Written By Jeremiah, Singapore
2014 was the worst year of my life. I consider that year to be my deepest pit. I was going through complicated grief, emotional abuse at work, burnout, and I experienced so much hurt and rejection from the ministries where I served as a leader.
I wasn’t sleeping at night. Every night my ailing mother would wake up and cry hysterically for hours. The drill is that we jump out of bed, stay by my inconsolable mother with utter helplessness, then pat her to sleep when she had tired herself from crying. When I do sleep, I get vivid dreams or panic attacks. On the worst days, I could feel a physical pain in my heart.
Proverbs 13:12 says “hope deferred makes the heart sick”. I have had countless moments of resolution to faith, disappointment in God, and begging the cosmic guy up there to spare me of the torture.
I am a counselor. I have struggled with this mental distress for four years. I have wrestled to make sense of this suffering, and I have fought against a weakening will to live, so I may get well again.
Here’s what I found helpful:
1. Remove triggers
What stresses you in a big way? What triggers negative or intrusive thoughts? Are there toxic people in your life that you should distance yourself from? I started to check my phone less, and I used Thought-Stopping—a coping technique taught in therapy—to manage rumination. I controlled my social media newsfeed by adding things that I like to see, and removed potential triggers by not following certain feeds. I also progressively stepped down from my leadership duties at church.
2. Find happy anchors
If you’re going through a difficult time, you may notice a diminished motivation to live. Intentionally remember or journal positive moments and seek happy things to do; they may serve to anchor you when you need emotional strength. I found that floral arrangement helped me cope. I was never really into flowers, but trying something new was refreshing and brought a sense of excitement.
I went out with my friends even when I didn’t feel like it—and I found some unexpectedly rewarding moments. I exercised regularly and ate healthily. Treat yourself occasionally to your favorite food or favorite activity. Guard personal time. Make overtime an exception in your work life.
3. Take a break from “religion”
This idea may sound like apostasy, but notice I said “religion”, not “faith”. We often trap ourselves in legalism through our interpretation of faith. For instance, I believed that when I served God, He would heal my mother. I also believed that I should not waste time having fun when there is so much work in church—so I spent all my time in ministry. I even missed out a lot on family time.
I also believed that God will always vindicate me when I meet injustice. When I faced injustice at work, I waited and waited for divine vindication to the point that I wanted to bend His arm to give it to me. There was a lot of bargaining, crying, and blaming towards Him. This state of mind kept me from moving on. There came a point I had to make myself accept the situation because I had to save myself from spiraling into depression.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. I told my therapist and pastors that if I placed my trust in Him once more I might really kill myself when I get disappointed again. When asked why I felt that way, I told them perhaps my idea and expectations of God were not a true reflection of who He is. I used to think: miracles will happen the way I expect them to when I have the right amount of faith. Hence, I felt confused and crushed when I did not get the answers or outcome I sought.
For some, simply evaluating what is life-nourishing faith and what is legalistic religion may be sufficient to reset perspectives. For others, this may not be enough. Sometimes we do have to take a step back.
My mentors agreed that taking a break from my usual spiritual disciplines to clear my mind from my preconceived notions of God could be a good thing. Really, God can wait for us. He never demands that we understand Him—and we won’t ever understand Him fully—or reach perfection in our faith right now.
I released my habits by skipping a few church meetings and taking a break from my religious routines. I visited other ministries and befriended more non-Christians. I read books written by atheists and agnostics. God is not found only in church or fellowship. He can reveal Himself anywhere.
I sought to find out who my personal God and Savior is without my narrow definitions of cultural Christianity. I read the Bible because I felt like it. I prayed because I wanted to. I tried to rekindle my faith by not doing anything out of compulsion. I know this may be contentious and I’d like to qualify that this may not work for everyone.
Share your experience with your mentor. Talk to your pastors. Discuss your plans with them and seek their advice. Never cut yourself off totally from your community, the Word, and prayer.
4. Seek professional help
I sought professional help after a trauma reaction. I decided that money had to be spent on things that were important. Yes, you can go for inner healing sessions in church, but psychopathology needs professional treatment too. I used to have this primitive belief that spiritual healing alone is sufficient. I have gone for numerous effective spiritual healing sessions, but psychotherapy helped me understand how my past has affected me, and revealed to me worldviews that perpetuated my distress and thinking traps.
There may be a temptation to want to share your burden with your counselor, expecting them to solve your problems for you, or wanting them to be there whenever you are sad or panicky. You may also wonder if you can hold out in between your sessions. The truth is: no one can overcome this for you. As best as you can, be strong and discipline yourself to follow the treatment plan prescribed by your counselor. Practice coping skills regularly. Don’t wait till a panic attack happens. Intervention doesn’t work that way.
Counselors have varying levels of professional training and different training specializations. Don’t give up on therapy because the last counselor you went to wasn’t satisfactory. Try looking for another one.
5. Manage your supportive community
You may have a million moments of distress. Don’t dump them all onto a single person. That can be too much for that one person to bear for you. Identify people who are willing to be there for you. Share just a single area of your distress with each person.
It’s okay if not every close friend is an outlet for emotional solace. Don’t stress yourself with how your best friend should be there for you. Your life may even go through a social restructuring because an awesome friend reveals himself or herself in such times.
6. Accept that you are struggling
Acceptance is not resignation. You need to validate your struggles, not compare yourself with others, and be patient with your own healing. Don’t panic when you “fail” a coping exercise or when you have a “relapse” of distress. You may sense perpetual sadness or that you don’t deserve to get well. Examine these thoughts with your counselor and tell yourself this is temporary.
7. Share your story even when you’re still on your way to healing
When I was still grieving quite badly, I spoke to some people who were in more mature stages of their grief. At first, I was hesitant because I was afraid talking to them would trigger an attack of mental distress. But when I did, I received insight about grief and I found the conversation therapeutic.
By the way, you can still minister to people even when you are struggling. Don’t do it because you feel obligated. Do it because you want to and because God can still use you as a blessing.
When you’re doing much better, write an article as your therapeutic letter to mark your milestone towards healing. You can even speak to an audience and let their supportive ears be your applause. Channel your struggles to become your greatest assets in helping others, and this can help close chapters well.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)
After about four years, I noticed I felt better. I wasn’t in perpetual sadness anymore. I was less and less occupied with the desired answers and outcomes I didn’t receive. I could pay more attention to my own needs and make plans for the future.
Months after that time, I realized I couldn’t find any reason to be angry with Him. My idea of God has matured. I caught a glimpse of Jesus, who died on the cross and rose in victory. The love He displayed meant He is worthy of my trust, and the victory He won meant I was never meant to be in the pits. He is the fulfillment of my Longing. And He has indeed become my Tree of Life.
To all of us who are still struggling, I think it is okay that we haven’t overcome it yet. The Church can wait for you. God can wait for you. Don’t lose sight of Him, and always keep it somewhere within you that God is probably good.