Put on your strength: a step towards mental health.


Hi Hannah! 

I’ve been following you for awhile now on social media and appreciate your honesty and wisdom especially when it comes to anxiety and depression. I’ve dealt with anxiety probably most of my life but the past few years I believe it has gotten worse. I’m 29 about to be 30, in a stressful job where I am unhappy, wish I was married, and in need of a strong community of believers around me but is seriously lacking these days. I think all of these are contributing factors in why my anxiety/depression has been so much worse.  

I want to go to a doctor and explore the idea of medication but even the idea of finding a doctor, going, and explaining everything is overwhelming enough. I recently opened up a little to my mom about it but her advice is to pray more which she is probably right but it’s hard to pray more when I can’t think rationally due to overwhelming anxiety. 

I’m not even sure why I’m writing to you I NEVER do things like this but I appreciate your words on the subject and would gladly accept any advice you might have for me! 

Thanks for taking the time 🙂

S


Dear S,

There’s a passage in the book of Isaiah, chapter 52, that starts like this: Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion. I’ve been sitting with those words since Monday night and I think maybe they were meant to be passed onto you.

In the Message Translation of the Bible, they name Chapter 52 as “God is leading you out of here.”

It’s a call to the people who have been stuck in exile for quite some time. It’s a call to the people who have felt hopeless and tired, wondering to themselves, “Will this darkness never cease?”

I could say a million things to you right now but I think you need to hear this first: God is leading you out of here. Put on your strength. Like a well-loved denim jacket, put on any ounce of strength you’ve got left in your tired body. You won’t be left in this struggle alone. You’re coming out of the woods.

I feel compelled to say these things because the conversation about faith + mental illness gets really messy sometimes. The church has a long way to go when it comes to talking about mental illness but I’ve honestly seen more talking than ever before. That gives me hope.

In the midst of my severe depression, I couldn’t shield myself from the people who thought I just needed more faith. Or I just needed more prayer. Or I just needed to dig into my own well of strength and rewire the pathways in my brain manually. They made it seem easy.

And, girl, there is so much temptation to get mad at those people and the comments they make. But anger won’t do anything. They can’t help what they don’t yet know. Take the words from someone who knows depression like a sister by now: your depression isn’t a matter of “get stronger” or “have more faith.” God isn’t looking at you and saying to himself, “Man, I just wish you could hold it together a little more… could you get on my level?”

Do I think faith and prayer matter in the battle for mental health? Absolutely. But medicine is a modern-day miracle.

“Taking medicine is a wise act of faith, not unfaith,” Zack Eswine writes. “It would not be wise to live by a supposed faith, and cast off the physician and his medicines, any more than to discharge the butcher, and the tailor, and expect to be fed and clothed by faith,” Charles Spurgeon said.

If I could speak one piece of advice over my 7-year battle with mental health, I would just say this: “Don’t let fear be the thing that stops you from getting the help you need. If anyone else were drowning, you’d tell them to reach out and grab the life jacket. Don’t ignore the symptoms of drowning.”

Several years ago I tried to get “in shape” for my wedding. I already had the dress and I didn’t have to lose much weight but I wanted what most women want when they look back on wedding photos- to be able to say I looked my best on that day.

No matter what I tried to do, I could not lose weight. It was impossible. I felt hopeless. A friend of mine thought my inability to lose weight was tied up in the medication I was taking for depression. That was all it took for me, S, one person’s opinion was all I needed to stop taking my medication.

I felt triumphant. I started talking about going “au naturel” and people loved the thought of me not having to be on medication for my entire life. I thought I’ve got this. I’m treating this naturally. I don’t want something in my body that messes with my ability to drop a few pounds.

Things went downhill quickly. Within the span of a few weeks, I was feeling anxious again. I was struggling to stay focused. A thick fog of sadness settled over me. There was one day in particular where I started having a panic attack in my gym, thinking to myself, “I’m going back into the dark. Dear God, help me. I don’t want to go back into the dark place.”

I share this for a few reasons:

  1. Our friends and family mean well but they might not always be right. You’ve got to test everything. People talk out of what they know and understand to be true. Turns out, my medication didn’t stand in the way of me losing weight (I learned this a year later while completing a Whole30). Your mother, if she has never dealt with depression, may think the remedy is prayer. More prayer. Do I think prayer is a part of the journey? Yes, of course. Do I think “more prayer” is enough to get you out of a depression when there is a real chemical imbalance in your brain or a situation you can’t leave right now? In my own experience, no.
  2. I quickly became intoxicated by this idea of what it would look like to battle my depression “naturally.” I felt like Gwenyth-freaking-Paltrow for about five minutes. But I’m not Gwenyth and it turns out my body was all sorts of shell-shocked by my decision to go cold-turkey off the medicine. I had to spend so much mental energy just trying to tread water while off the medication. I was going to impress people, I thought. I became enamored by a reality that wasn’t my own, by a story of “girl goes off medication and deals with it naturally” that wasn’t my story to hold. Maybe one day I will be able to be off of my medication but you know what, S? That’s not my goal. My goal is to be as healthy and happy as I can be and I am thankful medication helps me do that.
  3. Never go off your medication, cold-turkey, in the middle of planning a wedding. Just don’t.

Would I go back and do this string of events differently? Maybe. For a few seconds, I think maybe I would. But then I remember what came out of that mistake of mine:

My therapist, who’d formed a relationship with me, phoned a doctor friend. The doctor, who normally had a wait list 6-months out, was able to get me in for a visit 6 weeks later. In the meantime, I went back on my medication. It was an act of faith for me. It was a step towards getting better. And in those 6 weeks of waiting, God did something in my heart which made me ready to talk about medication and the possibility that I might be on it forever. We don’t know, S. We just can’t know.

All in all, it came down to a step in the right direction. One step and then another step. That’s the only advice I feel compelled to give you today: just take the first, scary step.

You hit a wall. You wrote it out to me. You’re sad. You’re unhappy. You might be disappointed in God. You hit the point where sadness has become your default and you need to see what could be waiting on the other side.

It takes a Google search or asking around within your community. After that, it takes scheduling the appointment.

On the day of that appointment, you show up. You breathe in and out. You ask questions. You answer questions. You begin a journey towards mental health and there’s no shame in that.

You going to see a doctor isn’t a scratch on you. That’s not a defect or a disqualification. Depression doesn’t discount you. When condemnation comes rapping on your door, speak firmly to it, “You can’t come here anymore.”

Health is beautiful but health looks different for all of us. My journey won’t mirror yours. Yours won’t be the same as your people’s journies. But we all have a journey and it matters that we take it seriously.

It’s that one small step, S. It’s that picking up of the strength you’ve got left and cloaking it over you. Wake up, babe. Wake up. Put on your strength.

tying you closer than most,

hb.


No doubt that S will be reading the comments below. This is a hard yet necessary conversation to have. I would love for you to post an encouraging message below or a piece of your own story. Every little word counts in this space. Remind the others: you’re not alone.

21 thoughts on “Put on your strength: a step towards mental health.

  1. I struggled with anxiety since I was a little girl. Like, I would come home crying from 4th grade every day because I was so anxious. Doctors thought I was developing ulcers. Anyway, flash forward to being 20 and getting on anxiety meds and IT WAS THE BEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE (other than accepting Jesus and marrying my husband. I guess those are priorities 😉 ). But I am now 28 and have no plans to get off the meds. No shame, sister. God made science and God made medicine. Let it help you so you can worship a God who is so good that he creates a way to come out of depression and anxiety. I don’t know you but I love you and am praying for your journey and the journeys of everyone who struggles here!

  2. Dear S,
    God is our Almighty Physician! But, I believe he also created physicians here on earth to help us. Some 18 years ago (I am 53 now), I went through a divorce due to my husband’s continual infidelity. I found a wonderful Christian Counselor, who (after several weekly visits) saw the decline in my mental health. I needed more than the counseling. I went to my family physician who put me on depression medication. I also continued counseling. Long story short, I tried a couple of times a year or two after that, to wean myself off of the medication. I had friends tell me I didn’t need that medication (who have since apologized because they are now on the same medication) See, I was feeling fine on the medication, so I thought I didn’t need it. But, I was feeling fine because I was on the medication…which I soon figured out. I have been on the medication for 18 years now. I wouldn’t change a thing. Please talk with someone in the medical field that you trust, because not all doctors are created equal Seek advice through someone that has gone through what you are going through now. I think it is wonderful you reached out to Hannah! God bless you!!

  3. Hi S! I’ve struggled with anxiety for about 5 years now and seeking professional help and going on medication was the best decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes you just need something to give you a little extra push and there’s no shame in that!

  4. I just recently began seeking treatment for chronic anxiety. I’ve dealt with it since college, and never sought medication because fears of my families rang loud in my head. I’m also a full-time writer, completely dependent on my creative process, and was scared of what leveling myself out would do to my work. It only recently reached a fever pitch, and I realized, creative process or not, I could no longer live in jeopardy of ruining relationships and my career, because I couldn’t balance myself out.

    I’ve only been on medication for two weeks, but breathing feels a little easier, and my doctor was completely understanding of the fears I had, and she took them into consideration when she prescribed my medication.

    Seek a doctor, sister. It will help. You are more than what your illness says you are. You are triumphant. I pray you start to see yourself in such light.

  5. The first step is truly the hardest. Just take it a moment at a time and do the next right thing, S. You’ve got this! (Oh, and because the lies will surely come up – shut them down ASAP! They do not disqualify you or make you less than! Cheering you on!)

  6. I feel this so much. I recently accepted that I might be on medication forever. And if that’s what helps me to live my happiest life, it’s okay. It really is okay.

  7. I’ve been battling anxiety for the last 2 years and tried “au natural” for a little while when my insurance stopped covering my prescription. It was horrible, and my anxiety increased immensely to the point where I didn’t eat for a few days and barely got out of bed. Today I took my first pill of my new prescription. I’m praying and believing that healing is possible and that God will use this medication to bring me peace and stop the irrational thoughts. I will pray the same for you! You are so brave for fighting through the terror that comes with anxiety. You are strong, and medicine doesn’t change that fact. We’re all in this together.

  8. S,
    As I read your letter to HB, I thought to myself ‘did I email Hannah and not remember?!’. I’m also approaching my 30th, single, dealing with job frustrations and SURPRISE – anxiety!
    I’m writing this from my psychiatrist’ waiting room and wanted to remind you of some truths:
    – God. Is. Faithful.
    – Where the ideal is lacking, grace abounds. (Matt Chandler)
    – Fear can be what we feel — brave is what we do. (Ann Voskamp)

    Seeking help is the best thing you can do. I won’t sugar coat it: it is hard & humbling.
    But again, you are Worth being healthy and you have a God who walks with you every step of the way (whether you feel Him or not). Not to mention this community cheering you on.
    Much Love Sister,
    E. Ward

  9. I’m in my third month of weekly therapy. I sought help because of anxiety, but there are also some things I’ve been waiting to dig up and will eventually have to deal with. I’ve attempted to go to the doctor but didn’t stick to it. This time was different because I committed to going. I told myself I’ve needed this for a long time and the timing isn’t going to get any better than this. I’m in grad school and living a little further from the city and it’s lovely distractions that I miss so much, but it’s the perfect time to go. I tried to share about seeking help with some close friends and one of my best friends told me that I didn’t need to go to a doctor and I just needed to talk to her about things. I was so upset and kind of angry because she doesn’t know that i’ve actually tried to tell her so many times even when we were teens (we’re 30 now), but I couldn’t. At the end of the day, I went for me and I at least just wanted to try and see if it would help.

    I’ve made a lot of excuses but the following are some things that a friend (who had been going to therapy for 5 years) told me:

    – It’s going to be hard. The first appointment with any doctor is going to be them asking you intake questions (they’ll be the same ones) and it was tough to answer the questions multiple times. I had to answer intake questions 4 times, the first was an intake phone call, the following three were with three different doctors. It was a freaking push to get myself to talk, but I reminded myself that they can’t help me if I don’t tell them anything. BUT also, my friend reminded me that I didn’t have to talk about every single thing in the first conversation. She told me that I shouldn’t feel like I’ve given too much. So I only pushed to my capacity. Nothing gets “fixed” in one session anyway. This is probably not the case for everyone, it depends, but for me, it was really difficult.
    – I wanted to make sure I found a doctor who I felt safe with and had good chemistry with. I didn’t want to dread going to therapy because I wanted someone who would work with me long term. So I told myself that I would see at least two doctors even if I liked the first one I go to. I ended up choosing my third doctor. She isn’t perfect or anything, but we got along the best.
    – Take it step by step. It could take a while to find a doctor, but if you want this to be something long term it’s worth the time. I made little goals when I first started to research. The first step was looking into doctors and finding their info. The next was calling 1-3 clinics a day to try and make an appointment. Depending on where you live, clinics have waitlists if they aren’t taking patients, so it was helpful to make the goal of calling a few places one day a week. It takes some time and I took it slow. The goals can be whatever you have the capacity for. I set small goals so that I would call no matter what and I wouldn’t start telling myself it was a sign I shouldn’t get help because I was being put on a waitlist, get sent to voicemail or not getting an answer. I basically set things up so that I wouldn’t make my usual excuses.
    – Growth is a process of unfolding. You might not see results right away and sometimes the changes will look like change but is still far from your end goal, either way growth is also in the small victories. Also, small victories are still victories!

    I know this is way longer than any comment should be, but I do hope it’s helpful to S but also to anyone else considering seeking help.

    Also! I read some of the comments above and someone mentioned being afraid of leveling out their anxiety because they’re a writer. There’s a way to be healthy and not compromise your work. I’m a sculptor and painter and I plan on making art the rest of my life, but I can’t do it tortured. This was also another reason why I sought help. Anyway, self-care is another way to honor your work, what ever that is. I read through these books recently and they’re all about the creative life and taking care of yourself and your spirit. I recommend any of them, but all three of them are great! Good audiobook listens for commuters.

    Walking on Walk: Reflections of Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle
    Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
    Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

  10. I’m a stubborn woman, make no mistake about it. I also suffer from anxiety and bipolar disorder. I waited until I got into the bottom of the darkness to seek help. I waited for that moment for God to tell me “ok you need help now, this isn’t working” and it never came. At this point I had to wait 3 months until a doctor could see me. Those 3 months were the worst in my life! Every day I was white knuckled driving. Everyday tasks like showering and doing my makeup didn’t matter. I got on medication and a year later I was sitting and reading and I thought to myself, “Is this what normal feels like? I think I feel normal.” I had never felt normal in my entire life like this moment. Mental health is hard. Your brain says things which aren’t true. Try to reframe those things until you can get help. It’s a scary thing to admit you need help and you’ve already done that! Everything starts getting easier the more steps you take. Hang in there, white knuckle it if you have to. Let God worry about things you can’t change, and you focus on feeling better. Much love to you.

  11. Well, said, Hannah. I think more people than we realize take medications for mental issues. It’s not something we go up to people and start talking about. I had/have social anxiety. Not in the form of being around people, but about 20 years ago, I started feeling weird everytime I was out at a store, driving somewhere, etc and felt like I was going to pass out and die with no one around. Once I was diagnosed and started medication, I have been 100% happier. I imagine I will take my meds for the rest of my life, but that is how it is. I would much rather do that and keep living this wonderful life God gave me than freaking out everytime I left the house. A Very Very small price to pay for my sanity. LOL!

  12. Having struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as i can remember, i can totally relate. The harsh words of church members often sting and i remind myself that theres no shame in my journey. S, take one step towards self care and know that God wants you to be healthy 🙂

  13. You are NOT alone. From a girl, now 27-year-old woman, who’s struggled with anxiety since before she can remember…and who’s been graced with more breakthrough, perfect peace, hope, and VICTORY than she can contain. My testimony is not darkness and defeat (even through the days that felt like that’s all there was!), but my testimony is I’VE CONTINUED TO LIVE, God is super strong, and breakthrough is more than just possible, it’s the very identity of a dearly loved Child of God!

    Praying this over you…
    “Now may the God of HOPE fill you with all JOY and PEACE as you trust in Him, that you may overflow with HOPE by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

    Believe Him at and cling to His Word.

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