Vulnerability is a word that is thrown around a lot in contemporary life. Inherently implying weakness, or a chink in the armour, like the Death Star having a tiny gap which could bring the whole ship down. It has also come to represent strength should someone become voluntarily vulnerable. This voluntary vulnerability lends itself to open and honest discourse, and that is what these blogs are inherently about. Recording my own story has made me realise quite how uncomfortable vulnerability is. I like to consider myself open and honest but this account you’re about to read goes one small step further, although personally it is a giant leap of faith.
Let’s start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start), for those of you who don’t yet know my story, my name is Andrew. I’m 22 and a Christian medical student at Aberdeen, although this story primarily revolves around my medical training in St Andrews. I grew up on the fair Emerald Isle, just outside Belfast. I was nurtured by two wonderful, God-fearing, loving parents who encouraged me in everything I tried. My childhood was happy, and I was always known for being cheery, often irritatingly so. School was something to enjoy and to gain from, but I was always looking ahead to university where I could meet people with the same passion for knowledge that I held.
St Andrews became that place, for the first time in my life I felt at home. I had never moved location, I grew up in the same house for 18 years and I enjoyed it, but St Andrews felt like a community that I was truly part of. I found friends and built relationships that were more profound than anything I had previously experienced. I threw myself into everything that I could and was exposed to a world of knowledge and academia that I could only dream of and it was populated by those with the same yearning I had. My relationship with God strengthened as I saw how He used those around me and these new relationships I had to demonstrate a model of love that I had never grasped before.
I knew the love of my parents, and that of friends and the reciprocal love I had for them, but to love another person intimately is far more dangerous. Allowing someone to understand your deepest thoughts and darkest feelings, for them to work their way into your head and heart is terrifying, but it has unbounded returns. It was this love that I had previously been unknown before and it was shared with another human being that demonstrated to me what a personal relationship with God could be, one of vulnerability and openness that leads to true growth and a life change I had never known. This was a state of two loves, one divine and one human. Both unearthed and cast out fears I hadn’t realised I had. I came to rely on God more to guide my relationships and friendships, I was walking with Him in a way I had never known and I was so aware of how blessed my life had been.
At the end of my first year I had to return for the long summer of 2016 at home, but I was glad of it. I had a job in a GP practise that summer and it was something I looked forward to and enjoyed. And now the rapid decline in my health. It started quietly. Perhaps I was lonely, or afraid of losing those I cared about and becoming lonely. I hated this, as it felt too selfish. My mum found me one day at home with tears running down my cheeks, but I was continuing with life as I had no idea why I was crying. The sadness turned to fear, and it lasted all day. I would wake during the night with panic attacks and all I wanted to do was scream. For me a panic attack looked like feeling incredibly hot and cold all at once, weeping uncontrollably and sense of immediate doom, feeling like you’re about to die. The fear of being left alone by those who I loved was what drove it, I think. My sense of self-worth collapsed, and I threw myself into work, working harder and concentrating on doing every minute thing right, beating myself up when I didn’t.
The only person I had expressed this to was my girlfriend at the time, and she was 3500 miles away with limited resources to help. The fear and paranoia translated into vitriolic, accusatory messages which caused wounds that would never quite heal. I think this is the most pain I have ever inflicted on another and it was to the person I cared deepest. Of course, that was not the intent, but the damage was done. As a medical student there is a mantra which guides every action, primum non nocere. ‘First, do no harm’. I had broken the main tenet of my code and I found this unforgivable.
I had been to a doctor who saw that I still appeared cheerful and told me that I couldn’t possibly be depressed, despite my symptoms. I was just about to return to St Andrews and part of me hoped I would just suddenly get better. I told a few close friends about how I felt, but I just got worse. I began to think about taking my own life. At first it was intrusive, and I was repulsed by the thought. I considered myself worthless, but still defiant. I booked another appointment to see a GP for mid-October, and by the time it arrived I now actively wished to end my own life. My relationship had ended a few days prior to the appointment, and I was blindsided. Of course, I still didn’t “look” depressed (as if anyone ever can) and it was after a recent break-up and so was turned away again without any treatment plan.
As my health continued to deteriorate I began to plan my death. One evening I remember walking out to the cliffs beyond East Sands wishing to die. This is where God really showed himself. As I walked, I began to pray and standing near the edge I said “Ok God, you’ve got one chance. Use my phone (which I knew at that moment to be empty of all new messages) and I’ll walk away.” Asking this breaks the command “You shall not test the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:16) but I didn’t care. Of course, he answered. My flatmate texted me and asked if I wanted dinner. So, I went home and I hated God more with every step because He had kept me alive for another day by fulfilling his side of my bargain. Of course, the next day became another, then another. I kept turning up to class, acting like nothing was wrong. Of course, it can’t be understated the watchful and caring eye that my flatmates kept on me this whole time, even though I didn’t ask for it.
The other thing that kept me going were the words of a wise, dear friend. After telling him how I felt, he turned to me and said “Andrew, if you’re in heaven before I am, I’ll be furious. I’ll come up to you and say, ‘How could you leave me alone down there!’”. And so, he lifted me perspective away from myself and I saw the impact my life had on others.
Now for a humourous interlude
These are not the only stories like this, there are dozens of interactions big and small which contributed to my continued survival and many good friends at church who helped me every step of the way. The fight got harder each day and by the time Christmas came I was desperate. I remember breaking down in front of my mum just telling her over and over that I just wanted to die, that I didn’t deserve my life and the resources used to keep me alive could be better spent elsewhere. At this juncture I was finally given medication and treatment. It suddenly became much easier to admit that I was ill, the medication gives you something to point towards proving to yourself and others that there really is something wrong. And it’s a way to say, “Look, I’ll get better!”.
As part of my depression, I stopped eating. I wasn’t hungry and if I couldn’t taste anything I really didn’t see the point. I lost a lot of weight, about two and half stone in 7 weeks and I was gaunt. However, after Christmas I came back and so many complimented me on this wonderful “weight-loss progress” I had made, as I had been overweight before. I was on medication, beginning to feel better, and I used this vanity to fuel myself, again trying in vain to fill the gaps that had been left, and I had closed off to God.
The medication did its job, as it tends to do. It stabilised and slightly raised my mood, allowing other cognitive therapy to take hold and resolve the underlying mental difficulties surrounding my loneliness and ultimate worth as well as reset the physiological imbalance. My relationship with God did not suddenly become better, in fact it declined as I felt more distant and more resentful.
Looking back there are countless ways in which I was shown such grace and love by God, and those around me but in the midst of difficulty it is so hard to see. I was furious with God for letting me wreck everything, and I quickly turned my back on him instead, seeking out other superficial relationships as a way to fill the giant hole that had been left in my life by the loss of the two loves I had felt before. However, the love of God was very much still there, I just was unable to grasp it for so long. I couldn’t feel anything at all and I had only a knowledge to rely on but suddenly it didn’t seem as trustworthy anymore, because nothing seemed trustworthy.
This interplay been mental health and faith is of great interest to me. At one point I began to ask myself whether God was just the chemical changes I experienced in my mind when I am without other Christians or when I pray. I then received a colossal kick up the arse theologically when God said the same thing to me three times in a week or two through other people who are totally disconnected, so that solved that difficulty. Of course, I didn’t listen quite yet, but it still happened. God was incessant. He really did not give up on me ever although I had given up totally on him. I would then return to God briefly for a few months, although I would walk away again towards the end of 2017. I can’t get in to all these things now, that would be for another post, but as I said, God really didn’t want me getting too far away!
I got better. I’m two years on from my lowest point, and 18 months after stopping the medication and I feel just as normal. In telling this story I have shown a lot of my weakness in order that you, the reader, may see that things do get better, but not without a lot of time, a lot of effort and by the grace of God! For many, depression can be a chronic state, for those like myself it’s an incident which lasts for a number of months, even a year, but then will resolve. It haunts me still, though. The fear of the Black Dog returning is always with me, albeit faintly. However, I want to end of a note of hope. Recovery is possible, likely even, although it will not seem like that.
For those of you who are watching someone with depression and struggling to know how to help, practical aid is always the best. Emotional aid is difficult for both parties, so a listening, non-judgemental ear is the most effective. Avoid phrases like “When so-and-so was depressed they did this…” or “They dealt with this much better than you” which can only do damage. Instead, offer a meal, or to do dishes, or to help them around the house. This is something they may not even seem to appreciate at the time, even be begrudging of your help, but I promise it will reap dividends down the line. Depression is difficult, but it is much worse in silence and isolation. If one person reads this and helps someone is some small way, or this encourages someone who feels depressed or anxious to reach out to someone, then it’s all worth it. If you want to talk to me, I would love to hear your story and to help in any way I can!
Noggy here. Please let Andrew know what a fantastic job he has done. It is incredibly for difficult for anyone to open up and share their story. There is a particular challenge for guys brought up in a culture of toxic masculinity to share their emotions and struggles. So please drop him a comment telling him the fantastic job he has done. We need to keep talking about mental illnesses. Please share this and keep the conversation going. Feel free to follow the blog and pass it on to others.