Daniel Whitehead interviewing Elli Johnson on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Elli Johnson

Elli JohnsonPodcast, Podcast COVID

Mental Health, Faith, and COVID-19 with Elli Johnson from Sanctuary Mental Health on Vimeo.

Episode Description:

Mental health advocate and author, Elli Johnson, discusses parenting during the pandemic, accepting limits, allowing our emotions to move through us, and the therapeutic value of tears. She shares candidly about the challenges of finding a home in the Church, where works are often prioritized, as a person who has rejected the message that we need to perform to be worthy of acceptance.

Running time: 45:52

Release date: May 22, 2020

Update on The Sanctuary Podcast:

During these extraordinary times, while we can’t be with each other physically, we can reach out through screens and over phones, and we can share our stories with each other. Join Sanctuary’s CEO, Daniel Whitehead, as he interviews pastors, front line workers, ministry leaders, and friends about their experience of the pandemic and where they are making meaning and finding hope in the ups and downs of this season.

Resources mentioned in the show:

How Not to Be Good, Elli Johnson

Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Daily Lives, Wayne Muller

GCSE: General Certificate of Secondary Education

Postnatal/Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Renew Wellbeing

“The Speed of Love,” John Swinton

Elli Johnson’s website

Elli Johnson’s instagram

The Sanctuary Course

Faith, Grief, and COVID-19

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Daniel Whitehead: Okay so welcome to The Sanctuary Podcast, my name is Daniel Whitehead, I am the CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and during COVID-19 I’m also your host for this podcast. Our whole vision for this podcast in this season is that we connect with friends of Sanctuary’s—people around the world who are doing great work in the whole intersection of mental health and faith, and people with a story to tell, and we just really want to drill into their story, and hear how they’re doing in this time. Today we’re joined by a really good friend of mine, Elli Johnson. Elli is based in Liverpool, England. Elli is an author, she’s written one excellent book called How Not To Be Good, which I have read and it is a really, really good book, she’s got another book brewing which maybe she’ll tell us about. Yeah Elli, though she lives in Liverpool, is not from Liverpool, as you’ll hear from her accent if you’re accustomed to British accents as I am, she is not a Liverpudlian, but just Elli has an amazing story and does amazing work, and we’re delighted to have her with us. Hi Elli.

Elli Johnson: Hi.

Daniel Whitehead: So Elli COVID-19.

Elli Johnson: Yes.

Daniel Whitehead: How’s that going?

Elli Johnson: Well it’s going, I feel like there’s not really a one answer to that is there, because every day, although the day involves all of the same things as the day before, and the day after—well emotionally from one day to the next, whether it’s me, my husband, my children, who knows what we’re going to get really. But yeah we’re doing okay overall I would say, we’re doing pretty good.

Daniel Whitehead: And how many children, tell everyone your sort of home situation at the moment Elli.

Elli Johnson: So I am married, been married for twenty years this summer, and I have—we have three kids, two girls who are fifteen and thirteen, and a son who’s ten.

Daniel Whitehead: Okay.

Elli Johnson: And we all are in our house at the moment, obviously. My husband doesn’t normally work from home, whereas I do, and he has taken over my study, and I am in the spare room, because that’s what happens when he needs to work.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, wow.

Elli Johnson: Yeah quite a sacrifice on my part.

Daniel Whitehead: Was that a, was that a happy agreement, like.

Elli Johnson: It was a necessary agreement, I don’t think happy is the word I would use. It was fine, it was, it was, it makes most sense because I’m writing, and can organize my own time and I have occasional—but not very often—need for Zoom calls and all the rest of it, and I’m also the one doing the lion’s share of the home schooling, and he is on different Zoom calls with people he works with, and with clients and people he works with all day long, from nine in the morning till six in the evening, so him being in a room with the door shut, away from the noise of the rest of us works better, although I did feel quite sad giving up my space.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, well yeah tell me about that.

Elli Johnson: Well it’s just, to be honest when, I think it was probably a week or ten days before we went into actual lockdown, when it started looking like schools were going to close, and I realized that before I realized that also that was going to be—my husband was going to be working from home. And I’m not sure which I found more distressing if I’m perfectly honest. It’s one thing to be at home on my own with kids, which is what happens most of the holidays, apart from the time that my husband has off work. It’s another thing altogether for us all to be together, and also be trying to do the different things that we want to do, all in one space all the time. I think there was a bit of grieving about what this season was going to look like for me. I’m, as you said, I’m in the process of trying to write my second book, and I was just really getting my teeth into it, and I had sort of a plan that I was going to get this first draft written by, well the end of this month was my plan. That’s not happening, and so there has been a process of gradually accepting the limits of what are possible, and actually being okay with that. And I think that for all of us, in our house for me, my husband and my kids, my eldest daughter was meant to be sitting her GCSEs this summer, and when we found out those exams were cancelled that was—I mean, I cannot remember the last time, it sounds ridiculous really, but I cannot remember the last time I felt so utterly devastated for her really. Because she’s a really hard worker and she was in her last—she’ll be moving schools in September so it was her last term at this school that she’s been at since she was five, and they’re a great year group, and they’ve been working really hard, and it’s that whole thing that we’re aiming towards this thing, that you’re being told for years and years is really important, it’s really important, it’s really important, and then all of a sudden it’s just like oh it doesn’t matter and it’s gone, and that kind of just like—and I, when we heard she, we were listening to the news and we heard Boris Johnson announce that all exams, GCSEs, A Levels, all exams were being cancelled, and she ran downstairs into the kitchen—she just went is it true, is it true, is it true, and I was like I’m listening, I’m listening, I don’t know, and then we both just burst into tears. And really I think we both cried on and off for forty-eight hours, and a lot of the time I felt a bit stupid, because I was like it’s just GCSEs, and in the long, in the big scheme of things you know that it doesn’t really matter, no one ever asks you what you got for your GCSEs after two years later.

Daniel Whitehead: That is true.      

Elli Johnson: But it was more the, the kind of rights of passage, for her, for me. It was the expectation and anticipation that was just suddenly like the rug was pulled, and it was also just understanding that, it was the first thing that made us really realize “oh life is really going to change now.”

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Elli Johnson: And we all have got to get onboard with this, as quickly as we can because, because that’s what is necessary. And I think the crying, I felt silly, I felt really silly because I just couldn’t stop, like people would see me in the street, and I would just burst into tears, or you know I’d be in the supermarket trying to get a few—I would just burst into tears, I’d be like I’m so sorry I don’t even know why I’m crying really, I just have to cry. But now I look back and I think, actually I’m quite glad that I cried so much because it enabled her to cry, and for me it meant that I wasn’t trying to make everything okay through my own sort of willpower.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Elli Johnson: And actually I was allowing, accepting the fact that it wasn’t okay, and it was sad and, I don’t know where I picked this up—it could have been Brené Brown, could have been Susan David, could have been any of the brilliant thinkers—but the whole thing about emotion needs motion, like we need to, there needs to be movement, and to allow it to move through us and, and yeah those first few days were really hard, but it was kind of a good process. Yes I got distracted there I got off the point.

Daniel Whitehead: No that’s great, I think we’ll come back to crying, because I think that’s a good thing to talk about, but it’s interesting reflecting in our home, when the news broke here that schools were closing, Annie—my wife who is a, she works as a children’s pastor in a church, but was a teacher by vocation—she came through and said they’ve announced schools are closing, and there’s sort of tears welling up in her eyes. And as much as Annie loves education, and Evie going to school and those things, I knew it was way deeper than that, the tears were something really bad is happening, something really serious is happening, and the world has changed, and that’s what it was, and what’s interesting reflecting on my own response to that, I mean I will process my emotions probably in about ten years’ time, or slowly you know over a longer period.

Elli Johnson: Earlier than Annie.

Daniel Whitehead: In that moment, I suddenly got up and go, “well this is happening this is, this is what we’re going to do.”

Elli Johnson: Yeah, let’s make a plan.    

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah so there was this, this disconnect in the moment which I’m not proud of, I’m really not like I know this stuff, I read books, I listen to Brené Brown, I’m friends with Hillary McBride, I know this stuff, but nevertheless there is a, yeah there is this challenge. Talking around crying and tears, I think that, there’s something there to press into, because it will seem really obvious to those of us that are working in a kind of mental health environment, or around it or speaking to this, that emotional connection and emotional engagement, emotional intelligence all those things are vital to having wellbeing, to being in touch. And it’s always struck me, you know as a person of faith, and you’re a person of faith, that the challenge in the Scriptures—you know when Jesus encounters a group of people who are grieving, he goes to the tomb of Lazarus, and then he sees them grieving, what does he do? He weeps, which to me is strange, because if I were Jesus, and clearly I think I would have done a better job, when I make statements, opening statements like that.

Elli Johnson: If I were Jesus.

Daniel Whitehead: If I were Jesus. If I were Jesus I would have, I would have said, “Guys don’t cry, like there’s no need, I’m going to fix this,” boom, done.

Elli Johnson: “It’s all good people, don’t worry about it.”

Daniel Whitehead: You know it would have, it would have been fine, and yet his response—you know God in human flesh, the one who creates and holds and sustains all things, in human flesh—his first response is empathy, is to cry.

Elli Johnson: Yes.

Daniel Whitehead: To be stirred by them, and so there’s something in that isn’t there.

Elli Johnson: And I think there is—and I think, and maybe this is the problem with my definition of empathy, but I think that, I want to think that he was also grieving. He wasn’t just like oh I’m crying like because you’re crying, he was crying because he was also sad. And I don’t know, that’s not theologically based, but I like to think that, yeah that Jesus was so totally human that he couldn’t not weep, when something really bad was happening. But yeah I remember my, therapist said to me, I was—just for anybody who doesn’t know me, I was diagnosed with Postnatal Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder ten years ago now, and it came as a massive shock, and I didn’t know, sorry Dan, I know you know all this but.

Daniel Whitehead: No please tell people.

Elli Johnson: It came as a massive shock, and I didn’t know that I had been ill for quite a long time, and I’d been trying to make myself be okay, and a lot of that looked like trying to shut down how I felt, apologizing for tears, feeling weak for crying, feeling like my anxiety was my own fault, and if only I was stronger, then I wouldn’t feel like that. And being from a faith background if only I was holier, prayed more, had more faith, whatever, I wouldn’t feel like that, you know I wouldn’t feel the need for these—and this is “negative emotions” because there are no negative or positive emotions there’s just emotions—but I had to learn that. And my therapist said to me, I was crying again with her one, this is quite near the beginning, and I started to say sorry, and she said “Oh really no, all tears are therapeutic.” And I say that to my kids now, I say “No, no, no crying is good, crying is good, all tears are therapeutic,” like there’s a, there’s a release that’s needed, or it’s expressing how we’re feeling. And I don’t want to just, not everybody is a crier, like I think we’re different aren’t we, and I, yeah I know that some people crying comes really easily—I cry quite easily these days—but I don’t know if everybody does. But somehow this experience is provoking emotional responses, and if we don’t allow those and acknowledge those emotional responses, then we can’t get to the other side of that and then start to work towards working through them, trying to understand or you know get past the, if we deny the initial emotional response, there’s always a healthy way to express that, it doesn’t have to be you know throwing things across a room. But if we deny the initial emotional response, whether that’s anger or tears or whatever it is, then we can’t move past that feeling, you know it’s like it’s stuffed, it’s yeah we’re just stuffing it down, trying to repress it with other things, you know whether that’s TV or booze or cake or you know whatever.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, anything, yeah.       

Elli Johnson: Yeah anything, and I’ve seen it in my, in my son, he has cried a bit, but it’s mainly acting out which looks more like anger and it looks like tantrums, which aren’t—you know he’s ten, that’s not that normal anymore, you know occasional, we all have a tantrum occasionally. But his inability to talk about or process the things that he was missing, meant that he would just get very frustrated, and then it would sort of erupt, and it took me a couple of times—I got this wrong a couple of times, when I would like lay down the law, or you know say okay you need to go to your room, you don’t speak to me like that or whatever—and then I realized oh no, no, no that’s not what this is, this is grief manifesting, this is his inability to process what is happening, manifesting and actually all he needs is me to hug him, and like this isn’t the time for discipline, you know for him right now this isn’t, that’s not what’s necessary. What’s necessary is him to just know that he’s safe and he’s loved. I mean that’s mainly what’s necessary all the time, really, isn’t it? But, but even more so now, this isn’t the time to be saying, “that’s not how we do things in this house,” yes of course we still need boundaries, and he definitely needs routine, but actually I’ve realized that it’s more important for me to acknowledge how he’s feeling, to say I know it’s really hard, I know you’re really missing your friends, I know you’re finding it really hard that you’re at home, and you’re having to learn, you know even just having to learn remotely. Even though I’m right there with him, he’s used to being in a classroom, to goofing about with his friends, being able to tell his friends that he thinks it’s boring, and you know answering the questions, and getting something right and getting praised for it, and that can still happen but in a very limited way when it’s just me and him sat at the kitchen table, and to be able to say to him like “this is really hard, and you’re doing really well, and I really love you and it’s going to be okay,” and it kind of took me a while to realize that that’s what his meltdowns needed, much more than you know me being strict, or any kind of punishment. I mean gosh this is not the time for that.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and that’s really interesting isn’t it, when we think about, often we you know and I know that you believe this, but when we talk about our children, and like you know I have a son whose four years old, and sometimes he’ll respond in certain ways that four years olds do, and my wife will remind me occasionally when I’m not quite seeing it, and say “well he’s only able to process one emotion at a time, like you can’t, you know he can’t multitask his emotions.” And then she’ll say that and I’ll think, “I think it’s the same with me.” you know as well, we analyze our children and go “oh yes this is, this is what they’re experiencing, and this is how they react,” and like no that’s how we react as adults as well. It’s like we get angry and suddenly we think if we do the work we think, “well why am I angry?” Like what’s, what’s really going on here, and anger is obviously a valid emotion. But it’s interesting to me in your journey as a person of faith, you kind of came to this realization that you know you received this diagnosis, and the process of coming to own that, and then looking back at your story, as a person of faith, I wonder where there tensions there in terms of what you were implicitly believing—you alluded to it earlier but maybe talk a bit more.

Elli Johnson: Were there tensions? Hmm let me think.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, there you go, I’ve set it up for you.

Elli Johnson: Yes I had to unpack the whole thing. I think yes very much so. The way I had understood how to be a person of faith, how to be a Christian, was so much weighted on my behaviour, and my ability to do it right, and I knew about grace, I knew about the Gospel, etc, you know. And I’d tick all them boxes, yeah I know all that, but then what would always be left with me was a “and what are you going to do in response?” Like because you have been given such a great prize, you know salvation, and you know grace for all your, the things that you’ve done wrong and all the ways in which you screw up, and now what Elli, and I have come to realize that, well that isn’t how I think about faith anymore at all, and that rewiring, dismantling the old framework and then trying to figure out what goes in its place, has taken ten years, and I’m not there, just still working on it. But fundamentally the idea that there was any way in which, I needed to contribute to my acceptance, I needed to perform, to do anything—anything at all—to make myself worthy of acceptance, was something that it’s taken a long time to, to come to grips with it in any way. Because really my, if you like my teenage years were all the don’t, all the don’ts—you know don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex, don’t have friends who are unsuitable, don’t dress immodestly, don’t blah-blah-blah. And all my twenties were all the do’s, do work hard, do run small groups, do be a godly parent, do have an excellent marriage, do volunteer, do be a good friend, do pray, do read your Bible, do blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, you know added onto all the don’ts that we’ve already had. And it felt like it became less and less possible to, to trust myself, to be, to be able to do any of those things. And I mean this is, I am condensing you know a decade’s worth of thinking and learning about this, and therefore this is going to be only fragments of the truth, but it came really from an idea that I had, I’d put original sin before original goodness. So in the, in the Garden of Eden story, when Adam and Eve, or Eve and Adam as lots of people to say at this point, you know eat from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil, having been tempted by the serpent, you know original sin—as I was always taught, original sin entered the world, and there was this idea that we were originally sinful. But actually I was forgetting the chapter that came before, that talked about how we were created good, and how God looked and he said, “very good,” and I kind of—that had not even factored in my thinking. I’d only focused on the fact that I was in some way not good enough, and had to work very hard to make myself good enough. Which in a way is kind of why the books called How Not To Be Good, because I spent so many years trying to be good, trying to repair the things that I wasn’t good enough at, trying to have a consistent prayer life, trying to—oh I don’t know volunteer at church in the kids’ work, you know I was really bad, and I really had a bad attitude about that, because I was terrible at it and I hated it, or to try and be patient with my kids, or to be gracious with my husband, or you know whatever it might be. And every time I failed or I fell short of what I thought was expected of me, which when I examined it what I thought was expected of me was perfection, which was pretty unattainable, it just piled on the pressure to try harder. And I think that that was probably one of the main, strands that contributed to my anxiety and depression, because I started becoming these two separate people. The person who I really was, who felt like a failure and like she was getting it wrong all the time, and was trying to constantly repress all my actual needs and desires, and this other person who I showed, who I was like “oh here’s shiny Elli, who does the right thing, and you know looks good, and ticks all the boxes,” and that dislocation between, the me who I really was, and the me who I thought I should be, created a—well, I think that was one of the main contributing causes to my depression. And so yeah the faith element of it, it wasn’t the only thing. There was lots of other things: three small children, a busy life all the rest of it. But I would say that the faith strand was the thing, that I found it very hard to silence because it was so woven into my upbringing and my belief system and my value system, so yeah so unpacking that, and realizing that original goodness comes first, and that I in no way need to contribute towards my acceptance—because I am accepted, because I am, because I exist, because I was created, because I was loved. That’s quite a big mind shift, and it catches me out all the time still, you know when I realize that I’m performing or I’m trying to make somebody like me, or I’m you know whatever it is I’m doing. So yeah, sorry, big answer. It was a big question, I don’t apologize for giving a big answer.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s a good answer, it’s a good answer and I wonder how often, so in terms of your faith journey, this crisis—like in some senses I’ve only known you since, I’m going to say Elli 2.0, but you know, knowing you’re a work in progress.

Elli Johnson: It’s actually Elli original who you met.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah there you go, there you go yeah getting back to original Elli, the good Elli, but getting back to that—how is your experience of faith subsequently, lets say the Church, your experience in the Church, with this mental health thing you’re carrying, has that been a natural fit for others, what kind of response have you had, have you found, have you found a safe space in a church to be this Elli?

Elli Johnson: That’s a very difficult question Dan, and one I don’t know that I can fully answer, because I don’t know if I fully have an answer. One thing I will say for sure is I have found lots of other people, who are on a similar journey to me in lots of faith communities. And that is, I definitely don’t—it sometimes feels very lonely, when you’re unpicking things that felt like they were, expectations laid down by a certain faith community. I’m not saying that they were, but when that’s the kind of general assumption, is that we work hard together for the Gospel, if you like, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, hard work is not a bad thing, but the motivation behind it cannot—is not always necessarily massively healthy. Or maybe in my, I can only talk for myself, in my experience it wasn’t, for me it wasn’t healthy. And I don’t know whether churches—and I just want to speak in broad terms if that’s alright—but I don’t know how much churches have really, or really understand the mental health implications of, of some of the teaching, which is well intentioned and, and good you know and often sound. But I think that we maybe have an imbalance, in the things that we’re taught sometimes in certain churches, and that the works element although, although we know the right answers, we know that it’s not, it’s not by works that we are saved, actually there’s a lot of talk about works, and maybe not that much talk about grace. And I would definitely say that I, I have found people of faith, who I am working this out with, doesn’t necessarily look like a formal church arrangement, although I still go to church, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m getting the chance to explore all those things, in a formal church arrangement at the moment. Because, and I know lots of people hate this word, but to a certain extent the church is an institution, and an institution or an organization has to, in part, exist to maintain itself and therefore there has to be work that goes into maintaining the organizational structure and the institution of the church, and that’s not always compatible with the broken people that the church is looking to serve, and I count myself in that category. We had one conversation, a while back with some people, I’m being vague, about what a, “successful”—again using that word in inverted commas advisably—church Sunday morning would look like, and there were lots of reasonable answers, about people being engaged with worship, or a really good theologically sound word being preached, or people responding to that word well. And I didn’t say anything, and then eventually I said, surely it just looks like the most broken, needy, and desperate people feeling safe, and like there’s a place that they can come, and know acceptance, and everyone was like oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah but actually I think those two things can be in tension quite often. Because churches want the appearance—I don’t know, I don’t really want to say much more about that but, but I think that it’s difficult. I think that it’s complicated for a community to exist for the benefit of its weakest members, which is kind of what the Church is kind of meant to do.              

Daniel Whitehead: That’s very interesting, I was chatting with Ruth Rice who you also know—I think did I introduce you to Ruth Rice?

Elli Johnson: You did.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and Ruth—Ruth runs this organization Renew Wellbeing, which was borne out of her own brokenness, her own experience of burnout as a minister, and really asking the question what kind of community do I need to be well. And so she created this thing which they call Renew Wellbeing, which is this space which has this rhythm of prayer—which is optional, people you know they pray three times a day, it’s very kind of monastic in that sense, loosely monastic but follows that pattern, and it’s always done in a side room people can go into—but the rest of the time this is just a space where people connect, and find belonging and wellness. And somehow in the midst of that environment they create, surprisingly—surprise, surprise—God is somehow in the midst, and there are people you know encountering community and love, and grace and mercy in those spaces. So to me it’s an amazing model that any church could pick up.

Elli Johnson: Yeah, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: But one of the dangers is that churches go, “Oh well this is another thing, so we’ll just do this thing.”

Elli Johnson: Yeah we’ll tick that box.

Daniel Whitehead: People go and do their thing, but we’re doing the Sunday morning thing, yeah. And yet there is the churches that do that Renew thing well, it’s more like a philosophy of how they see the body of Christ, as this messy broken group of people that are trying to work it out together.

Elli Johnson: I think, I think the community part is something that I haven’t quite, I haven’t quite found my place, for that element yet. But I would say that I’ve found that I encounter God, more in my garden than generally in church services at the moment, would be the truth, the absolute truth, I find. You know, or walking by the river, or you know being outdoors I feel connected to God, in a way that buildings don’t always quite work for me at the moment, and I think it’s part of my journey, to use that word but, but it’s part of my process at the moment. Because I think there’s a, there’s a certain necessary element of healing I think that has to come for me, and also there’s like a, there’s—well here’s a thing. So the whole idea of pattern matching, pattern matching experiences with places, or things that trigger memories of that certain thing. So, for example, having been brought up in a church environment, which in many ways was excellent, like there was loads of excellent things about it, but one of the things about it was actually, I ended up not very well and I often felt that very much in the church, and I felt my sense of not quite being able to figure it out and make it work. And therefore sometimes I can be in a church environment and I can sort of find myself going back there to being, the other Elli, who’s trying to do all these things, and that’s not necessarily very helpful for me. Whereas being outside and being in the garden, and paying attention to creation, or you know whatever it might be, is something that is new to me and therefore there’s no negative associations with those things, and I feel like I can think clearer, like the clouds clear and I can make more sense of it. And if you don’t mind me just going off on a bit of a tangent here, the situation that we’re in at the moment with lockdown, really reminded me—I didn’t realize for two weeks, the first two weeks I was really struggling, and I felt this anger growing in me about the situation, about being trapped at home, about the fact that my husband was in my office, you know working all the hours and I was stuck downstairs doing the home schooling, not getting to write the book that I wanted to be writing, not able to see my friends or give myself, you know or necessarily using all the things that I have used in the past ten years, to make myself stay well, whether that’s walking or seeing a friend, or whatever it might be. And it took two weeks, I suddenly realized, “oh I’m getting really angry, I’m getting really angry about the situation, this feels, this is totally unfair, why am I the one doing this,” you know all that, all that “poor me” going on, and I had a big row with my husband—because that’s the healthy thing to do, right?—and it was only the next day, and it was fine we didn’t, there was no solution, but we you know worked it through and we still liked each other at the end so it was fine. Then the next day I suddenly realized oh, I’ve been going, I’ve regressed ten, twelve, thirteen years back to the me that was stuck at home with young kids, who was actually seriously depressed who didn’t know it, who was feeling trapped, and isolated and like everybody else could do this better than her, and she was making a mess of it and all the rest of it, and I had absolutely in my mind pattern matched to this previous experience of being stuck at home with children. And then—but as soon as I realized that, it was like you know the lights came on, and I was like “oh but I’m not that person anymore, and I don’t have to experience this like that,” and I can make this work in a way, for me where I’m still able to do some of the things that I need to do, that I can give my kids my time, but I’m also not trapped, and I’m not stuck in this, I can ask for what I want and what I need here, in these you know constrained environments and situations that we’re in. And it was such a, it was such a revelation. And I’ve spoken to, I wrote something on Instagram about it, and I spoke to a couple of people about it, and they were like “that’s exactly what I’ve done, that’s exactly what I’ve done.” I think people who have experiences of postnatal depression, particularly you’re back now at home, trying to homeschool, maybe trying to do another job at the same time, all the rest of it—I think that there are very similar, feelings of isolation and separation that can occur. And it takes, you have to sort of give yourself a moment to recognize that this isn’t the same thing, and maybe you’re not the same person as you were. I know that’s complete, answer to a completely different question but I just thought I’d throw it in.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s a great answer, and I think that whole, you know that instinctive, that inbuilt trauma recognition thing that we have, to me as a, I know working in this environment of faith and mental health, and talking with different people. Some people get very nervous when you begin to talk about the science of this, going well actually there’s something inbuilt in us that if you are put into a situation that reminds you of a traumatic event, it will trigger a certain response, that kind of fight or flight thing. And yet for me as a person of faith, you know as someone whose studied theology, to me it just speaks of how fearfully and wonderfully made we are—how God has made us, he’s thought of every little detail that actually, if we’re in a dangerous situation, or a situation that feels dangerous, and we don’t even know it but subconsciously it feels dangerous, he’s created us to respond in a way that’s going to get us out of that situation.

Elli Johnson: Yes, yeah it’s for our own protection isn’t it, and you know you wouldn’t want, I don’t want—I want my kids to step into the road and a car comes past them, having to step back really quickly, and then the next time I want them to think before they cross the road you know. But I want them to have that feeling of “oh this is a dangerous situation, I need to pay attention here.” You know and you’re right, it’s not that pattern matching thing is for my protection, and it’s to open my eyes to the situation. And to you know it’s for my own growth and protection like you say—yeah, totally.                  

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah and that thing, I mean you can tell that you’ve done the work, where your response to what is otherwise a very negative emotion, like that feeling of anger and just carrying anger, is to go what’s it telling me, and then in some ways you can then say oh, well thank you inbuilt response, thank you anger, you had my back but I’m okay, I can.

Elli Johnson: Yeah I’m okay now, I’ve got this one.

Daniel Whitehead: I’ve got this, I can put these things in place, and that to me speaks of someone who’s done the work. And I know that hasn’t happened overnight but.

Elli Johnson: No.

Daniel Whitehead: But I really admire you for that.

Elli Johnson: Thanks Dan. One other thing, my husband did a, like a—he’s not on any social media and hilariously he was asked to do an Instagram Live, and he had to do it off our fifteen year old’s account, which just you know really made my day that he was going on my daughters account, on this Instagram Live. But somebody asked him, you know what, how are you coping, or you know what are you doing at this time, and he said kind of off the cuff, “Well for the last ten years we’ve been deliberately slowing our life down, so it’s probably been a bit easier for us than it is for other people.” And like boy is that true, you know we have, we have slowed everything down, and our lives still feel full, but compared to the ridiculous ideal that we used to have of what we should be able to fit into an hour, a day, a week, you know we have—we have really culled at the diary, you know and initially that was just because we had to. Because there was no, there was no alternative, like I was really not very well, and that was, that was what was necessary. And then we realized “oh hang on a second, we can’t go back, because if we went back we’d just end up ill again.” So that was, that was a nonstarter.

Daniel Whitehead: Well that’s, that’s really interesting that you raise such a potential other thing to go down, and it’s nearly time to finish, but I think if it’s possible to, sort of summarize that point, which I think is an amazing thing to recognize, is that there are many people that would argue that our culture has been operating in a way that is not conducive to wellness. Ultimately we see ourselves as, our value is attached to what we can produce. The faster we go, the more we’re praised. We’re actually rewarding people for pursuing a lack of wellness, and that whole thing of “love has a speed,” which I think John Swinton—who again you know is a friend of Sanctuary—that John has written about that, that love has a speed, and that ultimately love is kind of a slow process, you can’t, you can’t hurry love, you know. You’ll just have to wait.

Elli Johnson: You can’t.

Daniel Whitehead: Who said that? But the point is I think if—and that’s one of the strange weird and this is a very Western perspective, I know for many people what’s happening right now, is only darkness and difficult.

Elli Johnson: Yeah, absolutely.

Daniel Whitehead: If you cannot earn the money today to pay for your bread tomorrow, you and your family are going hungry, so I’m not trying to trivialize what’s going on, what’s happening is horrendous and we need this to end. You know, Lord help us, we need this to end, but one of the strange gifts, reoccurring gifts that I know I’ve encountered, and I’m hearing from other people, is that people have time. And in that place of time, people are able to notice, people who live with their families, they notice their children more. They’re saying “oh I’m getting to see my children more than I did, and there’s something I feel kind of guilty about enjoying this a little bit, because I know I shouldn’t be,” but there is a strange gift in just being given time. And I think this whole mental health conversation, a lot of what I hear from people who are pursuing wellness and doing well, is that they found a new rhythm, a new way of, of engaging with time, that they’re not dancing to a tune that someone else has told them. They’re now slowing down and living the life that they can live, and pursuing wellness so, yeah there’s more that could be said but.

Elli Johnson: Yeah, I mean yeah, I think it’s absolutely true and at the moment you know, we were joking the other day about like—why did we buy a diary for this year, like what was the point? Like you know everything that was in has been cancelled, but actually the idea of having a diary and scheduling in rest, like actually scheduling it, because we schedule everything else, and we schedule you know all the time that we have a lot of the time. And now I’ve learned that if I look at my diary, and I’m out more than two evenings in a week, that’s not going to go well for me, and it’s actually not going to go well for me, and it’s actually not going to go well for my family either, and that’s not because I’m a martyr to my kids and like cooking home-cooked food don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to go well for my kids because I’m not going to end up very well. Maybe three nights at a push, but like that’s just got to be one week, and then the next week I’d have to take it easier. You know whereas I used to think I could be out four nights a week, no stress every week, in fact I had regular commitments three nights a week, regardless and now, you know I think even if it’s something I really want to do, and I’ve realized you know simple things like—obviously when we’re not in lockdown, wanting to see friends, and recognizing that the rhythm of our friendship, is actually that we don’t see each other, every week or even every two weeks. Maybe we see each other once a month, maybe every six weeks, and actually acknowledging that, and being like that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about them, that doesn’t mean that they’re not really important to me, it doesn’t mean that we won’t probably text each other in between, but life is you know—if you work and you’ve got kids, or you know even if you don’t—life is full. And actually recognizing that and then putting plans in place, is absolutely necessary to you know maintaining mental health and wellbeing. And also just for fun, like life is a lot more fun when you’re not knackered all the time. It really is.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, it’s so true, and it’s so funny you know it strikes me Elli, it’s so funny that we can sit here and we can pat ourselves on the back, and go oh yeah calendarizing rest, there’s a great idea, there’s a novel new idea that we’ve worked out, after forty-four minutes of talking, we’ve worked out that to calendarize rest is the thing. And yet right at the beginning of the Genesis, you know narrative, right at the beginning: don’t forget to rest.

Elli Johnson: Right there, yeah, yeah and I love, my favourite I’m going to plug, I’m going to make a little plug for it, my favourite book that I’ve read about Sabbath, is called Sabbath by Wayne Muller. I don’t know if you’ve read that book.

Daniel Whitehead: No I haven’t.

Elli Johnson: And it’s absolutely brilliant, and that book has challenged me so many times, about what it actually means to rest, like what is actual rest as opposes to like, you know we think, you know well you know—I’m having a day off today, but actually your day off is full with chores, it’s not actually a day off. Or you know whatever it might be, and not resting when the works finished, but resting because it’s time for rest, is another real challenge to our like Western capitalist mindset really isn’t it, you know we think “oh I’ve just got to get all that done, and then I’ll be able to rest.” Well, no, if you work until you get all that done, you’ll probably just collapse. You won’t rest, you’ll just, you know zone out. But yeah it’s a concept that’s been there since the very beginning, and yet we are still trying to learn it.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, well Elli thank you so much for sharing from your experience.

Elli Johnson: Pleasure.

Daniel Whitehead: And your honesty and candour is, is just so needed and I’m just grateful that your work is getting out there. Quickly tell people how they can connect with you via various online platforms.

Elli Johnson: Gosh, I struggle to remember them all. Basically I’m Elli Johnson which is E L L I J O H N S O N, there’s no E on the end of my name, I don’t know why, that’s how my parents spelled it. I don’t know anybody else who spells it like that but that’s how it is, and it’s ellijohnson.com and then you can find links to everything from there. I’m on Instagram @ellijohnsonuk, and I’ve written a book called How Not To Be Good, which at the moment is only for sale through my website. That’s it.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I’m sure that’ll change soon. So Elli thank you so much for joining us, if you’ve been listening to this or watching this, and you think it’s good share it with other people, go to sanctuarymentalhealth.org to find all our resources. The Sanctuary Course an eight session course on faith and mental health, the grief resource which will be launched by the time that this airs, which is a four session course, our blog, various other things but look up sanctuarymentalhealth.org, go to ellijohnson.com.

Elli Johnson: That’s right.       

Daniel Whitehead: Go there, and yeah thanks for joining us.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey, may this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges. 

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith, it is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps, perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories, and receive support in community. 

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focussed on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. 

This podcast is released under creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it but please share it all you like.