Put on your strength: a step towards mental health.

Hi Hannah! 

I’ve been following you for awhile now on social media and appreciate your honesty and wisdom especially when it comes to anxiety and depression. I’ve dealt with anxiety probably most of my life but the past few years I believe it has gotten worse. I’m 29 about to be 30, in a stressful job where I am unhappy, wish I was married, and in need of a strong community of believers around me but is seriously lacking these days. I think all of these are contributing factors in why my anxiety/depression has been so much worse.  

I want to go to a doctor and explore the idea of medication but even the idea of finding a doctor, going, and explaining everything is overwhelming enough. I recently opened up a little to my mom about it but her advice is to pray more which she is probably right but it’s hard to pray more when I can’t think rationally due to overwhelming anxiety. 

I’m not even sure why I’m writing to you I NEVER do things like this but I appreciate your words on the subject and would gladly accept any advice you might have for me! 

Thanks for taking the time :)

S


Dear S,

There's a passage in the book of Isaiah, chapter 52, that starts like this: Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion. I've been sitting with those words since Monday night and I think maybe they were meant to be passed onto you.

In the Message Translation of the Bible, they name Chapter 52 as "God is leading you out of here."

It's a call to the people who have been stuck in exile for quite some time. It's a call to the people who have felt hopeless and tired, wondering to themselves, "Will this darkness never cease?"

I could say a million things to you right now but I think you need to hear this first: God is leading you out of here. Put on your strength. Like a well-loved denim jacket, put on any ounce of strength you've got left in your tired body. You won't be left in this struggle alone. You're coming out of the woods.

I feel compelled to say these things because the conversation about faith + mental illness gets really messy sometimes. The church has a long way to go when it comes to talking about mental illness but I've honestly seen more talking than ever before. That gives me hope.

In the midst of my severe depression, I couldn't shield myself from the people who thought I just needed more faith. Or I just needed more prayer. Or I just needed to dig into my own well of strength and rewire the pathways in my brain manually. They made it seem easy.

And, girl, there is so much temptation to get mad at those people and the comments they make. But anger won't do anything. They can't help what they don't yet know. Take the words from someone who knows depression like a sister by now: your depression isn't a matter of "get stronger" or "have more faith." God isn't looking at you and saying to himself, "Man, I just wish you could hold it together a little more... could you get on my level?"

Do I think faith and prayer matter in the battle for mental health? Absolutely. But medicine is a modern-day miracle.

“Taking medicine is a wise act of faith, not unfaith,” Zack Eswine writes. “It would not be wise to live by a supposed faith, and cast off the physician and his medicines, any more than to discharge the butcher, and the tailor, and expect to be fed and clothed by faith,” Charles Spurgeon said.

If I could speak one piece of advice over my 7-year battle with mental health, I would just say this: "Don't let fear be the thing that stops you from getting the help you need. If anyone else were drowning, you'd tell them to reach out and grab the life jacket. Don't ignore the symptoms of drowning."

...

Several years ago I tried to get "in shape" for my wedding. I already had the dress and I didn't have to lose much weight but I wanted what most women want when they look back on wedding photos- to be able to say I looked my best on that day.

No matter what I tried to do, I could not lose weight. It was impossible. I felt hopeless. A friend of mine thought my inability to lose weight was tied up in the medication I was taking for depression. That was all it took for me, S, one person's opinion was all I needed to stop taking my medication.

I felt triumphant. I started talking about going "au naturel" and people loved the thought of me not having to be on medication for my entire life. I thought I've got this. I'm treating this naturally. I don't want something in my body that messes with my ability to drop a few pounds.

Things went downhill quickly. Within the span of a few weeks, I was feeling anxious again. I was struggling to stay focused. A thick fog of sadness settled over me. There was one day in particular where I started having a panic attack in my gym, thinking to myself, "I'm going back into the dark. Dear God, help me. I don't want to go back into the dark place."

I share this for a few reasons:

  1. Our friends and family mean well but they might not always be right. You've got to test everything. People talk out of what they know and understand to be true. Turns out, my medication didn't stand in the way of me losing weight (I learned this a year later while completing a Whole30). Your mother, if she has never dealt with depression, may think the remedy is prayer. More prayer. Do I think prayer is a part of the journey? Yes, of course. Do I think "more prayer" is enough to get you out of a depression when there is a real chemical imbalance in your brain or a situation you can't leave right now? In my own experience, no.
  2. I quickly became intoxicated by this idea of what it would look like to battle my depression "naturally." I felt like Gwenyth-freaking-Paltrow for about five minutes. But I'm not Gwenyth and it turns out my body was all sorts of shell-shocked by my decision to go cold-turkey off the medicine. I had to spend so much mental energy just trying to tread water while off the medication. I was going to impress people, I thought. I became enamored by a reality that wasn't my own, by a story of "girl goes off medication and deals with it naturally" that wasn't my story to hold. Maybe one day I will be able to be off of my medication but you know what, S? That's not my goal. My goal is to be as healthy and happy as I can be and I am thankful medication helps me do that.
  3. Never go off your medication, cold-turkey, in the middle of planning a wedding. Just don't.

Would I go back and do this string of events differently? Maybe. For a few seconds, I think maybe I would. But then I remember what came out of that mistake of mine:

My therapist, who'd formed a relationship with me, phoned a doctor friend. The doctor, who normally had a wait list 6-months out, was able to get me in for a visit 6 weeks later. In the meantime, I went back on my medication. It was an act of faith for me. It was a step towards getting better. And in those 6 weeks of waiting, God did something in my heart which made me ready to talk about medication and the possibility that I might be on it forever. We don't know, S. We just can't know.

All in all, it came down to a step in the right direction. One step and then another step. That's the only advice I feel compelled to give you today: just take the first, scary step.

You hit a wall. You wrote it out to me. You're sad. You're unhappy. You might be disappointed in God. You hit the point where sadness has become your default and you need to see what could be waiting on the other side.

It takes a Google search or asking around within your community. After that, it takes scheduling the appointment.

On the day of that appointment, you show up. You breathe in and out. You ask questions. You answer questions. You begin a journey towards mental health and there's no shame in that.

You going to see a doctor isn't a scratch on you. That's not a defect or a disqualification. Depression doesn't discount you. When condemnation comes rapping on your door, speak firmly to it, "You can't come here anymore."

Health is beautiful but health looks different for all of us. My journey won't mirror yours. Yours won't be the same as your people's journies. But we all have a journey and it matters that we take it seriously.

It's that one small step, S. It's that picking up of the strength you've got left and cloaking it over you. Wake up, babe. Wake up. Put on your strength.

tying you closer than most,

hb.


No doubt that S will be reading the comments below. This is a hard yet necessary conversation to have. I would love for you to post an encouraging message below or a piece of your own story. Every little word counts in this space. Remind the others: you're not alone.