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Spirit Story

A light in the darkness

By Debbie McMillan

I have depression along with an anxiety disorder. Like one in five Canadians, I am a person with mental illness.  

When I started to get sick, it was November of a tempestuous year. Our church had completed its accessibility project. While we did it without incurring debt, our emotions paid a price. There were arguments. Tension in a small community doesn’t easily subside.

Just as things were settling down, I received an anonymous text message. I didn’t recognize the number, but I knew the content way too well. It was the “n” word, sent on a Sunday morning. Who would do that? Who had my private cell number? Was I safe? My mind began its liturgy of anxiety.

By Christmas, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to leave the safety of my bed. I didn’t look forward to the day. I was defensive and angry. By January, I couldn’t connect with anyone, couldn’t even make eye contact. Friends, family and congregants asked me what was wrong. I told them I was just tired.

People offered advice: everything from “take vitamins” to “have more fun.” We’ve all given that kind of advice. We know it’s not the result of careful or care-filled listening. When a person is feeling down, their mood impacts ours. We don’t want to be affected, so we offer quick fixes. But compassion means “to suffer with.” If we’re honest, do we really want to sit with someone during a panic attack, to hold them as they sob?

Who would want to sit with Elijah (1 Kings:19)? He had God on his side, but Elijah couldn’t focus on the miracles God had performed through him. All he could hear was the voice of Jezebel, who threatened to kill him. Afraid, he fled from her, from his call and from himself.

Then depression took hold. Elijah stopped functioning. He spoke into the darkness of a densely shaded broom tree, saying, “O Lord, take away my life.”

In 2009, according to Statistics Canada, 3,890 Canadians took their own lives. And more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a mental disorder, usually depression.

Like Elijah’s, my anxiety became depression. And while I didn’t find the dense shade of a broom tree, I found a dark parking lot in my community. I turned off my car and sat in the dark. I could see my breath swirling in clouds as I wept, my tears stinging my cheeks. I closed my eyes and said, “God, if I can’t do this anymore — this life, this ministry — then just take my life because I’m useless.”

When I opened my eyes, I became aware of something unexpected. I had been so focused on my own darkness that I missed what was sitting right in front of me: a lighthouse. It was made of ice and had been built for a winter festival. In the pre-dawn hours, that lighthouse was glowing — the whole lighthouse, not just its light in the top. In that moment, I knew I was staring into the Light of God. It began to burn away the shadows in my mind.

Over the following months, a combination of medication, exercise, rest, spiritual disciplines and therapy helped me recover. But what I had experienced is best expressed in the words of another prophet, Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”

Rev. Debbie McMillan is a minister at Unity United in Vasey, Ont.

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