Christmas can be a torment and tribulation for so many. I have no doubt it brings grief. Family, friends, finances– mixed liberally with heavy doses of materialism and manipulation will always bring us issues. The music and decorations are mostly Novocaine. Stress builds up. Pain increases. And we certainly want none of that.
Being mentally or physically ill often accentuates these issues. I’m not sure why exactly, but suicide increases during this season. Perhaps the challenges Christmas brings just overwhelm a person who is struggling hard just to keep his or her head above water. Consider the following:
“Christmas is for children. But it is for grown-ups too. Even if it is a headache, a chore, and a nightmare, it is a period of necessary defrosting of chilled, hidebound hearts.”
–Lenora Mattingly Weber
As I think about, it is helpful for me to see it as a “mirror.” It is my reflection back to me. What we see, is who we are. If we have issues in our own life, the Season will just magnify them. But this doesn’t mean it’s bad, far from it. There is always conflict, but this spiritual combat can bring us success. Some things must be fought for in order for us to appreciate them.
I’m convinced that in all of this, there is opportunity. The chance to connect to Christmas. The very idea is quite strange. But Christmas can be an exquisite treat. It is made by mixing love and truth in generous portions. As we look hard for it, there is something that moves us to a place far beyond us. Grace makes us to stand and look, perhaps for the very first time.
When we truly process this, we’ll find Christmas. And honestly, it is more than a holiday. For the Christian, it is special time. And yes, there will be times when it may be trying, but I think Christmas has become a time of great joy and anticipation. Perhaps the Lord goes ahead and meets us on road.
“The universal joy of Christmas is certainly wonderful. We ring the bells when princes are born, or toll a mournful dirge when great men pass away. Nations have their red-letter days, with their carnivals and festivals, but once in the year and only once, the whole world stands still to celebrate the advent of a life. Only Jesus of Nazareth claims this world-wide, undying remembrance. You cannot cut Christmas out of the Calendar, nor out of the heart of the world.”
Be at peace, dear one. You’ll make it. God has promised.
As with anything, those of us with mental illness have much to think through. I believe that God will direct us through these issues. And these are not static things. It isn’t “one and your done”– these are ongoing. They never get completely resolved; you must get used to this. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive.
Stigma— This is one of the basic hazards that comes with having a mental illness. People will whisper and treat you like a moron, even in church. You’ll need to be thick-skinned. Ask Jesus for his help. He understands what it’s like. At the time some considered him mentally disturbed. You’re in good company.
Medications– This will be a stretching time as you must determine what is best for you, your family and basic functionality. There will be many opinions and many issues that will arise. Your patience will be required (but isn’t it always?) Oh, and booze is not a med. It is your enemy and a real threat to your sanity. Quit now.
Church—“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” should be our rally spot. We need fellowship. It is easy to just go it alone, but we will suffer a barrenness which we will see in our hearts. (I’ve chafed at this from time to time.)
Therapy— To go or not to go? A good therapist is worth their weight in gold doubloons, but a bad one can be hard to abide. Also, a Christian may not always be the best for you personally. My current is a unbeliever, but is very respectful regarding my faith.
Marriage— A faithful spouse/friend is key to managing your mental illness. Invite them to your appointments. Talk, listen, talk, listen, talk. and then listen some more.
Family— They will feel the brunt of your issues. It is good to be aware of this and adjust to their needs. Above all, don’t flog yourself for your failings. Trust in the Lord to redeem things. Look for ways to love them. (Surprise ice cream does wonders.)
Work— Not surprisingly, some employers have little tolerance for your issues, but the law says is that they can’t discriminate against a mental illness. I hope it won’t come down to that.
Social/friend-– Finding other mentally ill believers is priceless. When I meet someone who also struggled with severe depression I give them a big hug. We instantly have a comradeship that isn’t easily defined.
Pray–Desperate prayers have a tendency to get answered. Start praying for five minutes a day. Pray, not complain. Be real, not religious. Talk with Jesus like he was your best friend. Prayer is the key to making everything work.
We have the joy of combining our discipleship with our illness. This is a formidable task. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit stands ready to give you wisdom. You will discover that its the tiny issues that can really ‘rock your world.’ (And I’m beginning to think that “grittiness” should be added to the fruits of the Holy Spirit?)
The Lord truly will accommodate your illness with His power and grace. He always does this for His children. No one is ever abandoned or forgotten.
“There is no circumstance, no trouble, no testing, that can ever touch me until, first of all, it has gone past God and past Christ, one.right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose.”
— Alan Redpath
These are only some of the areas that are affected by your mental illness. Oh, a wise spouse, pastor, friend, or a therapist can do wonders when things are out of whack.
The spiritual disciplines of prayer and the Word will assist you. Having people pray for you will be a necessity and may provide you relief and restore your sanity. Just remember, some people still remember how to pray.
“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are the way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.”
—Ambrose of Milan (340-397)
Our theology makes all the difference in fighting depression, writes Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Author of “Darkness, Is My Only Companion” and Episcopal priest. Here is an excerpt where she introduces the depression of Christians.
In his Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that suffering is uniquely difficult for the Christian, for the one who believes in a good God. If there were no good God to factor into the equation, suffering would still be painful, and ultimately meaningless.
For the Christian, who believes in the crucified and risen Messiah, suffering is always meaningful. It is meaningful because of the one in whose suffering we participate, Jesus. This is neither to say, of course, that suffering will be pleasant, nor that it should be sought. Rather, in the personal suffering of the Christian, one finds a correlate in Christ’s suffering, which gathers up our tears and calms our sorrows and points us toward his resurrection.
In the midst of a major mental illness, we are often unable to sense the presence of God at all. Sometimes all we can feel is the complete absence of God, utter abandonment by God, the sheer ridiculousness of the very notion of a loving and merciful God. This cuts to the very heart of the Christian and challenges everything we believe about the world and ourselves.
I have a chronic mental illness, a brain disorder that used to be called manic depression, but now is less offensively called bipolar disorder. I have sought help from psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health professionals; one is a Christian, but most of my helpers are not. I have been in active therapy with a succession of therapists over many years, and have been prescribed many psychiatric medications, most of which brought quite unpleasant side effects, and only a few of which relieved my symptoms. I have been hospitalized during the worst times and given electroconvulsive therapy treatments.
All of this has helped, I must say, despite my disinclination toward medicine and hospitals. They have helped me to rebuild some of “myself,” so that I can continue to be the kind of mother, priest, and writer I believe God wants me to be.
During these bouts of illness, I would often ask myself: How could I, as a faithful Christian, be undergoing such torture of the soul? And how could I say that such torture has nothing to do with God? This is, of course, the assumption of the psychiatric guild in general, where faith in God is often viewed at best as a crutch, and at worst as a symptom of disease.
How could I, as a Christian, indeed as a theologian of the church, understand anything in my life as though it were separate from God? This is clearly impossible. And yet how could I confess my faith in that God who was “an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1) when I felt entirely abandoned by that God? And if this torture did have something to do with God, was it punishment, wrath, or chastisement? Was I, to use a phrase of Jonathan Edwards’s, simply a “sinner in the hands of an angry God”?
I started my journey into the world of mental illness with a postpartum depression after the birth of our second child. News outlets are rife with stories of women who destroy their own children soon after giving birth. It is absolutely tragic. Usually every instinct in the mother pushes toward preserving the life of the infant. Most mothers would give their own lives to protect their babies. But in postpartum depression, reality is so bent that that instinct is blocked. Women who would otherwise be loving mothers have their confidence shaken by painful thoughts and feelings.
Depression is not just sadness or sorrow. Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being “down.” It’s walking barefoot on broken glass; the weight of one’s body grinds the glass in further with every movement. So, the weight of my very existence grinds the shards of grief deeper into my soul. When I am depressed, every thought, every breath, every conscious moment hurts.
And often the opposite is the case when I am hypomanic: I am scintillating both to myself, and, in my imagination, to the whole world. But mania is more than speeding mentally, more than euphoria, more than creative genius at work. Sometimes, when it tips into full-blown psychosis, it can be terrifying. The sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it: there is no pulling oneself “up by the bootstraps.”
And yet the Christian faith has a word of real hope, especially for those who suffer mentally. Hope is found in the risen Christ. Suffering is not eliminated by his resurrection, but transformed by it. Christ’s resurrection kills even the power of death, and promises that God will wipe away every tear on that final day.
But we still have tears in the present. We still die. In God’s future, however, death itself will die. The tree from which Adam and Eve took the fruit of their sin and death becomes the cross that gives us life.
The hope of the Resurrection is not just optimism, but keeps the Christian facing ever toward the future, not merely dwelling in the present. But the Christian hope is not only for the individual Christian, nor for the church itself, but for all of Creation, bound in decay by that first sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you … It will produce thorns and thistles for you …” (Gen. 3:17-18).
This curse of the very ground and its increase will be turned around at the Resurrection. All Creation will be redeemed from pain and woe. In my bouts with mental illness, this understanding of Christian hope gives comfort and encouragement, even if no relief from symptoms. Sorrowing and sighing will be no more. Tears will be wiped away. Even fractious [unruly, irritable] brains will be restored.