Clouds in the Sky: Living with Chronic Mental Illness

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Psalm 139:1-18

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

Luke 10:25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

***

I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard someone say, probably sympathetically, “Oh, him? Yeah, he’s just… not all there.” It is one of the gentlest phrases we have for describing people with mental illness, but it also has always frightened me. Can pieces of us really disappear?

When I was a kid, my dad disappeared. Not physically. He still made dinner for us, still took us to softball practice, still sang in the church choir. But his belly laugh was gone. His playfulness was gone. His anger stalked us all. He moved through the house like a ghost, and the lights in the family room seemed a little dimmer, and the air seemed a little colder. I loved my dad, and I missed him, because all of him—I thought—all of him wasn’t quite there. 

When I was in middle school, my mom got him to a psychologist. Dr. Stevens was blind, but he saw people in the kindest, truest light. My dad was diagnosed with depression, and given medication to take, and a counselor to talk things through with. And little by little, he came back to us. 

Were there factors in dad’s life that depressed him in the mid-90s? Sure. But mostly, he had inherited from his family genetics a brain that just doesn’t make enough serotonin. No amount of love or positive thinking or good diet will produce the amount of serotonin that he needs to make up the deficit. And so he takes his meds every day. And as his daughter, I can’t tell you how much I know that taking his meds is his way of loving us. It’s his way of making sure he’s here for us. All of him. 

My dad gave me permission to tell his story today, and I’m so glad he did, because he is my hero. Because he walked the path of mental illness, and he showed me that there is a way through. That it can get better.

I needed to know that, because I did follow him. The summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, things got bad. I felt like I was losing myself. Like I was disappearing without ever leaving my body. I went to school, I went to dance, I went to church, but the lights seemed dimmer, and the air seemed colder, and even the people I loved most felt ghostly and far away. And I was terrified. 

My parents tried every thing they knew of to help me, and I was lucky. Because of my father, they had learned the world of mental health. And so Thanksgiving weekend of my junior year of high school, Dr. Stevens let me know that I was severely clinically depressed. I also had what’s known as thought-based OCD. I remember that day as one of the best days of my life. That diagnosis was a gift. It put me on a path—not a fun one, not an easy one, but one marked by the footsteps of others who had travelled before me. It gave me people to walk that path with me—Dr. Day, my therapist, and Rev. Peggy Lindsay, my pastor’s wife. It gave me Zoloft, which pushed back the fog a little, and made me feel like I was still here, still me, fighting my way through. 

At the height of my depression, I would come home and sit on the floor in my room with all the lights off. It worried my mom; she always wanted me to have a least one lamp on. I didn’t have the words then to explain to her that there was safety, for me, in the dark. In the dark, it was the rest of the world that disappeared, and I could begin to find myself again. 

And there was a day—one day, when I was sixteen, sitting there in the dark, and testing out what I thought was true against what my depression told me was true. I asked if I was worthy, and my depression said no. I asked if my family loved me, and my depression—despite the copious, demonstrable evidence of their love—said no. And then I asked if God loved me, and my depression wanted so badly to say no, but it couldn’t. By some miracle, the truth of God’s love had burrowed so deeply into my brain that even its serotonin-deficient wastelands couldn’t deny it. God loved me. 

That is the truth I’ve staked my life on. That is the truth that saves me. That is the truth that heals me. That is the truth I believe, even when my brain blocks me from feeling it.

Psalm 139, the ancient poet writes: 

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

My darkness was bright as light to God. I wasn’t hiding from God in the darkness. I was finding God in the darkness. And for me, the healing came when I stopped fighting my depression and started finding God inside of it. 

God searches us and knows us. Knows our depression. Knows our anxiety. Knows our trauma. Knows our anger. Knows our manic states. Knows our addictions. Knows our panic. Knows our obsessions. Knows our racing thoughts. Knows our fugue states. Knows our lies. Knows our truths. 

The psalmist stands in awe of a God who knows us and loves from the inside out—even when our insides aren’t what we would want them to be. We are fearfully and wonderfully made—even with our mental illnesses and struggles. God is in our thoughts, our minds, our perceptions. Nothing we believe or experience can deter God. God is before and in front and inside and all around us, whether we feel it or not. 

Brains and hearts are not enemies. Faith and mental health are not separate endeavors. Our faith has tools and truths to help strengthen our minds. I believe that with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

That phrase has always intrigued me. It’s found in Deuteronomy, in the famous shema of the Jewish faith: you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and soul, and strength. Thousands of years later, when a curious lawyer asked Jesus what it takes to inherit God’s eternal life, the lawyer remembered: Love the Lord with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself

I doubt that lawyer was the first to add “and mind” to the list of ways we can love God. The ancient Hebrews considered the heart the seat of thoughts as well as feelings. By the time Jesus came around, more people saw the brain as the seat of thinking. And so the phrase is updated so that it continues to encompass our whole selves. Love the Lord your God with everything you have, all you are. 

And so caring for our mental health is not incidental to our faith. Caring for our mental health—so that our all is as strong as it can be—is a spiritual practice. It is right there, in the great commandment: to care for our minds is part of loving God, and loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves. 

It doesn’t matter if our minds will never be perfect. We love God with all our minds, and even if that love is distracted, disoriented, depressed, fractured, anxious, unsure: God treasures our love.  

Mental illness is not a punishment. It is simply a breakdown in an incredibly, beautifully complex human brain. And God does not punish brokenness. God redeems it.

I used to talk about my depression as something separate from me, an enemy I had to fight and eradicate. That was useful for a while. Some of you may have a mental illness that you think about in the same way, and if that is useful, then by all means continue to do so. But for me, as my depression lessened from a clinical threat to a chronic companion, it was helpful for me to begin to see it as part of how I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 

There are gifts even in the dark woods of mental illness. Because of my depression, I know myself better than I would have otherwise, and that self-knowledge can help me navigate a wide variety of situations. Because of my depression, I have a gentler empathy for the sorrows and fears of the world. Because of my depression, I have evidence of just what my family would put themselves through to make sure I know I am loved. Because of my depression, I know that God is in my mind, holding me together, making me holy even when I don’t feel whole. 

For most of my adult life, my depression has not been severe but merely chronic… like clouds that float in and out of the sky. It’s just there. Sometimes I don’t even notice it. Sometimes there’s a sudden rainstorm. On those days, I grab my umbrella, made of faith and hope and some pretty decent lifehacks for mental health, and prepare myself to be a little damp until the clouds clear again. 

Research suggests that as many as half of us live with chronic and manageable mental illness, which means that almost all of us know and love someone who does. While chronic, low-level mental illness is easier to live with than severe, it has its own set of challenges. We can’t take off work every time it hits; we can’t retreat from the world every time we notice it. We have to keep living, going to work and celebrating birthdays and writing reports and taking care of our family and all those daily things, while also handling the shifting shadows in our minds. 

And so, before we wrap up today, I want to offer you a few faith practices that help me cope with chronic mental illness. They may not work for you. My depression is not exactly like my father’s; my depression of 2021 is not even like my depression of 2019. You may struggle with a different illness or none at all. 

But just in case, these are the tools faith has given that help me. 

Rest is a gift from God—more, a commandment, the practice of sabbath. Everything works better when we turn it off for a while, including our brain. Pushing through a spell of chronic mental illness is a surefire way to get it upgraded to severe. Sleep. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Rest your mind. You may not be able to take a complete break, but go gentle on yourself, and your workload. Hydrate, eat solid meals, and rest in God’s love. 

Science is a gift from God. These are the medications I take daily. One is for depression, one is for my thyroid, and two are vitamin D, because I am a pale person who never gets enough sunlight. I take these medications religiously, which is not a flip turn of phrase. Taking my meds is a spiritual practice, as important to my faith as daily prayer or acts of service. It is how I care for the mind God gave me. 

Resurrection is a gift from God. Jesus was in the tomb for three days, and I follow his pattern. Sometimes I waste less energy just letting the depression come visit for a minute than fighting it tooth and nail. But if a spell of my chronic mental illness is rough for more than three days, I reach out for more serious help. This may not work for everyone. But it works for me. 

There are more, but I’ll stop here. What I hope you walk away with today is the truth that the darkness is not dark to God. Millions and millions and millions of people throughout the history of humanity have lived with mental illness, diagnosed and undiagnosed, treated and untreated, managed and unmanaged, chronic and severe. And God has walked with each and every one of them, through every darkness, and loved them with all God’s heart, and with all God’s soul, and with all God’s strength, and with all God’s mind, until at last they are home, and they are whole. 

We come to end; we are still with God. Amen. 

One thought on “Clouds in the Sky: Living with Chronic Mental Illness

  1. Pingback: Commandment #4: Remember the Sabbath – All You Need is Jesus

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