“The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
The post this week is sobering, but relevant.
(Please be advised: This post centers on a sensitive and difficult topic. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to one of our pastoral staff or call 1-800-273-8255.)
Monday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day, and this past week was National Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is the the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and one of three leading causes that are currently on the rise (CDC Newsroom). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of suicide have been increasing in nearly every state. In Washtenaw County, youth suicides hit an alarming number in 2016, with 16 reported deaths in the area as compared to two the year before. Just this past June, two high-profile celebrities committed suicide within days of each other. And on Netflix, a show has drawn controversy for its dramatization of teen suicide.
Suicide is a serious issue that impacts lives far beyond the person who chose to take their own life. When we hear about a suicide, or are directly impacted by a suicide in our own lives, often our first question is “Why?” When it is someone close to us, that question may be followed closely by “What could or should I have done to prevent this from happening?”
A few years ago, I lost a cousin to suicide. The last time I had seen him was when I was 16 during a family trip to the Philippines. I remember him as smiling and energetic, a leader among our group of cousins, seen by all of us as a big brother and friend. It came as such a shock to us to hear the news. One of my greatest regrets is that I hadn’t really reached out to him in all of our years connected through social media.
Relationship issues, financial stresses, substance abuse and misuse, health problems, life transitions and depression contribute to the decision to commit suicide, issues often hidden from people closest to the person struggling. Awareness is critical for people to understand the warning signs of suicide and take action to prevent it, as well as help those in pain discover hope and seek the support they need.
I am thankful for the efforts that people have made to raise awareness and provide resources to prevent suicide, in part because of how they have impacted my own life. From a young age, I had struggled with thoughts of ending my life. It was a battle largely fought in darkness, to the point where I didn’t realize that I was in a fight. But a few years ago, I claimed freedom from those thoughts and have permanently erased suicide as an option for life’s stresses and struggles. I found that freedom in Christ, and because of Him, I never want to go back to my old ways.
“God is STILL in the business of redemption.” -To Write Love on Her Arms, a nonprofit presenting hope and helping people find freedom from depression, addiction, and suicide
As I was contemplating how to write on the subject of mental health and depression, and my own journey in mental health, I must admit I felt some trepidation about sharing. Although I’m sharing from a place of greater hope than ever before, the process has been messy. I’ve had to admit that I’ve been broken, prideful, and needed help. Even now, I must continue to arm myself daily to renew my mind and align with Truth. But as with our friends who have shared their story the past few weeks, I can say that in my weakness, Christ’s power is made perfect, and we can declare that when we are weak, we are strong (2 Cor. 12: 9-10).
One of the reasons that thoughts of suicide became a recurring issue, a spiritual stronghold that had a grip on my mind, was deep rooted feelings of shame- this unbearable discomfort being in my own skin. Shame felt like wearing an ugly, itchy turtleneck sweater (not the cute Christmas kind, either). I didn’t know how to take it off, it felt like a part of me. When I was in public, I thought everyone was looking at me and judging me. I felt constantly “hot under the collar”, isolated, alone, misunderstood. I lashed out at people, albeit passively most of the time, thinking they were to blame for how I felt.
I believed I was unloveable and unlovely, to the point where I chose to find my identity in being different, a “contrarian,” just plain weird sometimes. I was still loved, but I didn’t really love myself. And ultimately, I wasn’t really being myself- I was defining myself as the opposite of people around me. I judged people who I felt ashamed or inferior around, because they were supposedly part of the in-crowd, the cool people. I believed that “they” were the problem, so of course the logical solution was to do the opposite of what they were doing. It goes almost without saying- it was an ugly business.
Through my time in the college ministry at Antioch, I learned that what I was giving into was a “victim mentality,” a belief system in which I saw myself as powerless against my life circumstances and that others were to blame. When I realized that the problem was my own mind, I knew that something needed to change. Growing up, my inquisitive nature and skepticism often seemed like a barrier to faith. But when my paradigm shifted, where before I distrusted the authority of scripture, I clung to it for dear life. I began to observe others who seemed to have a confidence that I lacked and sought mentorship. I acknowledged my insecurities and strove to embrace people who I felt inferior around. My faith in Christ grew stronger, and where I once had intellectual barriers to knowing Christ, I found myself in a place of surrender. I was encountering Him, and finding freedom that I had never experienced before. At last, it seemed, I no longer wore that “sweater of shame.”
It wasn’t until the discipleship school the year after I graduated from college, however, that I realized that suicide was still an option in my mind. When I was in a stressful situation, my go-to reaction was that feeling of shame, and my primary coping mechanism was a desire to take my own life - to unburden people around me from my weakness and flaws. Whoa! I realized. That isn’t truth! That isn’t fullness of life in Christ! Worse than that, that stronghold was undermining the work of Christ in my own life to love others. All I wanted to do was to love those around me, and this stronghold was keeping me from fulfilling my heart’s desire.
Recognizing that spiritual stronghold of suicidal ideation helped me seek out the tools to break it down once and for all. I prayed and sought prayer, sought further counsel, sought words of affirmation, clung to promises. And ultimately, chose to stand on the Truth (see Ephesians 6:10-13). To live is Christ, to die is gain. And while God has given me life, I will give it in His service.
My hope in sharing this part of my story is that those who read this and recognize themselves in it will seek support and find freedom. My story is an affirmation that “the truth will set you free.” I don’t want anyone in the body of Christ to be sidelined by mental health issues, regardless of how they manifest themselves in our lives. Note: mental health is not introspection- dwelling on your own thoughts and feelings. It’s a posture of the heart as well as the mind before God, and in so doing, seeing yourself rightly in relation to others. By clinging to the Word, and continuously receiving and sharing Truth, we are engaging in the fight and holding our ground against darkness. And in so doing, positioning ourselves to step into the impossible with God.
About the Author: Gabby found her way to Michigan while following Jesus, and is now positively "smitten with (and in) the Mitten". She and her husband live a cozy, simple life in Belleville, where they eat home cooked meals and watch Star Trek. Gabby recently graduated with her Masters of Social Work at the University of Michigan and continues to teach kids to climb at the Ann Arbor rock climbing gym.