Depression, lions, and a changing conversation

Some years ago a mother-daughter team delivered a sermon in the church I was attending. The daughter, “Alana”, was 12.
From time to time, the growing whiteness of my hair and whiskers, and a lifetime of experience, seem to dictate that I offer opinions about how we do church. About how we obsess over smoothness and perfect timing and dulcet tones and perfect cadence. We slip into a Sunday language that feels, and is, awkward in the workplace or school yard. We express ourselves in ways that set us apart from, perhaps above, the unwashed masses.
Then came Alana.
A decision was made that on a certain Sunday, the youth would take responsibility for the morning service. Alana suggested a favourite Bible story, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, to frame the service. Someone, an adult, asked Alana if she would offer the meditation. Actually, it was phrased as an “adult story,” as opposed to a “children’s story.” After all, what do children know about meditations? Alana felt a little obligated, I’m guessing, and consented.
Alana and her mom decided that the lions’ den could be used as a metaphor for all of the things that threaten us in our complicated lives. Alana would acknowledge some of her own struggles, the complications of her twelve-year-old life, and then go on to talk about how she experienced God’s protection and support within those struggles.
What, you might wonder, could muddle the life of a much loved twelve-year-old, adored by family, a wacky sense of humour, stubborn up to here, gifted academically, musically, artistically? At an age where children are notoriously self absorbed, what could chase lions into Alana’s den?
“For me, it has been my ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression, Anxiety is my lions’ den.”
Alana went on to describe her growing realization that her fears were isolating her, preventing her from forming relationships with her peers. She talked about “being trapped in my head.”
Then, Alana described the moment when things began to change. She invited her parents into her despair. From there, she told us, “I felt like God sent some reinforcements into my lions’ den.”
She mentioned a growing courage to speak out. She mentioned the steadfast support of family. Alana pointed to a medical community that cared about her mental health, offered counselling and medication. She cited her gift of music and love of reading, things that offered colour and hope in her life.
The line that moved me the deepest was about God bringing “my dog, Millie, into my life. She is the best therapy a person could ask for. She never lets me down, she stands between me and my lions. She doesn’t tell anyone the secrets I share with her.”
Millie is a huge black Newfoundlander brute.
We were all challenged to name our own dens, and the lions that circulated there.
Then Alana sat down.
After the service, as folks gathered around her, Alana just wanted to go home. An introvert, she was exhausted.
As moving, as emotional as that message was for me, there was another realization that was striking. To a significant degree, this was not a huge stretch for Alana. This was more a matter of fact telling about a piece of her life.
I’m sure Alana didn’t sniff the huge stigma that earlier generations have placed upon mental health matters, the crude and degrading language. She couldn’t know that two generations earlier, when her grandparents took her place in grade school, there was no awareness, no language, and certainly no pulpit connected to the topic of mental health.
One generation ago, when her parents filled that twelve-year-old space, there was only a tiny bit more acknowledgement, but still little healthy language, and, in my awareness, no more pulpit time given to depression and anxiety. Mental health was not seen as relevant to spirituality.
“A child shall lead then.”
Full disclosure, Alana and her mother share my genes, in case you hadn’t guessed that.