Testimony that I gave today at Worcester Park Baptist Church
The statistics tell us that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime. For me, it turned out that this year was my year! I understand that Rowena shared some of my story with you earlier in the year. As we’re staying with my sister-in-law this weekend, who has moved to Worcester Park, I offered to come and share something of this journey with you in person.
Many of you will remember me from years ago, I grew up in this church with my family in the same season as Ali here. I was a member of Girls’ Brigade, I was baptised here in 1989, and I preached my first sermon here (well, half sermon, I shared a sermon with Dad – Peter Clark, on Hosea!) I’m now ordained priest in the Anglican Church, and I work with a group of 7 churches in and around Fordingbridge in the New Forest.
For me my mental health journey started during last year. It started very gradually, and it’s only when we looked back that we could see that the start of depression had crept up over the course of the year. By the time I went to see the doctor I had reached the point where my whole body was shaking, but even still, it was really hard to go and see the doctor, to stand there and say, I don’t know how to carry on, I need some help. As a minister, I’m used to being there for others, to hearing their stories, to caring… it was hard to admit that I too needed some help.
I was signed off work with depression and anxiety, and given some medication to try and help calm me down and reduce the symptoms. It was really difficult, I’m used to being confident, capable, energetic and enthusiastic… and yet at my lowest some days my biggest achievement was getting dressed and possibly getting to the Coop for some milk.
When I was first signed off, people were lovely, I received lots of encouraging cards & support. Most of us know someone that has, or has had depression… however, we’re not always good at realising that depression is more than just feeling a bit down for a few days… it hadn’t changed my faith, it’s not that I didn’t trust in God, faith doesn’t stop someone getting depression… I had some good friends that were willing to just come and visit me at home, to sit with me and not expect me to be well enough at that point to go out to social situations with lots of people. Going through the door of church and facing that many people felt impossible for a time. It was very precious having friends willing to ask how I was feeling today, without expecting me to be ‘better’, or to have to put a good face on it.
I made a decision early on, to be open about what was happening to me. Especially as a minister in a small community, I figured there would be a story going round about what had happened, so I wanted to let people know what was actually happening, and so I posted on facebook, letting people know that I had depression and anxiety.
In the new year, things changed, I had an unusual reaction to the anti-depressants. For me, they triggered an episode of mania, and eventually I was hospitalised. In the days before I went to hospital I had some really interesting experiences. It was during this time, when my brain had gone into overdrive, that we noticed enough of my quirks and were able to identify that I may have some other mental health conditions, and my GP referred me for further assessment.
Even just the possibility of the diagnoses was huge for me… and healing for me came in the form of acceptance, hearing the insight into who I am and how my brain works. On the Saturday before I went to hospital I looked at the mirror and smiled at myself for the first time in my life… a smile of acceptance… this is me, and I’m looking forward to getting to know me.
The line from the song that we’ll hear today came to mind – Will you love the ‘you’ you hide… I suddenly realised that I’d been hiding from myself all my life, trying to fit in, to conform… and yet I’ve spent my whole life feeling like a square peg in a round hole… this healing acceptance was me starting to accept more fully that I have been made in the image of God, and these aspects of me, they are who I am created to be… I may have been hiding from myself for years…
My new year’s resolution this year was reflecting on Jesus command to love God, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves….
I realised that if I actually loved others as I loved myself… then others would also get this barrage of self-criticism and frustration from me.
My resolution at new year was to learn to love the person that I am…
be careful what you wish for!….
For me, the mania gave me an openness, an expanded mind that was able to shuffle the pieces and see myself through this new lense… a lens that is still there, even now that the mania has gone.
This was an interesting time, as I realised quite how different our spiritual language is from our mental health language… the night before I went into hospital I had the most intense vision experience, as I felt so close to God and accepted and loved just as I am. I felt full of light and love, and a deep, deep sense of peace and calm. and all I had to do was let go… let go of my expectations of myself… let go of my fears… just breathe, be aware of my body, in the present moment, and allow God’s spirit to breathe through me.
The following day, in medical language, this suddenly gets described in terms like ‘hallucination’.
I’m still working on the language thing, how do I integrate both the spiritual and the mental health aspects of me…. there’s just one me! I don’t want to deny the intense spiritual experience that I had that night, I feel deeply touched, and transformed by what I encountered that night… but I’m also aware that I need to work with those wiser than me as I continue to recover, to discern the ongoing truth of that experience for me… and what of the experience I need to let go of.
While I was in hospital, there was a wall of inspirational butterfly pictures, with inspiring phrases on them. I asked if I could borrow one of them to put on my wall. The nurse said that no, that wasn’t possible – a decision she may later have regretted!, I decided to continue to post openly on facebook about my situation. At one point I described my stay in hospital as an NHS sponsored retreat! I posted on facebook about the butterflies, and asked people to send me butterfly pictures to put on the wall in my room. Apparently those detained in a mental health institution don’t usually receive that much incoming mail!
I was so encouraged by those butterflies, and I still have them at home now. Because I had let people know where I was and what was happening, they were able to send me their love and encouragement.
It was quite a hard thing to do though, to let people know about the mania… somehow depression is easier to be public about, as most people have some understanding of it… mania, and being sectioned in hospital takes you to a whole new level of ‘being different’…. and people have a lot of fear and apprehension. Having been public about it, there are some people that are still not able to have a conversation with me about it, as they can’t cope with it… we’re not supposed to talk about mental health stuff… especially the more weird bits of it…
and yet… by talking about it… others started to see that I’m still a person in there… I’m still me… going through these different experiences… However, even with being open about it… it can still feel very isolating.
For 3 months I wasn’t able to drive, I am on very strong anti-psychotic medication which acts as a huge sedative… so I was tired all the time. It was very hard to commit to things… I couldn’t plan when I would be awake, sometimes my speech was really slow, often it was like trying to operate through a brain fug… connecting with people was really difficult.
I’m finding on the difficult days even now, that when I look ahead, and try and work out the future… it’s really difficult, I get anxious.. . I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t know how much my experiences this year, and other’s reactions to it will affect my future.
When I look at what has happened, it’s easy to get frustrated and angry… and yet when I manage to stay in the present moment, with the people that I am with, to be still, to breathe, to connect… as the Psalmist says to be still and know that I am God… I know that I am OK… and that God is with me…
And mental health will be an ongoing reality for me. During February I was diagnosed with four new labels… we found out that I have ADHD, I am on the autistic spectrum, I have sensory processing disorder and I also have bipolar affective disorder. It is a lot to take in, I’m still processing it!
I am still taking medication for some of it, and there are other medications and therapies that I will be able to explore too, as I continue to recover. These are all conditions that I will have had all my life, they are part of being me… and they each bring with them incredible gifts, as well as challenges.
In some ways, the overwhelming number of labels has forced me to not get too attached to any one label… they’re helpful in their own way… but if we only see the labels… we don’t see the people. Sometimes the labels can act as a barrier… with people bringing their own pre-conceived ideas, and just seeing me through that filter.
At the end of the day, each and every one of us is made in the image of Christ… and sometimes when we pray for healing with mental health, that healing doesn’t necessarily mean suddenly becoming ‘normal’… whatever that is… (I’m not sure that I’ve ever aspired to be ‘normal’) sometimes healing can be the acceptance and the strength to put one foot in front of the other, to accept that this is who we are, and to start loving the person that we are… but often want to hide.
Lucy asked me what can we do as churches to help? I don’t have all the answers, there are various groups putting together resources that can help, but these are just a few of my observations,
I think as a church community, we want to be friendly and welcoming, to be inclusive for people regardless of their physical or mental health. Having been the other side of it, having people that were able to be alongside me, able to listen, encourage and support – even on days when facing a large group of people seemed impossible, people that remembered me, sent a text, checked up on me. People who were still able to recognise Rachel, regardless of the labels, or the particular difficulties on any given day, and able to be with me, to value me even when I couldn’t do very much. Who could still see that I was a person, and not defined just by a mental health label…
I think sometimes we can feel scared, we don’t think we know the ‘right’ thing to say… I’m pretty sure avoiding the person and saying nothing is almost certainly the wrong thing to do! Continue to treat them as people, ask how they are, sit alongside them…. And this may be for a long time….there aren’t necessarily quick fixes… mental health journeys can be long, lonely and isolating… hopefully as churches we can help people to feel less lonely & isolated.
One of the things I found hardest in my mental health journey is that I seemed to lose my voice, I felt no-one could hear or see me any more…only the fear and caution labels.
For me, the people that have made the biggest difference in this journey this year have been those that have been able to just be alongside me, to take me as they find me, to listen and encourage… but not be disheartened when there isn’t a magic fix or cure. I feel sure of God’s light in this journey, and although there have been some really dark times, and still are… it’s a season of putting into practice the question of trusting God, one day, one moment at a time.
For me it’s remembering that God is always calling me, calling us into his light, his glorious, technicolour light –whatever we are going through, it is remembering that each and everyone of us is precious in God’s sight, made in the image of God.
Some organisations that can help:
Rachel, that is such a powerful and moving testimony. God bless you as you cope with living your life in the way in which He has mapped out for you. And if I may be so bold to offer one piece of advice; trust in the Lord and just live in the day. Tomorrow’s worries will deal with themselves.
Thanks Simon Peter 🙂