I do not think it was a coincidence that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke on mental illness during the Church's General Conference around the same time I was thinking of these things. His talk means so much to me is because despite the difficulties and complex challenges involved with such a trial, Elder Holland reminds us that there is always hope, even when depression or an emotional disorder makes it feel like there is none to be found. And believe me, they absolutely have the power to darken the horizon of even the brightest heart and mind. Elder Holland's acknowledgement of the power of mental illness was a lifeline extended to its sufferers who no longer have to struggle in silence. They can admit that they are suffering and do not need to do so alone or in fear that their faith is insufficient.
I know this battle. I begin fighting during my sophomore year of high school, back in 1996. I do not think it a coincidence that I began bobsledding shortly thereafter; God knew that I needed a source of hope, of strength and of purpose. There were many dark days when even the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the light of the Olympics were just barely enough to save me from the dark. For years I asked many of the questions that are so common to those who believe in God, but do not understand why he will not save them from the storms of mental illness: "Doesn't God care that I'm suffering?" "If he loves me, why isn't he stopping this?" "What did I do to deserve this?" "Will I ever be healed?" "Must I suffer alone?"
Elder Holland's talk answers all of these questions, but perhaps the most powerful quote for me was, while at times we may feel like broken vessels, we must remember the “vessel is in the hands of the divine potter...Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed."
I have spent a long time feeling as though I was broken. I have wondered what was wrong with me, wondered why I bore such indescribable burdens that often felt like the bully I described earlier. I watched friends, teammates, mission companions and family members get married while I silently struggled and wondered if I could ever "get it together" enough for God to allow me to marry. I cannot begin to express the pain and heartache this has caused, for what greater obstacle can someone who wants an eternal marriage face than a mental/emotional illness that seemingly makes such a deep relationship impossible?
To make the struggles worse, depression, anxiety and their ensuing effects have made my career in bobsled particularly challenging. Most of my fellow athletes, the officials and coaches have little idea of what courage, strength and sheer will it took some days just to show up to the track. I never went to the Olympics, but I know what it is like to have a dream to do so while battling a very real and even debilitating
These are but two key areas of my life that my "thorn in the flesh" has affected, but as you can imagine mental illness touches ALL aspects of mortality. From Church service to career, schooling to social situations, charity work to family relationships are all influenced by mental illness, no matter how "strong" or "faithful" the person might be.
I have faced the dark. I have stood on the shores and watched the mental storms roll in while wondering if I would be strong enough to stand this time. I have felt the waves of discouragement and anxiety crash over my heart and soul as I have tried to stand tall in faith and hope. I haven't always won that fight. Many of you know that there was a time when I was so close to committing suicide that it was scary. Having been that low, I add my voice to Elder Holland's testimony when he said, "Whatever your struggle — mental or emotional or physical or otherwise — don’t vote against the preciousness of life by ending it."
I don't have all the answers. I have learned so much through this journey with the help of a loving Father in Heaven, wonderful friends and family, trusted medical professionals and inspired Church leaders. But perhaps the greatest thing I can say is to re-declare Elder Holland's challenge and promise, that "Trust in God. Hold on to His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee."
As Elder Holland stated, "we are infinitely more than our limitations and afflictions." Hold onto faith. Don't give up. Ask for help when you need it, but most of all never, ever let the dark of a mortal and therefore temporary illness put out the eternal flame of your divine heritage.