Real Talk: Mental Illness and Faith
How do you guys feel about a Real Talk post today? If that’s not your jam, cool, cool, just skip over this and carry on with your life. BUT for those who want to hang around, just a heads up: I want to talk for a little bit about mental health.
I’m guessing it’s pretty obvious from the themes I touch on in my books, and the fact that I’m an author (therefore a creative), that mental health is something very close to me, and something I really struggle with. It’s funny — I’m such a huge advocate for people knowing they’re not alone in their mental battles that I often forget the same is true for me.
So I figure it’s time to shed some light on my journey, if only in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it’ll help someone reading this.
Ten years ago, you could say I was a different person. I was 23 at the time, just finishing up uni, and ready to go out and make my mark on the world. I booked my first ever overseas trip and I took off on what was meant to be a glorious 6-12 months post-uni gap year adventure around Europe. I was fearless — literally, fearless.
But then something changed. Something shifted.
The first day of my overseas adventure was spent at a hospital in London getting checked for blood clots after the long-haul flight. Now, that sounds a bit strange, right? Well, I had the awkward timing of getting a deep tissue massage the day before my flight, having read somewhere that it helps limber you up and make the long travel experience easier on your body. Unfortunately, my masseur was a bit too deep on the deep tissue, and by the time I landed in the UK, there were massive bruises all up and down my legs, enough to freak me out — especially since I’d read all about blood clots (DVT) prior to my trip.
So my first ever blood test was done by a foreign man in a foreign hospital in a foreign country. (Tangent related story: he was this huge African doctor, and I was so exhausted and so terrified and so convinced that I was dying that I burst out crying in his ER consultation room — cue mortification — and he just passed me some tissues and petted my hand and said in his rumbling, accented voice, “You know, where I’m from, we don’t have clean needles. You would probably get AIDS from this.” And he waved the syringe around, thinking I was worried about the needle and not at all helping with my anxiety, but it was enough of a distraction to calm me in the moment — true story!). On top of all that, I had no way to contact home because I couldn’t get a SIM card to work in my phone, and this was in the days before mobiles had easy access to the internet, so I couldn’t just FaceTime or bring up WhatsApp or anything. I had to wait until I was back at my hostel (hours later) before I could pay to use their public computers and contact my family. (It’s actually amazing how much technology has changed in just ten years!)
That first day sucked — a lot — but when my blood work finally came back, I was cleared of blood clots, and told to go and enjoy myself. I set out from the hospital, exhausted but exhilarated and ready to restart my adventure.
And I did.
For all of one week.
I had one good week before I got sick.
Not just “Ugh, I feel gross” sick, but coughing-up-blood kind of sick. By then, I’d spent some time in London, Oxford, Stratford-Upon-Avon (hello, Shakespeare), and Chester, and I was about to head up into Scotland, which I was so excited for. Given how unwell I was beginning to feel, I weighed up whether I should continue north, especially since it was so cold (and would only be colder the further up I travelled), and I hadn’t packed for that kind of freak weather. It was April so it should have been more temperate, but that year the UK experienced an unexpected cold snap (including snow) just as I arrived with my backpack full of jeans and tees (*insert eye roll here*). I decided that I might as well continue on, though, especially since I’d already booked my ticket on the Hogwarts Express (not called that, but that’s what the train from London to Edinburgh felt like!) and had my hostel booked.
So up I went.
To this day, Edinburgh is my favourite city in the world. It’s so beautiful, like stepping into a fairytale.
The problem is, I didn’t get to experience any of it.
I was meant to be there for 3 days. I spent those 3 days in a 12-bunk dorm (not advised) right next to the castle (that part was amazing), and I basically spent the entire time in bed. After those 3 days, I was meant to continue even higher and do a 3-5 day tour of the Highlands, which I had been so looking forward to. But I was just too sick to move, to the point that I only dragged myself out of bed to go to the Royal Infirmary (ie. the Edinburgh hospital). So that’s two foreign hospital trips within 10 days.
There were two lovely German girls staying in the same dorm as me, and I’ll never forget them and their kindness while I was all but dying. They went out and bought me bottles of water and soup and paracetamol, and one of them even called her doctor mother to find out what kind of over-the-counter medicine might help me. (Since the hospital just told me I probably had a virus and there was nothing they could do — no tests, no caring that I was coughing up blood and could barely stand… at the time, it was at the tail end of the swine flu, so perhaps they just assumed that was it). So I’ll be forever grateful to those two girls, because no only did they come to my aid, but they also put up with me coughing through the night and interrupting their sleep (along with the other people in the 12-bed dorm).
This sickness stayed with me long enough that I had to cancel my Highlands trip (devastating), and since I wasn’t getting any rest in the hostel with so many people coming and going (and I was acutely aware of disturbing them all with me being so sick), I splurged and booked myself into a B&B for two nights. That might not sound like “splurging”, but I had no money. I’d saved (and borrowed) enough for a very cheap backpacking trip, and my daily budget didn’t allow for B&Bs, not if I wanted my funds to stretch for 6-12 months. But desperate times…
The B&B ended up being a total miracle since I was able to get hot water (which had been limited at the hostel) and a quiet room for rest. I was still really sick, but I also felt a little human again.
From the Highlands (which I missed), I was meant to jump over to Ireland, but instead, I scrapped my plans and went back down to London, hoping that the “warmer” weather (comparatively) might help me heal faster, so that I could then continue over to continental Europe, as intended.
That plan didn’t end up working out — if anything, I kept getting sicker. I ended up at an NHS walk-in centre (a medical centre) in London, and they also did nothing but recommend some over-the-counter meds (without any testing), and by that stage, I was honestly ready to beg someone to check me into a hospital, that’s how sick I was.
And it was at that point that I realised I was done.
I was 2 weeks into my “amazing adventure” and I was miserable. I decided that my best course of action was to fly home and give my body a chance to recover, then venture back once I was healthy again.
But then the volcano went off.
I’m not kidding — the Icelandic volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) erupted, halting all air traffic. So I was literally stranded, sick, and without accommodation.
… For another four weeks.
I’m going to skip those four weeks since they’re irrelevant to this story other than for me to say that I remained incredibly sick that whole time — and then continued to be ill for another three months once I finally made it home to Australia.
Yup, you read that right. And I still have no idea what was wrong with me, since by the time I got home, I just wanted to curl up and never see another doctor again.
And I didn’t, for two years.
Those two years were full of bliss. They included a lot of changes in my life, my friends, my world, and all of them wonderful. (I also started writing books in that time, which led me to where I am today.)
But then… two years of wonder shattered in a moment.
The day before I was about to get on my first plane since that traumatic overseas trip, I became convinced — convinced — that I had a blood clot in my leg. Never mind that I literally had no reason in the world to have a blood clot, I was positive that I had one, and that it was going to move to my lungs/heart/brain/whatever and I was going to die.
So I had a blood test — and it came back positive.
My world stopped.
That’s the only way I can think to describe that moment.
Now, I should pause here to mention that, prior to that day, I’d never had to face any kind of major health concern. Yes, plenty of injuries and broken bones and stitches and even surgeries (I grew up riding horses), but nothing that made me feel so totally and completely out of control, almost like my body was my enemy.
The problem is, I later discovered, that the blood test they did was so vague that anything could have made it be “positive” — from something as small as a mosquito bite, to something more serious (like I feared). So they ordered an ultrasound, and they expedited it since I was meant to hop on a plane the next day.
The ultrasound came back clear, the doc told me to enjoy my trip… but I couldn’t.
I couldn’t go.
I didn’t go.
I was frozen. I was completely paralysed by fear. I couldn’t reconcile the blood test results, and was certain that something was wrong with me. So much so that my body began symptomising what I feared, making me have pains in my leg as if I did have a blood clot.
Something to mention here was that it was 2 years — to the day — since that overseas nightmare trip, and, as already mentioned, it was about to be my first flight since I’d returned. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was experiencing was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which spiralled very quickly into an unshakable anxiety disorder coupled with extreme hypervigilance.
It was… not wonderful.
The next six months became a black hole for me. I have only the vaguest memories of them, of going about my days in a fog of constant terror, certain every night that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. My mum had to fly over from Perth to keep an eye on me for the first two weeks because I was basically catatonic with dread. I remember having conversations with people where I would see their lips moving and I knew they were talking to me, but I had no idea what they were saying because I was so stuck and “lost” in my own head that I couldn’t pull myself out of the foggy, terror-riddled darkness.
Somehow, I still managed to function, even in those six months, though I have no idea how. I was referred to a psychologist, but because I’d studied a lot of counselling therapies at uni as part of my degree, I already had the theoretical “knowledge” in my head, but I struggled with putting it into practice. Plus, I won’t lie, I felt so stupid. I’m a rational, logical enough person to know that worrying about something doesn’t change it. But there was just such a disconnect within me — I knew there was no point in having anxiety, but despite that, I couldn’t not be anxious.
It was… exhausting. I was so, so, so tired, trying to fight an invisible battle, hour after hour, day after day.
Six months into the black hole, I decided that I had to at least try and break out of it. I had to find some semblance of my old life, grasp onto that, and push through in at least one, small way.
So I started writing again. I remember thinking, “This is my dream; I refuse to let go of it.”
It was a lifeline for me, and bit by bit, I slowly started to edge out of the black hole.
But the anxiety remained — I just learned how to deal with it a bit better.
This was eight years ago.
I wish I could say things had improved since then, I really do.
Some days are good. Some days are great. Thankfully, I have more good days than bad days… but I do still have bad days. Sometimes really bad days.
Mental illness sucks, guys. It’s irrational, and can strike at anyone out of the blue for no reason. Who’d have thought that one unpleasant “holiday” would come back to bite me two years later? When I think of PTSD, I envision soldiers who have gone to war and seen (and done) horrific things. That’s stressful and traumatic — in comparison, what I went through was a total non-event. And yet, my mind turned it into my very own kind of battleground: an immovable mountain of shadows, a nightmare that hit me out of nowhere… and decided to hang around.
The truth is, despite everything I’ve written here, I’m lucky in so many ways. While I’ve had little success with therapy, and I’ve chosen not to take anti-anxiety medication in case it stifles my creativity (a very hard decision that I still grapple with, since I love the idea of numbing the fears, believe me), there is something that I do have, that helps me more than anything else ever could. Or, not so much something, as someone.
If you’ve read my acknowledgements in any of my books, you’ll know I’m Christian. My faith is really important to me, and all of my books are filled with Biblical elements and themes if you choose to look for them (eg. the Library as the God-figure in The Medoran Chronicles, and the entire premise of Whisper being about the power of life and death in our words)… and honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything that I’ve done in the last few years without God giving me the strength and courage to keep moving forward, one step at a time.
Some of you reading this would have come to see me at events. I’m bubbly, right? I smile a lot, I laugh a lot, I seem super confident and talkative and friendly and just, all of those upbeat, positive things, right? Well, more often than not, I’m also terrified. During my Vardaesia launch tour last year, which was like 17 events in 15 days, I had a pain in my stomach for pretty much the whole time, and I was so freaking afraid that something was seriously wrong with me. My anxiety was at an all time high (to the point that my stomach was literally in knots, and after one of the events I even had to go back to my hotel room and curl up in a ball on my bed, shaking violently from fear)… but I got through it, and I did it smiling with no one having any idea that I was in pain, or scared out of my mind — and I only managed that because God was holding my hand.
I know, I know, 95% of you are rolling your eyes right now. “Oh, jeez, not another one of those crazy religious people,” you’re probably thinking. And that’s cool, you’re free to think what you want. But as for me, my faith is what helps me when the dark days come. And, honesty moment, they come a lot. It’s not just anxiety; sometimes it’s depression, and it’s almost always some form of obsessive compulsive catastrophising. There’s loneliness, abandonment, self-criticism, and deep-seated insecurities, among too many other things to list, all like little (big!) arrows shooting directly into me — all the time.
Part of it, I know, is because I’m a creative, and creatives tend to be rather sensitive to mental illness, since our brains are just wired that way. Yay for powerful imaginations (*sigh*). But having a reason for mental illness doesn’t take it away.
And, I’m not gonna lie, sometimes having faith through it is really hard, too. At least, in the sense of, if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He just take my anxiety away? Take my fears and my sadness and loneliness and whatever I’m dealing with — why doesn’t He step in and make everything all sunshine and butterflies?
That’s a great question, and one that I wonder about a lot.
I wish I could tell you my answer, but I’m still trying to figure it out. But… isn’t that what faith is? Believing in something even when you don’t understand it? Like, I fly in a heap of planes, but I have no idea how they work — I just have to have faith that the engineers built those things properly, and faith that the pilots know how to fly them. Just because I don’t understand the mechanics doesn’t mean they’re not real. The same is true for God — I don’t understand why He does (or doesn’t do) some things, but that doesn’t mean He’s not real. I’m just… not an engineer, or a pilot.
I’m just me.
Some people think faith is a crutch, that only those with weak minds or low intellect or insert-insult-of-choice-here believe in. I get that — sometimes it’s easier to believe God isn’t real than it is to wonder why bad things happen in this world. Wars, disease, famine… those are all awful, so why does God allow them? And what about the other things a bit closer to home? What about your dog being run over by a car, your friends abandoning you, your boss firing you, your child being diagnosed with leukaemia… where is God in these things?
For me specifically, where was God when I was hit by PTSD? Where was God in the 8 years I’ve battled with anxiety ever since? Where was God when I was so tense from that anxiety that I inflamed my spine and couldn’t sit down — for four years — which meant I couldn’t meet up with friends in social environments, and I therefore lost pretty much all of them, leaving me completely alone with only my dark, terrified mind for company?
Seriously — where was God in my own personal nightmare of the last 8 years?
Doubt says God isn’t real.
Doubt says, if God is real, then He doesn’t care.
Faith says God was with me — is with me — every moment. For every fear I feel, He’s whispering in my ear, “Don’t be afraid, I’ve got this. It’ll all work out for good in the end — you mightn’t be able to see it now, but one day you’ll understand. Just trust me.”
God is the pilot of my life — He’s the one flying the plane. And while I mightn’t like it at all when He lets me fly into storms (eeek), I just have to remember that He knows what He’s doing, and He’ll get me through those clouds to the rainbow on the other side.
Yes, okay, it might get a bit bumpy. Mental illness is bumpy — it’s up, down, and all around. There’s turbulence, good days and bad days. But as long as I remember that I don’t have to fly the plane, that someone else is in control and knows exactly what they’re doing, then I can breathe a little easier.
To me, that’s faith. Or at least, it’s my faith. I can’t speak for anyone else.
And, honestly, it’s really hard to hold onto that faith, especially when I enter those turbulent times.
But… can you imagine if I tried to bust my way into the cockpit and sat myself in the pilot’s chair and tried to fly that plane myself? Yikes, that’s not a good idea. And yet, that’s what so many of us try to do (me included — what can I say, I’m a total control freak).
I’m not writing this as some kind of preachy-preachy message, I just wanted to be real with you and share my journey from the last few years. Mental illness didn’t just affect my mind — it changed my life, in every single way. But… for as much as I hate it, there has been so much good come out of it, things I never would have experienced, people I never would have met, lives I never would have touched. I mean… if you’ve read my books, you’ll know. You’ll know. And I know you know, because you email me, and you message me, and you share your hearts with me, your stories with me, and you reveal your brokenness and how my characters and their journeys have helped you in yours.
All of that? It’s because of what I’ve gone through in the last 8 years.
It’s sucked… but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Because it gave me The Medoran Chronicles. It gave me Whisper. And it’s given me The Prison Healer — and everything else that’s coming in the future.
It gave me you — and, if I may be so bold, it gave you me.
Remember what I said at the beginning about how I’m always telling people that they’re not alone? Well, it’s true. And I hope some part of everything I’ve written here helps you feel that, even just a little bit. I hope it breaks into your own darkness, filling the shadows with light. Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you have your own faith journey (though, I mean, what does it hurt to give it a shot, if you’ve never tried? If you’re willing to give Jesus a chance to be your “pilot”, shoot me through a message and I’ll help point you in the right direction!), we’re all in this together. Life is a little bit less scary when you do it side-by-side with others. After all, a battle is best fought with an army. There’s power in numbers. And for anyone struggling with mental illness, your mind is your battleground, so conscript the people around you for help. They’re your army — your friends, your family. So let them help you fight your nightmares.
… And if you don’t have anyone, then take heart, because for 8 years, I felt like I didn’t have anyone, and here I am, still standing, still fighting. Just, whatever you do, don’t give up. Because you have an incredible future ahead of you — just wait, you’ll see.
Right! On that note, I’m going to finish up, but I want to leave you with some of my favourite quotes from The Medoran Chronicles. Don’t worry if you haven’t read that series, there’s nothing spoilery in these, but hopefully you’ll find comfort and encouragement from them:
“All you can do is live in the moment and choose not to worry about what the future may bring.” – Draekora
“You can’t change what happened… All you can do is decide how you’ll react to it.” – Draekora
“Don’t waste today by fearing tomorrow, for tomorrow will come whether you’re ready for it or not.” – Draekora
“Don’t fear the shadows. Make the shadows fear you.” – Graevale
“On the days when you feel most alone, rather than dwelling on what you don’t have, instead consider what might lie ahead.” – We Three Heroes
“You are much too special to live a life defined by the opinions of others.” – We Three Heroes
“Some scars never heal. But even the scars we consider ugly can be beautiful when we look at them in the right light. When we see not what was done to us, but what we overcame.” – We Three Heroes
“Tomorrow is a new day. Your light will shine again.” – Vardaesia
“Don’t lose hope before we’ve even begun.” – Vardaesia
“What matters most is how we cope in the face of our suffering; that we get up and keep trying, remembering that each new day is a new opportunity for something to change; for something better to happen.” – Vardaesia
Hope was all she had left, but it was enough. Because in a future filled with uncertainty, hope was everything. – Vardaesia
Her past didn’t define her. It never had. She had fallen and she had failed, but she had never given up—and she wasn’t going to now. – Vardaesia
“Don’t doubt in darkness what you believed in times of light.” – Vardaesia
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