It has taken me almost five years and a very persistent sister to acknowledge that I probably have an anxiety disorder. Too often, I find myself hyperventilating and wiping clammy hands, with an overwhelming sense of terror that I cannot reason myself out of. It stops me from working, sleeping, or talking to people. An attack could be triggered by something as serious as a work crisis to something as small as having potentially said the wrong thing to someone.
I’ve acknowledged it to myself now. I’ve told myself - “you have a disorder, deal with it”. But the dealing is hard and largely bound by the silent laws of South Asian conservative Christianity - a combination that can be incredibly toxic. It brings together our cultural stigma on mental illness and the conservative Christian logic of “you lack faith, pray it away”.
It is very strange, being confronted with this sort of fallacy. On an intellectual and rational level, you are convinced that this is harmful and unscientific. That mental illness is no different from physical illness. That it is an inescapable part of a broken world and a broken body, and that medication is God’s gift to help. You know all the arguments from all the books you’ve read on the matter.
And yet, you reject all that truth.
You hear instead, your mother’s voice - genuinely concerned and wanting to help - say: “You should sleep more. Are you having your quiet times in the morning? This is all because you work too hard. I don’t think it’s an illness, our family has never had this sort of thing” (all valid points, if they didn’t gloss over the heart of the issue). You hear the whispers that would start at church if people heard you went to therapy: “And she’s the daughter of a preacher. Does the family lack faith? Who will marry her?” (It is the possibility of being the subject of gossip that frightens me, not the prospect of being unmarried, I assure you). There is even a tinge of doubt in your own heart - “is it possible that I’m not praying enough? Not trusting enough? Would God be disappointed if I turned to medicine for this?”
I haven’t yet been to a psychiatrist. I haven’t talked to a therapist. Suspended somewhere between acknowledging the truth to myself and to the world. Ashamed of my hypocrisy and fear to be open about my disorder. Still too afraid to open myself up.
But Jesus. I cannot tell you how wonderful Jesus has been. He has been a friend who sticks closer than a sister (which speaks volumes, given how closely my sister sticks). I’ve confessed my anxiety, and He has assured me that nothing can separate me from His love. I’ve confessed my fear, and He has reminded me of His own anxiety in Gethsemane. I tell Him that my fears are nothing compared to His sweat drops of blood before that awful Cross. I tell Him that I am broken and I deserve this, that He was perfect and wonderful - how could I even begin to draw comparisons? He assures me that He has known all my pain, all my fear. I can go nowhere that He has not already gone. There is no new depth of terror, no place of breathlessness, where I am not entirely covered by His grace and love.
There is no new depth of terror, no place of breathlessness, where I am not entirely covered by His grace and love.
This is not to say that He lets me stay where I am. Over the years, He has been gently chiding me on my fear. Just as He did to the disciples on storm-tossed Galilee, He tends to say “what, Esther? No faith still? Will I not be there with the psychiatrists? Will I not lead you to the right therapist?” And I am slowly learning, like Peter, to stop looking at the waves - my fears - and to focus on His face and what He would have me do in this.
Clearly, I am not writing this to say “I’ve done it. I’ve conquered my fear. Here’s how you can too”. God knows that will be a long time coming if it ever does. I’m also not writing this to restate the “Jesus is the cure for mental illness” trope. I wholeheartedly believe that psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and medication are kind gifts from the Lord, and if you find yourself struggling, please pursue these avenues.
What I do mean to say is - if you are where I am, fearing the disappointment and judgement of the church community, and bound in some inner place by the laws of man, the Lord Jesus is still there, with no condemnation. If no one else understands, Jesus does. If no one else is really listening - or really hearing - Jesus is. And He adores you. He wants the best for you. Whatever else you do, or don’t do, talk to Him. Walk with Him. Tell Him, at 2.30am (if you like), in long, rambly, multi-lingual sentences exactly how scared, confused, and messed up you are inside. I’ve done it. I promise He does not fall asleep. He will understand. He may gently rebuke you, but He will also comfort. He will strengthen. He will direct. And all along, He will remind you that just as He loved you enough to die for you, He loves you still, and always will.
...if you are where I am, fearing the disappointment and judgement of the church community, and bound in some inner place by the laws of man, the Lord Jesus is still there, with no condemnation.