The Cross I Bear

Throughout the season of Lent, I’ve felt led this year to reflect in depth on the things God has done in my life. Easter is about all of us – collectively, the Body of Christ – being rescued, but it’s too easy for us sometimes to remove the personal elements from the picture. It’s easy to speak of God saving US…to sing of God’s love for US…to rejoice in His sacrifices for US………but it is much, much harder to make it personal. To change the US to ME…the WE to I. So I’m looking back on the entirety of my journey with God, asking Him to remind me of things I have intentionally and accidentally forgotten, in an attempt to arrive on Easter morning with a fresh understanding of my new life in Christ.

A journey through my past is incomplete without a stop in the first years of my marriage, nearly ten years ago, when depression and anxiety became defining points in my story.

Life as a newlywed is supposed to have challenges, but typically they are more relational challenges than personal ones. It’s supposed to be fun and exciting, a settling in and discovery of what is to be the new normal. For me, there was excitement, yes, but more than anything, there was struggle. Within a couple of months after our wedding, I fell into a depression like none I had ever known. The depression brought along its friend anxiety; I have never been able to tell which, exactly, came first. Each amplified the other, and neither came alone.

Most people think of depression as being a deep and permeating sadness. My experience, though, is that depression is a complete lack of feeling. It’s a numbness to all emotion – at times it feels like sadness, but it’s more like a general apathy and lack of interest in anything. It’s walking through a day without feeling anything whatsoever – going through the motions and just reminding yourself to keep breathing.

However, to further complicate things, that numbness, for me, came with the hyper-emotions of anxiety: panic attacks, fearfulness, worry. As contradictory as it sounds, I was either feeling absolutely nothing….or absolutely everything, all at once. Either a numbness that made getting out of bed impossible, or a panic that made everything outside my home scary and worrisome.

I can remember with horrible clarity the ache that came every morning. I would hear my husband getting ready for work – showering, getting clothes from the closet, tying his shoes – and would think, “He’s about to leave. And I have to face this day.” I would blink back tears as he kissed me goodbye, overwhelmed with the thought of doing life for another morning….another afternoon…another night.

It was just too much for me.

Life…the world….it just became too much for me.

As a result of my numbness and my panic attacks and my sudden inability to function, I went to counseling and psychiatrists. Given the diagnosis of depression and generalized anxiety disorder with agoraphobia, I began the incredibly frustrating process of finding the right medication for my mind’s struggles. One thing I didn’t struggle with – and there wasn’t much, in those days – was the idea of taking medication. I always saw it as a means to getting myself back, and I saw no shame in that. Many people – especially Christians, sadly – do express skepticism over the legitimacy of mental illness as a real illness and of medication as a real treatment. I was never one of those, and even today take an anti-depressive pill daily.

In the months and months of intense struggle, though, before my medication was figured out and before the sun began to break through the clouds, I became a hermit. I would stay at home as much as possible, leaving only for church some weeks and then returning until it was time to go to church again the next Sunday. It was inordinately hard to get motivated to do anything. I don’t mean, “Ugh….it’s Monday and I’m tired and I don’t feel like going to work.” I mean, “It’s morning again and I simply don’t have the strength – mental or physical – to face this day.”

Life was just too much.

So I hid. From everyone and everything.

Certain people knew I was struggling, though not to its full extent, and I would ignore their calls when they checked in on me.

Some people could tell something was going on, asking on Sunday mornings how I was, but I would brush it off and withdraw back into myself, hiding behind the sound board with my husband as he ran the audio for worship.

“No one will really understand,” I reasoned, “and besides, I just don’t have the energy to try to explain.”

One morning, months and months into the struggle, I remember laying in my bed staring toward my nightstand. I didn’t have my contacts in or my glasses on, so it was more of a staring into space than a looking at anything. Suddenly my eyes focused, though, and I saw a nail I had been given at a worship service months before. The nail had been pressed into my hand as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for me, and I had kept it on my nightstand since that day.

As my bleary eyes locked in on that nail, I heard God say to me, “This is not the life I want for you. I did not die for you to live this way.”

And I won’t lie and tell you that everything got better that morning, but it did turn everything around. Because on that day, I realized that I had been attempting to carry an impossible burden by myself, and I understood that Jesus was trying to carry both me and the burden.

And that, friends, changed everything. Purpose changes everything, and knowing someone has bigger dreams for you than you have for yourself? That is priceless.

The truth is, there is a life Jesus came to give us. It is a life of freedom and joy and peace and wholeness. You may not experience that wholeness in body on this side of heaven, and like me, you may live with ailments in your body or mind that keep you clinging to the cross. But friend, I think that’s the point. More than anything, His purposes are for you to know Him intimately and experience the joy of a relationship with Him. Our struggles – though not His doing – can be part of what He uses to draw you to Himself. Lean into that, and while you may not experience the perfect life, I can say with certainty you’ll be living the life He intends for you to have.

A couple of years ago I was given the opportunity to share my experiences with mental illness at a conference. This was my first speaking engagement, so to speak, and I’ll tell you more about that later this week. For now, though, I would encourage you to watch this 15-minute video. It’s not my most professional or polished talk ever (I *hope* I’ve improved since then!), but it’s from the heart and I think it might encourage you or someone you know who has similar struggles.

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