"I can testify that the clinical depression I experienced was as much of an illness as the cancer I had suffered."
Here Trystan Hallam is speaking about his battle against illness, the hope that sustains him and what he has learnt from working in very contrasting areas of Wales.
Despite being born in Swansea, Trystan Hallam, one of three sons born to Peter and Glesni, is keen to establish that he isn’t a “Jack” but a Scarlet through and through, having spent his childhood in Ammanford. He now lives in Tredegar with his wife, Katherine and their two children, Elis and Siwan. “Ask” went along to meet him in order to learn more about the young minister’s story.
Thank you for speaking to us Trystan. Let’s start with your work as a minister…. an unusual career for a young Welshman nowadays! How did your interest in spiritual matters begin?
Yes, I am a minister, and I wouldn’t want to swop that for any other career. I want to tell everyone about the Lord Jesus, a friend better than any other. I was born to parents who loved Jesus and every Sunday we all attended church and Sunday School. I remember, when I was very little, building castles out of hymn books to play with my He-Man toys.
Then, one evening in June, while listening to our minister preaching, God’s power came sweeping over me. As he preached I came to realise that things weren’t right between God and me. I hadn’t killed anyone or robbed a bank but I realised then that although I was still young I fell short of God’s perfect standards. On that beautiful Sunday evening in 1987 I came to realise that God had dealt with my sin by sending His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross, taking the punishment I deserved in my place. On top of that he had conquered death through his resurrection! I came home from that meeting and went to talk to God alone. I confessed that I was a sinner and asked the Lord Jesus to forgive me. There were no flashes of light, no angels singing – but I knew that having put my trust in Jesus, that all was well between me and God. My life had changed!
So, why become a minister?
As a child I never dreamt that I would become a minister – a tree surgeon, a fireman or maybe Prime Minister – but never a minister of the Gospel! It all started with working at the Welsh Presbyterian’s Coleg y Bala after having to leave university following a period of depression. I really enjoyed teaching children and young people about the reality of Jesus. Time after time I was able to share with them that the Bible wasn’t an old, boring book, but the Word of God and that it was relevant to our everyday lives in the twenty first century. Originally I had intended to spend just six months in Bala but God had other plans! Two years later, having felt a growing burden and on the advice of older Christians I knew I had to become a minister.
You have worked closely with folk from quite different areas of Wales … Bala, Lampeter, Cardiff and now Tredegar – how are these communities different from each other?
As Welsh speakers I often think that we have a somewhat romantic view of the South Wales valleys where I live now. Yes, there are cultural, linguistic, historical and territorial differences between the places I have lived. But I see basic similarities between the people. Friendships, family and health are all very important to people everywhere but there also seems to be a deep dissatisfaction in people’s lives. I see so many trying to fill their lives with all sorts of things – work, home or possessions, pleasures or sex, alcohol or family. So many of these things are good in themselves but even though people’s lives are brimming over with everything under the sun, so many are discontent and searching for something more.
That is why I’m a minister – I know, ultimately that it is impossible to live a full and contented life without having a loving relationship with God. I want to see people putting their faith in Jesus, having a right relationship with God and having the emptiness in their lives filled with the real joy of this relationship.
You mentioned earlier that you had to leave university because of depression. Life hasn’t been easy then. Can you elaborate a little more on what you have experienced?
As I mentioned earlier, I had a period of acute clinical depression that put an end to my university studies. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I now know that this depression was an illness and not triggered by anything specific. Life had been great – I enjoyed university life, had good friends etc. But when the depression came I didn’t want to do anything or see anyone. The illness made me wish for day after tedious day to end but then spend night after night wishing for dawn to break the overwhelming blackness of the night. The highlight of some days was to walk a hundred yards to the post box.
Some years later, in 2003 I developed testicular cancer. It was a difficult period of surgery and intense chemotherapy – I wasn’t always sure whether I would live or die. Then, the icing on the cake as it were – after the cancer, I had another period of severe depression that lasted eighteen months. And yet, these were precious times in some ways in spite of being such difficult times because in the midst of all my problems, God, in His love, taught me so much about life, death and how to deal with difficulties by trusting in Jesus.
There is much talk about mental health at the moment, and especially amongst young men. It is difficult for many of us to understand what it means to suffer from depression. Do you think that lifting the taboo is a positive thing?
I support anything that highlights the fact that mental illness is a real illness. I can testify that the clinical depression I had was as much of an illness as the cancer. If discussing mental illness can help sufferers deal with it and help the community to gain a better understanding of the illness, it can only be a good thing. However, and I need to tread carefully here, there is a danger of making a scapegoat of mental illness. In our society there may be a tendency not to take responsibility for our failings but rather blaming them on mental illness. We need to find the correct balance.
Earlier you mentioned God’s power. Did God help you face your illness and that terrible period in your life?
Most definitely. Despite His infinite greatness, the Creator of the universe is also a personal God. God doesn’t leave us in our suffering. Rather He came, through His Son, Jesus Christ, to share in this world’s suffering,so he is able to sympathise with us when we face problems.
I was immensely grateful that I knew for certain that because Jesus had experienced God’s punishment and the terrible loneliness of being separated from Him on the cross, I would never have to suffer being apart from God. Even when I didn’t feel God’s presence I reminded myself that I was not separated from Him. As well as that, during the cancer and the depression I knew that this life wasn’t the only life and heaven is such a wonderful comfort to those who believe in Jesus. The suffering would end – that was such a help.
What advice would you give someone suffering from depression?
Possibly the most difficult step for those facing depression, especially for the first time, is to ask for help. It may be difficult to admit to yourself that you’re finding life hard to cope with. But if you had broken your arm you wouldn’t refuse to go to the doctor’s, and mental illness is an illness that needs medical intervention. I am thankful for the medical care I received. So, it is all-important to go and talk to someone who can help you.
But also, as a Christian, I would urge people to read the Bible. I think of how the book of Psalms helped me. In the Psalms I read about the experiences of God’s people who had been through such dark times. David was a king but wrote: “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (Psalm 6:6). It always helps to know that someone else has experienced the same feelings as you and to read about what helped them. The Bible is a very realistic book, full of hurting people, but in that hurting, they know of and lean on God’s comfort and help. I am thankful for all the medical help I received, but even more thankful to God for speaking to me at the time of my desperation through the Bible.
It is obvious, speaking to you, that you’re not a “Sunday only Christian” … your faith is real, God is all-important to you and you depend on Him in every situation. Forgive me for asking, but how is it that believing in this “great God” who is in control of every situation, you are still a Christian? You have seen so many sorrows, difficult periods and illness – situations that God controls – how do you understand what has happened to you and why haven’t you turned your back on God in the light of your pain?
Yes, God is in charge of every situation – but He doesn’t say that Christians won’t face difficulties in life. This is a broken world and pain is a reality, but I found comfort in the knowledge that God controls even the miserable situations that I faced. Even though I didn’t understand why these things happened to me I felt sure that there was a purpose to my suffering – under God’s steadfast hand, my illness was precious and indeed could be used by God for the benefit of others.
What other choice was there? If we believe that we are here by chance then it is by chance that everything happens to us. If we follow that argument to its conclusion, our experiences are meaningless and everything in life is meaningless. That way of thinking leads to a terrible darkness.
That is not the truth. The truth is that God is above all. So despite the dark times, when it is difficult to see God at work, the Christian is certain that there is a purpose to it all. Nothing is pointless or meaningless.
When I look back at that period, I wouldn’t want to go through it all again, but I’m thankful for it. Through those experiences I learnt so much more about myself and today I’m able to help others who suffer in the same way. Even more, my relationship with God became deeper, richer and sweeter because of what happened to me, and nothing can be compared with that.
This article is a translation from the 2017 Welsh edition of 'Holi'.