She had walked many valleys just like this one. She knew this sort of darkness, knew the feeling or, more precisely, fear, that she would never make it back up on to level ground.
But she had forgotten how awful it could be. How dense the darkness could be. She remembered the engulfing blackness only when she seemed to be drowning in it, spiralling without a place to hold onto as she fell deeper into the pit. When there didn’t seem to be any point in attempting the climb back up.
One of the hardest things about struggling with mental health is that the problem never quite seems to go away. Relapse is just around the corner, and one little fall can lead to a great descent. It can be so easy to fall right back into it. As said by Finnick in The Hunger Games, ‘it takes ten times as much to put yourself together as it does to fall apart.’ One upsetting event can lead me into a spiral of unhelpful thoughts, can trigger a fall in my mood so sudden that I didn’t quite see it happen.
During CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) one of the things I had to do the most was track my thought cycle, working out how a certain thought can lead to a feeling, physical or emotional, and how this in turn can lead to a change of behaviour. This change of behaviour can then lead to more and more unhelpful thoughts, which can lead to more and more unpleasant feelings. And thus, the cycle continues. It can be so easy to let this happen. A slippery slope on which you quickly lose control.
In my struggle with mental health, I have begun to notice where these valleys of darkness start to come more into view. And whilst the prospect of what may come scares me, I have become more able to stop and consider, ‘is this really the only path that lies ahead?’ Sometimes it may be completely outside of our control, a relapse might catch us unaware and unprepared. But if more people understand, know what to do, they can be there to help when the time comes.
As a Christian I not only have my own family to turn to, but a church family to turn to as well, and yet better than this, I have the king of this universe who delights as I come to him in prayer.
In the midst of mental illness prayer can be so very hard, and yet there is great comfort that comes with prayer, and there is great power in prayer too.
But she knew she needed help. And she new where the help came from.
The scary thing was that she felt numb to the help she new. She felt far away and too weak even to reach out her hand in desperation. She knew that she was never to far away, that she was always within his reach. But she didn’t know how to reccive the love that she new he had for her.
She didn’t even know how to turn to a friend, didn’t know how to show that she needed those she loved around her without dragging them into the darkness too. And she didn’t know what it was that she needed, she didn’t know what to say or what to ask for. She just felt so awful.
And with a mere prayer of ‘help me’ she hoped that he would show her just what to do. And yet these two words had power beyond what she knew. Not because of her, but because of he who listened. Because he who she prayed to was king of the universe.
Sometimes mental illness can render us so incapable that we forget how to pray, how to describe how we feel and what we need, even just how to string words together into a vaguely understandable sentence. But the amazing thing is that, when it comes to our Heavenly Father, it doesn’t matter whether our prayers make sense, or whether we even know what we are praying for. In his letter to the Romans, Paul the apostle comforts his readers by reminding them that we have been given the Spirit, that the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of our one God, dwells within us:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.
God knows our hearts and he knows our suffering, even when we don’t understand ourselves. As we cry out to him, with the simplist words, or even no words at all, he already knows what we need and he is already willing to give himself, he already has…
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
And he not only gives us himself, in the person of the Son, he gives us the church too, he gives us each other – to build one another up, to encourage, to challenge, to rebuke, and ultimately point each other back to him.
One way in which the church can serve those struggling with mental illness is by learning to recognize the signs – to be aware of those in the church family who are suffering and to be aware of the signs that show they are at valleys edge, that they are falling into the vicious spiral of mental illness. I realize that this is so much more easily said than done, that we can’t know everything that everyone else is going through and that to open up in the midst of such suffering can be incredibly hard, but here are a few things to think about, a few ways in which we can equip ourselves as church members to be there with our brothers and sisters at the valleys edge, to be there even before the spiral falls out of control. And to be there too in the midst of the valley, in the darkest depths when the suffering inndivdual might think that they are utterly out of reach.
– Ask people how they are, how they really are, show that you’re paying attention and that you’re saying ‘how are you?’ not just as another way of saying hello or sounding considerate but because you really care. Be ready to listen – it is often overlooked how valuable a listening ear can be.
– Ask people what you can be praying for them, even if you don’t even know each other that well. Maybe you could even offer to pray for them there and then – I’m always surprised how quickly a friendship can be built by praying together.
– Be aware of coded speech. I often find myself repeating the same phrases when I’m struggling, ‘I’m just tired’, ‘I’m alright’, ‘It’s not been my best week’. Sometimes that is really all someone’s saying, but it can often be a British or tentative way of trying to tell people ‘I’m really struggling right now.’
– Don’t just be there in the crisis – be there for your friend who is stuggling consistently. It might look like they’re doing ok, like they don’t particularly need your friendship. But perhaps you could be the one who the friend is thankful was there even as they began to fall.
– Write a card or short letter to someone if you think they might be having a hard time – not to overwhelm them but just to encourage them – to tell them how they’ve been an encouragement to you.
– Offer practical help as soon as you notice someone is struggling. Our resources are limited but there are many ways in which we can serve our brothers and sisters. Try to be specific in how you can help too – it can be a lot of effort for the individual to work out what help they need, if you offer a particular form of help, they are more likely to accept and allow you to serve them.
These are just a few ideas, a few ways in which others have helped me. Different people need help in different ways, and this list is far from extensive. Why not pray for wisdom in how best to serve those in your church family who are hurting?
Sometimes God will lead us into the depth of that valley, and sometimes he will lead us on higher and easier ground. The important thing is that he is there through it all. God has the power to stop the spiral, and yet this isn’t always what he will do. Because he also has the power to sustain us through it. As we depend upon him, in the midst of the valley, on high ground and at the vally’s edge, he will sustain us.