Staying Right-Side Up While Feeling Upside Down

February 04, 2019

Cheryl’s experience of a mental health breakdown taught her valuable lessons that can help others.

By Cheryl Downey

M

y entire life I have been surrounded by Christians. Born into a wonderful Christian family where my parents regularly took me to Sunday school and church, they taught me that serving God was the only way to experience true satisfaction. My parents had been saved a few years before I was born, and their testimony of how God put their broken home back together after it had been destroyed by sin made a big impact on me. I always had a tender heart and a desire to be a Christian. At age eighteen, I surrendered my life to God and promised to follow Him with all of my heart.

Just before my nineteenth birthday, I married a wonderful Christian man, and we found that serving God together was a great advantage in building a successful marriage. In time we welcomed two sons and a daughter into our home. Even though our daughter had serious special needs, God was a match for every situation, and He carried us through the challenges of raising a family.

When our oldest son graduated from high school, our family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for my husband’s first pastorate. After nine-and-a-half years in the Midwest, we moved back to the West Coast. Both of our sons married Christian women, and we were thrilled when we became grandparents.

Things turned upside down

Over the years, we have experienced numerous mountain tops and valleys in life, and God always saw us through. More recently, I faced a new type of valley that deeply affected my thoughts and mind. Based on my life experiences, my understanding was that depression and anxiety could be overcome by prayer and trusting in God. Although that can be true, I did not understand that severe anxiety and depression can also be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, I had always thought that conditions such as these were the result of a sinful lifestyle or bad choices, but then one day it happened to me.

My husband and I had just celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary, and while on vacation, I experienced a disturbing incident that triggered unsettling physical symptoms, including loss of appetite, stomach pains, and what I later learned were panic attacks. These symptoms escalated into a severe anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and ultimately a complete breakdown. Leaving the house was a struggle, and even the simplest tasks such as choosing something to wear or preparing a meal were challenging. I had trouble reading anything, including the Bible, and my concentration level was low. Disturbing images and phrases raced through my mind and caused me to cry out in agony. In the past I had always enjoyed being around people, but at that point I just wanted to hide away.

The situation left me devastated. I was unable to understand how something like this could happen to me when I had dedicated myself to God and was trying to fulfill His will in my life.

The situation left me devastated. I was unable to understand how something like this could happen to me when I had dedicated myself to God and was trying to fulfill His will in my life. Believing I had let down my family and my church, I felt like a total failure. But looking back now, I can see where God was always there, even in the darkest times. There were a few places where I would retreat for times of prayer, and on many occasions, God would meet me in a very special way to let me know that He was carrying me through. During those difficult days and sleepless nights, it was hard to feel God’s presence in the midst of anxiety and depression, but on my knees in prayer, I knew He was right there with me.

The difference between the physical and spiritual mind

Through this experience, I began to understand the difference between the physical mind and the spiritual mind. The physical mind is impacted by hormones, chemical imbalances, and brain plaques, all of which can deteriorate one’s mental health. Yet even when the physical mind is under attack, the spiritual mind can remain strong and committed to God. I have seen this in cases of people with Alzheimer’s disease. They may not remember much or recognize faces, but they can still recite Scripture and sing hymns when prompted. I also experienced this personally when God’s presence surrounded me in the midst of anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness as I cried out to Him.

I am thankful for the medical assistance that was available to me during that time, and although it was helpful, I am even more thankful for the physical, cognitive, and spiritual healing that God provided as I earnestly sought Him in prayer. He replaced my negative thought patterns that were so prevalent with thoughts of gratitude and thanksgiving for His healing and restoration.

Steps to help yourself

For anyone who is experiencing mental health challenges at any level, there is hope! As you seek God for the solution, these actions and decisions which helped me may also be useful to you.

  • Do not give up. God knows where you are, and He will hold on to you as you go through the dark valley. There were many times when I felt that I could not go on, but when I poured out my heart to God, He gave me a glimmer of hope that I would one day reach the other side of the dark hole I was in.
  • Keep going to church. No matter what you are going through, be in church whenever possible, and surround yourself with those who will pray with you and uplift you with God’s promises. During my darkest times, I struggled with going to church and being around people, but at the same time, I knew that being with God’s people and having others pray with me was what I needed. As hard as it was, I found that after each service and prayer time, I felt the strength and courage to keep going.
  • Focus on God’s Word. Write down a Scripture promise that you can recite to yourself daily. One of my favorite verses to recite was Isaiah 41:10, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” Since fear was a disturbing side effect of my illness, this Scripture was a great comfort to me as I held on to God and His promises. I found that repeating key Bible verses out loud during my prayer times helped me feel closer to God, and meditating on His promises could also relax the tension that accompanies anxiety and depression.

Steps to help others

As a result of my experience with mental health problems, God has made me more compassionate and understanding, and caused me to look for opportunities to offer hope to others who are going through difficult situations. I believe that by reaching out to those who are struggling with their mental health, Christians can make the difference between despair and victory in someone’s life. Having been through it myself, these were the actions of others that were the most helpful to me.

  • Reach out in some way. I am so grateful for my church family who reached out to me during my breakdown. Numerous people sent encouraging cards with assurances that they were praying for me. Others reached out to me personally with phone calls or encounters at church. Their encouragement inspired me to keep going no matter how tough it was, believing that there were better days ahead.
  • Don’t assume the problem is due to spiritual weakness. It is vital to remember that mental health problems are often physiological, and can be the result of physical imbalances, hormonal changes, or other factors. While all suffering is the result of our fallen world, a mental breakdown can happen to those who love God with all their hearts, just as cancer or other diseases can.
  • Listen. Just giving a listening ear can often help those who are suffering from a mental health failure. Even if you cannot understand everything they are going through, you can be a calming force by quietly listening and showing that you care about their situation.
  • Affirm God’s Word. We may not know how or why a disease is affecting someone, but we can provide a Biblical perspective by reminding them of the certainty of God’s power and love. There were many promises from God’s Word that I clung to in my distress, and God proved Himself faithful. We can encourage others to hold on in faith as well.
  • Encourage a holistic approach. While seeking God for spiritual growth and healing is an important part of recovery, it is also helpful to encourage the one suffering from mental problems to seek help physically and emotionally. The help I received from the medical field gave me the tools to strengthen my faith and build my relationship with God.

Today, I have recovered from the debilitating symptoms brought on by a mental breakdown, and I can truly give God the glory for bringing me through to the other side! There is not a day that goes by that I do not thank God for giving me victory. He was my Rock and Fortress during this devastating time in my life, and I know He will be there to carry me through whatever comes my way! And He will also be there to help anyone else who honestly looks to Him for help.

About the author

Cheryl Downey is on the editorial staff at the Apostolic Faith headquarters office in Portland, Oregon.