CW: depression, anxiety
No one likes to show weakness: it is a sign of failure, a cause for shame. Or so we are told. With notions of independence and success drummed into our minds from a young age, it is often very difficult to admit, to others and to oneself, that life may not match up to the ideal picturesque scene. The rotting timbers are strategically plastered over. The polluted river is deemed unworthy of attention. The dark cloud is dismissed as a passing phase. And so the classic reply to “How are you?” prevails. “Fine.” “It’s fine.” “I’m fine.” This modern mantra is one of society’s greatest lies. Its prevalence results in untold and avoidable suffering. When either society or the individual turns a blind eye, because “It’s fine”, the problem persists unchecked: the millions of children starving in Yemen; the homeless freezing on our streets; the victim of modern day slavery suffering in silence next door.
just smile and wave, boys
smile and wave
Skipper, to his fellow penguins
in Dreamworks Animation’s ‘Madagascar‘ (2005)
For people who experience mental health issues, the magnitude of this phenomenon is compounded by a vicious trap. Not only is society encouraging them to say “I’m fine”, the mind is tricking itself into thinking likewise. Anorexia causes you to genuinely believe that losing weight is a worthy course of action. Depression convinces you that sadness and emptiness is the norm and not worth fighting against. Anxiety insists that you try to maintain tight control over your life. And so: “I’m fine.” As someone who suffers from depression and mild anxiety, that was my reply, day by day, week on week, for over a year. I think deep down I knew that something was wrong, but I stayed silent on the matter and pushed it to the back of my mind. “No one wants to know about recurring bouts of doubt and unhappiness and low motivation, right?” Instead, I opted to push onwards, going through the motions of university life and making attempts to figure out the great beyond, like the rest of my peers. Everyone around me seemed to have it all sorted: so should I. Yet after a while, when depression began to dominate my daily life, “I’m fine” became less of a reply and more of a way to convince myself. I attributed my low motivation to procrastination habits, my lack of enjoyment of reading to the academic style of the text, my regular lie-ins and poor hygiene to student laziness. “I’m fine. It will pass,” I told myself. “Just crack on with life and life will sort itself out.” Except that it did not. I increasingly closed myself off from those around me. Never mind societal norms: my anxiety was dissuading me from interacting with others, which in turn worsened the severity of my depression. I disappeared from lectures and tutorials, made excuses to avoid social gatherings and responsibilities, and even ignored friends knocking at my door. This downward spiral made it harder and harder to face the reality that I was having mental health problems. “Even if I am, why bother?” I figured. “There is no future anyway.” The key to recovery and resilience from mental health issues lies in that initial step: accepting the true nature of the problem and admitting it to others. Only then can the journey of renewal begin. But boy is that step difficult.
Evidently, I have since taken that first step. It happened almost two months ago, in what we call the ‘third week of Hilary term’ at Oxford. At that point, I had missed most of the teaching for my final course module, and I was facing severe penalties for the non-submission of my dissertation. I knew that if I did not act quickly, my entire degree would be at risk. Yet even then I was still reluctant to take action: I lack the motivation to change. I tried to tell myself and everyone else for as long as possible that I was fine. On the rare occasion where I had to explain myself, I conjured up half-truths to satiate the concerns of my tutors and mentors. Thankfully, in the midst of all my deceit and deception, my hopelessness and despair, God spoke to me through His word, the Bible, and convicted me to admit and accept my depression. God is not fooled by human facades: by His infinite grace, even though He sees every one of my dirty secrets and crippling weaknesses, His mercies are new every morning. He spoke to me through Mark 9:30-50: ironically, this was the Bible passage that I was preparing to teach to my small group that Thursday at the weekly student Bible studies at St Ebbe’s Church. God used my attempt to carry on with ‘life as usual’ to turn everything completely on its head.
for the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword
piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow
and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart
Hebrews 4:12, ESV
In that part of Mark’s gospel, Jesus predicted His imminent death at the hands of the Jewish authorities for the second time: again, His disciples did not understand what He meant. And it showed: they started discussing who among them was the greatest, and they stopped a guy from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not part of their inner group. So Jesus taught them a lesson in humility: He equated greatness with servanthood; He identified with a little child and told them to welcome ‘the least’ among them; He warned them harshly against their pride causing others to stumble. He then included a hard-hitting section on chopping off hands and feet and gouging out eyes to prevent sin. I was struggling to understand those few verses, as they did not seem to fit in with the rest of Jesus’ teaching in that section. When God finally showed me what the verses meant, I knew He was speaking directly into my situation.
To summarise, Jewish society at the time of Jesus was primarily an honour-shame culture. In a similar way to many Asian cultures today, notions of ‘name’ and ‘face’ were prized above ‘morality’ and ‘merit’. People who were crippled or blind were looked down upon and cast aside: not that they had done anything wrong per say, but because they were deemed shameful and weak and useless to society. So Jesus was essentially telling His disciples to intentionally become shameful in society’s eyes by removing their offending limbs: in their case, pride in their status as Jesus’ best friends which was causing them to sin and others to stumble. At that point, they did not understand that to follow Jesus was to follow Him on the road to extreme shame: to death on a Roman cross. They had to rely not on themselves for honour, but on God: that is what Jesus would go on to do when He trusted His Father to raise Him up from the dead and restore Him to glory in heaven. And in the third week of Hilary term, I clearly had not understood either: I was still trying hopelessly in my own strength to look like a ‘good Christian guy’ who had it all sorted. In that instant, God called me to cut off all my lies and half-truths, and to face up to the reality of my depression, even if it meant looking shameful and weak in front of my friends and peers and tutors. He reminded me that He has and will always love and accept me as His precious son in Christ, regardless of my achievements or my failures. Meanwhile, my attempts to rely on myself for honour had led me to this desperate situation of blind denial. It was time to let go and depend on God anew: to let Him raise me up from the miry pit I had got myself into.
I waited patiently for the LORD: He inclined to me and heard my cry
He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure
Psalm 40:1-2, ESV
So I did. After a long night crying out to God and crying to myself, I finally sat at my desk that Wednesday morning and typed out a long email to my senior tutor in college, detailing everything that I had been going through. Then, with shaking hands, I called my mum and told her everything that was happening. Hearing the love and assurance in her voice helped ease the tense hour spent waiting for the reply from college. The next morning, I went to the GP and was medically diagnosed with depression. In the afternoon, I submitted my request to college to suspend my studies until 2019: there were only a few months left of my degree but I decided it would not be worth it, to struggle on without taking time out to address the deeper causes of my condition. That evening, I delivered my final Bible study for the foreseeable future and told my small group at St Ebbe’s of my departure from Oxford. The following day, I let my fellow geographers in college know that I would be leaving them prematurely and wished them the very best for their upcoming Finals examinations. Every conversation I had, including the numerous others not mentioned here, was an uphill battle against the feelings of anxiety and depression plaguing my mind. I was forcing myself to admit the truth that “I’m not fine” when I would have much preferred to brush it off with a half-hearted “I’m fine” and retreat back to my room. Yet with each conversation, it became easier to speak frankly about my mental health. I was very slowly climbing back up that spiral of depression and anxiety. The understanding responses from those I spoke to slowly alleviated my anxious thoughts. Sure, the reactions and advice I received from some people were not quite as helpful, but I knew they were speaking from a place of genuine kindness. Still, it was tiring. It was exhausting, in fact, to go from staying silent to speaking to so many different people about it. But I do not regret it at all. Accepting my depression and admitting it to others was the best decision I have made concerning it.
Therefore, I vow to never stay silent again. The fickle construct of perfection built on falsehood and deception is nothing compared to the freedom I now enjoy in being open and vulnerable about my struggles. My mental health problems are far from over: I am still experiencing depression in its various manifestations. It will take months of self-reflection and reading and therapy and counselling, and ultimately trust in the goodness of God to hopefully develop some resilience. I still believe that God will renew and restore my mind to new heights according to His will, because of the example of His Son Jesus whom He raised from the dead. But, more importantly at this moment, by His grace I have taken that first step on the road to recovery: a step of shame in the eyes of some, perhaps, but mainly of relief and liberty. I am no longer hiding from myself and from others. Full disclosure is the way forward: it is one of the primary motivators for me in starting and maintaining this blog. Thank you for reading this far. You are welcome to continue on this journey with me over the next year and beyond. My prayer for you, regardless of what you may be going through right now, is that you too will find the strength to accept the true nature of the problem and admit it to others, whatever it may be.
I am not fine: that is the truth
and now is the time for change
Sze, Spring 2018