“Mental illness? Me? No, I’ve never encountered that…” At the time we first took in my nieces as foster kids nine years ago, and began our journey of learning about trauma and severe mental illness, I think I would have told you that I didn’t really have any personal experience with mental illness. It was just a sad or scary thing that happened to other people.
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting in preparation for a keynote talk I’m preparing, and I’ve realized that in fact before the girls ever came to us, I had already had several encounters with mental illness in my life, scary, sad or frustrating encounters that had written themselves into my heart without really registering as such in my memory.
- The odd, strange, and then scary little girl at my first sleep-away camp, an 8- or 9-year-old girl who didn’t fit in, who heard things we could not hear, ran away from the counselors and then tried to hurt people.
- The trauma of the timid little girl in my sixth grade class who showed up to school with the rope marks of her father’s anger on her neck.
- The shock and fear of an angry punch thrown at my father’s face, a punch that broke his glasses and his heart as my father saw the uncomprehending madness and hate in the eyes of his childhood best friend, whom we’d stopped by to visit on a vacation.
- My own little brother, born with severe ADHD and later plagued by anxiety and symptoms of OCD, possibly caused by witnessing another child’s abuse by a Scout leader; and the broken young girl with whom he would fall in love, a childhood victim of chronic abuse who would leave my brother for her children’s abuser.
- A high school friend, a boy whose mother was an alcoholic, a boy who used needles and matches to write his hidden pain on his arms and hands, who openly self-harmed before we knew what that was, or why we should be concerned.
- The bright, handsome, funny and sensitive brother of another high school friend (a pretty great guy whom I would later marry), lost to schizophrenia and suicide before I ever had the chance to meet him.
- A college roommate who struggled with incapacitating depression that prevented her from even packing her things at the end of the school year.
- My own lifelong best friend who struggles with ongoing bouts of depression that have flattened her spirit and frustrated me at my own helplessness to help.
The truth is we’ve all probably had similar encounters with mental illness, moments that may have left us afraid, confused, or feeling helpless.
I have found, however, that when we learn to approach those moments with love, dignity, simple skills and awareness, we can turn them into lifegiving moments that can nurture others and leave us feeling more competent and loving.
That’s why I’m so excited about our upcoming annual regional Shattering Stigma conference, in which we’ll be talking about tough subjects like porn and sex addiction, PTSD, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, as well as learning new skills in mindfulness that we can ALL use everyday.
So how about you? When did you first meet mental illness?
“They said I wasn’t praying hard enough.”
“She told me my mental illness was my fault, that I must have unconfessed sin I wouldn’t deal with.”
“He told me to just smile, and maybe take some vitamins, as if that would help my depression.”
“Once our son had his psychotic break, people at church stopped asking us about him, they just didn’t talk about it. I know they just didn’t want to make it worse, but it hurt to feel alone.”
It happens every time. Every time I begin to share my story with a group of people connected to the Church, I begin a bit afraid, afraid my story of walking alongside my nieces who live with mental illness won’t connect with them, that they’ll look like they wish I hadn’t shared or that I wasn’t talking about such a topic.
Then I start to share, and their stories start. Stories of their friends, their family members, their own stories, about experiences with mental illness, and how the members of the Church either dropped the ball, hurt them with thoughtless words, or just…..said….nothing.
When it comes to mental illness, the Church doesn’t have it figured out yet, anymore than the rest of society. Because of the particular culture and beliefs of the Church, if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t intentionally loving and thoughtful, we may drive people away from the Church, away from the one place they should be sure they can find love, understanding and support.
Sure, not everyone has a terrible experience. I didn’t. My small group prayed me through 7 straight years of crisis and fear and psych hospitalizations. The church meals group brought meals, and people always asked how the girls were doing. More importantly, they listened when I told them it was hard, and I was scared, and I didn’t know if they’d get better.
But because I’ve been relatively open, I know that my experience is rare. As a whole, the Church needs to do a better job of equipping its members to feel just as comfortable walking alongside a family with a mental health crisis as they are walking alongside a family going through a big surgery, or a job loss, or a death in the family.
How do we get there? I believe it starts with listening to each others’ stories, hearing from each other what it’s like to live with mental illness, or to have a family member who does.
Be willing to seek the divine in others whose experiences are very different than yours.
We must be willing to bear witness to these difficult, beautiful stories, and then we can begin to imagine ways in which we can each help – ways in which we are uniquely qualified to help.
Start next Saturday with us, at the next Shattering Stigma event at New Hope Community Church in Happy Valley. You can get more info and register here. Hear about living with bipolar disorder, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and more.
Over the next several days I’ll be sharing a little bit about the folks you will hear speak.
If you live with a mental health challenge or you love someone who does, come! Be encouraged, and get equipped.
If you know someone who lives with a mental health challenge, or if you have never had the opportunity to learn, come!