A life not defined by anxiety and depression.
"I can’t brush my hair. I can’t get dressed. I can’t sleep. Every normal daily life task is like moving an unmovable mountain." My name is Mary Todd and just five years ago I found myself in the middle of a mental health storm. If you had asked me if I would be there, my answer would have been no. But, there I was.
Anxiety and depression. We hear these words often, don’t we? They are some of the most common mental illnesses. Millions of Americans suffer from them each year. In fact, I am sure each of us knows at least one person who has dealt with severe anxiety or depression. Having a personal history with each of these certainly does not make me unique, but I read a quote recently from a TED talk that really struck me.
“We live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast. But if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way. We are so, so accepting of any body part breaking down other than our brains.”
Why? Why are we this way? I think it is because the brain is the most complex, most mysterious organ in the human body. There is so much that we don’t understand about it, so we shy away. When a body part is injured, we know how to fix it, partially because we can see it. When the brain is hurting, we don’t know what to do, because we can’t see it.
My story and struggle with anxiety and depression began my freshman year at Mississippi State. This was supposed to be such a fun time, yet I felt that most of my time was spent in the midst of this mental health battle. I stopped going to class, I withdrew myself from friends, and I didn’t want to see many people. I would make the occasional appearance at my sorority and at socials, but I turned down most invitations. I think that I was worried someone would notice I wasn’t doing well, and I didn’t want that, so I chose isolation instead. Naturally, my grades suffered, and the depression became worse. Looking back, I think I have always been prone to depression and I saw some hints of it growing up, but I stayed busy enough and involved enough and went to a small high school, so I suppose I was able to manage or even suppress it. At a large university, it was much simpler to become invisible.
However, I couldn’t become invisible to my family especially when I lived in the same town as them. I decided to let my parents in on some of the mental struggles I was having, and to this day I am thankful for their willingness to encourage me to see a counselor. I agreed to get help, and I am so grateful for the impact Dr. Jensen has had on my life. I want to stop here and encourage you today. If you are struggling, it is okay to see a counselor. There is nothing to be ashamed about. When you’ve broken your arm, you see a doctor. If you are struggling with anxiety and depression you need to prioritize yourself over what you fear others might think of you and seek help.
At this time, I was really beginning to seek the Lord and as I look back, it is evident that He placed my counselor in my life during this particular season. Having someone listen and tell you that your feelings are valid and that it is okay to be struggling was the catalyst I needed. As time went on, I stopped seeing Dr. Jensen on a regular basis and I figured I was “over the hump.” In 2011, two years later, I trusted that Jesus died on the cross, rose again on the third day, and conquered sin and the grave and with great joy was baptized at 20 years old. The joy I felt during this time was indescribable after struggling through dark places for so long. I truly understood the gospel and what Jesus did, for the first time in my life. I truly began to find my identity in Jesus and believing He is for me. I drew my self-worth from who He says I am, that I am a child of God.
However, my relationship with the Lord couldn’t be based on feelings alone. In 2013, my anxiety and depression returned at their all-time worst. I asked myself, “How could this be happening? I trust in Jesus. God has saved me.” I was naïve enough to think that after we have been saved, surely, we don’t go through things like this, and I felt that I must be doing something wrong as a Christian.
It was an incredibly dark season. I never thought that things like getting dressed and brushing my hair could feel like such daunting tasks. I was experiencing insomnia like never before, and then a severe depressive episode that followed the sleeplessness. After being saved, I had become heavily involved in serving at church and was even mentoring high school girls. Not anymore. I stopped all of that. I felt like such a burden on my family, my friends, and I felt like a complete failure at life, to be really honest. My body felt paralyzed. I will never forget when I was speaking to an elderly friend of mine and he said, “Dear, are you okay? Your eyes are different. They look so dark and sad.” This broke my heart. He was able to see the extreme sadness through my very own eyes. I remember the terrified look on my mom’s face when she was asking me questions, and I could not respond. I remember the look of devastation on my dad’s face when I told him how badly I was struggling mentally. I have never been more scared in my life. What was happening to me? After several months of fighting this harder than ever, I was more than ready to give up. I remember laying in the bed and my mom saying, “Don’t you dare let Satan win this. You are letting him win.” At that point, I was so exhausted and felt so worthless that I thought, “I guess I am.”
Then came the darkest moment in my 27 years. At 22 years old, I was ready to give up. I was so tired, and I somehow believed that it would be a relief to my parents and my brother if I was gone. These lies from the enemy were nearly overwhelming, and I locked myself in my mother's bathroom, intending to take my own life. Head on the bathroom counter. Heart racing. I was having what I thought would be some of my last conversations with God here on earth. I cried out and told Him how sorry I was for letting Him down and that I didn’t understand what was happening to me.
But then God showed up and showed out. He overwhelmed me with the memories of His continual and steadfast faithfulness in my life. His faithfulness through family issues; His faithfulness through an abusive relationship; His faithfulness in seeing me through the restoration of my identity in Him. His response was real, powerful, and filled with compassion. At that moment locked in the bathroom, Jesus showed up big in my life by reminding me of these truths. He rescued me from myself and convinced me that as long as there was breath in my lungs, He would not abandon me.
I managed to unlock the door and found my mom. She took me to MSU’s Counseling Services that day and I spent three nights at Baptist Hospital in Columbus. An experience I did not want anyone to ever know about at the time, but one that made me realize that it is okay to ask for help, that there are plenty of people around me with the resources I needed to get better. I sought help and never stopped telling myself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Fighting depression can be like trying to get myself to exercise. I tell myself, “Just put on your tennis shoes”, and then, “just take one step out the door”, and then the next thing I know I am out for a jog.
The Lord was working on me more than ever, and I am so thankful that I allowed Him to do so. I was single at this time and I was incredibly content with that. Jesus had my undivided attention, and I needed to be able to listen to Him and hear Him. He was making me healthy and whole. God brought such sweet friends into my life and I rekindled relationships with friends that I had let suffer. He then brought a man into my life who I thought was just going to be a friend. God was working on Him too, and it was beautiful to watch him grow and run after Him so hard. This man ended up becoming my husband and the father of my son. The two greatest earthly gifts God has given me thus far. To think I almost missed out on them is now unimaginable.
God has not taken away these struggles from my life completely, but struggling and suffering are a huge part of human life and most certainly the Christian life. I do not hold it against God for allowing me to struggle with anxiety and depression. His power is made perfect through my weakness; it draws me closer to Jesus and allows me to see how desperate I am for His grace and mercy every day.
I was shaken to read about a pastor in California named Andrew who recently took his own life. His wife wrote a beautiful letter, titled “To My Andrew”, just three days after his death. She wrote, “You were right all along. I truly didn’t understand the depths of your depression and anxiety. I didn’t understand how real and relentless spiritual attacks were. The pain, the fear, and the turmoil you must have been dealing with every single day is unimaginable. The enemy knew what an amazing man you were. The enemy knew God had huge plans for your life. The enemy saw how God was using your gifts, abilities, and unique teaching style to reach thousands of lives for Him. The enemy hated it and he pursued you incessantly. Taunting and torturing you in ways you were unable to express to anyone.” You can read her letter in its entirety at godsgotthis.org.
Church, do not ever be afraid to speak up if you are battling with mental illness. It is okay to not be okay, but what isn’t okay is to stay there. Spiritual warfare is real, and the enemy knows exactly what can take us down. Every morning, armor up. We need more lighthouses to shine brightly in the darkness, to shine brightly for Jesus. He doesn’t need us, but he wants us. He has created us to encourage, to love, and to help other people. You cannot do these things well if you are living in a dark place, crippled under a cloud of anxiety and depression. I challenge us all to put down our phones more and connect face to face with those around us. Ask the Lord to open our eyes to see people who need to be reminded of God’s promises to us and that God is FOR each and every one of us. I hope I am able to notice a difference in someone’s eyes like my elderly friend did in mine that day. If you are currently struggling with anxiety or depression, go put on your tennis shoes and take that first step out of the door. You have a life to live, a race to run.
If you need help or are struggling with depression or anxiety today, we are here for you. If you are having suicidal thoughts, get help right away.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text GO to 741-741
FBC Starkville Phone: 662-323-5633
FBC Starkville prayer text line: Text PRAYERFBC to 970-00