It’s been a long time since I last posted here. If you’d asked me, I’d have given reasonable excuses – my department at work closed down and I transferred into a new role, my sons were moving into different phases of their education, and sometimes life gets in the way of blogging. All of that is true.
But today is World Mental Health Day, and I guess that’s as good a time as any for a deeper level of truth. Because there are days when I stare at a monitor, unable to even click a mouse. There are days that I’m scared of everything, but that everything is really nothing, and so my brain is fighting my body all the time, the former trying to get on with life, the latter wanting nothing more than to run and hide. A couple of times, deep in the past but still complicated memories, I saw the future as nothing more than an implacable enemy. Looking back, those times frighten me.
These are the bad days, of course, and they come around less often than they did. I take medication. I speak to a counselor. I’ve come to the realisation that mental health is something to take seriously, that it’s not just an imaginary friend to physical illness or injury.
Typing this, knowing that this is a Christian blog, I feel bad that I don’t mention faith in that last paragraph. I think that’s because too often I base my faith on knowledge, and mental illness has a tendency to take knowledge out into the car park and give it a good kicking. The things I know about myself, about others, about the future, about God, they get bulldozed by anxiety, by stress, by depression. Prayer becomes something that’s forced out of my soul, a quick few minutes here and there in response to an immediate need or a request from our house group or a post on Twitter. And so prayer stops being about a relationship with God, because mental illness does a number on relationships too.
As a society we’re getting better at talking about mental health. As a child I remember people saying that so-and-so’s “nerves are bad” and not knowing what that meant. I remember someone saying that you should never tell your HR department that you were off with stress, fake the flu instead. That stigma is, I think, breaking down, but it still hasn’t disappeared and there are still enclaves where talking about, say, depression isn’t the done thing– how many older men have taken their own lives because the tools to talk about mental health were taboo?
And it’s still difficult in the church. We don’t always know what to do with mental illness. If someone’s in hospital receiving chemotherapy then it’s easy to put together a visiting rota, to make sure kids are collected from school, to make sure meals are prepared. Mental illness can be messier, there’s not a straight-forward response. There may be someone in our congregation who desperately wants to raise their hands in worship but it feels like they’ve got lead weights tied around their wrists. We need to find ways to help them lift that weight rather than judge them for a lack of faith. It’s those times that we have to take our call to be the hands and feet and love of Christ seriously, when, like with the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery, healing and liberation came through the presence of Christ.
There’s a line from Isaiah that always feels appropriate here: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not put out”. This always makes me think of the compassion of God, his gentleness, a gardener who carefully binds up his plants against the wind, who carefully cups a candle in his hands and blows life back into embers. This feels like quiet work, work done behind the scenes, God as a caretaker fixing things up after the crowds have gone home, or a nurse working the night shift on a dark and quiet ward.
Maybe, to extend the metaphor, we need to celebrate the nurses and the caretakers as much as we celebrate the warriors and the surgeons.
And if it’s true that God sings over us, maybe we need a wider vision of that. Maybe we need to learn to sing lullabies and break-up songs as well as we sing anthems.
Maybe we just need to talk about things more.
As for me, I’ll keep going. There will be bad days, sure, but there are good days too, probably more of them than there were. There are still memories and ghosts to overcome. The future is unknown, but at least it’s no longer an enemy. God the nurse continues to heal, and each day is new.
Each day is new.