Mental Health Awareness Week, day 4.
The mask. I am taking another funeral today, and, while I won’t be wearing a mask while I do, I shall be wearing it while taking a taxi to the crematorium.
On my twelfth birthday, I had an encounter with a demonic presence, external to myself, that tried to control me to take my life with a jungle knife hanging on the wall of the room in which I found myself, alone. Clearly, it was a struggle I won. But the old adage ‘whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger’ is merely wishful thinking. The encounter broke me, and my mental health was not great throughout my teenage years. I suffered from a depression that was particularly bleak around the time of my birthday. Seasonal, cyclical.
When I was seventeen, in a hostel in the middle of a forest on a church youth fellowship weekend, I had a second breakdown experience. This one precipitated a two-year journey of recovery of mental health, a process that involved the support of some wonderful friends, a child psychologist, my GP and the medication she prescribed, and finally a vision of Jesus.
In the vision, I was curled in a tight ball on my knees, confined in a space only just big enough for me, in a darkness so black I could not see. After a while, I became aware of the presence of Jesus, sitting, cross-legged, beside me. Just sitting there. After a long time, he got up, reached out his hand, and said, “Come on, let's walk out of here.” And we did, together. As I got up, I discovered that the cage that had held me was not there. Whether it had only ever existed in my imagination, or whether it had fled in the presence of Jesus, I do not know.
I would not wish my experiences on anyone else, and yet, I would not trade them, because, as a result of what I have experienced, I have been able to be used by God to bring hope and healing to many others. And this is my testimony: that shit happens, but that God uses it as fertiliser to grow beautiful roses.
There have been other times in my life when I have experienced low mood. One such time was when I went through the discernment process for ordination. I was open about my history of teenage depression—why should I be ashamed?—and of the ways in which God had used that to help others—for, as I discovered, mental health issues are extremely common. For my pains, I was sent for assessment at The Priory, a private clinic in London and famous rehab centre for celebrities. They gave me a clean bill of health (indeed, they apologised that my time had been wasted in being sent to them).
I don’t need to talk about my history that much. It isn’t that I wear a mask to conceal it, but that, being well, I do not need to wear a mask. I am not going to infect you, nor am I fearful that your potential mental ill health will infect me. Mental health isn’t like the novel coronavirus. So, while I shall be wearing a cotton mask in the taxi today, I would simply say, it is so much easier to breathe without one.
I have been both honoured and humbled today (the two were always intended to go together, and in their true form, do) by the ways in which my story has given hope to others.
But I want to make a plea about the language we use: honesty, yes; integrity, amen; but, it is not brave to tell your story, just as it is not cowardice to not be ready to tell your story.
We all tell our story to the extent to which we have received a measure of healing and wholeness, and no further.
In the context of mental health, that might mean remission, or even cure; or, it might mean that you have found a level of genuine acceptance and been able to tell an integrated story of your identity.
I have not always been able to tell the story that I told today. And there are parts of my story that I am still not prepared to tell, because I am not prepared to deal with the consequences for myself or for others. This is not dishonesty, but, I trust, discernment. Perhaps one day I will be able to tell those stories. Perhaps I won’t; and, at the end of the day, I don’t think it will matter. My story is known to God—indeed more fully and honestly than it is known to myself—and it is God who will tell all our stories with perfect mercy and justice.
But there is no shame in still being in the process of being healed—and where we feel shame, there is cleansing to be found in the compassion of Jesus.
The mask I wore today covered my nose and my mouth, but left my eyes (and my increasingly Rowan Williams-esque eyebrows) visible to the world. So it is with our stories. Tell your story as fully and honestly as you are able. But don’t apologise for where it is for the best for all concerned that, for now, your face is partially hidden.
Be wise. Be kind, to yourself and others.