“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.” Henri J.M. Nouwen
I suffer from too much brain noise. If I am anxious, if I am depressed, I find that my thoughts run on and on, and the sheer babble of thoughts is near to deafening me. I cannot think clearly, because there are just too many thoughts, and the good thoughts I try to inject into myself fail to achieve their purpose.
I long for silence, for a cessation of sound in my head. I feel exhausted with all the activity. As I plead with myself for some calm, the thoughts roil over and over and produce an almost physical sensation, as though something were crawling in my brain.
That is why, when I am ill, I spend long times lying on my bed, huddled into myself, just trying to make it stop, trying strategy after strategy to calm the words, the thoughts, and always terrified that one day those thoughts will take on life and start to appear to me as external rather than internal. People think I am just being lazy, and don’t realise that I am fighting a battle for my own sanity, for self-preservation when they see me sitting vacant.
The worst of mental illness for me, is not just the pain I feel from depression, or the heart-stopping feeling of anxiety, but the mental fog and confusion caused by the cacophony in my head. It makes faith hard – I cannot pray very effectively, because I cannot wrench my mind into a smooth enough groove to form the words and to concentrate on them. I find my prayers become simple “Help me” prayers, not the chats I am used to when well. With Scripture, I struggle to keep my mind on what I am reading, and at my worst cannot read at all, anything, even the Bible. It is then that I rely on verses in my memory, which come to me unbidden – something which I attribute to the Holy Spirit, rather than myself. I truly and deeply appreciate that God is the “still small voice of calm”, because any calm, any peace and silence I experience during these times must surely be a sign of God in my life.
From friends, too, silence is appreciated. I become so sensitive to noises around me that I can become irritable. I can sit, hearing a conversation and become more and more frustrated, until at last I no longer go out or drink lots of alcohol to dull my senses. The best way a friend has helped me in distress is to let me vent the thoughts in my head at them, saying little. It is selfish, to treat a friend this way, but in extremis it helps. Talking about what is going on eases it a little, like lancing a boil and letting the rot out.
The article I read, which inspired this little piece, entitled “Noise” says within it:
If our words of counsel are to be meaningful and a source of healing, we must first embrace that awkward and often unsettling space: silence. We must be ready to simply ‘be’ with those that are hurting, embrace those that are breaking and walk with those that are stumbling.
Sometimes a friend who is simply there, who stands with me in distress but who tries to understand it by listening, is the best friend you can have. When I first became ill I had – and still have – a great friend who took all I could throw at her. She let me pour out what was going on in my head – thoughts of self harm and suicide included – and did not let me see a strong reaction. She let me go on and on with awful thoughts and fears but the was the thing – she let me speak. I had other friends who thought the best thing to do was to organise me, to plan, to offer suggestions and ideas. I couldn’t take it, because I couldn’t think that those ideas would work. Those who have sat in solidarity with me, who have sat in the ashes of my life and listened to me and tried to understand can better offer suggestions, suggestions that do not seem like easy solutions to what is a complex problem. All the activity others can do in response to mental distress, all the prayers and suggestions and ideas for recovery can seem overwhelming, when the brain is already under so much stress. They require so much effort, and I have little to give at those times.
I think of those times as being, as I mentioned some time ago in a post, like when as a child when you are angry with your dad, and you beat your little fists against him, pour out all you are feeling, and then relax in his arms after the tears and the anger have departed. I used that illustration then to show how I believe God comforts us, holds us even when we are pouring out our anger at him, at the injustice that seems to come from him. I also believe that when we have poured out our emotion on a friend we can come to a place of healing, come to a place where we are ready for advice, ready to move forward, even if just a little.
The greatest friend that I have of course is Jesus, and I know that when I pray I am far more honest, far more revealing to him than I am to any other living being. What, after all, is the point of hiding anything? I can tell him anything, tell him what is going on in my brain and I find that I can come to a different view of my circumstances after I have spoken with him. I also find a human friend invaluable, and I pray for those who have no friends, either offline or online, to turn to. It is easy to misunderstand what the Lord is saying, to fail to see what he is saying or to convince ourselves he is saying something he would not say (for example, the Lord is not going to say that you should kill or harm yourself). That is when a good friend can be a means of grace for you, by helping be your voice of reason, someone who listens, and then speaks when they understand you.
So, I treasure my time with the Lord, and I treasure my friends. If you have a friend who is suffering mental distress, I hope my words about the noise in my head when I am ill are helpful, and about the need for a little silence, listening even when it must be very difficult not to interrupt. It is helpful, even if you feel impotent in the face of a friend’s pain. If you yourself are in distress, talk to God – and also talk to a friend. If you have no friend, then the Samaritans are a listening ear. You can contact them on 08457 90 90 90 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Henri J.M. Nouwen: “that is a friend who cares.” (lifeondoverbeach.wordpress.com)
- Henri J.M Nouwen – A Spirituality of Living (henkjanvanderklis.nl)
- Isolating? Withdrawing? Or do you just need alone time? (beyondmeds.com)