Crash Landing: Guest Post

crashlandingAn enormous thank-you to Catherine, for this brilliant guest post:

“I don’t know if you can imagine losing your mind. My guess is that if you have never struggled with mental illness, you can’t. Speaking out of personal experience, my brain was probably the part of me I trusted the most, and took completely for granted….until it broke. And when mine broke, it was horrific. It felt horrific.

“Legs break,” people will say earnestly, trying to explain and to comfort: “If your leg was broken, everyone would be able to see it, so they wouldn’t think anything of it. Brains break too.”

It’s an analogy that I know is necessary. It can help people. But mental illness is much more than one of your organs malfunctioning. It’s your whole self being sucked into a cruel and relentless nightmare that you are powerless to get yourself out of. Perhaps at moments you can latch on to the idea that it’s not a nightmare based on present realities – that it is only the chemical product of synapses backfiring – but that only makes it worse because you still have to go through it, night after night, month after month. You’re still in a nightmare, a nightmare that seems infinitely more perverse because it’s not even real. You’re terrified and overwhelmed but outside the sun carries on shining and everything is ordinary. Everything seems calm, disturbingly calm. You can only conclude that the problem is you – you are broken, because how can you reasonably or practically separate yourself from your brain?

I fought against my illness so hard. I tried to defeat it. I tried to outthink it. I failed. It was much too big a storm, and it came inside – ferocious and clamouring. My mind was the storm.

I never imagined that I would lose my mind. I didn’t think it could happen to me. I thought – naively, probably – that God wouldn’t let things like that happen to his children. I’d envisaged serious personal suffering as a possibility – illness, loss – but never this: an apparently self-made prison where it’s impossible to distinguish between memories and nightmares, feelings and facts. Where you cannot ever finish one logical sequence of thought. Where you cannot communicate – understand, or be understood.

The experience itself was a profound shock, but what came afterwards was even more shocking.

I found that when all your foundations have been shaken up and smashed beyond recognition, something strangely beautiful comes out of the debris.

And that is the unchangeable love and acceptance of Jesus.

In my storm, he reached out and grabbed my feet. He did not discard me. He did not discount my fears or my feelings because they were ‘disordered’. He was with me and he defended me.

For me, being ill felt like balancing on the knife edge of complete terror. I wanted to curl up in a corner and cry. I wanted to scream my way through sleepless night after sleepless night. All of my senses were telling me to raise the alarm, to run, to lament. And yet I also knew that any behaviours that could be categorised as ‘disordered’ would end up being recorded and would be stuck onto me for the rest of my life – cold descriptions of symptoms in a world that seemed to have no ability to listen to or understand causes. So I bit down hard on my duvet at night. I tried to conceal my tears. I overacted “normal” with vicious rage.

And that is what made Jesus more devastating than the worst of it. I was thoroughly horrified by myself. I was failing on such a catastrophic level – I couldn’t even control my own mind. I could see the distress in my parents’ eyes. I could see that that I had a crossed a line, even for them. The shame of having succumbed to this appalling weakness flooded me, sweeping into every nook and cranny of my sense of self.

And yet I found that “crazy” is not a category for Jesus. He knows, he hears, and he cares. He really cares. And he welcomes in the outcast, the shamed, the bewildered.

I came out of the experience shell-shocked and with gaping insecurities. And yet at the same time I came out even more devastated by Jesus – the Jesus who went before me into my deepest nightmares, and who wasn’t ashamed to call me his sister. ‘He took our pain’ upon himself, says Isaiah – ‘he took up our infirmities’. He didn’t only not abandon me or reject me in my darkness – he deliberately went looking for me in my darkness. And he did so determined to take my darkness upon himself. He bore the weight. And he destroyed its power definitively and forever.

I wonder what you’d expect a Christian who has recently ‘lost their mind’ to be talking about, right after the worst of their struggle? If you’ve tried to kill yourself and ended up hospitalised, mired in deep depression, what do you when you come out of that? What would you just not be able to get out of your mind?

William Cowper provides us with a direct answer. He wrote the hymn ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’ in 1762 soon after a severe episode of mental illness. If you didn’t know that, go back and have a good look at the words. They’re incredibly lucid and unremittingly focussed on Jesus. There’s a real sense of joy and security that pulses through the hymn – a strength that could only have come from having seen how powerful Jesus is – how present Jesus is – in horrendous and persistent darkness.

‘There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins

And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.’

‘Dear Dying Lamb, thy precious blood shall never lose its power

Till all the ransomed church of God are saved to sin no more.’

‘E’er since by faith I saw the stream, his dying wounds supply

Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die’.

It’s fair to say that losing my mind was the one thing that I would never have allowed God to put me through, had he given me the choice. It was not a place that I was prepared to go – for anything or anyone. But there I found in a truly wonderful way that I really could never experience anything or do anything that would make Jesus turn away from me. He held me fast.

Mental illness is devastating and brokenness is devastating. They shout loud. But Jesus has made sure that they will never have the final word.

His love is the final word.”

11 thoughts on “Crash Landing: Guest Post

  1. “yet I also knew that any behaviours that could be categorised as ‘disordered’ would end up being recorded and would be stuck onto me for the rest of my life – cold descriptions of symptoms in a world that seemed to have no ability to listen to or understand causes. So I bit down hard on my duvet at night.”

    Man so poignant. Great post, thank you

  2. This describes my own experience to a tee. I am still trying to rebuild my life after a devastating period of mental illness, but never have I known my need for Jesus more acutely. Praise God that he takes us as we are and that His grace isn’t dependent on how together we are.

  3. I’m reminded of Job sifting through the rubble of his old life, scraping his sores with broken shards of pottery. It seems flippant to compare myself to Job, but I feel like there’s a link to be made: my hopes, my plans, my mind and identity have been laid to waste, devastated. And, from my point of view, at absolutely the worst possible time in my life up to now. Yes, I ‘know’ God’s timing is perfect, but that really doesn’t help when my life is in bits – even though, as Catherine points out – on the outside the sun is still shining.

    I guess the end of the story offers hope. God doesn’t leave Job in the dirt but re-establishes him. Even my lost and angry self can look to that small spark, however apparently distant at the moment.

  4. Hello everyone – am I allowed to comment on my own post? Well here goes – soooo thankful for your kind words.
    I felt a bit like I was vomiting all over the internet and it’s beautiful to see that God can encourage people through my story.

    Liz – I think that’s why Job is there surely – so we can recognise ourselves and know that the Bible doesn’t have the same rigid ‘sorted/broken’ categories that the world has.
    I find the story of Joseph being pushed down a well, sold into slavery, wrongfully imprisoned very encouraging. Joseph’s life was bleak for DECADES, but then it’s clear that God was saving his people through him, the whole time. Personally I don’t think I could have made it through decades – so I’m humbled.

    When you’re in it, that kind of idea doesn’t take the pain away but God IS with you in your pain and he doesn’t trivialise it. He won’t forget it and while he will get you to the place of no more tears one day, the key thing is that he is here now. You have all of Jesus. You couldn’t have any more of him even if you were “more sorted.” In fact, somehow you would have less because the Bible says he is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed.

    I also find it strange and encouraging that the Bible doesn’t hyperventilate about pain in the way we do. Pain can’t separate us from Christ, it can only give us more of Christ because he took our pain and is familiar with it.

    With love and prayers xxxx

  5. Thanks so much. Having ‘crossed that line’ a few times myself, and having experienced that inexplicable sense that God was powerfully there in it – it does change you, shifts the focus.
    I also have had the years where plans, hopes, future were lost and everything that had gone before seemed a cruel joke – who did you think you were kidding.
    And then – the challenge comes – do we try to resurrect ourselves – go back to being the person we used to be, or can we become a person who can integrate even these experiences into who we become, so that they are not wasted. A large part of me would simply like to explain away the lost years, put them in a box and throw away the key, get back to the days where I was respected and counted. But I have a suspicion that in God’s hands, if we are willing to fully accept and acknowledge even this, these times may yet in themselves be of infinite value and worth. I think we all need buckets of courage to trust – we can’t trust ourselves, we are too unstable; but somehow at the very least to endeavour to trust God – his goodness, his presence and to know that perhaps in a strange way, our experience may mean we are rather further along the path of recognising our need of Him than many others for whom the world has never imploded quite so spectacularly..

  6. Hi Catherine,
    Thanks for taking the time to reply – I hope I didn’t come across too moany before. I am in a slightly better place now than I was when I first wrote my reply and feeling a bit more hopeful in general. I understand what you mean when you say that pain can’t separate us from Christ, that it can actually bring us closer. I believe that to be the truth. But my feelings are far, far from agreeing – at the moment I have all the pain with none of the closeness to God. But, as you say, that must have been the case for Joseph, in the well, in slavery, in prison … so sometimes it’s only later we can see God in the pain. Thank you for sharing your story and I hope one day I might be able to encourage someone the way you (and Emma) have encouraged me through this site.
    Best wishes x

  7. Hi Catherine, Thank you for your amazing post.
    Exactly a year ago now I was in the midst of a similar nightmare. You describe it so well: “mental illness is much more than one of your organs malfunctioning. It’s your whole self being sucked into a cruel and relentless nightmare that you are powerless to get yourself out of.” I only ‘got out’ of it with a lot of help from others, medication, and time. Relapse remains a horrifying possibility.

    Yet, I’m also convinced that Jesus walked with me through the entire mess. As you say: “And yet I found that “crazy” is not a category for Jesus. He knows, he hears, and he cares. He really cares. And he welcomes in the outcast, the shamed, the bewildered.” As I slowly re-read the Gospels I’m seeing this written all through them, now much more visible for having experienced it firsthand. I still fear ending up back in that vortex of madness but at least now I know tow things from experience that previously were only theory to me – it will end, and Jesus will not abandon me in it whether it ends well or badly.

    Thank you also for the reminder of William Cowper’s hymns and torments. I’ve been meaning to read more of his writings so this is a nudge to do so.

  8. Thank you so much for this post. As a young adult recovering from an eating disorder, I must say that your words hit.home. It’s easy to think I’m too much of a freak for God to handle. But oh how great is His grace and love for us!

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