“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to be depressed – I just haven’t taken them!”
The statement above was posted on a friend’s Face book page and it caused a lot of heated comment and condemnation, especially as it was reportedly said by a pastor. I have to admit that I agreed with the consensus, which was that such a comment was offensive and tasteless, not to mention possibly very damaging. It made me think both about how we can hurt people by making sweeping statements about very personal issues that we have little or no experience of, and it made me think about mental illness itself.
I also considered the statement in the light of Advent. The link between mental illness and Advent may seem remote, but Advent comes at the darkest period of the year and it involves a waiting, a belief that even if we walk in darkness, there may be light and there may be hope. Having suffered myself from mental illness, I know that it was not in any way an “opportunity” that I wanted to grasp. After the birth of my second son, a few days before Christmas, I developed severe post natal depression. Post natal depression has been described as crawling into a pit of blackness and being unable to find your way out; it’s not the sort of thing you sign up for!
Postnatal depression can progress rapidly from “the baby blues”, to acute depression, to borderline and then even full blown psychosis. I never reached the full blown stage, but I did reach a point where my thoughts began to seem like voices outside my control. When I became ill, and it is an illness, I realised something that I never had before. Before I had thought that the worst things to lose would be things like my job or my physical health. I had not considered the prospect of losing my sanity. I had worried about losing family or friends, but not of losing my identity or sense of who I was. It was as if I had walked out on myself. It was truly the most terrifying experience.
Advent is the promise of God with us. Christ came to the earth and experienced human life among the plain and impoverished, was born in unsavoury conditions, in exile, threatened by danger and persecution. To be human is to suffer; to be born is to die. It is not a pretty story any more than our lives are always pretty stories. So many human beings walk in darkness.
Where was Christ during that black Advent and Christmas? Well, I think he was there in the love and support of my family and of my wonderful husband who did all the practical things and also managed to walk with me – and being alongside someone who is hopelessly and irrationally ill – suffering from an illness that you cannot see, is no easy task. Fortunately, perhaps because I received understanding , not the sort of condemnation which would make my guilt worse, there was light at the end of my particular blackness.
Just as God came to suffer alongside us, to give us his light and to be with us, so we are called to be with others and to walk alongside them, to be Christ to them, especially when they are in dark places that we dread, or fear, or do not fully understand.