Can My Dementia Keep Me from Christ?
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Can My Dementia Keep Me from Christ?

When Depression Makes Church So Hard

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She probably thought I was very rude. G sat next to me on Easter Sunday morning, smiled and asked how I was. But I just nodded my head and looked away. She didn’t try again.

What G didn’t know was how hard I’d battled to get to church. Now I was just barely managing to stay in my seat and not burst into tears. Every muscle was straining, desperate to flee.

And yet part of me wanted to be there. I was glad to be in my own church for Easter, and to join with my church family in singing the Lord’s praises.

This is what depression can do to a Christian. Having struggled with severe depressive illness for over twelve years, I can tell you that I never (never!) want to go to church on a Sunday morning. It is an exhausting battle every single time, and I don’t always make it.

Getting through the door is an achievement, but the battle isn’t yet over. Where can I sit? Is there anyone “safe” to sit with? Do I have an exit strategy so that I can leave if needed without climbing over people or causing a distraction? Will I be able to sing, or would the words tumble out as sobs instead? Am I able to lift my head high enough to see the words on the screen, or will my depressed hunch mean my head stays resolutely down? And what if the pastor says something like, “Do talk to the person next to you while the children are going out”? At that point, a shaft of dread strikes my heart.

Even the end of the service is hard. How quickly can I leave without looking rude? Will the noise of so many people talking at once trigger a panic attack? Can I even lift my head high enough to smile at someone as I scuttle out? And if not, will they think (again) how rude and abrupt I am?

I once described my own experience like this: my church was like a colourful ocean liner sailing full-steam ahead, but I had fallen overboard and was drowning in a monochrome sea as they sailed away without me.

Thankfully, not every depressive finds church as hard as this. It’s not even true for me every Sunday – sometimes I manage a brief chat at the end, or to pray with someone before I go. When the depression is less severe, I can lift my head and sing with enthusiasm. I guess that’s part of what makes it hard for my church family – they don’t know which Alison is going to turn up.

How can you help?

If you have a depressive at your church (and you almost certainly do, even if you don’t know about it), then please have a think about how you can help them to be part of the family. You could be their “safe place” to sit – welcoming them with a smile but being content to sit quietly if they are not up to talking that day.

If someone from the front encourages everyone to talk to their neighbour, don't add extra pressure. A simple solution is just to ask, "Do you feel up to talking today?" If they shake their head, say "That's fine" – and then sit quietly while praying for them. At the end of the service, when, again, they may not be able to chat, you could say, "It's lovely to see you here today. Thanks for coming." That little bit of encouragement may be the most loving thing they hear all day.

And please don’t force someone to move along rather than sitting on the end. Knowing that they can slip out easily may be the one thing that enables them to stay.

If your church has the option of a printed song sheet, offering that may give someone a way to join in, when they simply can’t lift their head high enough to look at a screen. And they can be reading the words even if they aren’t able to sing them.

And if someone does have to leave before the end – which I have done many, many times – they probably feel a failure for doing so. One of the most helpful things my pastor once said to me was, “When I see you slip out early, I don’t see a failure – I think how great it is that you’ve been able to be with us for a little while.” That was years ago, but those words still encourage my soul.

If you know that someone struggles to get to church, please pray for them that morning. I had a friend who did that for me every week – and would then come up to me in delight at the service to tell me I was an answer to his prayer! He’s gone to be with the Lord now, but remembering how he prayed for me still gives me another tool in my battle to join my church family. And I am grateful.

Do you have depressives in your church? Almost certainly. Hopefully, these simple ideas will help you to love them well.

This content originally published on Used by permission.

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Alison Mitchell

Alison Mitchell is a Senior Editor at The Good Book Company, where she has written a range of Bible-reading notes for children and families, and is editor for the Christianity Explored range of resources. Alison is also involved with youth training events around the UK, including the Growing Young Disciples training days and Bible-Centred Youthwork Conference.