If you have known me personally (or have been reading my blog), you’d probably know that I live with mental health challenges. Since I was very young, I’ve always been a neurotic and anxious child. It hasn’t left me in adulthood.
I suppose I am what most people would call “high-functioning”: I experience seasons of depression and anxiety, but I still manage to do quite well in school and work and can pass as a fairly well-adjusted person to the naked eye.
This has its advantages and disadvantages.
On one hand, I am not completely debilitated by my mental health challenges. But on the other hand, I can also be misunderstood.
Because I don’t necessarily “look” like someone who has depression or anxiety (whatever that’s supposed to look like), people often expect me to operate like any “normal” person would and are shocked when I don’t. Or I can be mistaken for being snobby, when really my anxiety is what’s causing me to withdraw.
What most people don’t see is how much more effort it takes for me to do “normal stuff” that most people would find easy. I get things done, but I have to push through more turbulent and negative emotional states in order to do them than the average person.
For example: meetings. You may find it funny, but meetings bring me a lot of anxiety. I am more comfortable with speaking to groups of a hundred than I am with intimate groups. Sure, I attend meetings. But people aren’t aware of the 10-minute breathing exercises I have to put myself through before entering a room, just so that my mind doesn’t freeze when I’m there.
In that way, mental health challenges are comparable to physical illnesses or disabilities. Someone on a wheelchair can move between building floors, sure, but they have to find an alternative route to do so (i.e. find an elevator rather than a set of stairs) – an alternative route that is not always convenient to find. It’s an extra effort that most people would not have to think about on a daily basis.
When living with these kinds of challenges, it’s tempting to see myself only in light of my ailments or limitations – to “pathologize” myself, so to speak.
In fact, I’ve spent a good few months being genuinely bothered by them. It’s easy to wish that I had been born with a naturally sunny disposition, or that I could go ahead and do what most people find easy to do without having to navigate through a web of unpleasant emotions.
But we all have our own crosses. And this is mine. So, with God’s grace, my job is to find out how I can best serve Him in spite of it—or maybe even because of it.
I have to consciously remind myself that I am not my pathologies – and to stop seeing myself only in light of them.
I am a person who lives with mental health challenges, but my neuroticism is only a part of me; it is not all of me. And if I can’t get this part of me to go away immediately (if at all), then I’m just going to have to activate the other parts of me that are alive and kicking and very much able to give. I need to focus my attention on these other, stronger parts of me—because it would be totally unfair if I didn’t.
Pathology or no pathology, God’s plan for my life still stands. No matter what excuses I may have (and they may be very good excuses too), He still calls me towards a life that goes way beyond my own misery and brokenness. It’s time to focus on Him and the destination He has for me, not on my barriers.
It is immensely liberating to focus on something other than what’s “wrong” with me, to focus on something bigger than me – on a God who makes all things possible rather than on my own limitations and how they hold me back.
The lyrics to a praise and worship song called Trading My Sorrows came to my recent attention:
“I’m trading my sorrows. And I’m trading my shame. I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord. And I’m trading my sickness. And I’m trading my pain. I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord.”
It’s a jolly song (and rightfully so), but it speaks of themes that are much heavier. It’s a song that does not deny the existence of suffering (like I said, we all have our own crosses), but it expresses a choice to focus on the joy of the Lord that goes beyond all of this brokenness.
Whether you, too, are living with mental health challenges, or physical sickness, or another kind of problem that may not go away immediately, take heart.
Not all problems are necessarily “curable”; some can only be managed or lessened to some degree. And even if they can be cured, it could take a long time to do so. But the good news is that we don’t have to wait for the clouds to part, for everything to be “fixed,” before moving forward. Even if we have to carry an extra weight, it does not mean we cannot proceed, with God’s grace.
Sometimes the manner in which we proceed will be different (for example, someone who is bedridden can’t just get up and do mission work in another continent), but it doesn’t mean we cannot proceed with journeying towards our goal of sainthood in a different, more internal way.
After all, “With God, all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)