Reflections from a Pastor with Mental Illness

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I hope this isn’t too much of an overshare, but I don’t know how else to start other than just be straight up. Part of my reality is that I live with anxiety and depression. I have for a while. I’m now in a good place, but I can’t ignore that side to me that carries these round. I have been on a journey of growth for a while now, seeing transformation in my life and liberation from both the “Black Dog,” and the crippling fear. I am in a really good place at the moment, but this wasn’t always the case. I have had to work for where I am. I have had to rest, I have had to process, I’ve had to build resilience.

I was reminded recently that stories are powerful, and while your story will be different to mine, here is some of my process of healing that you might be able to draw from. That’s my hope, at least. With that said, please don’t see these as silver bullets or quick fixes. Life is not like McDonalds, as much as we want it to be – thinking it is sets us up for disappointment. That doesn’t mean they won’t work for you, but if they do, they’ll take time.

So…

To my story…

To the things that made a difference….

The first thing to mention is that medication has been a key in my life. It has been an essential tool in this journey for me. If you need to go there, then go there.

Another big key for me was learning to listen to people in my life who reminded me that failures are not an end. We can come back from them. Life continues, and we can pick ourselves up. Fear of failure is a big fear for a lot of people, and has been for me. But increasingly, I’m not afraid of it. I don’t want it, but when it happens, I’m learning with good people around me that I still got this. I’m learning to trust that there’s a way up at the other end of whatever rut I may have stumbled into or dug for myself.

Community is key. My wife, credit to her, has been the greatest support (thanks dox). Thanks also to my family and friends as well, and my colleagues who believe in me.

As someone deeply interested in social justice, social change, and seeing good news come to the poor, I grew fatigued by the problems of the world more than I needed to. I let myself slowly creep into a nihilistic perspective on life. What good was it to do anything, if nothing substantial would change? And that nihilism, it really gets people down. It’s something I see lots of in young adults in my work.

Postmodern thought is the cultural water we’ve swum in for decades in NZ, and its gift to the world is the deconstruction of systems of injustice. However, where its shadow side comes out is in the over-deconstruction of meta-narratives and worldviews. Meta-narratives give people something to live into and live by. The Christian meta-narrative is ultimately a meta-narrative of hope: for God is redeeming our relationships with the world, with each other, and with Godself. And we get to participate in that. It gives us what my lecturers call telos: a direction, and end goal, a purpose – that is God’s gift in being found “in Christ.”

I’ve re-found hope in the Good News that God came to earth, lived as the person of Jesus who died, was raised to life, and ascended into heaven, and through the Spirit, is redeeming creation from sin, brokenness, disrupted relationships, and unjust structures.

The thing is though, I’ve had to unlearn anxiety and relearn peace that comes from trust. I have to learn to trust in the Good News by focussing on it.

Which, in the wisdom of the words of Paul in Philippians 4:8, means I meditate on good, right, pure, noble things, to build resilience for when I inevitably face hard things or get down about all that is not as it should be. Spending time listening to good music and singing along badly is one way I do this. I also read the words of scripture, which remind me of who God is, and who I am, and what God is doing – and God is doing good. And I have spent a lot of time looking into ways Christians have engaged with God throughout history, to find tried and true rhythms. Some of these that I have settled on are Breath Prayer, Centering Prayer, and the Empty Chair. But my favourite is the Examen, which I try to do as I fall asleep, reflecting on my day and where God has been in it. I’m not consistent at this, but I’m working on that.

My wife is good at stuff like this. She’s the kind of person who, when she prays, it feels like she’s been doing this for hundreds of years – and that’s refreshing. In the morning she has tended to have a habit of thanking God for something different with every bite of breakfast. It sounds cheesy. Honestly, when I do it with her, it feels cheesy sometimes. But it is a good practice of gratitude that creates new pathways in me that are more resilient to anxiety. We don’t always do this, but when we do, it changes the day.

When I was young, in church at times it sounded like if we just had a daily quiet time, we’d become like super human Christians who could stand the test of time. Which doesn’t seem to be true when I look around. And while I don’t think it’s black and white like that, I think there’s something there that we can all learn from. For me, I’ve relied on spiritual practices to deepen my relationship with God for overcoming anxiety. Whether it’s the Spirit healing me supernaturally, or just simply me living slower – more like we were made to live, or whatever it is, I’m not sure. It could be all of those. But for me I don’t care, it’s working. And I’m grateful to God for that.

One final thing that has been helpful has been to get out and do stuff. I’ve started doing new things, which gives me wins and accomplishments. We are incredibly risk averse in the church. But Jesus wasn’t risk averse. So I’m trying to take risks, and being kind on myself if it doesn’t work out. These little wins remind me that, when I can’t see it, I am going to get through this task, that day at work, that month coming of insane work load, that relational awkwardness, that hard conversation with a friend.

If you think about it, this is ancient wisdom. We see it in the life of Jesus. He took time to pray and contemplate, time with God, he spent time in community, and he took risks for the good of others. Essentially, this is the process of discipleship. In that sense, God forming me into the person God made me to be, and my willingness to put disciplines, practices (whatever you want to call them), in my life that open myself up to that…that’s how I’ve come to a good place where I am now where I can keep my depression and anxiety in check.

So…

I am someone living with anxiety.

But I’m in recovery. And above are some reflections on my journey that I hope you find helpful.

I’m keen to hear what has been working for you. Or just as importantly, what’s been unhelpful?

Your story might help someone else. Sharing it might help you.
(If this has raised anything for you, or you’d like to talk to someone, we encourage you to do that. You can call the Depression Helpline at 0800 111 757, or Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP), or alternatively, you can grab a coffee with one of the team. Text 021 0225 9879, or message us on Facebook, and we can make it happen).

Jeremy Harris works the part time as the Diocese’s Young Adults Facilitator and as Youth and Young Adults Pastor at NorthWest Anglican. Jeremy writes blog posts for the Grace Collective about Jesus, social justice, and all things related. He also enjoys spending time with his family, exploring West Coast beaches with good mates and going on dates with his wife or best friend. If you want to chat to Jeremy about anything GC-related, you can email him at jharris@auckanglican.org.nz.

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