To anyone clinically diagnosed with some form of Bipolar Disorder, the title of this post probably sounds like some click-bait ad along the same lines as “Make millions of dollars fast and easy from your own home!” or “Look 20 years younger overnight with this one simple trick!” Would those promises be nice? For sure. Are they actually legitimate? No way.
In the case of my post title though, I’m living proof that its actually possible, as impossible as that may sound. 8 years ago shortly before Christmas I was clinically diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder. I was hospitalized on two separate occasions for psychotic mania (ie. suffering from delusions and hallucinations), and went through various different prescription medications and years of misery and struggle. Yet now, as I write this post, I am currently sitting at the one year mark of being entirely symptom free. And that isn’t for lack of triggers and the stress of various momentous life events: from missing way more sleep than usual, to entering into a serious romantic relationship for the first time, to dealing with unexpected family emergencies, and more, 2019 has been a very eventful year!
Despite my hopes of getting into the habit of writing more regularly on here (something I mentioned in my first post at the beginning of the year), I haven’t written anything new since March. This is largely due to the fact that my previous motivation for writing stemmed from my own personal experiences with depression, mania and everything in between that I was going through on a day to day basis. Having been completely symptom free for an entire year has meant that Bipolar Disorder in general has rarely come to my mind, and I’ve had no new thoughts and inspirations to put into a post. But aside from that, its also something I haven’t had any desire to dwell on much. I’ve just been savouring the ability to live life like a normal person again, free from the looming shadow of having to juggle everyday life while avoiding triggers and bracing myself for inevitable future episodes on the horizon.
If you haven’t read any of my previous posts before, I encourage you to check out my post Withdrawl – Part 5: Med-Free Bipolar for an explanation as to what has helped me reach a place of complete stability for such an extended period of time. At this point, I consider my Bipolar Disorder to be cured—though there is a caveat to that. The reason I’ve been symptom free is that I continue taking the supplements I mentioned in that post with the same borderline-religious regularity that I used to take my prescription meds. Were I to come off of those supplements, I have little doubt I’d start having symptoms again sooner or later. So in that sense, I’m not completely cured. But for all intents and purposes, I’m no longer someone who deals with Bipolar Disorder.
Of course, I still hang onto a lot of my pre-established life routines from my bipolar days—I try my best to get regular sleep, I don’t go out wildly partying or binge drinking (not that I would even if I could), I continue to watch my stress levels and organize my schedule so as not to get overburdened and burn myself out. But I have way more flexibility in my day to day life and choices, and a sense of peace and freedom knowing that if I have a night here or there where I only get a couple hours of sleep, or I have an especially stressful/difficult week, I’m not going to plunge into weeks of depression or skyrocket into weeks of steadily escalating mania as a result. I thank God over and over again for the unbelievable miraculous blessing that this is. For years I thought I’d spend the rest of my life chained and constrained by my disorder. Now I feel like I can finally live again.
So I come to ultimate reason for this post: I think I may be putting this blog to rest. I started it because I felt strongly called to minister to other people going through the same challenges as me, to offer them a Christian, faith-filled perspective on the gritty realities of living with a serious mental illness. Now that I’m free of my illness, I’m not sure what else to say except to urge other fellow sufferers to look into the things that brought me to this place of restored health. Even if your illness is something other than Bipolar, the supplements formulated by the TrueHope company help with managing many other conditions as well, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, autism and others. Diet and lifestyle are also important components of recovery— for instance, I eat a ketogenic diet now by and large, though I do allow myself to indulge and eat whatever I feel like now and then when hanging with friends.
I may change my mind and write other posts in future if ideas come to me. But even if I don’t, what I’ve written so far will remain here for anyone who needs it. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll be notified of any comments here and will respond to them.
First off, I’d like to wish a very belated happy New Year to all my readers. It’s hard to believe I haven’t written a post on here since May 2018. Last year proved to be a long and difficult series of months, but I’m happy to say I’m in a much better place now at the end of January 2019 than I was at the same time last year.
As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, I was hospitalized for a week at the beginning of February 2018 for a full manic episode, complete with psychosis and all that that entails. Following that, I made a number of posts on here, some of which I have since taken down, since I was still decidedly manic while writing them and now either no longer agree with that I wrote, or they simply no longer make sense to me now that I’m stable again. To be honest, it’s taken a full year to begin fully coming to grips with everything that happened. The idea of blogging about any of it before now was something I just couldn’t face. However I’ve been feeling increasingly prompted lately to start writing on here again. So to start, I will finish of this Withdrawal series with two final posts.
Despite what happened last year, I am indeed completely off all psychiatric medications and have been since December 2017 (setting aside the very small dose of antipsychotic medication I took while in hospital). And believe it or not, I’m actually doing much better now than I was back when I was on medications, though I believe this is largely due to the special supplements I began taking in April last year and have remained on since. I will explain about them in depth in my next post. I detailed my reasons for deciding to ween off my prescription medications back in the first post in this series. In this post I will give you all a summary of how that process went, and the biggest pitfall I fell into.
As I touched on in Part 2 of this series, coming off my antidepressant medication Bupropion (aka Wellbutrin) actually proved to be much easier than coming off my mood stabilizer Lamotrogine (aka Lamictal). The withdrawal from antidepressants resulted in some mild-to-moderate depression symptoms and fatigue, however I went slowly, breaking the pills into smaller and smaller pieces. From April 2016 to August 2016 I weened myself down from 150mg daily, to nothing, dropping by 25mg increments every few weeks. I took a break from pill withdrawal for a little while before attempting to withdraw from Lamictal, since it’s better not to come off multiple medications within a short period if you can avoid it. I didn’t keep as close a record of my Lamictal withdrawal, since it took most of a year (I was on 250mg daily, if I remember correctly). Each drop in that particular medication caused anxiety, disorientation and mixed-episode symptoms that were mild-to-moderate, so I had to move slowly with it. And when I finally came off the last of it on December 17, 2017, I hit a major pitfall.
Early on in December I could feel the very first inklings of hypomania tickling the edges of my consciousness–more energy, increased cheerfulness and optimism, much stronger creative drive, etc. However I continued to taper anyway and ignored the symptoms, assuming they would go away. What I should have done, was stopped tapering for a while until I was past the Christmas season (always a troubling time for me when it comes to my disorder). But I didn’t. And I mistakenly believed that because I had tapered off the medication so slowly, I wouldn’t have any sort of relapse upon completely coming off of it. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that it’s common to relapse with a manic episode upon reaching a completely med-free state even if you taper off slowly. In my ignorance of this fact, I slipped into a state of denial over what was happening.
Generally I am quite self-aware with my episodes, but with this particular one, I lost all personal insight. As the hypomania began to escalate to full out mania in late January 2018, grandiosity and delusions took over and I became convinced that I wasn’t bipolar, that I had been misdiagnosed all along, and that I was just entering a new state of consciousness, a heightened level of existence (very similar to some of the delusional beliefs I experienced back in my first manic episode). I was in complete denial that I was manic, so I flat out refused to take any of my antipsychotic medication, Zyprexa. No one could convince me to. I actually had someone slip some of it into my drink at one point, unbeknownst to me, but I quickly discovered it and became utterly incensed and even harder to reason with thereafter.
Looking back, I can safely say my irrational denial sprang in large part from the fact that having to go through another full manic episode had been my worst fear ever since my diagnosis (worse even than a natural fear of death. I had essentially developed a phobia of mania and psychosis). I couldn’t bring myself to admit the reality of what was happening. Even after ending up in the hospital and experiencing the remission of most of my psychotic symptoms, I remained convinced that I had been unjustly hospitalized, and that I had never been manic in the first place. My behavior was normal enough during my hospital stay that I was able to persuade the doctor to release me after just a week. Looking back though, I can see that I remained manic for months after my release. This, of course, was readily apparent to my parents and close friends, however they felt I was manageable and would be better off at home.
Astoundingly, I managed to go back to work right away and continue “functioning” in daily life without any of my coworkers or students picking up that anything was amiss with me (at the very least, no one ever commented on it). Though internally, I was still fluctuating between various mild delusions and paranoia. For instance, I firmly believed the RCMP were following me around and spying on me for several weeks, and could not be convinced otherwise (this was not helped by the fact that the RCMP did in fact show up at the college where I work and kept undercover surveillance on the place for a week, though this was due to an incident caused by some unruly students and had nothing to do with me. It just happened to be very bad timing) . Thankfully, I kept all of these beliefs to myself, only occasionally mentioning them to my parents and close friends, which is likely why no one else in my life noticed.
It wasn’t until April that my family discovered the supplements that I subsequently began taking. These had an immediate effect—my previously high levels of anxiety and agitation almost completely vanished. For the next month and a half I remained in a hypomanic state, still more extroverted, enthusiastic and impulsive than I usually am, but grounded once more in reality without any lingering delusions or paranoia. Thankfully I was able to direct my extra energy into studying for my RCM music history exam, which I took and passed successfully. Within a week after the exam, my hypomania vanished entirely, and I dropped into the inevitable depressive episode that always follows my manic episodes.
This particular episode reached a moderate-to-severe intensity by the end of May, beginning of June, though it was no worse than episodes I had experienced while on medications. It lessened to a moderate level throughout most of June and parts of July, then eased off further to a lingering mild depression that continued into December, when it finally lifted completely. The episode lasted a total of 6 and a half months, by far the longest episode I’ve ever had, though that probably isn’t surprising considering the 5 month hypomanic/manic episode that preceded it. December was actually my only month of stability in 2018, which is ironic since that’s usually my most unstable time of year. That stability has continued throughout January this year. It’s a real blessing to feel normal again. I’ve been told that as long as I stay on my current supplements, I am not likely to experience any future episodes of mania. I would very much like to believe that, but only time will tell for sure.
I did learn a number of important, if painful, lessons last year, which I will unpack in future posts. In particular, it was a time of much spiritual growth. Jesus and Mary were both very much beside me, guiding my steps the entire way, though there were times when I felt entirely cut off from them and in the dark, and I backslid to a large degree in many of my devotions for an extended time. That, in and of itself, was a learning experience (a strong blow to the spiritual pride I’d been falling into prior). There were times I felt as if I’d gone completely astray and was right back to square one spiritually, my relationship with Christ and my trust in him reduced to tatters. I will delve into that much more in a future series. Suffice it to say, by the grace of God I am back on my feet again with a reinvigorated spiritual life, and a restrengthened desire for growth in holiness. I can safely say that the process of renewing my 33 day consecration to Mary that I began on December 31 and will finish this Saturday, February 2nd (Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord), has had a large part to play in my spiritual recovery.
I’ll leave it at that for now. In my next post I’ll explain the supplements I’ve been taking and discuss my plans/strategies for the future. In the mean time, take care, and God bless you throughout the coming year!
My post last week was of a rather somber tone. But sometimes somber is necessary. And sometimes God confirms that in bold ways, in-person, in real time. I experienced that today.
Yes, I will elaborate.
This past weekend I visited Edmonton for a wedding, and on Sunday (yesterday) I attended mass with my piano instructor. She was still struggling with the loss of her elderly father to illness several weeks ago, but it was a gloriously beautiful Mass and it moved her a great deal. When I returned home yesterday evening, I read Janet Klasson’s post “For those who will die unprepared…” and found it a confirmation of the tone I took last week. (As a side note, her posts, and Mark Mallett’s, have been of immense help to me in my own spiritual journey. I highly recommend both of them though they are, perhaps, not for the faint of heart…)
This afternoon at my music history lesson, I happened to walk in moments after she had gotten off the phone with her daughter, who had called to inform her that her best friend’s brother died in a tragic accident last night, around the same time that I was reading Janet’s post. He was 19 years old and unbaptized. His 22 year old sister, the best-friend of my piano teacher’s daughter, was baptized this year after a powerful conversion experience that took place during the same week as my hospitalization this past February. My teacher was understandably badly shaken, and I spent the first fifteen minutes of our lesson praying the Divine Mercy chaplet while she called her daughter’s friend, then we prayed together for the young man’s soul and his family, and I offered her what comfort and reassurance I could.
To be honest, I wasn’t floored. These sorts of experiences have happened with such frequency in my life over the past year that while they usually take me off-guard, I find them comforting now rather than unnerving. I’m not a “seer.” I don’t receive visible apparitions from Our Lady like some people do. But I have experienced direct, internal communications in prayer on very rare occasions, and divinely inspired dreams (which occur which equal rarity and which I usually don’t share with anyone, since I often can’t interpret them properly until years later).
This evening, while beginning my daily family rosary, I experienced the soft, maternal touch I’ve come to associate with Our Lady and inwardly heard four words:
“I need you here.”
There is work to be done in this world. Heaven may be my eternal home, but God still has a purpose to fulfill with my life and if I wish to do his will, I have to be willing to accept whatever length of life he gives me.
I have no guarantees it will be a “long life,” but at the very least, I don’t anticipate I’m going to keel over tonight. Each and every person has a mission to fulfill with their life, whether they know it or not.
Are you aware of the mission God has given you?
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” ~ John 21:21-23
None of us can know for certain (leastways not without direct divine revelation) how long we have to live. John (the above-mentioned “man”), ended up being the only Apostle not to die a martyr (or by his own hand, if you count Judas). Personally, I think his fate in this life was much more difficult to endure than the fates of the others. He lived to old age, and left us with a number of beautiful letters and the ever-puzzling, endlessly deep Book of Revelation. Don’t assume he “got off easy” because he was the “favourite.” To live a long life after knowing Jesus personally would have been immensely painful. Not only that, he lived through the loss of Mary as well.
No, a long life is not necessarily a “golden ideal.” But neither is a short life, necessarily. There are no “golden ideals” on this earth. This life is not “the point” of our existence. It is temporary. Yet our actions here, in this brief period in history, hold consequence for all eternity.
So it’s worth asking yourself on a regular basis:
How am I using my daily life?
Personally, I wish to use my life to bring hope and joy into the world, in accordance with God’s will for me. I wish to use the time I’ve been given to create as much beauty and love as I can, to help my fellow sojourners in their respective life journeys. For as long as I’m here, I will strive to “wake the dawn.”
As a devout Catholic, this is something I ask myself every day.
I may only be 23, but with my life experiences and mental illness, I think it’s safe to say that I am far more aware of my own mortality than most other adults, both young and old. I don’t assume that because I’m young I have a long life ahead of me. I could die in my sleep tonight. I could die on the drive to work tomorrow. I could be diagnosed with a life threatening disease next week and be dead within the month.
Whenever I make reference to that reality to any of the people in my life, they almost always brush it off and discourage that line of thinking as “negative” and “doom and gloom.” I’ve had people who know me less well quip comments such as “don’t be silly, you have your whole life ahead of you.”
Have you received a personal revelation from God that I’m going to have a long life?
Because in case you haven’t noticed, people my age die all the time.
I understand why the people who care about me dislike this subject, because they emphatically don’t want me to die. I also understand why people in general dislike this subject. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? Nobody wants to talk about death. Not until it’s staring one in the face. And even then, many people would rather run from it. Turn their back and flee from reality. Hide in the newest distraction — the next experience, gadget, book, hobby, job, educational endeavor, vacation extravaganza… you name it.
Run away. Just keep running. Don’t ever look back.
That seems to be the motto of the society we live in: Never. Acknowledge. Death.
To the point where we cover up murder with fancy names like “euthanasia” and “abortion” and claim they are “humane options” to “difficult problems.”
Here’s a difficult problem for you: You’re going to die someday, regardless of what life choices you make.
How does that make you feel?
This post is a rather dramatic switch from my usual tone, but it’s not intended to be depressing. It’s meant to be thought provoking. Because how you respond to the thought of death says a lot about how you are currently living your day-to-day life.
I actually look forward to death, and not in a suicidal way. Trust me, as someone with type 1 Bipolar Disorder, I do not take suicide lightly. I’ve been suicidal before. I couldn’t be farther from that place now. What I currently feel is homesickness for heaven. I long for a reality that cannot be fulfilled in this life. I long for my Lord and Savior. For complete union with Him in heaven. But my time here on earth isn’t finished yet, and in the meantime, I have to be patient. My greatest “fear,” if you will, is that I will, in-fact, have a long life and die of “old age” when I’m 101.
I do not want to be stuck here that long. I really don’t. And not because my life is bad. I have a very good life. I just know that as long as I’m on this earth, living this life, I will never be fully satisfied, and I yearn for more. I’m impatient.
That said, I would never, ever allow that impatience to rush me.
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” Philippians 1:21
As long as I am still breathing, God has a purpose for me to fulfill on this earth. And in my better moments I want nothing more than to fulfill that purpose. That awareness fills me with peace and happiness far more often than I am anxious or unhappy.
A very great deal of the anxiety and depression experienced within our society has nothing to do with “mental illness” and everything to do with “life choices.” And I don’t mean big choices like who your spouse should be, or whether or not to get cancer treatment (though obviously such choices will have a major impact on you). I mean daily decisions moment to moment. Where do your thoughts go when you first open your eyes in the morning? What’s your first choice when you get to the end of the day and want to relax? How do you approach the work you do for a living? What is your attitude? Why?
I don’t care of you’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist… Really, I don’t. I know what I believe, and there’s nothing anyone can say to fundamentally change it. Though I must say, if you don’t have a faith or opinion on a belief system, you may want to do some serious thinking and research…. far better to do it now than put it off until you’re dying. Because you are going to die, whether you like it or not.
Most religions believe in a higher power of some sort that we have to meet when we die. If you’re a Christian, then you believe that “being” is a Good and Loving God in Heaven. But have you considered the fact that Heaven, by its theological definition is not a place, but a person?
Heaven is God. It’s a relationship with supreme Love.
If you haven’t started that relationship now, while you’re on earth… what sort of meeting do you expect with this “God” on the other side?
“Hey there. I know you gave me 23 years to start building a relationship with you, but there were just so many shows on Netflix to binge-watch I couldn’t be bothered to get around to getting to know you…despite the fact that you loved me into existence and died for me. Sorry bro.”
That really isn’t meant to be funny. It’s actually quite sad. Because it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in my country, were we to be wiped out tonight in a nuclear war, most of my generation would be making a just such an excuse to their Creator.
So the next time you reach for a game on Facebook, flip open Pinterest, or open the browser on whatever electronic device you prefer, ask yourself this:
What am I doing? Why am I doing it? If this were the last 15 minutes I had to live… how would I rather be spending it? And why do I feel that way?
It’s fashionable among conservative Catholics to complain about our culture of Relativism. But have you ever considered the reality that evil destroys itself? Because it does. Lashing out at our “culture” with vitriol only spreads Satan’s kingdom of hatred. Our goal as Christians should be to spread Christ’s kingdom of peace and love.
Next time you open your mouth to criticize someone, ask yourself this:
What will I achieve by saying this?
Do I truly know what this person is going through?
Do I know what it’s like to live as this human being every single day?
Do I know what sort of personal hell this person is living in at this moment?
And is what I’m going to say about to make things better, or am I simply pouring salt in a wound?
Even well meaning advice is sometimes the wrong answer. Sometimes there is no right answer, except surrender to God’s will and acceptance of his mercy. Sometimes that means falling apart. Sometimes keeping one’s “chin up” is impossible. We are weak, fragile human beings and we break under pressure.
The important thing is that we recognize the “break” is temporary, and we will emerge from the ashes like phoenixes reborn if we trust in God’s grace to rebuild us rather than our own frail willpower.
Sometimes the only right answer is a hug. A touch on the shoulder. Looking directly into another human being’s eyes and telling them “It’s all right. I still love you, even though you’re broken. I will always love you, even though it’s breaking me. For now, we can be broken together.”
Take good care of yourself, and others. And may God bless you. ❤
Once again, this post is very late in coming. And as the fall semester is well underway, I foresee my future posts this year, if there are any, will be few and far between. But worst-case I’ll pick up writing again at the beginning of the New Year. Since there will likely be a gap between this post and the next, I’m going to focus on offering some hands-on, tangible things to try. Essentially, I’m assigning you homework. And I’m assigning me homework. If you’re a student, you’re probably already swimming in homework. But what we’re discussing today is spiritual homework, and if you make the effort to include it in the rest of your busy schedule, you’ll suddenly find yourself far better equipped to deal with the challenges you’re currently facing in your life.
If you’ve read the previous posts in this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), it should be fairly clear to you why I believe that a personal relationship with God is critical to being able to suffer the ravages of mental illness (and any other form of suffering) with peace and joy. Embracing the cross means praying “thy will be done.” To pray that from the heart requires that you trust God, and in order to trust God, you need an intimate relationship with him. The good news is that God actively wants an intimate relationship with you, and if you take even a small step forward in opening your heart to him, he will come to your aid with a shower of graces and love to help you continue down this path. And the deeper you go in your relationship with God, the more peace and joy will abound in your life, even in the midst of suffering, because you’ll trust him and you’ll learn to rely entirely on his strength to get through every challenge you face.
So how does one go about forming a deep, personal relationship with God? I have five suggestions I’m going to share with you that have made an overwhelming difference in my own spiritual life, my relationship with God, and my ability to cope with my mental illness. You may already be doing some, or all, of these things. If that’s the case, fantastic! Keep at it! And if you haven’t tried one or more of these suggestions, consider adding one into your routine.
The only caveat I have before I launch into this is that if you haven’t been doing any (or most) of the following suggestions, I’m not suggesting that you promptly start trying to do all of them at once. That’s a surefire recipe for discouragement. Pick one or two, and start slowly trying to implement it in your life. The key is not amount, but consistency. Ideally you’ll get to the point where you’re including all of these things in your routine in some way, but it takes time to build up to that. Pray for grace and start with something you know you’ll be able to realistically stick to.
This one pretty much goes without saying. You can’t form any sort of relationship with someone unless you talk to them. And if you’re trying to actively form a deep, enduring relationship, you need to talk with the person regularly. Every day. Preferably multiple times a day. If that sounds excessive, ask yourself this: how often do you talk to your significant other? Or, if you still live at home, your family? If you happened to be a roommate with your best friend, how often would the two of you talk? Maybe you aren’t a naturally chatty person, or maybe the people in your life aren’t especially receptive to chatter. But if you want to get to know God, you need to make a point of turning to him in prayer everyday. First thing in the morning and before you go to bed are good times because they’re (usually) easy to remember. But its good to get in the habit of turning to God repeatedly throughout your day. Even just an inward glance and a thought: “thank you!” “I love you!” “Help me!”
Another thing to consider is, what does your prayer life involve? Are you simply reciting formal prayers such as the Our Father? Rattling off a list of petitions for yourself and your loved ones? It’s certainly important to include such prayers in your day, but for forming a relationship with God you need to spend time in strictly mental prayer as well. By “mental prayer,” I mean having a natural conversation with God, using your own words, pausing at times to give him a chance to respond if he wants to. If this isn’t something you’re accustomed to doing, you might very well wonder how to go about it. St. Josemaria Escriva has this to say about it:
You wrote to me: “To pray is to talk with God. But about what?” About what? About him, and yourself: joys, sorrows, successes and failures, great ambitions, daily worries — even your weaknesses! Acts of thanksgiving and petitions — and love and reparation. In short, to get to know him and to get to know yourself —“to get acquainted!”
~ Point 91 in The Way
If you put your mind to it, everything in your life can be offered to the Lord, can provide an opportunity to talk with your Father in Heaven, who is always keeping new illumination for you, and granting it to you.
~ Point 743 in The Forge
If you’re thinking that this sort of prayer would require more than a minute or two, you’d be right. If you’ve never tried to do this before, 5 minutes is a good place to start for a period of mental prayer. Though, you should increase the time after a little while. Personally, I try to fit in a 15 minute block of mental prayer daily, not counting other other little moments of prayer throughout my day. But some people go for 30 minutes or more.
2. Spiritual Reading
Protestants tend to be more reliable than Catholics about reading their bibles. Or at least, that’s the stereotype. I think it’s important to try to read at least a little piece of the Bible everyday. For Catholics, the daily Mass readings are a great resource. You get a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. I highly recommend The Word Among Us as a source for these readings, since it also comes with a short little meditation about the readings of the day, not to mention a number of other interesting articles for each month.
But there’s more to spiritual reading than just the Bible. It’s important to read from other sources too in order to expand your own ability to understand scripture and gain new insights about things. Writings by the saints are fantastic, but there are other good resources, such as excellent blogs, and many different books on various topics. I highly recommend Mark Mallet’s blog. His posts are incredible. Even 5-10 minutes of reading every day can go a long way, but if you can’t fit in both scripture and other readings into your day, pick one day a week (Sunday is my preference) to fit in some time for spiritual reading other than the Bible.
If you’re a Catholic, you believe that Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist. You believe that when you go to church and the light is on beside the tabernacle (as it always is, aside from on Good Friday), Jesus is physically present in the room. That’s why we genuflect before taking a seat in our pews. That’s why it’s considered a serious sin when we choose, without serious cause (such as illness, or some inability to travel to a church), to skip Sunday Mass — we’re in essence telling God “I have more important things to do with my time than to come and receive the mind-boggling gift you have offered to me by giving your divine Son to me to nourish my soul.” That’s also why we have adoration services, where we come before the exposed Blessed Sacrament to offer our prayers and worship. Some churches even offer 24-hour adoration, so people can come at any time to pray. But it isn’t necessary for the Blessed Sacrament to be exposed. Jesus is still there in the tabernacle whenever we arrive in the church.
I believe very strongly that visiting Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is an indispensable part of forming a relationship with him. Yes, we can pray anywhere, anytime — just like we can pick up the phone and call our friends at any time. But there’s a marked difference between calling someone on the phone, and going to visit them personally. There is a level of intimacy that comes when visiting in-person that can’t be achieved in any other way. There two aspects to this: one is the simple fact that you’re in the same place, seeing each other face-to-face. The other is the unarguable demonstration that you care about the other person enough to get in your car and drive to their house to spend time with them. That’s a sacrifice of both time and energy. Love is proved through sacrifice. And building a deep relationship with someone requires more than just spending the bare minimum of an hour with them once per week (a.k.a. Sunday Mass).
Personally, I’m in the unusual position of being able to go to adoration everyday because I have a key to our church (perks of being part of music ministry). The decision to start doing this has made an incredible difference in my spiritual life and my relationship with Jesus. If you attend a large parish, there are probably official opportunities available to get to adoration outside of Mass at least once per week. But even if there aren’t, there are still ways of getting to visit our Lord if you set your mind to it. My own parish is quite small, since we live in a small town, and so adoration is only offered once per month — not ideal, but far better than nothing! And if you’re clever about it, you can probably find ways to visit more frequently. For instance, you can make a point of arriving an extra half-hour early to Mass to spend the time in prayer. Or, if you have a Catholic hospital nearby, they will have a chapel that is open to the public with the Blessed Sacrament there in the tabernacle. Or you could become involved in a church ministry that gives you regular access to the church via a key… 😉
4. The Rosary
I recommend this devotion so highly I don’t even know where to begin. The rosary imparts incredible graces. Since my family began the practice of saying the rosary together every evening, I cannot begin to list the miracles, both small and great, that have occurred. It’s transformed our spiritual lives and brought more peace to our home life than we’ve ever had. It’s mind-boggling to me how few Catholics actually make use of this invaluable tool.
Now, if you aren’t in the habit of saying the rosary, I can already hear the objection flooding your mind — “A whole rosary every day? That takes like 15 minutes! I don’t have that kind of time or patience…” To which I respond “How much time did you spent on social media or watching TV today?”
That said, you don’t have to say the entire rosary in one sitting. It can easily be broken up throughout the day. A lot of people (myself included) say their rosaries while driving, waiting in line, or performing mindless tasks like laundry. Admittedly, it’s better if you can just sit down and focus on praying it, but if your schedule doesn’t allow for it, then there are other ways to fit it in.
Committing to say the rosary every day does take self-discipline. It’s not easy. One thing I strongly recommend is having a “rosary buddy.” Find a friend or family member who will be willing to say the rosary with you, and then commit to doing it together every day at the same time. You don’t even have to be in the same place to do it! Shoot each other a text and then both start saying it together. Having another person to keep you accountable makes a world of difference.
5. Weekly Holy Hour
My last two suggestions have been specifically Catholic devotions, but this one applies to everyone, regardless of your denomination. A weekly holy hour is exactly what it sounds like — a commitment to spend an entire hour, once per week (outside of the usual Sunday Mass or service), with God. This time should include prayer, but it can also include spiritual reading. It can be done at church before the Blessed Sacrament, or at home with your family, or on your own. Really, there’s no “set” way of doing a holy hour. My family does one on either Thursday or Friday as part of our devotion to the Flame of Love movement. We say the Flame of Love rosary (a bit longer than an ordinary rosary), a few extra prayers, and either watch a video from the Flame of Love website (they have tons of fantastic resources on there, so I strongly encourage you to check it out!) or one of us reads aloud from a spiritual book or blog post.
By this point, if you haven’t been doing most of the things I’m suggesting, you probably feel like this is getting more than a little excessive. I don’t blame you. Don’t be discouraged! You aren’t somehow a failure for not already doing these things, or feeling like attempting them is impossible. A couple years back I never would have thought I’d be doing all these things — and believe me, I didn’t start doing all of them at once. It took years. But the difference it’s made in my spiritual life (and my life in general) is beyond words. I honestly can’t imagine living life without these now. They’re what keep me sane and happy, especially when my mental illness is acting up, or my other physical ailments are giving me grief.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you can be a bit clever with all this. There’s nothing wrong with combining these things. For instance, I do my 15 minutes of mental prayer while I’m at adoration each day. And my family makes use of the weekly holy hour to say a rosary and do some spiritual reading. Experiment and see what works best for you! Maybe your weekly holy hour could simply be a weekly visit to the Blessed Sacrament, during which time you pray, get your spiritual reading done, and maybe say a rosary. Bam! Suddenly you’re doing all five of my suggestions, just like that! Of course, you shouldn’t limit your prayer time to once per week. That’s got to be an everyday commitment if you want to grow your relationship with the Lord. But try things out and see what works best for you.
One last important thing to keep in mind:
The point with all of this is not to spend hours and hours in prayer and make immense sacrifices. The point is to build a relationship. And you’re building that relationship with someone who loves you more tenderly than you can comprehend, not with some exacting deity who frowns on your every weakness and failure. Even the smallest effort and sacrifice pleases God. In your effort to start doing more for him, you’re going to fall down. You’re going to have days when things don’t go according to plan, and you aren’t able to fulfill your resolutions. Sometimes it won’t be your fault. Sometimes it will. But the important thing is not that you fell — that’s entirely to be expected. The important thing is that you get up and keep trying. I quote Christ’s response in the Prayer of Sorrow that I included in my post about suicide:
Come, Child, look up. Isn’t it mainly your vanity that is wounded? If you loved me you would grieve but you would trust. Do you think that there is a limit to God’s love? Do you think that for a moment I stopped loving you? But you still rely on yourself. You must rely on me. Ask my pardon and get up quickly. You see, it’s not falling that is worse, but staying on the ground.
To start off, here’s a playlist of some songs I’ve found immensely cathartic when going through rough patches:
I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time. To be honest, despite having been personally suicidal before, I wasn’t sure what to say. It’s a difficult topic and there are no easy answers. However, I’ve been prompted rather clearly to finally tackle this. I’m not depressed and I haven’t thought about this topic for months, but in my evening prayer last night it popped into my mind out of the blue that I should really write this post. Then last night I dreamed that I attempted to commit suicide — a very strange thing to dream when you aren’t depressed. Then this morning in my morning reading, the article just happened to be about a person who attempted to commit suicide.
I think I get the message.
So whoever it is out there that needs to read this post, just know that God is looking out for you, because I had no intention of writing this originally.
I guess I should start by saying that I understand this topic at a personal level. If you want to die, or have ever wanted to die, I completely understand. If you go to bed at night desperately hoping you’ll never wake up again, I understand. If you’ve come up with at least half a dozen different ways you could pull suicide off, and you go through your days with that in the front of your mind most of the time, I get it because I’ve been there too. It’s an awful place to be. It’s been a couple years now since I was in that head-space but I have vivid memories of it. If you’re stuck there right now, I wish I could reach through the screen, give you a hug, and promise you in-person that it’s going to be okay, and it’s going to pass. Because it will. It doesn’t feel like it, but it will.
Suicide is, in some ways, especially challenging to tackle in a Christian context because yes, the act itself is gravely sinful. But as far as I’m concerned, Christianity gives the only solid reason not to go ahead with such a course of action.
Now, first off, there are some serious misconceptions out there about what the Church actually believes and teaches about this topic. In the strictly technical sense, if you in full knowledge of how gravely wrong the action is, and with clear thought and judgement make the decision to take your own life and you go ahead with that act, you have committed a mortal sin and have cut yourself off from God, and thus, heaven. However, most people that commit suicide are either unaware of just how serious the action is spiritually, and/or are not in possession of clear thought or judgement. This, of course, does not give you permission to go ahead with it because you’re miserable. Far from it. But it means we shouldn’t give up hope for people that have already done so.
Here’s what the Catechism has to say:
Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
~ CCC 2280-2281
Suicide is a serious matter. But it also goes on to say:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
~ CCC 2283
So no, the Catholic church does not believe that all people who commit suicide are automatically going to hell. But it is still not an option we’re permitted to consider.
Now, there are some things about point 2280 that are perhaps frustrating to a person battling mental illness. The bit about being “obliged to accept life gratefully” for instance. It’s tempting to look at that, roll your eyes and respond “easy for you to say!” Being told to accept life gratefully can seem like a cruel joke when you’re severely depressed, or, perhaps, utterly exhausted after over a year of rapid cycling through mixed and depressive episodes. I’m the first to admit that I wasn’t the least bit grateful to be alive during some of my low points. In fact, I resented it. And then at other times, I would beat myself up over such feelings, telling myself I was a worthless monster for being so ungrateful.
Neither state of mind is correct.
Firstly, gratitude is not an emotion. It’s not a warm, fuzzy, joyful feeling (although it can have such feelings attached to it). You can try to snap yourself into a head-space of gratitude by listing all of the blessings and good things you’ve received throughout your life, and it’s a good thing to practice doing regularly. But it doesn’t always work. And that’s when you have to fall back on gratitude expressed by action. It’s possible to express your gratitude to someone even when you aren’t feeling especially grateful. You can do things out of gratitude for people even when you’re feeling frustrated with them. The act of staying alive and taking care of yourself when you’d really rather not can be an act of gratitude. “God, this is the last thing I feel like doing, but I’m doing it for you.” So don’t beat yourself up over not feeling grateful. Simply keep yourself alive and take care of yourself for God’s sake.
Now, resentment is trickier. Feeling angry at God isn’t a good thing, but it happens. In my own experience, it usually arises from feeling oppressed in some way. Thoughts of “what’s the point in all of this?” or “what did I do to deserve this?” rise to the surface, and then satan gets in there and gleefully stirs it all up till you’re boiling with frustration, resentment and self-pity. “Does God even care about me at all? If he really loves me, why is he putting me through this?” On and on the thoughts go, spiraling around each other until we’re a tangled up mess. It’s a toxic place to be, and we can’t afford to sit around there stewing. There must be some way out.
The first thing you need to do is consider what you believe about God.
If you question whether God actually loves you, look at that picture and realize that God himself is there, dying on that cross, because he loves you personally and wants you personally to be with him in heaven. That’s the only reason he’s there. He didn’t go get crucified for kicks. He also thought about you personally before he created the universe and decided he wanted you personally to exist, with all the aspects of you that make you you, so that he could love you and you could love him in return, and he believed in advance that you would be worth dying in agony for. He also understands what you’re going through in a personal way because he experienced it himself while he was alive on earth (and also because, if you’re baptized and in a state of grace, he lives in you and experiences everything you experience).
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of “if he really loves me, why is he putting me through this?”
Firstly, it’s important to realize that God isn’t “putting you through it” in the sense of someone applying a punishment. According to Peter Kreeft in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering, God allows people to experience pain because he either intends to bring a much greater good out of it that couldn’t otherwise come about, or because he intends to avoid a much greater evil than might have happened had he not allowed you to experience it. That may or may not be of much comfort, but it at least points to two possible reasons why God is allowing you to go through this.
There is also one other aspect to suffering that I think is important and too often overlooked.
“Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
This life is not the point of existence. It’s only a “womb” for the eternal life to come. What we do and experience here determines what we will be when we are “born” into eternity. I firmly believe that people who experience unbearable suffering in this life will experience a much greater level of glory in heaven than people who do not.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” ~ Romans 8:18
God knows better than anyone that this life is not the point. If we set all our hopes on being happy here, not only will we be constantly disappointed, but we will also be gravely mistaken. If God allows some people to suffer more than other people, or perhaps more frequently than other people (as is in the case of recurrent illness), it is actually a blessing in disguise. Those of us who spend a lot of time miserable become “detached” in a sense from the world because it doesn’t bring us joy. We can’t count on it to fulfill us. Of course, without God in the picture, that fact very easily drives a person to despair. But it can also drive a person to search for God because they are desperate to find some sort of meaning in life.
If we hang in there, even when we desperately want to die, God will make that sacrifice infinitely worth it. And by offering that pain up, we can make a huge difference in the lives of other people and help save souls. The prayers of the sick, especially intercessory ones, have special weight with God.
Another important thing to realize is that while God allows us to experience hardship, he also gladly helps us bear it if we let him.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:8-10
Sometimes God allows us to experience weakness in order to demonstrate his power to us. If we go to him for help, throw ourselves down and admit that unless he helps us we are going to perish, he comes to our aid. He protects us from destruction. Until we realize our own weakness and incapability, we often don’t recognize how much he does for us and through us with his power, not ours.
I can attest to this from very personal, recent experience. This fall, in the midst of the university semester, I dealt with a severe hypomanic episode that morphed into a mixed episode and then dropped me into a depressive episode. It’s nothing I hadn’t experienced before, but there was a major difference between this time and the other times.
My faith life has deepened a lot since the episodes that drove me to consider suicide several years ago. I pray daily, multiple times a day, and have an actual relationship with God. This didn’t take away my suffering. Pain and misery are pain and misery. They hurt. It interrupted my life. I had to miss some classes, fell behind on my assignments and battled lots of intense self-harm urges. And yes, a had I few moments of complaining to God that this wasn’t fair and why couldn’t he have given me some other cross because I didn’t want this one (which is ironic, because when I’m battling relapses of tendonitis I demand that he take that cross away and give me back my mental illness cross instead because I’m better at coping with that *eye roll*). But this time, it was much, much easier to accept my cross, to even embrace it happily at times because it gave me something to offer up for other people, to stay aware of the people around me, to not fall into self-loathing and despair. I was given the strength to do the things that I needed to do. I was able to give myself permission to be weak but at the same time to trust that things would still somehow be okay because I’d surrendered myself into God’s hands and he was taking care of me.
And guess what. Everything worked out fine.
By the way, it is okay to complain to God and tell him how miserable you are. King David, whom God considered to be a man after his own heart, was an expert at that. If you ever find yourself at a loss as to how to pour out your heart to God when you’re in misery, here are just a few examples:
Lord, do not punish me in your anger; in your wrath do not chastise me! Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me. There is no wholesomeness in my flesh because of your anger; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. My iniquities overwhelm me, a burden too heavy for me.
Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck. I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me. I am weary with crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, from looking for my God.
~Psalm 69: 1-3
Do not reprove me in your anger, Lord, nor punish me in your wrath. Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering. My soul too is shuddering greatly— and you, Lord, how long…? Turn back, Lord, rescue my soul; save me because of your mercy. For in death there is no remembrance of you. Who praises you in Sheol?
I am wearied with sighing; all night long I drench my bed with tears; I soak my couch with weeping. My eyes are dimmed with sorrow, worn out because of all my foes.
~Psalm 6: 1-7
Or one of my personal favourites, since the whole thing is short, sweet and to-the-point:
How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look upon me, answer me, Lord, my God! Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death, Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed,” lest my foes rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your mercy. Grant my heart joy in your salvation, I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me!
And for good measure, here are two other prayers:
At a Time of Temptation
Lord Jesus, you know what temptation is like. You know how strongly the wrong thing fascinates me, and how much the forbidden thing attracts me.
Lord Jesus, help me not to fall. Help me to remember my own self-respect, and to remember that I cannot do a thing like this.
Help me to think of those who love me, and to know that I dare not bring disappointment and heartbreak to them. Help me to remember the unseen crowd of witnesses who surround me, and to know that I cannot grieve those who have passed on, but who are forever near.
Help me to remember Your presence, and in Your presence find safety.
This I ask for Your love’s sake. AMEN
A Prayer of Sorrow
I have fallen, Lord, once more. I can’t go on. I’ll never succeed.
I am ashamed. I don’t dare look at you. And yet I struggled, Lord, for I knew you were right near me, bending over me, watching. But temptation blew like a hurricane, and instead of you I turned my head away. I stepped aside, while you stood silent and sorrowful. Lord, don’t look at me like that.
For I am ashamed and sorrowful. I am down, shattered, with no strength left. I dare make no more promises. I can only stand bowed before you.
Come, Child, look up. Isn’t it mainly your vanity that is wounded? If you loved me you would grieve but you would trust. Do you think that there is a limit to God’s love? Do you think that for a moment I stopped loving you? But you still rely on yourself. You must rely on me. Ask my pardon and get up quickly. You see, it’s not falling that is worse, but staying on the ground.
Don’t lose hope. The suicidal thoughts will pass. The depression will pass. Go to God in prayer. Recognize that he will give you exactly what you need to get through what you are going through right now. He might not take your pain away. But he will help you bear it. He really does listen to us. When I was near the end of my rope after months and months and months of non-stop rapid cycling, I flat out begged him for just a month, just one month of stability, or I simply wasn’t going to make it. Apparently I was right in that claim because he answered my prayer. The next month was one of total and complete stability, something that completely floored my doctor. Then I sank back into another depressive episode. But after the month of stability I was refreshed and ready for it. God does listen to us. He doesn’t always give us what we want, but he gives us what’s best for us.
And as a closing note, prayer doesn’t always have to be in words. Quite a few times in my most recent episodes, I simply went to my church, sat in front of Jesus in the blessed sacrament, and wordlessly offered him my pain. I just sat there, resting my head on the pew in front of me, hurting, but knowing that he was there suffering right alongside me, accepting that sacrifice, and encouraging me — along with his mother, and all of the other saints. Some of my most painful moments were during those visits, but I always left with renewed strength to face the day. The Blessed Virgin helped a lot too. There is something immensely comforting about a motherly embrace, and she gladly offers that. Even if you’re a Protestant, that’s worth keeping in mind. Jesus gave us his mother when he was dying on the cross for a reason.
If you have any questions or just want to talk, feel free to leave a comment. I’m here and happy to listen and offer what advice I can.
We’ve finally come to the last post in this series. A few days late— busyness and a mild relapse of tendonitis prevented me from getting it written for Good Friday —but better late than never.
In the previous post we looked at Jesus’ Carrying of the Cross. In this final post, we’ll examine the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, the Crucifixion, and sum up everything we’ve discussed so far. If you’ve missed the previous posts in the series, I encourage you to check out Part 1 for an explanation of what I’m doing with them.
This final Mystery might come across as a largely physical torture, much like the Scourging at the Pillar, and thus it might not seem to have a lot in common with the sufferings that come along with mental illness. After all, it’s hard to compare psychosis or depression to getting your hands and feet nailed to a tree and being left to hang there until you die— and this after all of the other things Jesus had gone through.
Some might make the argument that mental and emotional suffering are worse than physical suffering, or that Jesus was only on the cross for 3 hours, whereas mental illness episodes can last for weeks and months. But as I said before, mental/emotional pain and physical pain are two different things that can’t be compared very effectively, and considering Jesus was sweating blood the previous day from his emotional and mental anguish, I have a feeling his level of suffering during those moments was worse than the amount of suffering stretched out in a month long (or longer) episode of depression.
But I digress.
For the purpose of this post, what I want to focus on is something that Jesus said while hanging on the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ~ Matthew 27:46
What is hell? Biblical imagery gives us scenes of fiery torment, souls burning endlessly in agony. But setting aside all of that, what is the definition, the very essence, of hell? I would say it’s to be cut off completely from one’s creator, the source of all goodness, light, and love. I don’t think it much matters whether images of hell fire are meant to be taken literally or not, because to be utterly cut off from God, in and of itself, would be an infinitely greater torment than what any fire could cause.
What am I getting at here?
I’m saying Jesus experienced hell, for our sake, in a very literal sense. The Apostles Creed says “he descended into hell,” but in that case, “hell” is simply a word referring to the place of the dead, not the place of the damned. He went there to share the Good News that heavens gates were now open to them. But when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he experienced something that we simply cannot comprehend with our human intellects, because we cannot comprehend the Trinity. God the Father turned his back on God the Son, for the sake of our sins. It wasn’t for all eternity— or maybe in some sense it was; God is outside of time, after all —but Jesus was given a taste of what the souls in hell are sentenced to. In his time on earth, he experienced far more suffering than any human soul ever can or ever will, because he bore the weight of all our sins, all our guilt, all our sorrows. According to Isaiah:
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” ~ Isaiah 53:3-4
So how does this tie into mental illness? Sometimes, in the midst of our trials, we feel that God has abandoned us. Maybe intellectually we realize he hasn’t, but it sure feels like he has. We can’t feel his presence. We are utterly miserable. Our prayers seem to be going unanswered. It’s like we’ve been forgotten. Rejected. Forsaken. And Jesus fully understands the feeling. We might not understand why God chooses to allow us to go through such experiences, but there’s obviously a reason or he wouldn’t put us through it; and we certainly aren’t on our own in the experience. God did the very same thing to Himself. Jesus gets it.
So what does all of this mean? We’ve walked through each of the Sorrowful Mysteries and have seen the different ways in which Christ has entered into the very same sufferings that the mentally ill are forced to endure. If you still feel at some level that what Jesus went through doesn’t match up with your own suffering, bear in mind what I said back in part 1: Jesus lives in you. He experiences what you experience every moment that you’re alive. Why do you think it hurts him so much when we sin? Especially when we sin by hurting other people. He feels our pain, very literally. When he chose to enter into the human experience, he chose to enter all of it— not just the pieces of it that a carpenter’s son living in ancient Palestine would have gone through. He understands what mental illness feels like far better than anyone else ever can or will— he’s experienced every form of it in existence, at every level of severity and in all life circumstances that accompany it. This is why the letter to the Hebrews can say:
“we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” ~ Hebrews 4:15
Taken by itself, that statement isn’t particularly helpful. Great. So we aren’t alone in our misery. How does that help us any? The next verse offers the perfect answer:
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” ~ Hebrews 4:16
Because Jesus knows precisely how much we are suffering, we can go to him, boldly, and ask for his help. And he will have mercy on us and give us grace to help us endure our trials.
The catch is, of course, we have to go to him first. We have to approach him and ask for help. If we keep ourselves at a distance and refuse to acknowledge that we need assistance, there isn’t much he can do for us. But we’ve been promised time and again that he will look after us if we surrender ourselves to his care:
“O poor little one, tossed with tempest, without all comfort, behold I will lay thy stones in order, and will lay thy foundations with sapphires.”
~ Isaiah 54:11
“Take courage, my children, and cry to God, for you will be remembered by the one who brought this upon you.”
~ Baruch 4:27-29
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
~ Psalm 30
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”
~ Psalm 31
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delvers him out of them all.”
~ Psalm 34
“For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
“I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
Mental illness is a cross— a very difficult one at times. But for those of us that have it, we have to keep in mind that there is a purpose behind it. You might not have discovered what that purpose is yet in your own case. I know it took me a while to discover the purpose for mine, but as time passes I continue to uncover more and more reasons why what I first looked on as a curse has actually become a very odd blessing in a rather unpleasant disguise. If we can truly wrap our minds around the fact that our illnesses were not dealt out to us out of spite, and that the God who allowed us to have them wants to help us manage them, the whole situation becomes a little bit easier to handle. But it requires faith. And faith is hard. Especially when it feels like God is quite simply ignoring you.
When you start to question whether or not God truly loves you and is going to look after you, stop for a moment and picture Jesus on the cross. He put himself there. For you. But there’s more to it than that. Do you honestly think God ever once stopped loving his only begotten son as Jesus went through the experience of taking on all of our sin and guilt? No. But still Jesus felt completely abandoned by his Father as he hung there on the cross. Even so, he commended his spirit into his Father’s hands as he died. And his Father raised him up to new life on the third day.
He will do the same for you if you cling to your faith, even if it’s just by the ragged ends of your fingernails. And not just after you die:
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” ~ Psalm 27
Waiting can be hard. Take it from someone who has spent the last few years doing a lot of it, for various different health problems, not only mental ones. But answers do come eventually. Never stop praying. He will be there for you.
In the last post we took a look at Jesus’ Crowning with Thorns and how it ties into our mental illness discussion. Now we’ve reached the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. This particular mystery has quite a lot to unpack. Realistically I could devote an entire series of blog posts just to this one passage of scripture, but for the purpose of our current series, I’ll try to make it more concise.
If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.
As with the Scourging at the Pillar, the Gospels don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on Jesus’ trip from Pontius Pilate to Calvary. Mathew and Mark only state that Simon the Cyrenian was forced to carry the cross for him (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). Luke adds the bit about Jesus pausing to address the weeping women (Luke 23:27-30). John fails to mention any of the above. The Stations of the Cross, a tradition that allows a person to meditate on certain aspects of Christ’s Passion, provides a lot more detail about this journey. There are usually 14 stations, and the are as follows:
Jesus is condemned to death
Jesus willingly takes up His cross
Jesus falls for the first time
Jesus meets His Blessed Mother
Simon the Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross
Veronica wipes the Holy Face of Jesus
Jesus falls for the second time
Jesus comforts the Women of Jerusalem
Jesus falls for the third time
Jesus is stripped of His garments
Jesus is nailed to the cross
Jesus dies on the cross
Jesus is taken down from the cross
Jesus is laid in the tomb
Sometimes a 15th station is included that recounts Jesus’ resurrection as well. For the purposes of this post, we’ll be discussing stations 2-9, though not necessarily in that precise order. We dealt with station 1 previously, and we’ll deal with the final stations in the next post.
Firstly, lets start with some context. Jesus has been through severe emotional torture in the Agony, betrayal by his loved ones, extreme physical torture in the Scourging, and utter humiliation in the Crowning with Thorns. He is covered with deep, bleeding wounds, dust, and spit. He’s weak from lack of food and rest, not to mention blood loss. It’s just been one thing after another, and it’s only going to get worse.
Does that last sentence ring a bell? I know it does for me.
Now a heavy piece of wood is dropped onto Jesus’ shoulders— his bruised, mostly shredded shoulders. Does he deserve this? No. In fact, he’s the only person in existence who doesn’t deserve anything of the sort. It isn’t his fault humanity messed itself up so badly. But he willingly accepts his cross, nevertheless, because it is his Father’s will. Can we say the same for our own crosses? Of course, we aren’t innocent like Jesus was. We’re sinners. But did we personally do something so horrendous that we were cursed with our mental illnesses as retribution? Probably not. And even if we had done something horrible, God doesn’t go around dealing out punishments. But He does allow us to have our illnesses for a purpose, even though we might not have a clue what that purpose is at the moment. The weight of such a cross tends to provoke thoughts of “Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?” I don’t have answers to either of those questions, although I’ve asked them myself in the past. All I can say is that Jesus fully understands that feeling far better than any of us ever will.
Jesus, shaking from pain and exhaustion, stumbles, and the weight of the cross drives him to the ground. As his body hits the earth, the heavy cross lands squarely on his back, compounding the pain of his countless injuries. Every inch of his body throbs, his limbs ache with exhaustion. But he hasn’t given up. He tries to gather his strength to get back to his feet, but he isn’t fast enough for the guards. He is kicked and hauled roughly up, then shoved down the road again.
Sometimes mental illness feels like an endless treadmill of misery. You go for days putting one foot in front of the other, struggling to think, struggling to focus, sometimes struggling just to breathe in and breathe out. You raise your head to look down the tunnel you’re in and you can’t see any light at the end of it. You do everything you can to try and pull yourself together and make things work. And sometimes you fail. You hit the ground hard, and you don’t know if you have the strength, let alone the will, to get up again. But you do. You don’t have any other choice. So you get back up and keep walking, even though you don’t see how things are ever going to get better again.
Jesus fell three times on that journey. Three times his legs give out; his horrific injuries slam against the earth and the stones. Each time it’s more difficult than the last to get back to his feet again. And to what purpose? There is nothing good waiting in his future. When he reaches his destination, he isn’t going to be relieved of his burden. He’s going to be nailed to the cross and left to die. He more than understands the feeling of having no light to look forward to at the end of the tunnel.
Partway through this journey, Jesus meets his mother. Can you imagine what she must have felt, seeing her only son in such a condition, with such a fate awaiting him? She is completely helpless. She can do nothing to intervene or save him. She cannot shield him from the abuse of the guards, or make his journey any easier. She stands in the place of every person who has ever had to watch a loved one suffer, unable to aid the afflicted person in any way, shape or form. She feels his pain as if it’s her own.
Anyone who has been in that sort of position can testify to the misery of it. I doubt anyone can feel more helpless than someone forced to stand by while mental illness consumes a loved one. As the person you know and love begins to disappear beneath the symptoms, or the mind-numbing side-effects of medication. Or to know your loved one is struggling with suicidal impulses that they might not be able to curb. But there’s a whole other side to the story. Jesus can see the pain he’s causing his mother. He knows its his fault that she is suffering to such an extent, even though it isn’t his fault that he’s in the position that he’s in. That’s something many mentally ill individuals can understand perfectly well. The added guilt of knowing your loved ones are worried sick, and being unable to do anything fix it.
Partway along this journey to death, Jesus becomes physically incapable of carrying his cross any farther. The guards are faced with the prospect of him dying before he even reaches the place where he is to be crucified. That’s unacceptable. They seize a bystander and press the man into service, forcing him to carry Jesus’ burden.
There are several things about this particular station that ring true when it comes to mental illness. First, the feeling of being incapable of taking care of yourself. Being unable to handle ordinary burdens while you’re in the midst of an episode. Or being unable to bear the burden of the illness itself. Other people are forced to step in and do the work that you’re unable to complete, or take time out of their lives to look after you. Sometimes these people do so willingly out of the goodness of their hearts. But sometimes, they resent you for it. They’re being forced to deal with something that isn’t their responsibility because you’ve proven incapable. It’s humiliating and guilt inducing. But there is another side to this station. Jesus’ Father knew he would be unable to complete the journey without assistance. A provision was made for that. Whether Simon was willing or not, he wound up being there to unknowingly assist the Savior of mankind. Even though He had to allow his son to go through that brutal experience, He didn’t abandon him. He made sure Jesus would be able to complete his mission. And He will do the same for us.
Along the same vein, Veronica arrives. She breaks past the guards and has to opportunity to wipe clean Jesus’ face. Did that do much practical good? Probably not. But it likely meant more on an emotional level than we’ll ever realize. In the face of such cruelty from the very humans he’s dying to save, there is someone who willingly reaches out to him, makes a conscious effort to comfort him even though she knows there is little she can do. This moment of compassion and solidarity offers him encouragement to press forward and do what needs doing.
Have you encountered any Veronicas in your life? Sometimes they are hard to come by, but sometimes they walk into your life precisely when you need them. A well timed comment or gesture of affection can have an enormous impact. It’s hard to tear our gazes off ourselves when we’re in the midst of misery, but have you ever considered being a Veronica for someone else? Sometimes a suffering person can comfort a fellow sufferer far more than anyone else can.
Finally, we come to the women of Jerusalem. Was it helpful to Jesus to have a group of them trailing after him wailing? It’s hard to say. There is the fact that they were there for him, that they were against his unjust condemnation and cared enough to become distraught. Sometimes its comforting when people are outraged and upset about something on your behalf. But sometimes it’s just frustrating. I can’t say one way or another what sort of impact it had on Jesus, but he can certainly understand what it’s like to have the people that care about you (to some degree or another) bewailing your condition. In the case of mental illness, it really isn’t a helpful response. It can be bewildering, and downright annoying, when other people are more upset about your illness than you are, especially when you’re newly diagnosed. “I’m the one with the disease, here. What reason do you have to be so freaked out?” Not everyone encounters this problem, but some people do. Jesus understands.
This brings us to the end of the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. Tomorrow is Good Friday. Jesus will reach the end of his journey to the cross and give up his life to save mankind. In the final part of this series, we’ll examine the how the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, The Crucifixion, fits into our discussion of mental illness.
In Part 3 of this series we looked at how Jesus’ scourging bore some similar characteristics to mental illness. This post will examine how his crowning with thorns fits into our discussion.
If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.
This Mystery is a bit easier to address than the previous one was because it centers around a topic that most mentally ill individuals are uncomfortably familiar with: humiliation. The label “mentally ill” is embarrassing enough all on its own, but when people witness you being tripped up by the symptoms of your illness, it takes things to a whole different level. Different mental illnesses bring different symptoms, but I can’t think of any that aren’t humiliating to some degree or another when they rear their head.
The list of humiliations is as diverse as the number of illnesses that exist: Panic attacks in public, having to compulsively return to your front door and check that its locked ten times before you can bring yourself to leave for a lunch date with friends, making a complete fool of yourself because you can’t seem to stop spewing out the first words that come to your mind at a speed which is difficult for your listeners to follow, bursting into tears against your will in front of other people, struggling to make sense of what people are saying to you when you’re completely unable to focus on the conversation, finding yourself completely unable to live up to the expectations required of normal people in everyday life, flying into a rage over a minor trigger and spending days afterwards kicking yourself and trying to put back together the pieces of a damaged relationship…the list goes on, and on.
Then there’s the shame brought on by the criticism of people who either don’t know any better, or are just utterly insensitive. e.g. “Your life is great. You’ve got nothing to be depressed about. Get over it already.” There are looks of disapproval and gossip behind your back. Or, rather than scorn, you’re faced with unease, nervous whispers, unwillingness to make eye contact with you, and a desire to get away from your presence at the first opportune moment. Or you have people hovering over you, smothering you with concern, watching you like a hawk, trying their best to be helpful, and unintentionally rubbing salt in an open wound: I’m fine right now. I am able to make rational choices without assistance. I’m not a child. I don’t need 24 hour supervision.
How does Christ’s crowning with thorns relate to all of this? Well, a look at the Gospel passage says a lot. It shows him going through some pretty cruel, humiliating things.
1. Being rejected by the people he loved.
Have you ever had friends, ones you thought would be there for you, abandon you, as if your illness was a plague that they were afraid of catching? Or as if you’re somehow a completely different person now that they know you have an “ominous” label slapped on you? Perhaps they turned on you and became like enemies out of fear, misunderstanding or prejudice. Does your own family blame you for your illness as if it’s somehow your fault? Jesus gets it. He spent three years among his people, teaching them, curing their illnesses, offering them hope… And then suddenly he winds up in serious trouble, through no fault of his own, and what happens? Do they remember his kindness toward them? No. They gather in a mob and shout for his crucifixion at the top of their lungs, even after he’s been turned into a bloody mess from a brutal scourging. And where are his closest friends during all of this? Are they there for him, trying to support him and help him through it? No. They run away in fear, abandoning him, after everything he’d done for them and taught them, afraid that something bad will happen to them if they associate themselves with their teacher and friend.
2. Being stripped naked, dressed up and mocked.
Have you ever felt utterly exposed and vulnerable in front of people you know are judging you for something you have no control over? Have you had people assign false motives to your behavior, making unfair accusations based on ignorant assumptions? Have you ever been rendered completely helpless by your symptoms, only to have people tell you that you’re just being weak, that it’s all in your head (no kidding), or blowing you off because they think you’re making it all up? Jesus gets it. In a half-dead state, covered with deep, bleeding wounds, he was dragged before an entire cohort of jeering soldiers. They tore off his clothes— can you imagine how much that would have hurt in his battered state? —leaving him naked and helpless in front of numerous unfriendly eyes. Then they threw a purple cloak over his shoulders, pressed a crown of thorns onto his head and thrust a reed into his hand as a fake scepter, and they mockingly paid him homage, making fun of him for claiming to be who he actually was.
3. Being beaten over the head with a reed and spit on.
Have you ever been kicked when you were down? Have you had people criticize you and harass you when you’re in too poor of a condition to defend yourself? Have you been publicly embarrassed by other people talking about your disorder in front of you in a condescending or derisive way? Maybe you’ve even been physically assaulted or taken advantage of because of your disorder. Things like this cut deep, especially when you’re already embarrassed and hurting to begin with. Jesus gets that too. He’s been beaten, rejected, stripped, crowned with thorns and mocked. And now the soldiers take the reed from his hand and beat him over the head with it, driving the thorns into his scalp, opening new wounds. Then, rubbing his weakness in his face, they spit on him, despising him for who he claims to be, not considering for a moment that perhaps he’s telling the truth. Then they strip off the cloak and the crown, put his own clothes back on him— and you can bet they didn’t do that gently —and drag him out to be crucified.
Jesus understands helpless humiliation intimately. He can sympathize with whatever you’ve gone through or are going through on that front.