Something I’ve always prided myself on is my mental health.
I suppose it’s out of stubbornness as much as pride.
You see, my parents divorced when I was really young and my father exited the pictured completely not long after I started elementary school.
I saw various family counselors and psychologists from time to time as a kid, but I always resented the way I thought they were forcing me into the box of “just another child of divorce.” So, I set out to prove that I was anything but that. To whatever extent I was able to prove myself right was the result of a strong family support system that made an absentee parent less noticeable than it should have been.
I was lucky, but I convinced myself I was the strong one.
It was a delusion I was able to maintain for a long time.
Until I got cancer.
Things like cancer have the nasty habit of tearing down your defenses while they go about destroying your health, but cancer didn’t upset my proudly guarded mental health in the way you might assume.
Sure, when I first came home from seeing the giant mass in my chest that was pretty obviously cancer, I broke down in my wife’s arms, in front of my children, and cried “I don’t want to die.”
But I was lucky.
It turned out I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a highly treatable form of cancer with a cure rate well over 90%.
I was diagnosed in the spring of that year and by the fall I was already in remission.
No sooner had those first tears dried than I was in my oncologist’s office trying to get him to laugh. An effort I’m ashamed to say I accomplished only once.
My cancer happened so fast and the prognosis was so positive that I thought my well constructed mental and emotional defenses would hold and the depression and despair so many others naturally struggle with in moments like that wouldn’t be a problem for me.
And for a while I was right.
Until the reality I had been running from finally caught up with me.
Ironically, it happened at the end of treatment, when you would think everything would be getting better.
Life was getting better. I was done with chemo and only had a handful of radiation treatments to go before cancer was a thing of my past. But in my running from reality, I never stopped to process the gravity of what I was going through and the possibility of what could and can still happen if the cancer ever returns. I had been so focused on treating my body and so delusional about my own emotional strength, that I never stopped to consider that I should have also been treating my mental health along the way.
When reality finally caught up with me, the emotional and mental defenses I had so proudly built up from years of defiantly resisting help came crashing down around me.
I had never had a panic attack before then.
But as my cancer treatment came to an end they became a constant companion showing up whenever they were least wanted, leaving me literally curled up in a bath robe in the fetal position watching helplessly as my wife took care of our children because I was crippled by inexplicable anxiety and fear. The attacks came without warning and left me utterly incapable of doing anything other than hiding my head in confusion and shame.
For a normal person it would probably have been a terrifying experience.
For me, it was humiliating.
I was too ashamed of my sudden inability to control my emotions and mental health to worry about being afraid.
Thankfully, though, I wasn’t too ashamed to say something to my oncologist…eventually.
My stubbornness reared its ugly head for a while and I continued to suffer in silence before I finally found the humility I needed to admit that the anxiety attacks weren’t something I could control with sheer force of will. That maybe, just maybe I need help.
It turned out I wasn’t alone.
Anxiety and depression at the end of cancer treatment are common around (relatively) young people like me who had never dealt with a major health crisis before and who went through treatment faster than they could process what was going on. It’s the recipe for a perfect mental health storm that hits you when you least expect it, when you think you’ve finally turned a corner and everything is going to be ok.
When I eventually, but reluctantly told my doctor what was going on, he prescribed medication for anxiety and depression.
And they worked.
At least for as long I took them.
By the time my original prescription ran out life was back to normal and I convinced myself I was back to “normal” and no longer needed them. So, I didn’t bother refilling them when the time came and for a while everything was fine.
Until it wasn’t.
But it didn’t happen overnight or in the same way it happened before.
Anxiety creeped back into my life slowly like a supernatural fog from some low budget horror movie.
The crippling anxiety attacks didn’t return. Instead, I found myself in a constant state of anxiety. And while I no longer felt the fear of imminent death, depression also found its way around my well constructed defenses once again. Thankfully, it wasn’t crippling either, but because I never struggled with suicidal thoughts, I thought I could just ignore it until it went away. Kind of like “fake it till you make it.” If I just faked being happy and motivated long enough, eventually the happiness and motivation would become real. Or at least so I thought.
Of course, they never did.
My wife was the first one to name it for what it was.
I was still too embarrassed by the idea that I didn’t have perfect mental health or that I couldn’t simply will myself to be cured of whatever it was that was bothering me to name it for what it really was.
Depression was for other people, weaker people who simply couldn’t handle life like the rest of us.
I was too strong, too smart to succumb to depression and besides, I told myself, I wasn’t super sad all the time, I was just “meh” and everybody gets “meh” every once in a while. And it’s true they do, but for me every once in a while had become everyday and every time my wife would say anything about me not seeming like myself I would just blow it off.
Things went that way for a while, far longer than they should have, but I’ve always had a gift for stubbornness, denial, and putting off taking care of important things.
And then I got a book deal.
“At last!” I thought to myself, “This will fix everything and squash my depression once and for all!” After all, I had been working for years to get a book deal. Finally having one was a dream come true. There was no way I could possibly feel “meh” anymore.
And for a while the high lasted and I felt “normal” again.
Until I didn’t.
As excited as I initially had been to get a book deal, I found it hard to actually start writing the book I had for so long been so eager to write. At first, I dismissed it as writer’s block. When I finally had things to write about, but couldn’t find the motivation to write, I told myself it was just my gift for procrastination manifesting itself again. It would pass, I would feel better, and the book would get written…eventually.
A few months passed without that motivation ever really appearing, at least for any sustained length of time, when I got an email from my publisher showing me the mockups they had done for potential book covers. It was something I had looked forward to seeing since the moment they first approached me about writing a book.
I should have been incredibly excited.
But I wasn’t.
Not because the covers were bad.
They weren’t.I just had an overwhelming since of ambivalence about it all that I couldn’t shake or even explain.
And it was at that point I finally started to accept that maybe something more was going on than I was willing to accept. As a writer, or at least this writer, I should have been incredibly excited to see the first glimpse of my dream coming true. But I wasn’t. At all. I simply didn’t care one way or another.
And that bothered me more than anything else.
Not caring about things I should have.
Things I once was so passionate about.
So, slowly…shyly…hesistantly…I brought it up to my wife one night.
I told her I thought something was…off.
I had the book deal I always wanted and book covers had been created and…I just felt “meh” about it all.
Expecting her to say “I told you so” and then remind me of the exact dates and times of each time she tried to tell me she thought something was wrong, I found instead the compassion, understanding, and wisdom that make her such a great doctor (literally, she’s an OB/GYN).
“Think about it this way,” she said, “When you have a headache, you take Tylenol to feel better. Or when your stomach is upset, you take Pepto to feel better. When you don’t feel good emotionally or mentally, why wouldn’t you take something to help you feel better that way too?”
It was both a revelation and the grace I needed to talk to my doctor.
It was also the humbling I desperately needed after a lifetime of trying to convince myself I was “stronger” than that, “smarter” than that, that medicine and psychologists are for other people, not me.
I’m glad I did.
I’m thankful to her for giving me the courage to say something.
Because frankly, if I hadn’t talked to my doctor, if I hadn’t started taking anti-depressents and being intentional about working on my mental health, not only would my book have never have gotten written, but who knows what dark place I would find myself in today…or tomorrow…or next year.
I never thought I would share any of this publicly, not so much because I’m embarrassed by any of it, I’m not, but because so many others have shared similar stories and I thought, “What good would it do for me to share mine?”
But then the story of a young pastor lost to suicide flashed across my social media feeds this week. I didn’t know him at all, but when I looked at the picture of him and his family and saw how happy they were, I saw myself. I saw someone who seemed so happy, who seemed to have it all together. I saw a devoted father, a loving wife, and children who I have no doubt are adored by both their parents and my heart broke for them all.
And I felt like I needed to say something.
Not because I’m any kind of expert on depression or suicide or mental health.
Far from it.
But I felt compelled to say something because if you find yourself lost like that young pastor was or simply too embarrassed like I was to admit you need help, I want you to know you’re not alone and you have nothing to be ashamed of. There is a whole host of people out there – many who have or are going through the exact same thing you are – waiting to wrap their arms around you and walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death as long as you need them.
I know you know that, but I want you to hear it again. Or maybe I need to hear it again.
You’re not alone.
We’re not alone.
We’re never alone.
But I also wanted to share my story because of the reaction I saw from many people to that pastor’s tragic death. It’s the same sort of reaction I see a lot when folks in the Church talk about depression, anxiety, or mental health in general.
The tendency is to treat mental health like just another spiritual problem that can be cured through prayer, reading the Bible, and “trusting” or having “faith” in God because God is in control and because God is in control we have no reason to be sad or anxious about anything.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
There’s nothing wrong with prayer or reading the Bible, they’re great. But our mental health is not an expression of our faith or lack thereof. People don’t struggle with things like clinical depression and anxiety because they’re lacking in faith, as if they’re sinners who need to repent in order be “saved” from their affliction.
Prayer may be part of the equation as we try to treat our mental health, but telling people to just “focus on” or “trust more” in God isn’t going to make their depression or anxiety magically go away.
Sometimes we need Jesus and Prozac.
Sometimes the miracle Jesus is offering us comes in the form of a tiny little pill.
Sometimes God works in ways that aren’t so mysterious.
One of the things having cancer taught me was that sometimes the miraculous is wrapped up in the mundane.
Case in point: chemotherapy
Had I lived in any other era in human history, my cancer diagnosis would have been a death sentence.
But because I was lucky enough to be born in last century, after doctors and scientists had spent years and years trying and failing and trying again until they finally developed a treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, all I had to do to avoid the Grim Reaper was sit in a La-Z-Boy recliner and binge watch Netflix while hooked up to an IV for a few hours every other week for a couple of months and I would be healed.
Chemotherapy has become so routine we tend to take it for granted, but modern medicine is nothing short of miraculous. The problem is we’ve become conditioned to think that miracles only happen when people walk on water. But a miracle is simply God acting in the world to do what we consider impossible.
Curing cancer was once considered impossible.
Did people develop the cure?
But as people of faith we believe those doctors and scientists bear the image of God. We also believe that all wisdom, knowledge, and understanding is a gift from God. If those things are true, then the doctors and scientists who did the impossible and cured my cancer weren’t just doctors and scientists tolling away in a lab. They were the hands and feet of God at work in the world to bring about the healing God has promised us.
Which is why if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety or any other sort of mental health issue, I hope you politely thank the people in your life who have reached out to you, told you they’re praying for you, and encouraged you to do the same…and then go see a doctor.
Medicine isn’t magic.
But it may be the miracle you need to get through tomorrow.
Chase it down with a good therapist and a strong support system and it might just be the miracle you need to get you through more tomorrows than you ever thought you’d see.
God certainly works in mysterious ways.
But God also works through the mundane to do the miraculous.
So, if you find yourself out of sorts, don’t be like me. Don’t kid yourself into thinking nothing’s wrong or that you can handle it on your own. Talk to somebody. Let them know you’re struggling. And find a professional to help you find a way forward.
You might not need medicine.
You might just need somebody to talk to.
Or you might both.
But what you definitely don’t need to do is to be like me.
Don’t fool yourself with delusions of invincibility.
Don’t stay silent.
Don’t suffer alone.
Ask for help.
If you are ready to get help, try starting here. The National Institute of Mental Health has a great list of resources to start you on your journey.