Anyone who’s read many of my articles will be conscious that I sometimes struggle with mental health issues. They were the bane of my young life and to some degree remain a hurdle today. In this article, I’d like to explore whether or not the Gospel of Peace promises freedom to a person who has to navigate such difficulties, and if so, how is that achieved?
First of all, I should say that it would be very strange for a believer to state that God doesn’t involve himself at all in their mental health, or indeed that he doesn’t long for every person’s freedom. On the other hand, it would be cruel and perverse to put believers with mental health struggles under pressure to receive deliverance from something so pervasive and complex. In this article, I’m hoping to identify a safe middle ground.
I’ve known some level of anxiety from my earliest memories. For reasons that are hard to explain I often felt unsafe, but it wasn’t until the age of 11 that things started to go seriously awry. One night, I attended a film club after school to watch the 1980’s classic, Cocoon. It’s not remotely frightening, but there’s a particular, skin-peeling scene that utterly freaked me out. I remember squirming in my chair for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, gripped by shock and desperate for the horrid feelings to leave me.
That night I was too terrified to sleep. It would have been easy enough to resolve if I’d feared aliens under my bed, but I wasn’t terrified of an actual encounter or circumstance – I was terrified of the memories of the film, which brought back feelings of paralysis and horror. In essence, I’d become afraid of my own feelings, which is the fundamental nature of anxiety. Anxiety is a shadow battle against yourself.
For months, I was terrified of going to bed. As my bedtime drew near, I’d become increasingly conscious of each passing minute, knowing I’d soon have to face my fears. When the time came, I’d turn off my light and terror would seize me, tormenting me without respite. I developed a distraction technique – reciting the declension of Latin nouns – yes, I attended a private school, for all the good it did me. I’d focus hard on the recitation in order to avoid revisiting the fear that would otherwise occupy my mind, and as exhaustion swept over me, I’d fall asleep. The torment endured for several months until I eventually grew out of it.
The question I ought to have asked is: why did I react to the movie in such an extreme way while others around me were fine? What made me so vulnerable? Naturally, I didn’t consider this at the time and kept the experience to myself.
At the age of 18, something similar occurred. I fainted during a movie and then almost again at another, at which point I developed a heightened measure of self-awareness, often becoming anxious and checking in on myself: ‘Am I ok?’
I became nervous in a growing number of situations – a music recital (I was studying music at degree level) and a murder mystery dinner party, along with other places and situations. I realised that the tentacles of anxiety were wriggling into an increasingly broad range of activities, and that if I didn’t put a stop to them, I’d end up unable to leave the house.
At the time, I was a committed member of a Conservative Evangelical church and carried the occasional distrust of that denomination towards Charismatic or Pentecostal churches, but instinctively I knew that I wouldn’t find the answers at my usual church and attended a worship service at an Assemblies of God church I’d been warned away from (because they moved in the gifts of the Spirit). Halfway through the service, one of the pastors gave a word of knowledge, saying that there were people in the service in urgent need of mental healing. I barely experienced the tangible presence of God at that time in my life, but in that moment, I felt his nearness all around me and rose to my feet to receive. Calmness bathed me and I folded to my knees and then to the ground in a single, gentle movement as the strength left my body. There I lay, huddled and crying in relief as the Spirit ministered to me, and when I left the service, I knew some form of healing had occurred.
I’d love to say that was the end of the story but it was only a hiatus. The touch of God enabled me to live free of anxiety for the remaining 2 years at university, and when I graduated and flew off to Hong Kong to become a missionary, I wasn’t conscious of any lingering fear.
Cracking under pressure
The missionary ship I joined was a hard place to be. Leadership worked us like dogs and the environment was harsh and uncaring, in my experience. I felt unwelcome from the start, because they were resistant to Charismatic believers and didn’t permit the use of spiritual gifts – one time I was even asked to lower my hands when worshipping, in case a senior visitor from HQ saw me and realised there were people like me on board. I was subject to manipulation and abuse from two senior leaders and after a year in that environment, I reached breaking point.
To be fair, it was as much my fault as anyone else’s. Alongside unfavourable treatment from others, I was pressurising myself to continually minister to those I met – a toxic combination of conditions that led me to a red light I couldn’t jump. One night, I couldn’t stop the frantic whirring of my brain and felt dangerously fragile, as if any kind of pressure would shatter me into a thousand pieces. It was terrifying and for weeks I couldn’t function, sitting by myself on a lonely deck, listening to music that calmed me, hour after hour. Truly, I was a wreck. Spiritual activity felt like pressure and pressure threatened my sanity, so I became inert, distracting and endlessly soothing myself until I could function again – enough to be able to socialise and even have a little fun.
Sadly, the worst was yet to come. In April 1998 I was in the ship’s infirmary, dreadfully sick with Malaria. The doctor told me about a ‘radical treatment’ that would kill malaria in my system for good. This was my second bout of malaria, a year after first contracting it, and I’d been warned it was likely to recur on a regular basis, perhaps even throughout my life. I was keen to see the back of the illness and the idea of a ‘radical treatment’ played into my religious intensity, so I told him I would go for it – the worst decision of my life.
The radical treatment was 5 times the usual dose of Larium (mefloquine); an anti-malaria drug with an awful reputation for sending people round the twist. In 2013, the FDA published a safety alert on mefloquine and added a black box warning (its strongest warning) to the drug label, as it can have devastating side effects, including psychosis, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts that can last for years. In 2013, the US military declared Larium a ‘drug of last resort’ – the same year that Roche, the manufacturer of Lariam, wrote to doctors in Britain warning about “hallucinations, psychosis, suicide, suicidal thoughts and self-endangering behaviour have been reported” and stating that the drug “may induce potentially serious neuropsychiatric disorders.”
Here‘s an article in the UK newspaper, The Independent, covering the devastating impacts Larium has had on British soldiers.
I’m not sure how much of this was known in 1998, but I was handed 5 times the standard dose of this drug without a single word of warning. I remember staring at the collection of pills in my hand and having a moment’s pause, but shrugged off any concern and swallowed them with a swig of juice.
The next few weeks were crazy. I was assailed by dizziness so extreme I was unable to move my eyes without invoking a nausea-inducing spin. I couldn’t sit up or walk without support, and was bed-ridden for far longer than if I’d just ridden out the malaria. Eventually, I was able to leave the infirmary and return to my cabin, but what happened to me that night was devastating – I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I was lying on my bed, ready to drift off to sleep, when anxiety seized me with an iron fist. My heart rate jacked up to well over 200 beats a minute and I could feel the tracks of my major blood vessels as my body went into a flight response, but there was nowhere to run. Fearing I was about to die, I tried to use a distraction technique, rigorously fixing an image in my mind and concentrating so hard that there was no room for other thoughts – just as I had as a child, when reciting Lain nouns. It worked, my heart rate dropping to a less frightening level, but the second my concentration lapsed I’d be right back in the thick of it, my heart leaping like a sprinter off the blocks.
Honestly, it was terrifying. I fought that battle for hours, trying not to die, and at one point I even laughed out loud, muttering to myself:
‘Where do I go from here?’
I didn’t know that such terror existed but suddenly it was all I knew, ripping me apart. It seemed impossible that I could ever recover as the injury was in the mind; it felt like part of me.
The next 18 months were hellish. I found ways to distract myself, making the fear less acute, but as soon as my mind turned to anxiety, the panic attacks would seize me once more. The worst part of each day was going to sleep, which required that I relax my rigid controls and slide into unconsciousness, leaving me vulnerable to the spike of fear and all the bodily sensations that came with it. Sometimes I’d be distracted enough to enjoy the odd half hour without being assailed by panic, but there were other times when I had to fight to get through the next five minutes. In desperation, I considered ending my life each and every day.
He Rides on the Clouds to Help Us
A year into my time of trial, a friend came to visit and urged me to look into Ellel Ministries – a Christian organisation that offers those in need of support a free, three-day healing retreat in a gorgeous mansion near Lancaster, England. Sensing the approval of God, I quickly applied and was put on a waiting list, and 6 months later, I climbed on a train and made my way to the retreat. I didn’t have much confidence it would make a difference, but I had to give it a go.
Three counsellors were allocated to each person, and mine were wonderful, caring people. I met with them several times a day for the full three days of the retreat, talking about and praying into my struggles. All three counsellors were sensitive to the Holy Spirit and relied on his leading as we explored the roots of anxiety. We revisited my experiences in movie theatres and then dug further into my childhood.
The bottom line was that during my earliest fearful experiences, I’d become tense and defensive, desperate to protect my emotional state. I’d become my own protector – a natural and sensible response in a young child, but it led me to a form of continual readiness to defend myself when negative emotions arose. In essence, I was brittle and ready to shatter. When I entered the movie theatre to watch Cocoon and was confronted by the scene that made me profoundly uncomfortable, I was unable to handle my emotions.
After hours of talking and praying with my counsellors, the message of the Lord became clear – he wanted me to stand aside as my own protector and appoint him instead. He spoke to me through the words of Deuteronomy 33:26
“There is no one like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to help you,
And in His excellency on the clouds.”
The whisper of God was drenched in compassion and full of fervour – he would ride the heavens to help me, if I would let him.
I knew what to do. I renounced my self-protection and accepted the protection of God instead. When fear next arose, I would resist the temptation to engage in distraction techniques and would simply step aside, trusting him to protect me. The promise was that if I ceased fighting, God would fight in my place – the peace of God would actively guard my heart and mind. Philippians 4: 6-7,
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Even before this was put to the test, I knew I was free. The breakthrough had occurred. My counsellors knew it too – there was a moment when we all looked at each other and one of them wept with relief. They were lovely people to whom I owe at least the quality of my life, if not my life itself. I don’t think I could have gone on much longer.
The first test occurred on the way home. Anxiety reared its head and I was tempted to distract myself. My heart rate was shooting up, but instead of trying to subdue it I muttered to myself:
“I don’t defend myself; I let the Lord defend me.”
Throughout the previous 18 months, the anxiety had only intensified until I fearfully sought distraction, but this time was different. Instead of escalating, the fear began to fall away. My heart rate slowed, and before long I was thinking about something else altogether. I was stunned, staggered, delighted, and oh so grateful. My Lord had set me free!
Am I completely free?
It’s tempting to over-claim on victories but I want to be honest – I’m not completely free. On the plus side, in the 24 years since the healing retreat, anxiety has never taken me the way it did before. I’ve had a few hairy moments when under pressure, but on each occasion I repeat the statement of faith:
“I don’t defend myself; I let the Lord defend me.”
I’ve learned to continually step aside when threatened by fear, refusing to defend myself, and the Lord has always put the anxiety to bed. Since the healing retreat, I’ve never been overcome by fear and have a marvellous set of tools for managing my state, all of which involve some form of surrender. Through the wisdom learned at Ellel Grange, I’ve been able to help a number of people living in the grip of anxiety and am deeply grateful for what the Lord has taught me.
That said, suffering of such intensity leaves a scar. I’m conscious of my fragilities and do what I can to consider my choices in order to avoid being burdened by too much pressure. Of course, life doesn’t always oblige and when pressure piles on I can struggle, but God has always got me through. I may not be entirely free in every measurable way but I’m free enough to function, to do well in my endeavours, and to love my wife and stepson.
If anyone reading this is suffering from mental health issues, you have my deepest sympathy. I hope you will feel reassured by what I’ve written, and I pray the Lord will lead you on a journey towards freedom. I hope you will not pressure or coerce yourself to try to receive healing, but will walk without haste in the gentle company of our God.
Note from the author: If you want to dig into this topic some more, I touched on it in several talks, delivered during lockdown (while wearing ridiculous clothing):
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