A crash course in grace

February 16, 2011 | Feature | Volume 15 Issue 4
By Byron Rempel-Burkholder | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Every one of us deals with mental health challenges. Whether we’re losing sleep about the math exam tomorrow or are hospitalized for schizophrenia, whether we’re on medication for depression or battling obsessive regrets over how we’ve raised our children—we each have been dealt a unique set of cards.

For almost 20 years my hand has included mild depression, which I’ve dealt with through counselling, and at one point, medication. Last July it also included a surprise episode of extreme anxiety that sent me to hospital for a night. Both of these interrelated challenges are rooted in a cocktail of genetics, chemical imbalances in my brain, personality, circumstances and lifestyle choices.

They are not, I have come to learn, some divine punishment for personal sin, whether mine or someone else’s. That’s what Jesus’ disciples thought of the man born blind (John 9). They needed to know whose fault the disability was. Jesus asked a more fruitful question: “How can God be glorified?” In other words, wherever we are on the spectrum of physical or mental health, what health and joy will come as we play the cards we have been dealt?

Mental health challenges are not fun to deal with. But strangely, if it weren’t for them I’d know a lot less about love and life. That became clear last summer when I experienced my debilitating psychological crash. Life had been good leading up to the experience. I enjoyed my work, and relationships with God and people seemed fine.

Then I found myself in Europe on a writing assignment that I had much anticipated. I was pumped for this project—but that also turned out to be part of the problem. I had set up huge expectations for myself, and for a perfectionist, that’s dangerous.

Once into the project I became obsessive about it. I began to neglect rest, exercise and even eating. At 3 o’clock one morning, as I sat at my laptop trying fruitlessly to coax words out of my spinning brain, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of doom and failure. I cried out in pain—mental pain. Breath was short, and I couldn’t think. Like an engine dry of oil, I had seized up.

Thankfully I knew enough to reach out to others before I did anything stupid or self-destructive. Over the next day, when the attacks didn’t abate, my colleagues, in consultation with my spouse back in Winnipeg, helped me check into a hospital for observation and, finally, sleep. The next day I flew home to get the help I needed.

After visits to the doctor and to a psychologist I stabilized within days. Given the episodic nature of my experience I worked at my health through cognitive-behavioural approaches. If my anxiety had turned out to be ongoing and chronic, medication would have been an option.

Since July I have become more vigilant in following three life rules which I already knew (partly from my earlier experience of depression) but obviously had yet to master:

1. I make rest and exercise a priority. I swim laps in the morning. I don’t work through meals. I don’t let myself do desk work just before bedtime or in the middle of the night—the constant temptation for people like me who work out of a home office and love their work.

Pediatrician Mark Vonnegut says it so well in his memoir about his own mental illness: “If you take good care of any disease by eating well, sleeping well, being aware of your health, consciously wanting to be well, not smoking, etc., you are doing all the same things you should be doing anyway, but somehow having a disease makes them easier to do.”

2. I choose to live by grace. Blame it on genetics, personality or the kind of work I do, I tend to be a perfectionist. My perfectionism can help me do good work, but as my July episode reminded me it can feed anxiety and depression. Setting unrealistic goals and exaggerating how much other people care about what I do can be deadly.

The Apostle Paul speaks a wonderful paradox at the heart of the Christian life: God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (II Corinthians 12:9). It doesn’t mean we don’t shoot for excellence; it just means that we can rest in the fact that we’re defined by God’s love, not by our achievement. That’s grace.

Grace is at the heart of the self-talk that I am teaching myself. When I’m tempted to beat myself up for being less than perfect, I try to say, “Oh well, God loves me anyway,” or, “So what? Will the world really end as a result of my failure?” These phrases may not be appropriate for everyone, but for overachievers like me they may fend off the next anxiety attack.

Much relates to my image of God. A God who is nothing but a scorekeeper who rewards achievement and punishes human failure is an abusive God. The gospel points out that our God always loves us and calls us to play creatively with the cards we’re dealt. The game is all about God’s work in the world, not ours—so we can relax.

3. I allow myself to talk about my experience, rather than hide it. I didn’t want to brag about my experience last July, but when people asked how my summer went I told them about my crisis. I was amazed at how many friends and neighbours then spoke of similar experiences—their own, or a loved one’s. A bond formed as we shared our common experience of human frailty.

Hiding one’s experience from others—and even ourselves—is often part of our mental health problems. I knew this even before last summer, and that is why, four years ago, I offered to help create and edit Mennonite Publishing Network’s Close to Home series of pamphlets on issues that we avoid talking about at church: mental health, addictions and abuse. (Ironically, I even commissioned and edited one on anxiety!) One of the main purposes of the series is to facilitate conversation with each other, in our families, and, where necessary, with professional caregivers.

With God’s grace and some good choices I can manage depression and anxiety, but I can’t guarantee that they’ll never rear their heads again. Like physical illness, they are simply there. But if I allow it, God can turn them into windows of grace and healing.

Byron Rempel-Burkholder is an editor with Mennonite Publishing Network and with Mennonite World Conference. He lives and works in Winnipeg, Man.

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This is a very helpful testimony, complete in this case with some "places where I found bread for my journey." I will be keeping this article to share with friends living with parallel challenges.

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