Learning to Breathe 

Taken from Rachael Newham's new book Learning to Breathe:

'It begins slowly, so slowly that I hardly notice at first. My chest tightens and my heart starts to beat a fraction faster. I try to draw breath, but instead I choke on oxygen I can’t inhale. As I realize that I can’t breathe, the panic wraps itself around my mind. I can’t make myself draw a breath. Tightness snakes around my brain and I feel the blood racing through my veins. Not again. I try to catch my breath. It feels as though I’ve been holding my breath for hours and I begin to shake violently, my foot connecting with the floor as it taps out a strange rhythm. I see the world as though underwater; sounds are dulled and my sight is blurred. And then suddenly I’m breathing as fast as I can, trying to suck all the oxygen from around me, trying to claw my way back to reality. I know I’m breathing too fast, but I don’t feel I can control it; there’s a rushing sound in my ears and pins are prickling my fingertips. I try to attract the attention of someone close by. Despite feeling this way countless times before, I’m scared. Maybe this will be the time I don’t catch my breath. I need to breathe. I need to find someone to help me. I need to come back. I search my foggy brain for a way to ground myself, but before long I’ve stopped breathing again. It’s as though there is a scream lodged in my throat, pressing itself into my voice box, and I am silent as I gasp for breath. I’m gasping for air again, hoping someone will remind me how to breathe.

This wasn’t the book I intended to write. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, from childhood ramblings about mummies and daddies, via the macabre Plath-esque stories of misery that populated my teen years, to the blogging and freelance articles which have become such a huge part of my job since leaving university. I thought I would write a theological tome or a memoir of missionary adventures. I expected to be in my sixties, writing in my retirement about a working life full of daring adventure.

I didn’t expect to be writing a book on suicide and depression in my twenties. It often feels a little strange to be writing any kind of memoir when I’m not even in my third decade, but I take comfort from the fact that God uses unexpected people in unexpected ways; from the shepherd boy chosen to lead an army, to the teenage girl chosen to carry the Son of God in her womb.

Despite high-profile campaigns and pledges, there are few conditions that provoke as much scorn as mental illness. I hear countless stories, both online and offline, of jobs lost and relationships ravaged by invisible illnesses that some prefer to believe don’t exist, and it’s not a problem from which the Church is exempt. So often, the Bible is used to shame those struggling with the most common of mental health conditions. For example, ‘You can’t have depression because the Bible says you need to be full of the joy of the Lord’, or ‘You can’t have an anxiety disorder because it says “Do not be anxious” in the Bible.’

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Christian: my faith and the Church have been part of my story since my first breath. It began with the prayers of a five-year-old concerned about burglars and the Rwandan genocide (in that order) and has continued so that I now spend my life writing about faith and visiting churches to talk about the gospel, which shines even in the darkest corners of the human mind. I believe the gospel has something important and healing to say, not only to the one in four of us who lives with a mental illness each year but also to the countless more who watch their friends and family members battle diseases that consume their hope and vitality.

I’m sharing my own story, but I also want to look again at ancient stories, sharing the hope and challenge I’ve found in their words. A number of passages have spoken to me over the years: the darkest of the psalms, which seems to contain no glimmer of hope in its verses; Elijah atop Mount Horeb, fleeing for his life before begging for death; and the scriptural silence on the day hope was buried in Joseph’s tomb with no light of resurrection in sight. It can’t stop with the retelling of ancient stories, however; there is action to be taken here and now in our churches to help them become places of sanctuary for those seeking refuge.

I can claim no expertise in mental health other than the knowledge gained from copious reading on the subject and over a decade living under the shadow of a mental illness. But from the shadows, I’ve seen God move – often not in the miraculous flashing light of healing, but instead in the days when his strength was all I had, and in the actions of those I love who, on countless occasions, have poured themselves out for me. This may not be the book I intended to write, but I hope that, as you read it, you will catch a glimpse of the God who is with us in every breath.'

Available to purchase on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Learning-Breathe-Journey-Mental-Illness/dp/0281078084 

Rachael Newham, 11/07/2018
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