It was the thing I feared most.
Over the year-long process of applying with our sending agency, we filled out forms, questionnaires, biblical exams and testimonies. A thick brown envelope appeared on our doorstep, the latest of many mailed communications from the agency. All signs up till now confirmed our calling, and the final step before we were invited to candidate orientation had finally arrived: a psychological evaluation.
I’ll have to tell them, I thought, anxiety building. I’ll tell them, and that’ll be the end.
So I set the weighty packet on our kitchen table.
I looked at it.
Paced around it.
Washed the dishes.
Moved it around a little bit.
I let Matt complete his evaluation first.
“It’s not so bad,” he said, soothingly. “It will be ok.”
But will it? How do I tell them about the mental breakdown five years earlier, when at age 20 I found myself on a daily cocktail of antidepressants? How do I tell them about the year of post partum depression I was just now recovering from, the still-lingering battle with anxiety?
How will our marriage survive when they reject us, disqualify my husband for ministry overseas, because of my illness?
I did not foresee Margene’s tender voice at the end of the telephone, assigned as our member care worker during the application process. I didn’t realize there existed a common thread in cross-cultural ministry: single women, wives and mothers who fought the same battles with sanity. I didn’t expect open arms and understanding words of encouragement when we arrived at orientation. And I was flabbergasted when they accepted us, appointed us, told us that God would use my story for his glory overseas.
You are not disqualified, they said. You are more than qualified.
As we prepared for departure, Margene and I formulated a series of preempting steps. Life on the field will trigger your stressors, she told me, encouraging me to work with a counselor and specify coping mechanisms. Member care was our advocate for sanity and health. When times of crisis hit – which, of course, they did! They do! – our already established relationship motivated us to reach out and seek help.
I found safe people on the field, one within our organization and one on the outside. These were women who I could be normal with, and abnormal with! Sanity was not an everyday struggle, but on some days it hovered as a threatening storm cloud. When thunder rumbled in the distance, I had people who would pray and meet me for coffee, who had walked similar paths and knew which direction to go.
Matt and I came up with an emotional health plan, deciding what we each need to maintain emotional and spiritual health. When he has reached his stress limit, he needs a day praying in the mountains or a weekend spent on woodworking projects. When I reach mine, I head to the sea or hide under the covers with my trusty box set of the series Alias (Sydney Bristow has never let me down). I’ll spend a day in the city at art museums or bookshops, breathing in the bits of life and culture that feed my spirit.
We also devised a “mad map.” Similar to a health directive, we have made decisions on what will happen if the worst happens. This includes tough answers to tough questions: What meds are necessary and when do I start them? When do we need to return to our passport country? How are our children doing mentally and emotionally, and can we find the resources they need here?
And we have given ourselves permission. We have permission to go to counseling, to get on meds, to go home if we need to and – the most difficult thing of all – to share our story. As I sat down to write this essay, I filled Matt in on what it would entail. My story is his story, after all. “Does that sound OK?” I asked him.
“You always have permission to share our story,” he tells me, over and over again.
The more we share it, the more I find we are not alone in it. For some reason, God calls the crazies overseas (in more ways than one!). And what they tell me, I gladly pass on to you:
You are not disqualified.
Whether it’s mental illness, emotional stress, spiritual dryness, loneliness or heartache, you are not disqualified. The Spirit of God is alive and at work in you. Be intentional, make a plan and find a safe place so that on the days or in the months He feels far away, you know what to do and you know the truth to believe in:
Colossians 2:17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
1 John 3:19-20: This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Don’t ignore your issues, but don’t disqualify yourself, either. He knows our hearts and minds better than we do, better than any psych eval ever could.
And if He does not condemn us, neither should anyone else… including, ourselves.
Have you felt disqualified from serving overseas because of your “issues?” How do you intentionally focus on mental and spiritual health?