Community

CW: depression, anxiety, suicide

Over the past few weeks, I have undertaken significant periods of self-reflection, both alone and with others. This has been immensely helpful in my understanding of my mental health, and only possible in the absence of immediate academic pressure. The more I dwelt on my past experiences, the more I noticed the seeds of depression and anxiety being sown earlier and earlier in my life. They were brushed aside back then, but their true nature is now painfully clear. The many skipped lectures and late-morning starts in Hilary term of first year, incidentally also the term in which I was baptised; the discussions I had with my youth worker at church about persistent feelings of weariness and meaninglessness; the categorical fear of making contact with strangers, especially on the phone: to some extent, these were all early warning signs of the troubles to follow. And yet it was only during my time at Oxford that depression and anxiety fully manifested themselves in my life, and while there must be a number of contributing factors, I believe one of the main exacerbators was the ease of isolation at university.

university is the best time of your life
Anon, commonly quoted

University is a very unique period in life. For many, it is the first experience of freedom and independence from the constraints of the home. It also lacks many of the responsibilities associated with a typical nine-to-five job and thus represents a time of exploration and discovery, facilitated by the numerous clubs and societies on offer. However, for more introverted individuals like me who actually expend significant amounts of energy in social settings, the comfort of the warm bedroom is often far more alluring. I grew up sharing a room and a bunk bed with my younger brother: finally, here was a private safe space wherein I could do my work in peace and wind down after a long day. Personally, I would pick a movie in bed over a visit to the pub any day. And there is nothing inherently wrong with such a lifestyle. Some people easily re-energise themselves in social settings, ‘feeding’ off the energies of others. Other people must set aside time alone in order to achieve the same thing, and I am sure there is a spectrum in between. I happen to fall into the second category. Regardless of how much I enjoy whatever I might be doing, be it a really encouraging Bible study at church or a lengthy in-depth conversation with a friend, I still need to spend time by myself, processing everything and revitalising myself for the next activity. My friends know this and have respected my choices, and for this I am grateful. However, what they did not see was the slow transformation of these times of rest into times of hopelessness and despair, of self-loathing and paralysing fear. Perhaps they would have noticed something if I had started as an extrovert and then began shutting myself off from them. Alas, that was not the case. A number of friends were genuinely surprised when I told them of my decision to suspend my studies: indeed, I did actively hide my symptoms from them, but this was too easily done. I missed lectures, tutorials, deadlines, social get-togethers, society meetings, church: every community that I was a part of was affected at some point. Yet most of the time, my absence was not even noted. When it was, most notably by tutors, I simply ignored their messages and emails and it was never mentioned again. If I had to explain myself, I gave some half-assed excuses. This could never happen at work or at home: only at university, or perhaps in retirement, is it so easy to disappear.

it is not good that the man should be alone
Genesis 2:18, ESV

It is never good to be alone in the long-term. While we in the West now live in very individualistic societies, we must cling to community for its inherent social benefits. As a Christian, I would argue that we were created for community, in the image of God who is in Himself an eternally loving community of Three. Only in community can the virtues of love and kindness be fully expressed and received. Community is also very practical, allowing a richer and more diverse set of achievements and activities to exist. It is only through working together, whether directly so or indirectly by building upon the work of others, that we have progressed to this world we currently live in. Imagine trying to construct a house by yourself, let alone a company or a scientific theory. Think of team sports, and the intense fun and competitiveness therein. In more ways than we realise, we depend on other people every day. Sadly, community does not always work out well. There are too many reasons to list here, but examples include the process of ‘othering’ which leads to social divisions like racism and sexism, and the overburdening from shared problems which causes social disintegration.

I think all of this is applicable to those who experience mental health problems. It is not good to suffer alone, particularly since many of these problems result in an unhealthy introspection which lacks the motivation to seek the help of others. Depression caused me to gradually discard parts of my life that were supposedly pointless and devoid of enjoyment, while anxiety persuaded me to whittle down my sphere of interactions to a tiny but manageable realm of reality. I became stuck in these detrimental internal thought cycles, whizzing around my head without respite. It is now difficult to fight against these prevailing winds: not impossible, I am told, by undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy, yet only possible because I had that initial window of clarity wherein I reached out and somewhat reconnected with community. My tutors in college, my GP, my trusted friends and mentors, my parents: different members of the various communities that I am a part of helped to draw me out of my stupor. Community showed me, quite rationally against my illogical depression and anxiety, that each day was worth waking up for, and that the terrible consequences of admitting my mental health problems were not as terrible as I had imagined. The love and kindness that I received from those around me was refreshing, like sparks of light in my dark and dreary existence. Even so, community has not always worked out well for me.

For the past two months I have been living again with the most close-knit of human communities: my family. I am really thankful for them. The love and support I have from them has been key to my continued steps of recovery. I cannot imagine where I would be if it were not for their acceptance and care. However, those problems of ‘othering’ and of overburdening makes family life difficult: not that I have not experienced these issues elsewhere, but that they have been most evident to me within the nuclear unit. Obviously, I am different from them, since I have mental health issues that they do not. This makes it hard for us to interact, and sometimes we are just lost for words: they do not know what to say since they are not going through the same experiences, while I find it hard to explain my experiences. ‘Othering’ works both ways. There is also nowhere to hide my symptoms: I cannot disappear at home, which is a good thing for my mental health, but can be problematic for my family. Often, I wake up late and lack motivation to look after myself or the home, which frustrates my mother to no end. I am also easily irritable and so end up lambasting my brother for little habits of his that we used to treat as in-jokes. Every time there is an argument or a conflict in the family, the recurring thought cycles return: I blame myself for inflicting a plague upon my household and wonder if it would have been better had I never returned home. I know that these thoughts are lies, and that my family do want me to be with them, but my feelings convince me otherwise. Messed up. Hopeless. Shameful.

dishonour! dishonour on your whole family!
dishonour on you! dishonour on your cow!
Mushu, guardian spirit of the Fa family
in Walt Disney’s ‘Mulan‘ (1998)

Yet even in the darkest recesses of my mind, when human community fails and I retreat to be buffetted by the devastating typhoon within, I am always reminded of the infinitely greater community that I am a part of. There were times when I contemplated ending it all. The oppressive duo of depression and anxiety had convinced me that the future was too dreadful to contemplate and I was too helpless to face it. I would think desperately for a reason to continue: not finding it within, I would look without, to community. Yet, blinded by the winds, I could only see the flaws, the problems, the ‘othering’, the overburdening. And into those moments, in His mercy, God spoke: not audibly, for there were no booming voices or flashes of light in my experience. It was more like a gentle peace, as if I were enclosed in an impenetrable bubble: the storm still raged on outside, and I could still hear it, but there was something more powerful than the storm surrounding me. Somehow, this power emanated strength through stillness and silence. It was the quiet assurance that I am eternally loved, that I am a precious member of the community of God.

and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus
Philippians 4:7, ESV

I do not know how it works: I am convinced it is a divine mystery, but in some way, I am ‘in’ the Three-in-One God (John 17:20-21). Elsewhere, the Bible tells me that I am a son of God the Father and a brother of Jesus the Son (Romans 8:15-17). I am a child of God, brought near into His perfect divine community. Here, there is no ‘othering’, for the Holy Spirit groans in solidarity with me in my suffering (Romans 8:26). There is no overburdening, for the Son bore the punishment of death for the sins of the whole world and yet was not overcome (John 10:17-18). And there is no hiding and yet also no shame, for the Father sees all my imperfections and accepts me as fully righteous because of Jesus’ death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). This probably sounds like nonsense to some of you, yet these truths carried me through the darkest times: had I not made my faith my own at university, I do not think I would still be here. Even so, it is never easy believing these truths about my identity in Christ. The storm still screams its lies at me all the time, doing its best to disrupt this peace within my heart and replace it with doubt: at times, it does succeed. Yet it is His hope against my despair and His love against my fear. It does not feel any better now, but I do know how my story will ultimately end, and that is enough reason to carry on.

God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory
Colossians 1:27, ESV
there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear
1 John 4:18, ESV

To finish, I would like to share a few pointers for those who know people with depression and anxiety, be it at present or in the future. I do not pretend to speak for everyone who has such mental health problems, because each experience is different and personal. The following is merely a few of the things that I have found helpful, or otherwise, during the past few months of openness and vulnerability on my part. No doubt this list will continue to grow and develop. My only hope is that these might be of useful insight and perhaps sensitively transferable into the situations of others, that they too might experience community in what is often a very lonely illness. And for those who have spoken with me about my mental health, please do not spend time worrying whether or not I am alluding to a specific conversation we had. I hold no grudges against any of you, and only thank you for your support. We cannot change the past: we can change for the future.

我是張思正
不是抑鬱症
Sze, Spring 2018

  • Person, not problem. The quote above means: “I am Sze, not depression.” My Chinese readers will get the sort-of pun contained within. I once said it to my family out of slight frustration. I think that when interacting with people who experience mental health issues, it can be easy to see the problem and forget the person. Even the most well-meaning individual can fall into this trap. You notice their pain, you feel compassion, and you want to help. Yet it is very important to recognise that unless you are a trained mental health professional, it is not your place to try and fix things. Please do not claim this responsibility, lest you unfairly burden yourself. Not that the problem is not serious: it is an absolutely terrible situation for them to be in. However, your friend is your friend, not a personal project or a charity case. While depression or anxiety or whatever else may now form a large part of their daily lives, their fundamental identity as a human being does not change in any way. Giving dignity and showing respect can help far more than simplistic quick-fix suggestions, and discussion topics besides mental health often feel like welcome breaths of fresh air. Crazy, right? You do not have to talk about depression with the depressed person! The friends to which I have been most able to lay bare my soul are those from whom I feel genuine care and concern for my person and not my problem: they have not focussed on the things I can no longer do, but have encouraged me in the things I can still do.

nothing is more powerful than hearing the words: “me too”
Emma Scrivener, author and speaker
on supporting others with mental health problems [1]

  • Empathy, not sympathy. When someone is stuck at the bottom of a deep well, they need someone to lift them out and they need good company in the meantime. Again, well-meaning friends have said ‘feel good’ comments that have only resulted in the opposite, because they remind me of how little people understand about my situation. They are like meaningless echoes from above, serving only as a manifestation of the chasm of ‘othering’. Here is an annoying one from Christians: “In the new creation, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation 21:4). Yes, I know! I have to remind myself of this truth every day! But what about my feelings, here and now? It is similar to those Christians who say: “Our only mission is to spread the gospel.” Hello? People are starving, right in front of you?! Those experiencing mental health problems are not helped by sympathy: in fact, displays of pity and sorrow might even stir up irrational feelings of guilt. Engage them with empathy instead. Yes, it takes time and energy to climb down into the well and sit with them, but once upon a time, you decided that your friend was worth your time and energy, else you would not be their friend in the first place. The fact that they are experiencing mental health problems means that they need your time and energy even more. Please make an effort to journey alongside them: when you are with them, they are no longer alone. Say “Me too”, but in a thoughtful way. You are not there to one-up their suffering, even if you may have personally experienced far worse. The point of “Me too” is solidarity in weakness: “I do not know what you are going though. I cannot even imagine it. But I have had this difficult experience in my life and this is what helped me through it. And now, because I care about you, I want to help you, if you want me to. I am here for you.” In response to my blog posts so far, some friends have shared stories of their own struggles with me: they have been hugely encouraging by identifying with me in my pain.
  • Embrace, not smother. I mean that in a figurative sense, of course: please do not hug your friend on my account, because not everyone appreciates the physical touch. That said, it is important to strike a balance in the way you show care. As someone who needs time alone to process things, it has been difficult when concerned friends have been relentless in expressing their worries for me. Instead of drawing me into community, they have forced me to withdraw and cut myself off, just to get away from the incessant variants of “How are you?”. Lying with “I’m fine” was tiring: having to truthfully explain my experiences constantly is even more tiring. Similarly, being overtly direct is often not helpful either. Sensitivity is key when interacting with people who have mental health issues. You can never really tell what state they are in at any given moment. The best course of action is therefore to let them know that you are available: not just with words, but through an unspoken trust and assurance that they are never a bother. On that note, please do make sure that they really are not a burden to you. Never take on more than you can handle, for a drowning man cannot assist another. This balance of ‘close but not too close’ is important for both of you.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

Footnotes
1. Scrivener, Emma, 2017. A New Day. London: Inter-Varsity Press. p.169. 

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