I think that our churches are failing the masses when it comes to mental health. I have been a Christian all my life. I am more comfortable in a church service than I am in the cinema sometimes – at least I know the etiquette, and the message I’m getting, whether I’m in church in South Africa, New Zealand or England. It’s a place where I’m supposed to feel safe and where, when things are tough, I’m supposed to find love and support.
There’s nothing harder than changing churches, because those places become your home. My last true home was in Wiltshire, where I worked as the Children’s and Youth Worker at a rural church. For over 2 years I attended that church, for some of that I worked for it, and no matter what I was going through in my life, that church was there to support me and lift me up. Considering that I worked and attended there when my diagnosis of depression and anxiety took place, that church cared for me and loved me like none other. That said, it was only really leadership that knew what was going on, as I was an employee, so maybe that’s something to do with it. Either way, leaving it for Coventry was one of the hardest things I had to do.
And today I attended my fiance’s church for the first time as a regular – I’ve been before as a visitor, but all of a sudden, this is my church, the place I’m supposed to find spiritual rest.
Being an anxious christian is hard – and that’s something I think I will save for another blog post. Suffice to say, if one more person tells me ‘do not be anxious about anything’ I might well hit them round the head with my bible (not literally… I hope!). Starting a new church as an anxious christian takes a lot of courage. Picture this:
Perhaps she held onto his hand a little too tight, her nails digging into his flesh as she clung to him. The physical closeness of his body did nothing to soothe the racing of her heart, and the sweat starting to form at her forehead. It was too late now to back out… the welcomers had said something… she didn’t quite hear what so she tilted her head towards Jack and half smiled on one side of her mouth. Was that rude? Were they still talking to her or to the person behind? Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, she thought, as her breathing got quicker, her chest tighter. Ah, more welcomers, these know Jack and say hello to him as he pauses, despite the little tug she gives his arm. Her legs are shaking, she’s tired and frightened and she needs to find a seat that will become her haven for the next hour and half of her day. She lifts her head slightly to peruse the layout, the rows and rows of chairs already filled with bodies of people she doesn’t know, the chatter and laughter of children burning on her ears that only beg for peace and quiet. Jack turns to look at her and she says something along the lines of ‘we need to find a seat, now’. She doesn’t quite know what she said because her heart is beating so loud in her ears that she can’t even hear her own words, let alone those of the welcomers who continue chatting. Jack dithers on choosing a seat, she tells him to pick one quickly, and when he does she sits on it in a panic – has anyone seen how nervous she is? What if there’s communion? More people surround her as she sits on the seat that has become her sanctuary, talking to her, talking to Jack. She smiles and nods, trying to form words but knowing it doesn’t really matter because they’re all excited to catch up with each other anyway. There’s no order or service, no indication of the structure that the service is going to follow, no list of songs that she can look through to see if she knows any. The anxiety is in full control now – she doesn’t want to talk to anyone, she can hardly breathe, and she sits there staring fixedly at the floor. It’s a relief when the music starts, because she knows how to do this bit.
It’s a huge amount of anxiety all wrapped up in something familiar. New faces, new songs, no tangible structure, not knowing how this church does things. It’s a hard thing to do. Bear with me if you will, as I continue:
The service has ended, the safe familiarity is complete and the anxiety she felt at the start goes into overdrive. Jack is out at children’s work, and no one came and sat with her during the service. So now she’s alone. She recognises the person behind her, but her back is stiff and turning around is an issue. She sits, anxiously tied to the spot that was chosen at the beginning of the service. Around her people reunite, chat about their week… start packing up the chairs. Vaguely familiar faces pass to and fro in her peripheral vision, but she’s so wound up by this point that she can’t even force the edges of her lips to lift into a smile. She sits hunched away from the aisle, wishing someone would come and talk to her because if they do that, then she has an ally against the anxiety, someone who she can borrow some strength from to fight it. But no one comes. And Jack is late. She waits for what seems like an eternity, grabs her things, and goes outside to wait in the car.
Anxiety is a disease that attacks you at your weakest. If it’s that hard for a practised, seasoned christian, I can’t imagine how anyone without faith walks through the doors of a church. Anxiety is a monster that is trying to take the safety of Christianity away from me. I question my faith (a post for another time), I am scared of churches and gatherings, and I feel totally alone in it.
And so our churches begin to fail those with mental health issues. They welcome the newcomer, but the vaguely familiar face is left on their own. They share their stories of faith and hope, forgetting that they are the hope of Christ to those who are struggling to get by. They eat biscuits and drink coffee and talk to each other…even the familiar faces walk past without so much as a glace, and the anxiety wins.
Sundays as a christian are tough in familiar settings. They’re tougher on your own, wondering if anyone will notice the devil on your back.