‘Have you taken them yet?’
This was a question asked by my husband on a near daily basis during our trip to the UK at the start of the summer. It was the sort of trip other military families living overseas might recognize, a week into which we stuffed 6 months’ worth of activities and then wondered why we were snoring into our dinner every night!
We managed to make it encompass most of the south of England, a family wedding, a spot of work to deal with a last-minute meeting, kitting out our daughter for boarding school, visiting our poorly dog and seeing my Nanna in her nursing home.
I knew before we boarded the flight to Heathrow that I would find it overwhelming. The week before, I worked in the shadow of the mountain that lay ahead of me. I fretted over the packing, trying to imagine, in the 45-degree heat of the Middle East, what clothes we needed for a British summer that my weather app said would comprise floods and a heatwave. Something that should have taken a few hours took far longer. And I kept crying.
A therapist recently told me that living with uncertainty and change, even good change, is stressful. A seemingly obvious statement, yet it made me see my life through her non-military eyes. Isn’t that how we tend to live as military families, in a semi-permanent state of uncertainty and change? With the future sometimes as uncertain as the weather, with us experiencing a deluge of unknowns, sometimes enjoying sunnier times, but rarely operating with more than a short-term forecast?
Personally-speaking, we spent the last year not knowing if I would be packing those suitcases for a UK holiday or to move back permanently. It has been a mental state of limbo and conundrums. Should we apply for schools? How, with no address? Should we buy a house so we have an address? If so, WHERE?!
Easter brought with it some answers at the promotion board but it actually opened up more uncertainty and change than it solved. It prompted our eldest to explore the option of boarding school and it hung a huge question mark over the next few years.
As I packed, I decided all the crying wasn’t healthy. I arranged to see my GP and as I left for my appointment, I disturbed a collection of insects resting in our front garden. Late as ever, I cycled off without investigating.
A 15-minute appointment lasted an hour as my doctor silently gave up her lunch break to talk to me. She prescribed anti-depressants, the same ones I came off 6 years ago when my husband stopped deploying to Afghanistan. As I was handed them, a peace settled on me. I could touch help, I could pack it in my suitcase, it could come with me. It seemed to be enough.
Friends described the potential benefits if I gave them a go, some of those friends living nearby, one texting from overseas after sensing I was struggling, but I decided not to take them. I would just keep them close by.
I slept badly in the UK and I found aspects of the trip unsettling. ‘Have you taken them yet?’ my husband asked again. I kept making excuses: ‘I don’t want any side effects whilst we are away’, ‘I should take them at night, not in the morning, in case they make me sleepy’.
A friend texted to ask if the tablets were helping. I explained I wasn’t taking them. She texted back, gently challenging me: ‘Would you refuse a cast if you’d broken your leg?’
If God gives us signposts, they all seemed to be pointing one way but I wasn’t ready to follow directions. Initially, I couldn’t explain my resistance but I finally worked it out. It felt like I was going backwards. I had come off these tablets before. I texted my friend to explain my thoughts. She texted back: ‘That was then, this is now.’
As someone who has taken anti-depressants several times, who passionately believes there should be no shame around mental health issues, who encourages openness about our inner struggles, I wasn’t living out these beliefs.
Instead, I felt like I should be able to manage without medication. I had subconsciously resolved to manage by my faith alone, to leave the pills in my packing. But it wasn’t really a case of by faith alone, more by Katie alone. And it did feel lonely. I realized, for me, in this particular set of circumstances, my resistance was rooted in pride. I wanted to manage in my own strength. I wanted to be able to say I needed the help but I conquered my troubles without it.
Two nights before we flew back to the Middle East, I started my medication and a verse came to me: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). Accepting I couldn’t cope on my own, I turned to a God who had already offered me help, help I could have had a week earlier, right at the point of need. As I accepted that I had come to the end of my own strength, he let me lean into his.
On our trip to the UK the previous year, we had stayed with my sister and her family in Scotland. We went to ‘Refuel’, an annual Christian event teeming with speakers, seminars, children’s activities, camping (for those braver than me 😳) and opportunities to pray. I met a remarkable woman, much younger than me in years but more spiritually mature than I may ever be.
As she prayed, she had a picture for me – a picture of a butterfly. She said she thought I had been through a difficult time but that God was bringing me into a new season, teaching me how to fly. Then she quoted psalm 40:31- the tag line I had chosen earlier in the year for my blog: ‘Those who hope in the Lord will soar on wings like eagles.’
Back at home, I wrote about this exchange of prayers and encouragement in my journal and I drew a butterfly (badly!). Occasionally, when I flicked through the pages of my journal, I thought back to that beautiful promise.
Almost a year later, on the afternoon of my GP appointment, I disturbed the same collection of insects when I returned home. No longer in a rush, I looked more closely. They were butterflies. Lots and lots of butterflies. I don’t remember ever seeing a butterfly here in the Middle East until that day.
They stayed for the whole week whilst I packed for the UK, fluttering up around me as I left and returned to the house. A symbol of new life, life borne out of something apparently lifeless, new life displayed in fragility, beauty, freedom.
They weren’t there when we returned from our trip but the One I believe placed them around our house- He has never left.
Published in the Autumn 2019 edition of ‘Contact‘, the Armed Forces Christian Union magazine