Diagnosed with severe depression at 13, Warcry’s Jessica Morris has written a brave and beautiful book about her ‘terrifying, adventurous and exhilarating life’.
The following is an excerpt from When Hope Speaks:
His name was Frank. He was a tall, middle-aged man with greying hair and spectacles. He always wore beige—at least that’s how I remember it, but everything is a bit fuzzy from that year, so it’s hard to know.
The miracle appointment my mother had concocted with God led me to meet Frank. He was a psychiatric nurse—a fancier and more qualified version of any counsellor I had seen before. We always met in a room the size of a large closet. The walls were a plain yellow colour, and the space was filled with a few chairs, a small table with a pot plant and some books in the corner. There wasn’t much to look at, which sucks considering it was meant for children (at the age of 13 I still fitted into this age bracket). It also meant there was nowhere to hide when Frank asked tough questions.
Frank is notorious in my house—the stuff of legends. For a while we would say, ‘There’s a little Frank in my head’, to explain our thought processes and behaviours. Frank worked with me for two and a half years, until I turned 16. In that time, he turned my world upside down. I hated it, but I also desperately needed his help.
I was a mess before my first session with Frank. A closed-in, shivering little girl, who was afraid to enter a room alone with a strange man. Police checks didn’t matter. The fact that he had worked with children for years didn’t matter. The fact that it was virtually impossible to see this man and I somehow had an appointment with him didn’t matter—I did not want to see him.
My parents stayed with me the first few times. Then they were asked to leave, because there was a lot of work to do, and I really needed to come into my own and do it myself. Frank didn’t actually say this, but a decade-plus later I know it to be true. I’m grateful he pushed me out of my comfort zone in this way now. He used CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which is results-driven, and what I absolutely needed, but those sessions were harder to get through than a crowd of people at Myer during Boxing Day sales.
We talked about the obsessive thoughts. He spoke about religion, because that was the only way I navigated the world. The nature of anger, sexuality, friendships, fear, and family relationships—very little was off limits when I met with Frank.
People talk about ‘finding’ themselves. They might go on benders, or backpack around Europe, or sell everything and live in a monastery for a year. I didn’t have to do any of that. I found myself because Frank helped me to break apart every core ideal, belief and practice I ever had.
It was the most painful process I have ever been through.
I grew up in a very religious household. In essence, I was a ‘pastors’ kid’ because my mum and dad were ministers, and later leaders in the church, throughout my childhood. People expect kids like me to rebel when they are teenagers, to stake their claim on the world and step out from the shadow of their parents. They’ll either become the most spiritual folk you’ve ever met through some divine encounter with God, or they’ll be strictly anti-church and the black sheep in the family.
I never had to rebel like this, because by the time I was 15 I already knew exactly who I was and what I believed. Maybe it’s because I’m so (scarily) driven, or perhaps this came about because I have fought the idea of death from such a young age.
In any case, my sessions with Frank made me who I am.
He began by challenging me to take little steps and face my fears. So I would aim to make it to school. Then I would make it my goal to walk past the popular kids. Then I would re-join PE sessions. Then I would speak in front of my entire year level and tell them I was diagnosed with depression, but ‘It’s okay guys, ’cos I’m alive’ and stuff.
Okay, I didn’t have to do the last one, but I’ve never been a person to do things by halves. So I told everyone I had thought about dying, but I was here because Jesus had saved me. I even wrote a song about it and sang in front of my (probably bored) classmates. That’s what Jesus would do, right? Actually, I don’t know. But it’s the only way I could make sense of my depression, so I shared it with the world, thinking it was over. I had won the fight.
Oh, if only.
I was still seeing Frank when I turned 15, but weekly sessions were moved to every two weeks. I got to school more often (which wasn’t much at all), and I wasn’t so afraid of everything. But the constant thought process of fighting anxiety, day in, day out, left me exhausted. I struggled to function and became more and more paranoid, especially if I was around guys. I spoke to Frank about it, and with the assistance of my parents, GP and a psychiatrist,
I was put on anti-depressant medication.
I’ve never had a problem with anti-depressants. There is a lot of stigma around them, particularly in Christian circles, because people assume you lack faith in God’s healing if you take them. I certainly don’t lack faith in that area; if I did I would have given up on this life thing a long time ago. But I’ve learnt that God has placed people—very smart people like Frank and medical experts—around us, who can to make life better. My anti-depressants make my quality of life a whole lot better, which is why I take them.
Taking medication was great. My brain is predisposed to think negatively (thank you, chemical imbalance), so a small dosage sets things a little bit closer to right. Medication didn’t negate my need to continue therapy though, and I continued to work with Frank.
I would love to tie this up with a beautiful ending. Like, ‘When I finished therapy I was 100% better and was never anxious again’, but that would be a flat-out lie. I still had periods of suicidality in my mid to late teen years. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies moved from thoughts about self-harm to concerns about sexuality and cleanliness. I re-entered counselling, my medication dosage was upped twice more, and I only really started attending school regularly when I was 18—six years after my diagnosis.
Depression and anxiety are not tidy, and even when you find a ‘Frank’ to help you heal, you still struggle. The beautiful part of these illnesses, though, is that they compel you to find the good things in life. Today, I laugh more than anyone else I know. I smile bigger, I jump when I’m about to eat my favourite foods, I squeal when I see puppy dogs, and I hug harder than your favourite grandma.
When you fight to stay alive, you learn to fight for the goodness in life. Even all these years later, I understand that my time seeing Frank has equipped me to live life boldly. Even the biggest fears can be conquered with a series of small steps, and the courage to walk out your front door will eventually lead you to journey halfway around the world.
Fear will never go away. As Frank said to me, ‘Fear is there to tell you it’s a stupid idea to bungy jump.’ We don’t all have to bungy jump (I certainly never will), but we can all live a life that’s bigger than our fears. That’s where we find ourselves. At least, that’s where I found me.
When Hope Speaks is available from Salvation Army Supplies, phone 1800 100 018, or online at salvationarmy.org.au/supplies
or at jessicamorris.net