To celebrate the darkness of Advent – a season of mystery and waiting, anticipating the birth of Christ, the Light of the World – amidst the twinkling lights of commercial Christmas is enough of a paradox for any Christian to navigate. But, add to that being a Christian with mental health challenges, feeling isolated in their seemingly incompatible darkness amidst all the celebration, and it can become its own kind of despair that I am intimately familiar with.
It is difficult to write about mental health issues as someone experiencing them, so I begin with a disclaimer that I am not an expert, and though I have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, I acknowledge no one diagnosis or explanation of a condition has sufficiently treated my symptoms. A combination of psychology and spirituality has been the only way I’ve been able to move through some of the darkest moments. However, the most difficult part of navigating my mental health challenges involves generationally-transferred complex PTSD around relationship dynamics in my family has affected my relationship with God, especially in all of God’s authority-figure archetypes.
There lives within me a deeply wounded part who believes she is bad, that God is mad at her, and that nothing she says or does can make God happy. In certain moments, she is inconsolable. Of course I pray for God’s help in these moments. Of course a larger part of me knows that God loves me and I am safe. But when my nervous system is activated in a certain way, it does not feel like any help is coming, that all is darkness and hope is foolish.
The readings from the first week of Advent call to mind these moments. The writer of Isaiah 64:9 begs “…Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever.” The Psalmist pleads, “O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?”
I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my desperation, and the experience of reading Scripture on more than just an intellectual level does help me escape the closed system of my brain because Scripture is more than just an intellectual resource – it’s a living, breathing expression of the Holy Spirit. When I am having a dissociative episode, my survival brain is activated and my body experiences everything as life or death–for example, I scan facial expressions for a sign of anger the way a guard of a tower defends a fortress. The neural pathways that create these thoughts are very very old. But when I read Scripture, another voice enters my thoughts and interrupts the alarm system. The cadence of the language and the depth of the theological weight behind them serve to re-assert in my mind an orientation to a power greater than my cells.
I can believe in a power greater than me, or God, even if I do not feel it. “Feelings are not facts,” as they say. But this thought alone sometimes just doesn’t cut it. When I am in these dark moments, a need to feel special and loved and cared for is what my wounded parts require. And so I offer this reframe for that wounded part: Perhaps you have been chosen. Perhaps for those whose nervous systems were formed in chaotic and violent homes, there is a compensatory capacity to metabolize spiritual help because of what we’ve been through. The gospel urge to “stay awake” comes naturally to someone who has experienced hypervigilance associated with complex PTSD. Instead of scanning for anger or displeasure from the faces around me, I scan my surroundings for small signs that God is working in my life.
Sometimes I play games with God and say, “I’m really low today, can you give me a sign you’re there?” When a friend I haven’t heard from in months happens to call asking about something I was just thinking about, or when I walk by tailor-made graffiti to my innermost inquiries, I see it answered. But I don’t play the game for fun. Inevitably when I pull through a dark episode, the experience of the light on the other side is potent and powerful. But it’s essential I remember that the breakthrough often begins as the Wise Men’s journey began, seeing a small glimpse of hope amidst a sea of darkness.
If you or a loved one is ever experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 988. And consult the Suicide Prevention Hotline if you are concerned for yourself or another.