It is slightly farcical that I should be writing for SCM at all. I dropped out of university. At the time of dropping out I did not want anything to do with academia ever again. For a brief period, I flirted with the idea of going back- but then I remembered and was reminded of just how miserable I was when I left. My battle with depression floored me completely. I didn’t hate the pursuit of knowledge, but I hated how prescriptive the learning was. Having a somewhat obsessive personality, I would rather have gone away and studied Theodor Adorno for three months! I also had a fleeting attention span which made it difficult for me to focus on anything that did not interest me. I did not suit university and university did not suit me. In the words of Kate Bush: “I see the people working, and see it working for them, and so I want to join them, but then I find it hurts me”.
Scientific evidence suggests that there is almost certainly a biological element to mental health problems. Over the years and for many reasons, I have wondered why God would create me this way, with the potential for such darkness. Still, God created us with all our pluses and minuses, and being susceptible to depression is one of the minuses.
Depression is a great mystery to the depressed person. This is why we get so upset when asked, “Why are you depressed?” The question seems reasonable, but we often don’t know the answer ourselves. Over the Christmas period, that question, and questions about what our long-term plans are, become very stressful very quickly. It is nigh-on impossible to create long-term plans when depression has convinced you that you won't be around for much longer anyway. These are thoughts which are difficult to express to ourselves in the privacy of our own heads, never mind to family and friends, however close.
Our family's concerns are of course quite understandable, and they come from the most loving of places- a love that wants us to thrive in the world. This is why it can be so devastatingly difficult to admit that we are far from thriving: all we want to do is live up to that hope. However, at this point I would say to people with mental health issues that the resilience we have already shown is astonishing: surviving is an accomplishment.
I don't have an answer to the question of why we could have been created with this potential for illness, but I suppose the same could be asked about genetic markers for cancer. Christians are not very fond of uncertainties, but I have found that it is better to not try and explain it. Mental illness doesn't make sense. Honestly, this should not shake our faith too much. There are plenty of things in this world which do not make sense.
Growing up Catholic, I was taught that Easter is the more important holiday. I have always preferred it. It is less dragged down by consumerism and commercialism. It comes after a religious period of sacrifice and quiet introspection. It breaks the sacrifice and the introspection with festivities, whereas Christmas is a very long period of vast consumption. We eat, drink and shop for months before Christmas arrives and this is concluded with yet more drinking, eating, and gifts.
I cannot tell you how to deal with Christmas when battling mental health issues, but I can tell you what has worked for me. Throughout this Christmas period, we are encouraged by our Church leaders to take a step back from the madness and commercialism, and remember the “true meaning of Christmas”: I think that practice might be useful for those with mental health issues too. Take a step back, breathe, and remember the true meaning of it all.
When I try to remember the true meaning of Christmas, I find myself remembering the intentions of my concerned family members too. Although some discussions are hard, I find that having the discussions, instead of avoiding them, is the best practice. Such honesty may be much more difficult in the short-term, but long-term, it is the better option. I have found myself uplifted by support I didn't even know I had, and that support has been critical to getting my mental health and my life back together.
If you’re feeling stressed this Christmas, try to come back to what Christmas is all about or what it means to you. For me, Christmas is the start of Jesus' journey through life on this earth- an extraordinary life in which he taught us more than we have been able to make sense of in 2,000 years. Christmas is a sign that, “God is still speaking” and cares very much about the world. Whatever it is about the Christmas message that you find encouraging, hold on to that and take a quiet moment or several quiet moments this Christmas to think deeply about it.
Rhys McKavanagh is an SCM member and former student. He now works in catering.