in my 31 years on this earth.
When I was in my early twenties, I would react to this natural dichotomy as “what is your blessing is your curse.” Being an over thinker could be both good and bad – it made me creative and able to achieve, but at times I couldn’t turn my brain off, when I desperately wanted to.
As I got older, the extremes of feeling blessed and feeling cursed became stronger, the opposite poles spread further apart from each other.
My creative mind helped me to write things that helped me and others, but too much time spent introspecting would send me to the darkest corners I’ve ever known. On a good day, I was an artist. On a bad one, I was crippled.
I was a happy, hyper, anxious kid. I did very well in school and loved my teachers. I made friends easily. But I would regularly – and sometimes daily – get overwhelmed by my schoolwork. It didn’t matter that I continually got good grades and had all the affection of my elders; one homework assignment too many and my skin would turn hot, my heart would race. Oftentimes, my attentive and loving parents would see this reaction and talk me down, but many times I suffered silently, until my breathing returned to normal and I would power through with the rest of my schoolwork, always bringing home an A or B in the end.
This pattern followed me through college – panic, achieve, repeat.
Meanwhile I spent much of my adolescent years in private, dramatic wallowing. My family moved three times before I graduated from high school, and while on the one hand my extroversion made it “easy” for me to make friends, I often found myself feeling on the outside looking in. Alone in my room, I would listen to sad music, sometimes cry, and dream about being Homecoming Queen instead of feeling self-conscious every time I walked down the hallway at school.
Just to give you one tiny example of how different my life was from that of my peers: having few friends because I was perpetually “the new kid,” I once literally took my brother to a dance with me. I was able to carry this off with some authentic pluck, but I ached for a friend group that would include me during special events like Prom.
The payoff of all this was that, after all my awkward socializing in high school, I was a professional social butterfly at my small, Lutheran college. I will never forget the time one of my classmates called me “popular.” She just rattled it off her tongue casually, as if it were a fact so basic as saying Kermit the Frog is green.
But just as becoming a celebrity doesn’t heal one’s woes, my popularity only carried me so far. I continued to stress about the never-ending list of research papers I had to write, and as I edged toward senior year, my anxiety began to grow beyond the reach of my classwork.
As my worldview expanded, I contemplated more and more this complex life, this earth filled with so many people who think differently from one another. I started to worry about salvation, about heaven and hell. All these people God put here, and what did it all mean? Were we all OK, were we going to be OK down the line, and were we going to be OK eternally?
Sure, these things were discussed in the theology classrooms of my campus, but I secretly kept my questions to myself, feeling myself an out-of-place Debbie Downer, a buzzkill at the party that was College.
After graduation, it didn’t take long for my anxiety to blister and explode, and depression was on its heels, like a mangled dog.
In my slow-paced job as a receptionist, my mind was able to wander, leading me to think more and more disturbing, confusing thoughts. Thoughts I didn’t dare share with anyone. Later I would come to find that speaking my thoughts to another person would give me incredible relief, but at the time I feared that verbalizing them would make my feelings more palpable and frightening. Not to mention I thought people would think I was crazy.
I began a graduate program in social work, and promptly began to realize that instead of providing mental health services, I should be the one receiving them. I could hardly eat, nor sleep. I would drive home from class hyperventilating. Thank God I lived at home at the time, because eventually my anxieties and regular crying episodes gained an audience, and my parents and brother encouraged me to go to therapy.
While therapy was a life-changing step, I still had to get over the hurdle in my mind of thinking that I was above it. For years, while I supported others seeking professional counsel, I never thought I would feel so low and helpless that I would need it.
The night before my first session, I crept out of bed and found my dad in the living room, watching TV. I was 22 years old, and I crawled into his lap like a child and wept.
While to this day I don’t love attending therapy sessions, Ann, my first therapist, put me at the best ease she could. She had three sons and a daughter, so she understood my feelings of grappling with gender roles, as I am the only girl in my family. Ann was a Christian, so we would sometimes pray before beginning our hour of talking. She occasionally referenced our shared faith and the Bible, but by and large she just talked to me about regular, non-churchy stuff. I found comfort in someone who could relate to my faith, but who didn’t cover my serious problems with packaged platitudes. While she encouraged my faith practices as a way of coping, she also suggested things like journaling, measured breathing, and taking medication.
After just a couple of weeks on an anti-depressant, I could eat again. I could sleep. While still myself, with all my individual, creative, Bailey thoughts intact, I didn’t find my brain spiraling into scary, dark places, places that made it hard to do simple, fun things like go shopping, bowling or dancing.
It gave me my life back.
Eventually I got to a much better place, and I stopped seeing Ann. It wouldn’t be the last time I would see her, though, or other therapists. Throughout Graduate School Take Two (this time to study journalism) and to present day I still talk to counselors off and on, during seasons when I need them.
Over the years, I felt comfortable enough that my doctor would wean me off of my medication; however I would always find myself needing to go back on it in order to cope with my anxieties and emotions. After being taken off and put back on several times, a new psychiatrist finally decided I should probably up my dose of Celexa, to help abate the depression that seemed to be creeping into my life. “You can even be on it while you’re pregnant,” she said, indicating that medication might be a lifelong tool I would need to use.
The bump up from 5 mg to 20 made all the difference.
Still, I found myself fluctuating between happy and sad a lot. I talked to my psychiatrist about this as candidly as I could. I told her I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of going on more medication, but I also said that enough was enough. I was tired of feeling one way in a moment, and then feeling the opposite two hours later. I was game to try a mood stabilizer.
While I have never contemplated suicide to the point of making a plan for how I would carry out my own death, I have had moments wondering if my life might eventually end in such a way. The back and forth of my emotions was exhausting, terrifying, and 100 percent discouraging. It was proven over and over that I was incredibly strong, and that God would continue to provide people who could help drag me out of my sadness, but I sometimes wondered if I would always be able to endure the struggle.
After some trial and error with a mood stabilizing drug that did not work for me, my doctor started me on Abilify, and 2 tiny milligrams of that stuff has proven to be a lifesaver.
In a very short time on my new drug cocktail, I could see the difference. For the first time in almost a decade, I felt as I had in my younger years. Life was no longer a dark monster. I could feel happiness and look forward to more. Moreover, I didn’t feel like I was out of control with hyperness. After several months, I was confident that I could feel happy, even, and calm, and it wouldn’t all be erased the next day.
My faith – and my faith community – have helped hold me together throughout my entire life. Worship songs can feel like coming home. Prayer reduces the bubbling water inside me to a calm simmer, and eventually, to stillness. Sermons make me think, remind me that this ancient, mysterious book we read applies to my life now. Sitting in a quiet sanctuary centers me.
But it is the people in my life who have been the greatest witness, the greatest proof to me, that God is love and He wants love in my life.
God has always provided for me. In my lowest moments, I always had someone at the receiving end of my phone call. While they weren’t able to erase my pain, or promise me that everything would be OK, they were there. They gave me advice, encouraged me to go back to therapy when I didn’t want to, got me out of the house, and fed me. In a word, they loved me. Just in being themselves, they made me happy again, helped me laugh and inspired me with the many ways they make the world a better place.
This might sound crass, what I am about to say, but stick with me. It is because of the people in my life who embody God’s love by living out their love, that I am not an advocate for simply praying your troubles away. I wholeheartedly encourage church attendance, prayer, Bible reading, and fellowship with other believers.
But I also believe that God made some of us great listeners, full of wisdom, so that they could get degrees in counseling and people like me could talk to them and get some relief.
I believe that God made some of us super smart scientists, who have the patience to study brain chemistry and create medication that can literally save lives, mine to name just one.
I believe that God wants to heal each and every one of us, that His heart breaks for our broken world, and He wants all of us to reach out to Him for the peace that surpasses understanding. I will never understand why, when at my wit’s end, I can speak into the air, “Help. I’m stuck,” and somehow I am then able to keep going.
God’s love is the most mysterious, beautiful thing I will ever encounter.
And as a result of His love, we love.
It is because of God that we are naturally designed to want to hug, to fall in love, to care, to cry when someone is hurting, to smile when a child laughs. We are bent for good, but sadly, life can be really damn hard.
I wish I could make sense of it, but then again, I find peace in just letting go, just quietly reading a psalm and wondering why it makes me cry tears of renewal.
From Psalm 139, You know when I sit and when I rise…You discern my going out and my lying down…You hem me in behind and before.
God, if that isn’t comforting to know that He cares about our every move, when it seems like we’re all just lost in the shuffle, bumping into each other wondering what the heck we’re doing here and why does it have to hurt sometimes?
I wish I could tell you that mental health gets tied up in a nice bow. Heck, I wish I could tell myself that.
Two weeks ago, I found myself at my boyfriend’s apartment, feeling more down than I had in years, and as a result, terrified of what might happen next. Based on my history, all I could think was that the sadness would be here to stay.
Alex was taking a nap, and I crawled into bed with him, resting my head on his chest. He was warm and smelled sleepy. As he roused, he greeted me quietly.
“I feel sad today,” I whispered into the dusky light.
He draped a heavy leg over mine and wrapped his arms around me. I laid there like a burrito, warm tears drizzling down my face onto the comforter.
For years, I longed for a lover to wrap me up just like this, but even as Alex said, “I’ll always be here for you,” I felt flashbacks of what it was like to face my sadness and how alone I felt, like it was my battle and mine alone. The heaviness of my past was too scary to imagine facing again, Alex or no Alex.
So. How am I facing my current situation?
One, I have talked to my therapist. I am monitoring my moods to report back to him, so we can explore together whether a medication adjustment might be necessary.
I am talking to friends, family, and Alex, checking in about my moods and my fears.
I am writing, dissecting my thoughts and deciding what might be affecting my feelings – Am I stressed? Am I asking lots of big life questions? Etc.
And through it all – and if I can leave you with one piece of advice may it be this: I will never remain silent.
Please, I beg of you, speak up.
If you are sad, anxious, panicked, mad, confused, lonely, fearful, tired. Or, for that matter, if you are feeling too happy and out of control.
Find someone, somewhere, to tell your troubles to. You can talk to me, if you want. If you are really not shy, like me, start a blog and write out your feelings for an Internet audience. If you are too uncomfortable talking to anyone you know, go see a therapist in a town where no one will ever see you.
Just start somewhere.
This life God gave us is incredibly beautiful. It can be so fun and light we feel we never want to leave it, like those parties we wish didn’t have to end. But because our world is broken, life can bring us to our knees, making it hard to even utter to the heavens above: Why is everything the way that it is?
But I am living (living!) proof that if you reach out to God and to the people He made to love, you will start to understand why He came to earth in human form – to give us peace, assurance that we are loved by Him, and to provide an example of how we can love those around us. How to lift each other up, wipe away tears, listen, make psychotropic drugs in a lab, dance, write, sing, share a meal, pet animals, plant flowers, to laugh. To bow our heads together and again turn to Him.