I remember going back to the Rehab Institute of Chicago to follow up with my doctors and being asked a number of times about having symptoms of depression or anxiety. I now understand why they were being so persistent. Statistics show that one year after a brain injury, more than 50% of survivors are affected by them and after seven years that number jumps to more than 66%, compared to the general population where the rate is less than 10%.
But I was naive and believed these statistics wouldn't apply to me. I had never dealt with any mental health issues. And why would I start now? I had so many things to be happy about and thankful for. I had just survived a near-fatal car accident and my recovery was going better than any of my doctors expected. I had great friends and a wonderful family. I was back to working as a family doctor, a job I knew and loved. And most importantly, I was a Christian, and Christians aren’t supposed to be depressed or anxious!¹
But none of these things seemed to matter! I was still having a hard time accepting my new life and the new me. I wasn’t sure how to act or how I was supposed to function as the person I had suddenly become. I wasn't even sure I liked who I had turned into! All of this confusion and questioning, combined with the structural damage and changes to my brain from the accident, resulted in the arrival of a battle with depression and anxiety. After denying they existed for some time, I finally admitted them and knew I needed to seek help.
Now, I had been treating these conditions for years as a family doctor, but after experiencing it myself, I became shamefully aware of how poorly I understood them. Although no two person's experience with mental disease is the same, I was getting a glimpse of how some of my patients felt. In addition to this, I always struggled understanding and explaining to them why the medications I was prescribing or the counseling I was suggesting for their conditions could help.
My treatment for the past four years has included both medication and psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT), and if I was still practicing medicine, I would happily tell my patients what they have done for me and what they could potentially do for them. The combination of the two have helped me accept the things I really had no control over and given me the motivation to work on the things I do. My psychologist uses CBT to help me deal with the drastic life changes and to help me combat the resultant unhealthy thinking patterns.² In addition to these, regular exercise, the proper amount of sleep, and a healthy diet have also been important in improving my mental health. Depression and anxiety are something I will continue to battle but I am extremely grateful to have found ways to combat them.
Mental illness is now a part of my story and it is something I have chosen to openly accept and courageously fight. A vital part of my acceptance has came from reading the Bible and understanding it in ways I never had before. I repeatedly came across all kinds of people in the Bible who dealt with mental illness. Growing up in church, I wasn’t aware of this. The churches I went to just didn’t talk about it that much, or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention! So because of my ignorance, I was under the impression the people I heard about in the Bible were free of any sort of problems. And if I was living the way God wanted, I shouldn’t have any problems either. I have learned this is simply not true! The Bible is full of people suffering from all sorts of issues. But many of them made the choice to stop carrying the burden themselves and to let God carry them through whatever they were struggling with! And that is what I am learning to do!
Illness of all kinds, both physical and mental, was not part of God's original plan. But because of our sin, it came into our lives. Thankfully, we have a God who loved us so much he came to rescue us from this mess. God sent Jesus who lived a spotless life and died for our sins so that one day we can live forever in a perfect world free of all disease. This is one of God’s promises and it's in this promise that I place my hope and my trust. But until that glorious day, there will be trials. There will be sickness. It is during these difficult times I find my hope, strength, and courage in another one of God’s promises. The promise that in my weakness, He will be the strength that carries me.
¹ Here are just a few of the false theories found among many Christian circles about people who suffer with depression and anxiety.(taken from christianpundit.wordpress.com) I think the church is starting to debunk some of these myths but must continue in this pursuit.
1. “Genuine” Christians cannot, or will never, have mental health problems.
2. Seeking mental health professional help, whether Christian or secular, is wrong.
3. Taking medication for mental health issues, or for anxiety attacks, is wrong.
4. If you just pray to God and have faith, God will heal you of your panic attacks, depression, etc.
5. It’s all in your head and a matter of mere willpower: you can will yourself out of depression and “choose” to be happy (or have enough faith in God and the panic attacks will clear up).
6. If you serve other people more (e.g., volunteer at soup kitchens), you will be so preoccupied with other people or be so uplifted by serving, that you won’t have time to think about being depressed, or volunteering will just automatically clear the depression up.
7. Read the Bible and pray, and that will cure depression and panic attacks.
8. Your depression must be due to personal sin or a character defect.
² My two primary unhealthy thinking patterns are catastrophizing ("If something is going to happen, it'll probably be the worst case scenario.") and mind-reading ("I can tell people don't like me because of the way they behave.")