“Click.”

Trigger warning: this post contains open discussion and description of suicide, self harm, and eating disorders.

I haven’t posted on here for a couple of weeks because I’ve unfortunately been really struggling with my mental health. Depression is something I’ve struggled with for several years, and doctors are increasingly convinced that I may suffer not just from depressive episodes, but from a rapid-cycling form of bipolar disorder. I’ve alluded to my mental health in a previous post, and I’m generally fairly open about it with my friends, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written – or said – the whole story.

I want to first clarify something that a lot of people are, sadly, not quite aware of. By ‘depression’, I don’t mean simply that sadness and lowness of mood that everyone feels every so often. That’s a perfectly normal part of the human spectrum of emotions. Depression is a clinical illness, and we are realising more and more that it has a strong physiological basis. Studies are even being done into the efficacy of MRI scans to detect depression: they work 80% of the time. I find it very useful to view the problems I have with mental health as very solid and tangible diseases. Some people prefer not to, but for me, recognising the illnesses as chemical imbalances which are affecting the functioning of my body and brain helps me to separate them from my sense of self, to make a disconnect between my brain, which is a functioning organ that can go wrong, and my mind, which contains something essential about me and my character. A lot of therapy is based around the acceptance of mental illnesses as a part of ‘you’, and while I do accept this to some extent, I want to think that there is still a distinction between the way my illnesses make me act and my actual, true ‘self’.

Secondly, depressive episodes are not necessarily linked to traumatic or upsetting events or circumstances. There is no specific reason that I started cutting myself when I was 12, and have done it on at least a semi-regular basis ever since. In Hangover Square, an excellent book by Patrick Hamilton, the protagonist has some form of mental illness, most probably schizophrenia. The description in the book of the way his episodes manifest is probably the closest I can get to an explanation of what it feels like to have a mood disorder. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book to hand, but from memory: there is no explanation, and no triggering cause, for Hamilton’s protagonist. The text represents the switch from ‘normal’ to a world described as distant, foggy and colourless with just a single word: ‘click’. That’s it. The brain goes ‘click’, and the world is altered. Some people experience their swings between different moods as a far more gradual process, but for me it certainly isn’t. I can be perfectly fine and happy one moment, and the next, for no apparent reason, ‘click’. This is the nature of depression and several other mental illnesses.

As for my personal experience, I’ll try to lay it out as simply as I can. On my good days, I’m incredibly talkative and outgoing. I love the world, I love people, and love being around them. I have my off days, when I can’t really be bothered to do anything, or I’ve had some bad news or argued with someone and decide to mope and binge on Netflix, but for the most part I’m pretty much fine. I have ‘bad days’ perhaps 25% of the time, and on these days, I literally cannot bear to leave the house. I feel physically sick at the thought of another human being looking at me, because I absolutely despise myself. I feel too exhausted to pull myself out of bed and get dressed. Even if I did have the energy, I fail to see any reason to engage with the world. I can’t imagine a worse human being than me. I feel entirely alienated from the entirety of the human race. I will never experience what other people experience, because I’m not capable of being human. Strong suicidal feelings come along with this, and I have tried to kill myself twice in the past. Even if I don’t try to end my life, I experience intensely strong suicidal ideation: I plan what I would do to end my life, and I think about the ways I could do it in order to make sure it minimises the pain to other people. When I’m not suicidal, I still tend to self-harm during these periods, typically by cutting myself. Over the past 12 months I’ve also developed a lot of anxieties around food, which seem to feature more and more in my depressive episodes. I go through cycles of binging and purging, and find it almost impossible to have a healthy attitude towards food. Even when I’m not feeling at rock bottom, I feel anxious about food and about eating – something about it feels invasive and unnatural, and I can’t reconcile myself to it. This, in turn, reinforces all the other anxieties I have about myself and about the world, and the cycle continues.

It’s so hard to explain to someone that you might be gregarious one day and unable to leave the house the next despite nothing in your circumstances having changed. There’s no physical pain, no neurological trauma, nothing, as far as anyone else can see, that would affect your ability to go outside and have a conversation. I think it’s this that makes depressive episodes in particular difficult for others to understand. When I’m ill, there’s nothing tangible that I really can explain. This also makes it so, so difficult to accept myself. Why have I felt compelled in the past to constantly harm myself with increasing severity, even attempting last year, in all sincerity, to take my own life? I think people can often forget the peripheral issues that come about as a result of suffering from an illness that will cause you, at worst, to kill yourself. It’s a deeply uncomfortable topic to talk about, and one of the reasons that I often feel so desperate to put up a wall between the ‘real’ me and the ‘ill’ me. I don’t want to accept that I am a human being who willingly and deliberately harms myself and tries to take my own life. I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of life, and all the uncomfortable connotations of that sentiment. How, then, can I be so hasty to desecrate the one life over which I have total control? The only answer I can find that allows me to sleep at night is that I don’t have control. That’s what my mental illness takes away from me: the control that I once felt I had over my life. I can rationalise every single reason why I shouldn’t do something, but then my neuropathy goes ‘click’, and I’m helpless.

This is a bit of a messy blog post, and deliberately so. It’s tempting to go back through it and polish it up a little, to try to restructure it and make it read more fluidly and prettily, but I think it’s important for discussion on the topic of mental health to be raw, honest, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable.

Advertisements

Silence

Last year, before I became jaded and disillusioned and left university, I wrote an essay on Roman Catholic liturgy in Hamlet. One paragraph was about the relationships between death and silence in the play, and unsurprisingly focused on Hamlet’s dying words:

I cannot live to hear the news from England,
But I do prophesy th’ election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited – the rest is silence. (5.2.339-43)

Hamlet’s silence is key throughout the play, and turns his inaction into the main action of the text itself. I was mainly interested in the way English translations of the traditional Requiem Mass were inserted into the play, so the silent requiem aeternam alluded to as Hamlet draws his final breath rather struck me. Silence and the unspoken seem naturally to couple both with religious expression in Hamlet, and in our attempts to understand the divine in a broader sense.

Silence in the Bible both fascinates and troubles me. The scriptures are full of challenging silences which often fall at points when we most need and desire explanation. One example which I heard recently in church is that in the story of Samuel. The Lord calls Samuel three times; three times, Samuel mistakenly believes the calls are coming from Eli, with whom Samuel is staying. This third time, however, Eli realises Samuel’s mistake and instructs him to listen to the Lord when he calls again. On the fourth call, God tells Samuel:

“Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering for ever.” (Samuel 1, 3.11b-14, NRSV)

This is a terrifying message to receive from God, yet Samuel gives no response. The narrative here, as in many other places, does not allow for the individual to respond to God, despite the harrowing nature of the exchange. Such silences are startling, and there is one particularly troubling one that I want to dwell on.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most well-known yet challenging passages in the Bible. God asks Abraham to abandon his paternal love and instinct and commit one of the most unnatural and disturbing acts imagine: murder his own son. Abraham, it should be noted, is not a silent character throughout scripture. Just four chapters prior, he has successfully interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing the lives of the innocent. He’s certainly has no aversion to debating God when he perceives injustice in the Lord’s actions and requests. But here, Abraham does as God asks, and does it in silence.

I’ve had several responses to this over the years, and I still can’t quite make up my mind what I think about it. It’s often lauded as a beautiful and moving story of Abraham’s unrelenting faith in God, but this feels like particularly hollow theology to me. Are we meant to love and respect a God who would test one of his children with something so horrific? What kind of benevolent Lord would ask someone to kill their child, just to see if they would? Is God really that selfish and insecure? How is it loving, or just? The response in the end is indeed merciful – God tells Abraham to stop, and instead sacrifice a ram – but that hardly seems to negate the horror in the preceding verses.

Another interpretation is that Abraham knew God did not truly wish for Isaac to be killed, and so Abraham acted in the knowledge and faith that he would not have to complete the act. This, too, feels hollow. If this view is correct, then what do we even gain from the narrative? What are we learning? There’s nothing remarkable, in this interpretation, in what Abraham does, not in what God does. They’re both acting out a meaningless charade, both knowing that the other is not sincere.

This leaves me viewing this as one of the most uncomfortable silences in the Bible. It is the moment when God is the most unreasonable, the most warranting of the often unfair description of Him as capricious and tyrannical, and yet we are given nothing but silence in response to it. It makes God seem unjust and unmerciful, and presents Abraham as terribly inconsistent, sometimes arguing against God’s unjustness and something abiding by it. Yet still, despite these apparent problems with the story, I find myself drawn to it again and again as an example of…what, exactly? I don’t know, but I’m constantly drawn back to and intrigued by it in a way I simply cannot articulate.

Choices, choices, choices.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve recently dropped out of university. I’m confident that this was the correct decision, and I don’t regret it. As I also mentioned, this has left me with an excess of free time. Great! Time to get into a better prayer routine, dedicate myself to my church, plough through my to-read pile, practise piano…but it also leaves me with a terrifying number of options which I’ve previously had no cause to consider. For the first time in my life, I have serious choices to make. Since I was about 15, I knew I wanted to do A levels, because I knew I wanted to go to university. I never really questioned this path (which is odd, really, considering the fact that nobody else in my family has done A levels or gone to university). Now, though, with that set progression and goal taken away, what on earth do I want to do with myself for the next few months? The next few years?

There’s a horrible amount of pressure on 20-somethings to find a purpose in life – not just purpose, but a purpose. “What do you want to do at university? Why? What career do you want? Where do you want to live? Do you want to get married? Will you have children?”. This creates the expectation that everyone my age should already have a set life plan, when in reality I think most people have no idea what they want to do. At the moment, I’m torn between studying theology, studying languages, studying nursing, leaving university for a few years and just focusing on being well in myself, getting married and having kids (not that I’ve found a willing partner in crime yet), becoming a nun, or none of the above. This, in theory, should be lovely. I have so many options! God, and mental health, willing, the world lays prostrate at my feet, and no power can stop me from choosing whatever will genuinely bring the most joy and meaning to my life. Instead of rejoicing in this, however, I feel paralysed.

There’s currently a great deal of research being done into the effect of the modern world’s glut of choice on people’s general wellbeing; the conclusion isn’t propitious. Barry Schwartz’s 2003 book The Paradox of Choice is a great exploration of the correlation between excessive choice and lessened wellbeing in the Western world. In a way, Schwartz argues, we were better off when we had less choice – we didn’t have dozens of career paths open to us, we didn’t have 90 different types of cereal to choose from at the supermarket – in short, we had a small, set number of options in life which could not be subverted. This goes against the most basic principles of our modern society, from basic consumerism to more important questions of social mobility. But, right now, I can only agree with him.

The truth is that I have no idea what I want. I don’t know what will make me happy. I have too many choices. By choosing one thing, I feel like I shut everything else off forever and commit myself to a path that might ultimately make me more miserable. It may come as a surprise to a lot of people that faith, rather than making this easier, is only increasing the difficulty of this consideration right now. I believe everyone has a vocation, but how am I supposed to know what God’s chosen for me? I don’t know how to best use my life to serve God. I don’t know if other people find it as easy as they make it appear, or if this is a perennial struggle for everyone of faith. It’s scary to think that there’s something right for me that I just can’t see. Am I letting God down by being so flittish? Is it okay for me to be this unsure? Am I just not trying hard enough to work out what to do? What if I make the wrong decision?

Somewhere, deep down, I do ultimately feel that God doesn’t mind me being so singularly hopeless and indecisive right now. God understands. God isn’t judging me. Maybe being so confused and indecisive right now is exactly what I should be doing, anyway. I’ve spent so many years being dead set on a certain path in my life – maybe this is God’s way of releasing me from such thinking, and allowing me to enjoy the entirety of life and consider possibilities which were previously closed off to me.

Right now, I have no real responsibilities or obligations. I have an abundance of time in which to begin a true process of discerning God’s will, considering the tens of options available to me each and every day, and discovering the best way to use my life to respect and glorify God. It is, indeed, both a precious gift and an impossible curse.

‘A twitch upon the thread’

Since making the decision a few weeks ago to leave university, I’ve been able to look back and see just how stressed and miserable my degree was making me. That’s not to say that literature isn’t a fascinating, rewarding and worthwhile subject, but my mental health was making it near impossible to study, and that was in turn making me feel awful about myself and my inadequacies. Now that I’ve been freed from all the self-doubt and meticulous introspection that comes with essay-writing, I find myself with a lot of time on my hands. This free time feels like a privilege, and I can think of no better way to use it than to delve more deeply into my faith, something which I’ve more or less neglected over the past year due to being so ill and stressed all the time.

The name of this blog, ‘Twitch the Thread’, originally comes from a GK Chesterton story, but I found the quote in Brideshead Revisited:

“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

I first read Brideshead when I was a 13 year old atheist, and this quote went entirely over my head. For a long time, the best I could do was to see it as a comment on Lady Marchmain’s incorrigible grasp on Sebastian. I should add that, at this time, the overtly religious themes within the book largely passed me by – either I was too ignorant a reader to notice it, or was too ardent an atheist to accept it – so it’s no wonder that this was a mystery to me too. Over time, though, this quote and notion has become especially precious to me.

Coming to know the grace of God is something which is often talked of as an internal process – we make an active choice to come to know God and accept his grace. I definitely think that’s a part of faith, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s certainly how I figured my conversion to Christianity for a very long time: I thought long and hard about it, and finally chose to believe in Christ. It didn’t make for a great testimony, and I always felt quite embarrassed when people asked me to share, but it felt better than the truth: I honestly had no idea what happened to suddenly make me care about God, care enough to develop a personal faith.

A few months ago, I found a tiny little diary which I kept when I was 7 or 8 years old. Along with a lot of very boring school stories and blow-by-blow accounts of my pets’ deaths, there was one page entitled ‘List of things I have to do in my life’. There were only 2 things on said list: become a vegetarian and become a Christian. The first was achieved when I was 13, so we can put that to one side. Looking back, my wording of the second point struck me as quite odd. ‘Become a Christian’. Like it was some obstacle I had to face, or something I had to work at, like learning French or learning to drive. It also seems odd that I felt it such a priority at the time, given my intensely secular upbringing, but I thought a surprising amount about God when I was younger. I would pray at night in the way that small children do, and I suppose I did believe in God as much as I could without ever having been to church or really been exposed to religion at all.

The fact that I wrote it down as one of the most important things I could do with my life at 7, cared so much, and didn’t reconsider the issue until 12 years later, feels quite amazing to me. I was caught, left to wander and make so, so many mistakes and live in my own arrogant world, and then, when I was 19, for no apparent reason, abandoned my ardent atheism and allowed God’s grace and love into my life. I was never abandoned, never given up on, and never condemned for all the awful things I said, thought and did during that time, but was simply ‘twitched’ back when I was ready to accept God.

I can’t think of a better testimony to God’s grace and forgiveness than that.