I take a small white pill every other day with a swig of water. The pill with the green line around the capsule is a reminder to me that November 18, 2014, happened. There are just days that show up on the calendar as an unassuming weekday and then change everything about your life.
The first half of November 18 was pretty normal. I went to work at my office space in Atlanta. I sat in a meeting. I filmed a short video for a company. I worked at my desk, trying to focus on my writing, but my mind wouldn’t sit still. I walked into the conference room where my friend Kim was working and asked her to pray for me.
“My mind doesn’t do well when I don’t have a lot on my plate,” I told her. “I really don’t like asking for prayer, but I feel like I can’t keep this to myself today.”
Kim began praying. I sat across from her, fidgeting with my hands and trying to listen and believe the words coming out of her mouth. When she says amen, my head lifts. She starts talking about something, though I can’t really remember what, because all I can recall in that moment is a sharp pain. This sharp, physical pain that began at the top of my head and cascaded down across my body. It felt like a power outage, like all the systems were going down, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. There was a mental snap inside my brain, and suddenly I was helpless. My mind was paranoid and darting back and forth. I felt sick. I got up from the chair and told Kim I didn’t feel well. I needed to go home.
I drove home. It was 4 p.m. I curled up in my bed and wrote in my journal, “What is happening?” I still don’t have adequate words to describe what it felt like. The best I can say is that I felt completely paralyzed by fear.
There was sharp paranoia. I felt like my brain was being attacked. I didn’t leave my bed that day. I kept praying to God that this feeling would subside soon. Maybe it was the food I ate. I prayed it was just a bad reaction to gluten or something. I fell asleep shaking somewhere around 8 p.m. The notebook lay open beside me with the words, “What is wrong with me?” scribbled in Sharpie across the page.
The next morning, I woke up unable to get out of bed. A thick and heavy paralysis sat on top of me like an extra layer of blankets.
I was hesitant to talk about all of this because it’s not pretty, and for lack of a better word, it’s really depressing. But I can’t deny that we should be talking about mental illness more. It matters that we talk about it. That we get real and honest with one another. We have to be okay with telling someone else, “I’m not okay,” if we ever want to make progress or stay here for what we were made for. It’s easy to be ashamed of the fog, the sickness, the illness. But what if we broke the shame with words? What if we dismantled the stigma by figuring out how to hold up the arms of others? So here’s a baby step: Please talk about the fog. Please talk about the emptiness. Please don’t let yourself stand in the mess alone, so much so that you cave inward and hoist up a white flag without anyone ever knowing you were dying inside.
The depression held strong ground for the next two months. It got to the point where we couldn’t avoid the conversation about long-term medication options any longer.
One morning, one of my friends drove me to a clinic in Atlanta. She dropped me off and told me she’d be back to pick me up. I wasn’t wearing any makeup on my face at this point. My hair wasn’t done. All of the daily tasks of grooming seemed trivial and exhausting to me.
I was summoned into a room, and I sat across from a nurse, who was thin in stature and spoke broken English. He asked me all the preliminary questions that get asked before they let you in to see the doctor.
“Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you self-medicating in any way? Do you have thoughts of harming yourself? Do you have thoughts of harming other people?”
I looked around the sterile office and wondered how I’d gotten there. I tucked my head against the wall, trying to keep my knees from shaking violently.
The man paused in the middle of one of his questions. Our eyes locked, and I could tell he saw how hollowed out I felt in that moment. He put his pen down.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked me. His tone of voice was lower, as if we were talking in secret now.
“I am,” I said back to him.
“I’m not supposed to ask that here,” he said. “But I just need to tell you that the devil is rejoicing right now, and we will not let him have you.”
A moment passed. Our eyes stayed locked. I know he saw a tear dribble down my cheek. He went back to scribbling notes and acting as if he hadn’t just given me a secret message. He got up abruptly, shook my hand, and exited the room, saying, “The doctor will be with you shortly.”
In that office, I felt like Moses at the point when the Amalekites came to fight the Israelites. The battle was hard. It seemed nearly impossible. Moses discovered that when his arms were raised toward the sky, toward God, then they began to win. When he dropped his arms to his side, things shifted and they started to lose the battle. When his hands began to get tired, Moses’s friends came around him and held his arms up for him. They kept him steady. They did this until the battle was won.
Here was a man with broken English in the middle of a doctor’s office I’d never been to before, taking my arms and holding them up for me. He didn’t need to. It wasn’t his job to keep me strong in this fight, but he took on the role. Maybe he has been there before. Maybe he has fought the same war.
Regardless, I felt a little stronger. I felt like I could hold my arms up a little longer until the next person came along to help me keep going.
When you get pressed into the dark, you figure out what you really think about God. You figure out if what you said you believed about God is actually true and whether you will say yes or no to whatever is coming up ahead.
I think at some points throughout this depression that maybe I was praying the wrong prayers. Maybe the prayer isn’t, “God, take this away from me.” Maybe it’s, “God, help me move through this.” Avoiding something and moving through something are two very different things.
Maybe that meant I would get a little beat up in the process. I would take some hits. Maybe life isn’t about avoiding the bruises, it’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it. We think darkness like this could only be a punishment, but maybe it’s the start of building something new. I know beautiful things are born out of the dark all the time.
Tim Keller writes about the darkness, “Like fire working on gold, suffering can destroy some things within us and can purify and strengthen other things . . . There is no way to know who you really are until you’re tested.”
I learn that the building of trust happens in the dark. It happens when we choose not to hide but to charge toward the stuff that scares us most. We figure out what we are holding tightly to, what truly matters, and what we must release to get to the other side safe and sane.
When I say yes to God, I’m saying, “Yes, I will go with you into the dark. I’ll take the battles and I’ll take the bruises.” It’s easy to say yes when life is good, the money is coming in, our health is great, and things seem to be working in our favor. But do we say yes in the dark? What is good enough, real enough, strong enough for us that, when everything else fails us, we will still say yes in the dark?