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Wednesday, 11 February 2015 12:14

A Light in Dark Places: Faith and Mental Illness

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May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

When I saw The Fellowship of the Ring movie for the first time, those words struck me like a hammer on an anvil. They were spoken to Froddo, the hobbit whose task it was to take the dreaded One Ring to Mount Doom, as encouragement by the Lady Galadriel when she gave him a small crystal phial, filled with the light of Eärendil's star. She knew that dark days lay ahead for Froddo and his companions and in an act of mercy, compassion and support she gave him light for those times when it felt like the darkness is overwhelming, that there was no other source of light.

So, why were those words so powerful for me? 

For years now I have been asked by friends, family, counselors, leaders, teammates, advocates and spokespersons to write about faith and mental illness. While the two have been covered in enough written words to fill the Library of Congress, I feel that we have not seen the two discussed together enough and when it is there is far too much clinical writing and not enough first-hand accounts. So, like two awkward teenagers slow dancing for the first time under the lights, faith and mental illness are often seen touching hands, when in reality they should embrace in an intimate setting that can bring hope, light, love, peace and strength that only a strong relationship can. 

Let me state right now that I am not a trained therapist nor mental health professional. What I'm going to write is merely my opinion intermixed with my faith and what I have learned through my own journey with mental illness.

Mental illness. I hate that phrase. We don't say "cancer illness" or "measles illness" or even "Muscular Dystrophy Illness." I suppose it is as good a term as any to describe a long list of struggles that we as human beings may experience during our time on this earth. I not know which came first, the chicken or the egg, or in this case, is mental illness the result of physical/chemical deficiencies in the organ we call the brain (scientific minds say this), or is it the result of our sins affecting our souls/spirit (church leaders often say this), or is it the result of thought-patterns we develop over time which program our brain which in turn controls the chemicals in our brain (many natural healers argue this). In all reality it is probably a combination of the first and the last with the possibility of the second mixed in depending on our life's choices, but only you, your church leader and a competent medical professional can decide that.

So while I do not know where your or your loved one's journey through the darkness of mental illness began, I can testify to the truth that it can be a burden to bear, much like Froddo's burden of carrying the One Ring (yes, I'm a self-proclaimed nerd who has read the books countless times.) I know what it is like to be overwhelmed by depression, to have panic attacks roar through your body and steal your ability to breath. I know what it is like to worry, "Am I going crazy? Am I doomed to this life? Can I ever be happy and healthy and normal?" 

I know what it is like to be laid out on the floor, pleading with God to make it stop. To heal, to lift, to help, to bless, to please for the love of Heaven show mercy. I know what it is like to be in the Emergency Room telling the doctors and nurses, "It's not that I want to die; it's just that I'm not sure I want to live." What did Galadriel tell Froddo? A light in dark places for when all other light goes out. Oh yes, I have faced the darkness of mental illness and like so many in this world I have wondered when the light would come.

I have seen the effects of mental illness in the lives of those around me during my lifetime. I have seen the difficulties associated with depression, suicide and suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety, dis-associative tendencies, and so many more. I have seen the tired looks in the eyes of those fighting these battles and in the eyes of those who love them so much, yet exhaust themselves as care-givers, family members, spouses, etc. 

And mental health is a trend on the rise. Every year we see the statistics increase yet we continue to find answers, solutions, preventative measures and hope. Some have called mental illness a plague of the last days before the Lord comes again, and maybe that's true, I don't know. What I do know is that millions of souls on this earth feel as though they are living in a storm and they wonder, where is God in all this? Where is the light? Where is the hope? 

While you may be feeling a bit "blah" after reading all that, I hope it has given you a sense of the struggle that those in your life who battle mental illness face. In my mind, they are just as deserving of praise as a cancer-fighter or heart attack-survivor. When stigmas surround mental illness, those fighting it and those who could help are separated by ignorance. 

And yet, the question remains: where is God in all the dark storms that mental illness can bring? 

Perhaps the answer can only be found in the New Testament story that we all know so well found in Luke 8:22-25:

Now it came to pass on a certain day, that he went into a ship with his disciples: and he said unto them, Let us go over unto the other side of the lake. And they launched forth.

But as they sailed he fell asleep: and there came down a storm of wind on the lake; and they were filled with water, and were in jeopardy.

And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm.

And he said unto them, Where is your faith?

So many times in my life I have wondered if The Master was asleep while I labored at the rudder, trying to steer the ship of my future. As the storms of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and even self-doubt raged around the confines of my mind/body/spirit, I cried out, "Master, master, I perish." It's hard for all of us when we are hurting inside. The causes of our inner afflictions are endless, from divorce to loss, financial stress to romantic pain, not to mention the additional burdens of mental illness. Have you ever felt yourself to be "out at sea", wondering if God even cared? If He was even aware of the storm you were facing? If He knew about the painful lightening of fear and harsh thundering of panic you felt? 

I remember reading and re-reading the stories of Christ's mortal ministry from the New Testament and soaking in the stories of the many miracles Jesus performed. He healed the sick, returned sight to the blind, made the deaf to hear, and he even raised the dead! What is my tiny (compared to his power) struggles to Him? All He had to do at any point in my life was stretch for His healing hand and "poof!" my pain would be gone. My struggle would be ended and I could have the life that I so desperately desired: one free from mental illness, struggle and burden. 

Do you ever feel that way about your own fight with mental illness? Or do you wonder why your child has autism? Why your spouse is bipolar? Why your parent suffers from depression or your friend has an addiction? Do you ever wonder where God is in all these exhausting, frightening and difficult battles that have mental illness at their core? 

I do not have all the answers for you. Those must be sought out with the help of your religious leader, a medical professional, personal prayer and your own journey of discover. 

But I do know this: mental illness is part of this mortal life. If our lungs, nervous systems, hearts, stomachs and gallbladders can get sick, then why not the brain? Does God want us to suffer from mental illness? No, but He does let us, just as He allows murder, rape, cancer, war, divorce, etc. Life is a test and if everything was easy then the test would be far too easy for what this world was designed for: to prepare us to return to His presence after death. 

I'm not going to debate the theology of suffering in this world; I believe that like a good coach God allows pain and struggle and suffering in order to teach us, purify us and help us become more like him in character and spirit. In my opinion, mental illness for some is like cancer or paralysis or autism in others: it is part of this life and I have to believe that it is somehow part of His plan. 

And when you or I or a loved one is having a rough day with their mental illness and we pray collectively that God will come calm the raging storm, and when He doesn't (right away), I believe that we must have the same faith and trust in our Heavenly Father that Jesus had when he prayed, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me (or my loved one): nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Mathew 26:39). When the darkness of mental illness arises, we must have the same faith to hold up the candle of hope that God will not leave us alone in the storm. We must let our trust in God be the "light...in dark places when all other lights go out." We hold firmly to the knowledge that when the tempests of depression or anxiety or schizophrenia or bipolar rage, it is only temporary and that during the eternities, after our Resurrected bodies have been cleansed of our mental struggles, we can look back on this life with satisfaction and peace. 

In the meantime, if you are struggling to hold to your faith while the darkness of mental illness seems to cloud your life, please focus on and remember that in the story we read previously, Jesus was already in the boat with his disciples! He wasn't off somewhere else, he was right with them during the storm. And I share my witness to you that He is with you know during whatever storm you may be facing. He is not some cold, distant, uncaring god. No, He is our Elder Brother who gave his life out of love; what makes us think that he would abandon us now? 

As the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort;

Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.

For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.

And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.

And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation. 

I can't tell you what the mortal solution to your battle with mental illness is. For some, it is medication. For others, yoga. For some, reading or hiking or exercising or time spent with family or therapy or any of a hundred different outlets. But I do know this: that God is a "Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort...Who comforteth us in all our tribulation...And whether we be afflicted (with mental illness), it is for (our) consolation and salvation."

What is our light in dark places when all other lights go out? It is the Light of the World (John 8:12), the very Savior whose atoning blood can rescue us from the darkness of sin, from doubt, from despair and from death. I do not know how he will help you in your life; it may be through a loving friend, a strengthened spirit, a miraculous experience, a kind church leader, a skilled medical professional, a tiny once-a-day pill or through a select scripture, but I DO know that Jesus Christ is the foundation that all aspects of our lives must be built on if we truly desire peace. 

Trust him to calm the storms of life, even if that takes weeks, months, years or decades. And during that time, even on the darkest of nights, you need not feel alone for Jesus has promised that he will be by your side during the whole journey. Did he not say, "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you" (John 14:18)?

As Jesus so lovingly said to the leper when he asked the Lord if he would heal him, "I wilt; be though clean (and made whole)" (Luke 5:13). So reach out to him, trust him, lean on him, let him carry you if needs be. I know that mental illness can appear to rob faith through fear, panic, distorted thinking and physical pain, but do your best. After all, even if you can only muster up the faith as the grain of a mustard seed, that is enough to move the mountain of mental illness in your life (Luke 17:6).

Hope on, fight on, believe on, and look to the Light of this World. There is no storm, whether mental, physical emotional or spiritual, that He cannot heal. Of that I bear my witness before the world. 

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Jeremy C. Holm

Author & American athlete Jeremy C. Holm has spent over half his life in the fast-paced winter sport of bobsled, including as the Head Coach for the US Adaptive Bobsled Team. He has a degree in Journalism and is pursuing a degree in Military History at the American Military University. In addition to motivational speaking and corporate appearances around the world, Jeremy is the author of three books and spends his time camping, hiking, writing and trying to make history, one day at a time.

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