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Letting Go of “Before” & “After”

Sana' WattsAnxiety, Blog, Depression, Mental Illness

Content warning: This post includes mention of suicide

I have come to learn that my story can’t be neatly divided into a “before” and “after,” no matter how much I long for it to be. I am still in process, and my journey with mental illness and faith is ongoing.

The first time I remember wanting to end my life was when I was approaching my thirteenth birthday. There was conflict between my divorced parents relating to my grade eight graduation. I remember just feeling so hopeless, and like I couldn’t deal with that pain. Eventually, the conflict and my feelings of hopelessness resolved themselves.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was once again contemplating suicide. On the outside, everything looked fine, but I felt like I was a burden to the people around me and no one could convince me otherwise. However, God could see me, and he miraculously intervened before an intended suicide attempt.

He saved me. I understood his love and his grace, and that he chose me. He wanted me.

The depressive thoughts went away. I was a new creation. I figured I would never have suicidal thoughts again. I mean, I was now a Christian. My Christian, Caribbean heritage had taught me that Christians didn’t struggle this way and were delivered and protected from that type of spiritual oppression. I wholeheartedly believed it. I thought I had my “before” and “after.”

Until these thoughts came back in my twenties.

I was loving Jesus, enjoying campus ministry as a student, and dating a terrific, Christ-like guy. But I would have periods of stark numbness or intense worry that would physically affect me. I began to see a Christian therapist and was diagnosed with anxiety and, eventually, suicidal depression. I questioned what this meant for my faith. I wondered if my salvation was real, and whether I was a failure as a Christian.

I’ve wrestled with these questions, and God has provided me with answers of peace. My faith and salvation are still real. And no, I haven’t failed God. I just need him more than I think. A lot more.

The past five years have looked like getting the help I need from God through his indwelling presence and the people he’s provided. It’s been a time of embracing the paradox of hard and good, because life has been both. There have been wonderful changes, such as getting married and having a child, and there has been growth in my walk with God. There have also been times of not being able to breathe properly due to anxiety attacks and navigating suicidal thoughts. Yet, God has brought about so much good fruit in my life through my experience with mental illness, and not despite it. He has taught me so much.

I’ve learned what true dependence upon God looks like, and that I don’t have to be the strong Black woman to be loved. I’ve had to really internalize truth, and not just give it lip service a couple of days a week. Doctrinal statements and biblical clichés don’t stop an anxiety attack or stave off suicidal thoughts. Truth for me is mined through therapy for its beauty and transformative power, and then clung to when my mind and body are in disagreement with it. I’ve learned that taking my thoughts captive is indeed a battle, and one that cannot be fought on my own. I need outside help to fight through my thoughts and to keep on living. And I’ve learned to not let my mental health challenges be a secret, but to vulnerably share my story—no matter how ingrained it is in me, as a Jamaican-Canadian, to keep my struggles hidden and not air them as shameful “dirty laundry.”

It’s humbling to be so publicly needy, but therein I’ve found true freedom: freedom from inauthenticity, freedom from isolation, and freedom from fear. I’ve discovered that true flourishing is found in such freedom.

Through all this learning, I thought that I’d emerged on the other side. I became a new mom, was consistently taking medication, had a strong support system in place, and was living out healthy rhythms. I thought to myself, “Finally, I’m healthy! Finally, I’m flourishing.” I even wrote a book, thinking that I was now living in the “after” part of my testimony.

And then the thoughts came back again.

What I thought would last a few days became a few weeks, and has now become a few months. It’s been hard. I once again carry constant anxiety in my chest. I once again live with suicidal thoughts. It’s easy to feel like all the work from the past five years hasn’t mattered, like I’m back to square one all over again. I feel hopeless, and my chest is constantly hurting. I know these suicidal thoughts aren’t true, but they feel real.

In times like these, I’m especially thankful for a few things, one of which is God’s Word. As it should happen, my memory verses for this month are Romans 8:24-25:

“Now in this hope we were saved, but hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? Now if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.” (CSB)

God is training me in hope.

I may not be able to imagine a future where I am completely symptom-free, but I’m believing for seasons of flourishing anyway, and showing that faith through simple acts of living: getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, loving my husband, taking care of my son, going to school, etc. I’m revisiting medication with a postpartum psychiatrist, I’m unpacking shame with my psychotherapist, and I’m planning for the future as if I’ll be there.

Hope, my newest lesson.

I know this is an awkward ending, akin to that of the minor prophet Jonah. There’s a lack of resolution and catharsis for you, the reader. But I invite you into the tension you’re experiencing, because that’s the tension I’m living with. That’s the tension where we experience the grace and power of God, through his comfort. That’s the tension that gives us the gift of empathy, equipping us to be a vessel of that same comfort to another.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation, there is hope. It’s important to get help, and to talk about your experiences. If it is an emergency, the following emergency numbers and crisis lines are available 24/7:

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
British Columbia only: Call 310-6769 for emotional support, information, and resources specific to mental health

United States
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988 or 1-800-273-8255
Text NAMI to 741-741 to talk to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line

United Kingdom
Samaritans: 116 123

New Zealand
Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354

Lifeline: 13 11 14

For resources on suicide prevention, suicide bereavement, and how to talk about suicide loss, read this post about World Suicide Prevention Day.

Sana’ Watts

Sana’ Watts is a follower of Jesus who enjoys joining the ultimate Creator in creating worlds with her words. She is passionate about the intersection of faith and mental health as well as coming alongside people in their faith journeys. Sana’ was a local missionary with Power to Change and is studying for her Master’s in Pastoral Studies with a focus in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy at Knox College. She is happily the wife of one husband and mother to a baby boy. She currently attends Church of the City Brampton. Follow along with her life and story at @skcnwatts on Instagram and skcnwatts.wix.com/fragile-flourishing.

Cover Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash