Light, Amid the Encircling Gloom

{warning: this is a lengthy, wordy one, folks}

May is Mental Health month, and considering it’s nearly June, I’ve had roughly the entire month to think about it. I’ve had a lot of thoughts and debated posting anything at all about mental health and mental illness. I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling and thinking could be properly written out, or if I wanted it written down and shared beyond the pages of my own personal journal. Mental health is a sensitive topic simply because it is so incredibly personal and individual. The diagnosis might be the same, but the experience is entirely different.

Part of me didn’t want to write anything simply because I don’t necessarily like talking about my weaknesses (no surprise there). I don’t like the stigma that I’m faced with. I don’t mind answering questions or sharing experiences, but I don’t like the judgment that comes with people knowing. I know a lot of it is entirely subconscious – society has conditioned us to fear mental illness, to not talk about it, to distance ourselves from those who have it like we ourselves can catch it, to grit our teeth and get on with life.

I have clinical depression. I’ve had it since I was a kid. I’ve been through the cycle of trying to find a medication that works, then the right dose, only to find that it wasn’t right for me and starting over again. I’ve done the whole counselor thing, and in all honesty, it’s not my jam. It is for other people, and I support it passionately, but for me – not my thing. I’ve dealt with the questions, the prolonged conversations, the awkward silences, the ignorant and cruel remarks, the assumptions, people distancing themselves. I ride the roller coaster that is mental illness. If we were to talk in comparisons, my experience is worse than some, better than most. But that doesn’t really matter, because the experience is entirely my own. No one else can claim it, no one else can really define what it feels like or looks like, no one can else can truly understand it. Because it’s mine. My depression. My mental illness.

We can empathize. We can ask questions. We can be supportive. We can listen. We can be honest. We can be patient. We can love.

But it’s our own thing. I have mine, they have theirs, you have yours. It’s how it goes.

You see all over the internet and in magazines and newspapers various articles about depression. I’m sure you’ve seen them before: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Depression.” “This is What Depression Really Looks Like.” “How People Treat Others with Mental Illnesses.” There are numerous scientific articles, posts on maintaining positive mental health, sympathetic letters, confessions of struggle.

I’ve literally had years to reflect on my experience with mental illness – both my own, and as a witness to the experiences of friends and family. I know I’m young, fairly inexperienced, and haven’t been asked to bear my struggle nearly as long as many others have born theirs. But, over the past several years I’ve come to a powerful and personal realization.

I’m actually pretty thankful for my struggle.

Before you think I’ve ridden my high horse straight into the deep end, hear me out.

I’m thankful  because it has given me the opportunity to see and experience both light and darkness. Because I’ve struggled and pushed and fought and nearly given up so many times, I’ve also been able to see more clearly the light that can flood a life. The days that are good and ‘easy’ are made that much sweeter because of the harder days I’ve already experienced. And those darker days are somehow tempered, because I remember that hard times don’t last forever. I remember that there is a light somewhere along this tunnel that I’m traveling through.

I’m thankful because it gives me the chance to develop deeper and broader empathy for my fellow journey-mates. We all are here, and we all struggle. Knowing a deeper emotional and mental struggle, and having a few challenges overcome beneath my belt helps me to reach out and say, “hey, I don’t know exactly how you feel, but this is my experience.” It makes me a more empathetic listener, my advice is more authentic and constructive, and my capacity for compassion is deeper.

I’m thankful because my struggle with mental health has given me an opportunity to rely on my Savior in a way I don’t think I would have had otherwise. In the stillness of it all, I remember that Christ, too, dealt with depression. He felt that hopelessness, that sorrow, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on that cross on Calvary. He’s the only person who knows exactly what I am feeling and what I am dealing with. And He never walks away. He doesn’t skirt the issue, He doesn’t avoid talking about it, He doesn’t say, “well, this is your cross to bear.” Because He bore it for me, and all He’s asking is that I take a leap of faith right into His arms. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it’s better, knowing He’s right there and that the load is a lot lighter than it could be.

I’m thankful because it makes me fight. Having depression is a daily fight. It’s not a matter of failure or victory, it’s a matter of every single breath and every single moment being a victory. You become a fighter. It becomes part of who you are, no matter what your experience is. If you’re here, you’re fighting. And that translates into actions, if only in little ways, or in ways only visible to you. When I crawl into bed at night after a particularly grueling and dark day, it’s a great comfort to hear that little voice say, “it’s alright – you fought today, and that’s what really matters.” And that’s something I can be proud of.

I’m thankful because I know that when all is said and done, when all of us are resurrected, that for the first time, my mind will be completely clear. No lingering shadows, no dark recesses. And it’s going to be wonderful. It gives me hope. It keeps me going. I cling to the promise that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shared a few years back, for myself and for my loved ones:

Whatever your struggle, my brothers and sisters—mental or emotional or physical or otherwise—do not vote against the preciousness of life by ending it! Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful,nonjudgmental, and kind.

I testify of the holy Resurrection, that unspeakable cornerstone gift in theAtonement of the Lord Jesus Christ! With the Apostle Paul, I testify that that which was sown in corruption will one day be raised in incorruption and that which was sown in weakness will ultimately be raised in power. I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be! I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally “free at last.”

While I was a missionary in California, I went through a particularly harrowing few months when the circumstances weren’t in my favor, and my depression was worse than it had been in years. I had finally humbled myself (read: I had finally been humbled) enough to reach out to my mission president and seek his counsel. It was hard. I think I gritted my teeth through that entire meeting, feeling ashamed and weak and angry that I had ended up in his office, despite my desire to go it alone, just me and God.

I don’t remember much of what he said. I’m sure it was great (thanks again, President Hall, if you are somehow reading this), and filled with love and a little bit of chastening and a lot more love. One thing I do recall, however, was him leaning across his desk and reminding me of a hymn that I had liked, but have since come to truly treasure. It reminds me of my own struggles and victories, of the role of my Savior in all this:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.

I’m thankful for this struggle, because it means that one day it won’t be a struggle any longer. Because it’s hard. Indescribably hard (but this man has done a heck of a job). And it’s going to be something I wrestle with for my entire life, even with a cocktail of Jesus and Prozac.  I’m thankful for my depression because it helps me to be compassionate, to be grateful, to know and feel the difference between dark and light. It’s given me the chance to know my Savior, and to develop a deeper faith and a more resilient hope. It’s a chance to take one step at a time, one day at a time, one prayer at a time.

It’s about the light amid the encircling gloom.

Lead Kindly Light

 

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