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Trying to Function with a Mental Illness–Even During the Good Times

I’ve struggled with significant OCD and depression for a little over 10 years. When it first started, I could barely function at all. I managed to, but it took everything I had, and my athletic as well as my academic performance still suffered (I was in high school).

Since then, I’ve completed counseling and got on medication. I’ve also learned through the years what makes me feel better and what makes me feel worse. I’ve learned to manage myself. As a result, my mental health has improved considerably.

Things aren’t perfect, but I’m pretty happy with my situation in life. And yet, my mental illnesses still make it hard to function. For instance, as I write this my mind constantly wants to look at the coffee table to make sure my phone isn’t frozen on the home screen. In two years of having an iPhone that has never happened. But that’s the irrationality of it—I still feel the need to check, even though I know it’s a silly thought. As a writer, it doesn’t help that I’m always wanting to check something. It makes concentration very difficult. I just make myself push through.

Two of the worst parts of my day are leaving for work and going to bed. It’s hard for me to leave my house, and I dread it. My OCD kicks in, and I feel the need to check every door, light switch, electrical outlet, candle, and faucet, as well as the oven and stove. I often check multiple times, though the feeling remains—even when I leave—that I forgot something and need to go check again. I force myself to keep walking to my car, and the first few minutes of my drive are spent fighting off the feeling that something bad will happen in my house while I’m gone.

Here’s something that people with depression will relate to. Due to the nature of my job, I work in the mornings and in the evenings—I have the middle of the day off. Every day between 11am and 2:30pm I feel drained, although some days are better than others. I force myself to get up and go back to work. And this is coming from someone who sleeps around eight hours every night, eats well, maintains healthy relationships, isn’t particularly stressed, does outdoor activities, is married, doesn’t feel lonely, is involved in church, reads a lot, lifts weights regularly, and does cardio exercise regularly. I check off all the “healthy” boxes, and I still feel tired.

For me, this is the reality of living with mental health disorders. I’ve accepted it, but sometimes I still feel like I can’t win. I mean, isn’t exercise supposed to give you energy? But I played basketball last Thursday and Saturday, and I felt ridiculously sluggish on Sunday. This morning (Monday), I woke up and realized I slept an hour past my alarm. It definitely went off, but I don’t recall hearing it at all. What the heck? Would it be better for me not to exercise? I even read somewhere that team sports (like basketball) are supposed to be the best exercise for depressed people. It makes me happy when I play, but then I’m exhausted the next day—like, I’m in good shape and I can still barely move exhausted. I guess you can’t get a pure, through-and-through “win,” so to speak. With mental illness, even when you follow the rules there’s still something not working right. That’s the way it feels, at least.

If you looked at me at my job or at church, you probably wouldn’t think I struggle with any of this. I function pretty well…it just takes all my energy and focus, and I make myself do it. But there’s pretty much no part of normal functioning that I take for granted anymore.

We often assume that if people look like they’re functioning okay then they are. But we need to be aware that it takes some people everything they have to reach that point. We need to look deeper than the surface level and be understanding.

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We’re All Hurting. So Why Don’t We Talk About It?

Let’s be real: we’re all hurting. If not, then I maintain you’re in the minority.

 

After starting the recovery process years ago, I noticed how many people around me were hurting. I saw the benefits of recovery for myself and realized most people would also benefit from recovery and/or therapy.

So why aren’t we more open about our problems? Why aren’t more people in therapy or recovery groups?

For one, there’s still a stigma around therapy and recovery. For many people, if you tell them you’re in recovery or therapy, they immediately wonder what’s wrong with you and if they should even be around you. Your reputation is instantly tarnished. This is despite the fact that those same people are hurting inside because of a break up or the death of a loved one.

We want to display a good image of ourselves. We want people to think we’re smart, we’re beautiful, we’re upstanding, we’re successful, we’re godly. In short, we don’t want others to think we have problems.

But that’s the thing: we all have problems. We’re all trying to look perfect for each other, yet none of us are. It’s a big masquerade.

Many of our problems simply come from hiding behind these masks. We’re lonely, depressed, anxious, grieving, hurting. If we’d just open up and receive support, we’d feel better. Many of our wounds would be healed. We’d be happier.

Instead, we feel crushed by the pressure to appear perfect—like we have it all together. We feel trapped because we’re terrified of others knowing the truth. And it eats at us. Because of this, some feel they can’t go on another day, which is one reason why seemingly perfect people fall from grace overnight or take their own life.

I pray that our society—including churches—would be more transparent about personal problems. I pray it would become more “mainstream” for people to discuss their issues. I pray we would throw away the masks and be real with each other. I pray hurting people would feel less terrified of coming out into the open. I pray the stigma around therapy and recovery would end. I pray we would truly connect with one another.

 

There’s freedom in honesty. There’s freedom in true connection.

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4 Reasons Christian Men Don’t Discuss Their Depression

According to information from the National Health Interview Survey, about 9% of American men have “daily feelings of depression or anxiety” (American Psychological Association, “By the Numbers: Men and Depression”, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/12/numbers.aspx). It stands to reason that that number is probably the same for American Christian men.

For the last ten years, I’ve talked openly about my struggles with depression. Every now and then a Christian guy would admit to me that he too struggled with depression. And just since starting Persevering Hope three months ago, I’ve had several Christian guys tell me online or in person that they struggle with depression.

But with all that said, I’ve only had one other guy express interest in writing for Persevering Hope (as opposed to 12 women). Some of the guys who admitted battling depression to me never mentioned it until I said something about my battle, whereas almost all the women I’ve known who battle it discuss it freely.

From my understanding, more women have depression than men. But let’s face it: there are men—Christian men—who fight this battle but struggle to openly express it. In America, women talk about it more easily than men. That needs to change. We need to find a way to make our culture more conducive to men discussing their mental health problems.

Here are four reasons why Christian men don’t discuss their depression.

  • They feel most other Christian guys don’t struggle with depression, so they feel isolated.

I remember feeling this way. I had great Christian communities at both the colleges I attended and in the churches I attended during those times. In my small groups, I was the only one who battled depression—at least the only one who said anything about it. The other guys didn’t really know what to say to me when I’d discuss it. In a way, I can’t blame them. How do you know what to say unless you’ve been through it yourself? But the lack of understanding discouraged me from bringing it up. As you can probably guess, that only made things worse.

  • It’s not particularly socially acceptable.

In my experience, church people don’t really know what to do with a man who says he has depression. Again, let’s be real: it’s not as socially acceptable as it is for women. These men are anomalies—purple cows or unicorns or strange-colored something. They can feel as though they stick out like a sore thumb. That’s not easy to do. So why mention it at all? Which brings us to the next reason…

  • They want to be seen as godly men, so they sweep depression under the rug.

This is especially true if men are in leadership positions. Sometimes men feel as though everyone looks up to them when taking care of their families or organizations or churches. I don’t think men should feel this much pressure when leading people. I think it’s a result of complementarian theology, but that’s a discussion for another day. But if they don’t feel particularly accepted when they admit depression and they want people to view them as godly men, why would they bring it up?

  • Some Christian communities still believe depression is always a sin.

This drives me nuts. I’ve talked to a few women the past month who said their church told them they don’t know Jesus because they struggle with anxiety and depression. If you’re a guy in one of those churches, you’re never going to let anyone find out about your depression. You are going to suffer in silence and put on a happy face around everyone, not to mention the voice in your head constantly asking why you don’t have any faith in God. That is a recipe for disaster.

If you’re a guy suffering from depression, I hope you’ll discuss it unapologetically. Don’t let anyone shake your confidence. You are a man of God—you keep loving and serving those people who look at you funny or don’t get it.

We need to change our church culture. Christian men—godly, godly men—have depression. They are as much of saints as anyone else. Get over the social awkwardness and love them. Make it socially acceptable for them to talk openly. Even if you don’t understand, ask them how they’re doing when they mention it in small group, ask them how you can pray for them or help them, tell them you admire them for speaking up, spend time with them and try to understand, and be there for them. The absolute worst thing you can do is say nothing and hope it never comes up again. That’s what church people have been doing and it has devastated suffering men.

Let’s get the conversation going about depressed Christian men.

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How I Feel Vs. What God Says

An Excerpt from my book Obsessions: Hell and Back Again

I turn off the overhead light, turn on my lamp, sit in my bed, and grab my pen and journal. Ever since my counseling session I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my works-based approach to God.

I wish I could just click a button and it would go away. No matter how many times I pray or tell myself grace-based truth, this mindset won’t leave.

I open up my journal to vent my frustrations.

Somehow over the past four years I developed the idea that God is mad at me because I’m not good enough. I think I have to be better to meet his approval. The more I read theology the more I feel I’m not good enough or don’t know enough. I would never admit it to anyone, but it’s the way I think.

I’ve believed for a long time that God is angry at me, but I’ve never told anyone. My happiness in him has diminished. I’ve become depressed and withdrawn. I’ve dug myself deeper into a hole, although I’ve hid it behind books, schoolwork, and mission. I’ve replaced God with mission, theology, and acceptance from others. Once these pillars I’ve hid under collapsed, I was exposed.”

I turn the page. On the top left-hand side, I write “How I Feel.” On the top right-hand side, I write “What the Gospel Says.”

On the left side under the title, I write, “Rejected. God is displeased with me.”

On the right side under the title, I write, “I am saved by grace through faith in Jesus.”

On the left I write, “Cast out. God won’t take me back. Alone. If I don’t get my life together, God won’t accept me.”

On the right, “My salvation is based upon the work of Jesus, not my performance. I am God’s child; he will never leave me or forsake me.”

On the left, “Beyond his forgiving grace.”

On the right, “My sins are completely forgiven.”

On the left, “God has bigger and better things to attend to than me. He doesn’t care about my soul.”

On the right, “He loves me with everlasting love.”

I immediately turn to the next page and start writing my prayer.

God, I don’t believe you. I want to believe your every word—to embrace it, cherish it, and love it—but my heart refuses. I’m lonely, and it feels as though you’ve forsaken me. But your word promises you won’t.

I’m hurting. I should have dealt with these issues long ago, and now I feel like you’re mad at me. I want to feel your love again. I don’t want to think I have to ‘be somebody’ for you to accept me. I want to believe you love me in spite of me. Help me believe, whatever it takes.

I confess that I studied your word and prayed for the sake of others and not my own relationship with you when I led Bible studies and Christian groups. While I was serving you, I forgot you. Forgive me, and never let me repeat my mistake.”

My eyes are closing. I set my pen and journal on my desk, turn off my light, and place my head on my pillow.

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Why Rejoice Over Suffering?

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:6-12)

 

Why would we “greatly rejoice” over “suffer[ing] grief in all kinds of trials”?

Scripture tells us in many places that trials can strengthen our faith. Think about it. Do you grow the most when life is easy or when life is hard? The hard times often make us press closer to God. We need His help; we are dependent on Him. The easy times don’t encourage as much dependence.

Scripture often refers to the purification process of metals: “when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10); “For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver” (Psalm 66:10); “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3). As the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible puts it, “Ores of precious metals (the most precious of which was gold) would be melted in a furnace to separate out the impurities and produce purer metal” (note on 1 Peter 1:7). The analogy is fitting—like precious metals, our impurities are purged and our character is made more beautiful, so to speak, when we go through the furnaces of life.

Peter sticks to the metal analogy and affirms that our faith is even more precious and enduring than gold: “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” The reason or end result of trials, he says, is “praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Our faith and growth through trials glorifies Jesus. This is great news because God deserves the glory and we get to contribute to His glory. Indeed, our joy is interconnected with His glory—when His glory increases through our lives, our joy increases. We become more heavenly creatures.

Peter tells his readers they are even more blessed because “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” Peter was with Jesus, but he commends his readers’ faith for believing even though they weren’t with Jesus. As Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Jesus and Peter both imply that future generations who don’t physically see Jesus are blessed for not seeing yet still believing. This is especially difficult during hard times. However, it is also another reason to rejoice during and after hard times. If you cling to Jesus during trials, there is always reason to rejoice.

 

Question: Do you rejoice during hard times? How do you see God working in your life during those times? How can you learn to rejoice even more and serve God more during those times?

 

Prayer: Thank you for the trials in my life and how you’ve used them to make me more like you. Give me the vision to see how trials are changing me. Help me to have Spirit-filled joy at all times, especially when it’s hard. Amen.

 

This is an excerpt from a devotional book I’m writing on 1 Peter – W.R. Harris

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Rethinking How We Discuss the “Sins” of Anxiety and Depression

This is an excerpt from my newly-released book, Anxiety and Depression Are (Not) Always Sins. It is available here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07KKYPGPP/

 

“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” – Proverbs 12:18

 

I think a lot of Christians don’t know what to do with anxiety and depression. Are they sins? Many Christians seem to think so. But if they are sins, how do we address them? Most Christians seem to address them this way: since they’re sins, stop doing them. Stop being depressed—it’s sinful. Stop being anxious—it’s sinful. Why do you still look so down? Stop it. You’re not believing God. You know His promises; is it that hard to pick your head up, be happy, and believe?

I think this mindset mostly comes from a misunderstanding in our culture from people who have never struggled with anxiety or depression or who just don’t have any education about their effects. They feel perfectly fine; they have no trouble having fun and being happy; they straight up don’t get it when they see someone with his or her head down. Life isn’t that bad; what’s the problem? Cheer up.

Of course, there are also many Christians who do understand, either because they’ve been through the same thing themselves or because they’ve received mental health education or because they’re gifted in empathy.

As someone who has struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression for the past 10+ years, I remember worrying that I was making God mad with my depression and constant anxiety. I tried really hard to stop. But it wouldn’t go away. In my head I thought God was upset with me for it.

This is a big issue. A pastor in California recently committed suicide after openly battling depression. That’s not the first time that has happened. Pastors and laypeople alike battle the destructive effects of the stigma attached to mental illness—from other Christians. And I keep reading articles and hearing about it on social media: people who have struggled with these issues talking about how they’ve been hurt by the pervasive rhetoric that anxiety and depression are sins and you just need to believe God more and get through it. The result of that rhetoric has and always will be that people feel they’re not good enough, they don’t have enough faith, and God is mad at them for their lack of faith. When you have a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder or both, you can’t just make the depression and/or anxiety go away. You may have an extraordinary amount of faith, but you’ll always be left wondering why you can’t trust God. You’ll always be wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” And, unfortunately, things can easily get worse from there.

During some of the hardest periods of my OCD, I attended a great church. This church is known for exceptional Bible teaching, community outreach, and strong community within the church. For someone who attended such a church to still have a misunderstanding of the relationship between anxiety, depression, and sin is revealing. Maybe the church addressed it, and I just don’t remember or I just couldn’t bring myself to believe. But 1.) They didn’t talk about anxiety and depression much, and 2.) The predominant communication about sin was basically believe God’s promises and stop sinning.

Now, I’ve always had a problem with being too hard on myself, and this was certainly part of the issue. I don’t want to just throw that church under the bus and say it was all their fault. My point is this: when applied to anxiety and depression, the way churches discuss sin is destructive.

Here’s the problem. We want to put anxiety and depression in the “Don’t Do” list and say, “Stop it.” We want to look at the scriptures where Paul and Jesus exhort us not to be anxious and say, “The Bible says don’t do it. Therefore, it’s a sin to do it.” But for anxiety and depression, it’s more complicated.

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Poem: The Night I Died Inside

This is a poem I wrote many years ago when I was first struggling with depression. I hope you enjoy it. – W.R. Harris

 

The Night I Died Inside

 

Insects consumed my heart

The night I died inside.

They made my blood defunct,

And all light seemed to hide.

 

Contaminated chaff,

My blood crept through my veins.

It deadened nerves and sight

And cast my hope in chains.

 

The bugs exulted in

Their lofty victory,

But to the bugs surprise

They died inside of me.

 

Though haunting still remains,

Hurt still tries to abide,

Rebirth transformed my heart

The night I died inside.

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Yelling at God

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46

“God, always the last resort of the helpless—God is sometimes so slow to act!” – Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur

This is a subject I want to address because I think people sometimes feel guilty about it. As with anxiety and depression, this can be sinful, but it can also be perfectly fine.

I know I yelled at God more than once during my bouts of depression and OCD. Sometimes you’ve been bent so much you feel you’re about to break. The natural response is to question God and/or yell at Him. Perhaps you’ve been in the same situation and you yelled at God and now you feel guilty. It happened to me. On top of all the other shame and depression and guilt I felt, I felt guilty about yelling at God. I thought He was looking down at me saying, “Jeez, will this guy ever get it together?”

Granted, you can hate God from the bottom of your heart and curse Him. That’s sinful, and perhaps some of you reading this book have been there. The good news is God always offers forgiveness. But you can also yell at God in distress, opening up to Him about your deepest thoughts and fears and frustrations. You can honestly question God to His face and tell Him why you don’t understand His reasoning. You can scream at Him to look at you and help you—you can even tell Him you’re frustrated at Him for not helping.

The sort of uber-spiritual, fundamentalist, puritanical theology discussed in the previous chapter would probably tell you you’re sinning and you wouldn’t do this if you actually trust God. But that’s a lie from the pit of hell. How do I know? Let’s look at Jesus.

On the Mount of Olives in the most difficult situation in history, Jesus prayed to His Father. Jesus knew what was about to happen; as God, He knew the future, so He knew He was going to follow through and hang on the cross. But the weight of punishment for humanity’s sins was so distressing that He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Jesus cried to God in His distress. What a wonderful Savior He is. He didn’t stroll happily under the guise of “I trust God, so I don’t need to be stressed.” Our Savior is not the spiritual guru of unattainable spirituality that you can’t relate to. He does not look at you in your struggles and say, “Ah, humans…” with a smile and a shake of His head. You are not alone in your suffering. Christ does not just understand your suffering, He has suffered with you. I wouldn’t want the savior of the uber-spirituals.

And look at David in the Psalms. He questions God and lays his heart bare before Him. He doesn’t always understand God’s ways.

I think God wants us to be completely open with Him. I’ll even go as far as to say I think God wants us—at least sometimes—to question Him. There is little in life that brings us closer to Him.

Talk to God. Open up to Him, even if it’s ugly. He can handle it. And if it’s done with a good heart, don’t feel guilty. Don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty about it either.

This is an excerpt from my book Anxiety and Depression Are (Not) Always Sins, which can be bought on Amazon at this link: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B075Z17W11

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One Way to Increase Your Faith

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” – John 16:33.

Jesus said it, and it doesn’t take too long in life before you experience it. Trouble. Trials. Tribulations. Obstacles. Whatever word you want to use. They’re not done coming until we go home to be with Jesus. It’d be in our best interest to go ahead and accept that.

I remember when I was in high school before I knew Jesus. I dreaded anything going wrong. My life was going well, and I lived in the naïve bliss that I’d keep it that way. So, naturally, the worst thing that could happen—and the thing I was most unprepared for—was to face hard times. When you live with the naïve thought that nothing bad or hard will come your way, it knocks you completely off balance when something difficult does come. Everything is wrong and you can’t control yourself because your life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-25, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the 1800’s, commented on that passage, saying, “It is of no use to hope that we shall be well rooted if no rough winds pass over us.” Hardship of some kind will come, and it is an opportunity. We have the option of throwing a tantrum because life isn’t going our way, or we have the option of trusting Jesus and seeking Him through the hard times.

The right choice is obvious, but it’s not easy. Our instinct as humans is to sink to the basest parts of ourselves. We like to feed our ego, the negativity, the pain. But every time we choose Jesus instead, we are rewarded. We realize how good it feels, we realize that He is with us every step, and we realize that He is better than anything the world could offer. We feel closer to Him, and the next time a trial comes we have more faith that Jesus is the better way. And, to make things better, this more robust faith will permeate other parts of our lives.

So next time hardship comes—and it will—think of it as an opportunity to trust Jesus and increase your faith. After all, He is the most solid foundation.