It’s still dark on Saturday morning, and I wake up covered in sweat. I’m not just a little damp. I get out of bed; change my clothes; towel off. This is a common occurrence. While I’ve regularly had night sweats on and off (a side effect of anxiety), they have been so much worse since I started taking antidepressants again.
This past Saturday morning I knew from the moment that I opened my eyes that it would be a struggle to get through the day. Nothing was externally wrong (besides being covered in sweat). It was Easter weekend. I had just turned in the draft of my second dissertation chapter. I had a book and beer date with my husband to look forward to. But everything felt wrong inside. I longed to return to the oblivion of sleep—even a fitful one.
Jolted awake again by the sound of one of our dogs happily crunching on a pair of my headphones, I knew that my state of mind would not improve anytime soon. I would overreact. Just as I did all that morning. I felt like a failure when my scones were too soft. I shouted at one of our cats just because he wanted to be near me while I was baking. I checked out during the weekly breakfast chess match with my husband. I shouted at him when he responded to one of my questions with “probably,” instead of yes or no. I needed absolutes. I needed grounding. My loved ones were paying the consequences as I spiraled, and it wasn’t even 9am.
This happens more often than I’d like to admit.
Sometimes I lose myself for the whole day, or a series of days even. I have no idea how long the spell will last or whether it might get worse before it gets better. My husband knew right away—even before all of the episodes mentioned above. He could read it in my body language; the way I tensed up when he came close. Half-whispering, he timidly asked, “Is it anxiety?” No, it wasn’t. I told him. Not entirely, anyway. It was a struggle to make peace with being alive.
Desperate to secure that peace once again, however temporary, I mentally went through my coping strategies. I have many, but my body was telling me two things: one, I needed to spend some quiet time alone in prayer and meditation; two, I needed to get outside.
I went into my office, shut the door, lit my favorite lavender candle, and hung out with Jesus.
Reading about Jesus withdrawing into the wilderness was not something new to me. However, as so often happens when I read the Bible, I encounter it anew. Countless times the Bible tells us that Jesus withdrew from the crowds to be alone. He knew that he could not minister as he needed to if he wasn’t in his best state. He needed restoration and peace that he found in communing with God in nature.
So I began to think, first, how much this reminded me of the airplane safety instructions: you can’t help others without helping yourself first. And, second, Jesus himself tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So, if we don’t love ourselves, how can we love others?
I don’t mean this in a self-centered way at all, but I think too often the Christian community overlooks the importance of self-love. Loving God and loving others is what we’re absolutely commanded to do. But I don’t think we can do those things effectively without making peace with ourselves first.
I get it. It’s hard to consider self-care and “me-time” as anything but selfish. But Jesus knew that it was important to retreat and just be, to pray, to worship, to seek peace and healing—whatever that might look like for you. And this is Jesus we are talking about. I’m a fallen, imperfect human girl that needs to do a lot more re-centering than he ever would.
I want to promote a culture where self-love and Christian spirituality are not seen as antithetical.
For me, on Saturday, that involved an absurd amount of downward dogs in yoga. It meant going to the flower beds in front of our house and raking up winter decay, pulling early weeds, and assessing what we lost and what we would re-gain this year. At first as I stuffed the lawn bags, all I could smell was dust and decay, but then I noticed something else: the scent of lavender.
I lowered to my knees and used my fingers to shake the leaves off our buried lavender plant. It was blooming again. As I admired its tenacity and grace, I began to also take notice of the weeds pushing through the cracks in our driveway. Nothing will remind you of your quiet strength—even on your darkest days—than the sight of such stubborn survival.
On days like Saturday, where I have to work harder to find solid ground, the stability I know I have in Christ remains a quiet reassurance. I wish I could have spent time in the wilderness with Jesus when he was here on earth in his physical form. But it’s enough just to know that I can be close to him no matter what I am doing or where I am at. I am slowly learning to worship in the waiting period when these dark clouds overtake me—whether that involves going for a long walk, baking a ridiculous amount of bread, or knitting until my fingers are numb. I’m learning that it’s okay to take time for myself.
I can’t hold to this notion that self-love is a sin, merely a diversion tactic as some Christian writers have posed.
God wants us to take care of ourselves so that we can best take care of others.
It’s taken me years to get to the place I am now—not just willing to speak candidly about my inner demons but also feeling strong enough to help others in similar situations. Perhaps for you, the first step to self-love is seeking professional help, through medication and/or therapy. For others, not quite ready to “out” themselves in that way, go ahead and create a coping kit. Know what works for you. Know what helps you to worship in the waiting, even on your darkest days.
Some days you might need more self-care than others. Some seasons you might feel more like the buried lavender plant; other times you might be in bloom. And that’s okay.
Just remember, there’s always hope.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.