to respect something is to “show regard or consideration for.” giving our respect to things we hate is a very tricky thing to do. we don’t mind respecting and honoring things and people we appreciate, but when it’s something that makes us mad, well that’s a different story. there is such a wide spectrum when we say “mental illness”, ranging from depression to bipolar to anxiety disorder to schizophrenia to a wide range of other diagnoses that get tossed around. some struggle with it more than others. some hide it better than others. some have it under control and more manageable than others. but no matter how you slice it up, we can’t ignore that a lot of people in this world, in our communities, our schools, our families, our churches are battling some form of mental illness. i hate mental illness. i am not afraid to say that i really can’t stand the way it can create such a sense of shame and despair and confusion and loneliness in different ways for so many people i know. and at the same time, i am learning to respect it. to show regard for how real and difficult it is for some. to consider its power & implications. to not think that somehow the perfect pill will make it magically go away. to learn to understand that when we see someone who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair, we probably wouldn’t say to them “get up and walk”, yet we subtly and directly expect people with mental health issues to be able to do just that. just because we can’t visibly see the disability doesn’t mean it’s not there. i personally do not struggle with mental illness. i have had short seasons of depression, but that’s about it. but i do know a lot of folks who do. and even though i am angry at its ravages and wish it didn’t exist, i am learning to respect it, to accept the reality it brings to people’s lives. when something is real, out on the table, acknowledged, tended to, it has a much greater chance of healing. and healing related to mental illness looks a lot different than making sure people start acting the way they think they should act.
one of my friends, “kate”, has done an amazing job owning her mental illness. that doesn’t mean leaning into it and letting it rule her. it means acknowledging that it is part of her life, her story. and that as her friends, we do, too. since i have known her she has and continues to work her tail off on her recovery & healing, to bring what’s in the darkness into the light & embrace her reality without staying stuck. listen to her story. if you don’t struggle with mental illness, try to enter into to an understanding that because we don’t know what it’s like, we don’t know what it’s like. and if you do, i hope that you feel a little less alone.
share a little of your background, what kind of family you came from, what some of your mental health issues are and how they affect your life?
My twin sister and I were born to a single young mother. My father was not in the picture. My family are blue collar workers, none are college educated, low to middle class. There is a strong presence of white supremacy. My mother married a man much older than her when I was about 18 months old. He was a Vietnam Vet, and seemed quite negatively affected by it. He was extremely physically abusive to my sister and me as well as my mother and was sexually abusive to my sister and me as well. There were guns all over the place, and he carried one wherever he went. I remember just always, ALWAYS feeling petrified. It was best not to talk or attract attention in any way. My kindergarten records say I was very uncooperative, clung to my sister, and would not participate even though I was fully capable. My sister started several fires, one in our apartment. She wanted to die. My mother eventually got away from this man, but continued dating and marrying abusive men until I left home when I was 17. I’m dealing with PTSD and dissociative disorder now. I often feel the downward pull of depression. I have good days, I have bad days. I’ve been in and out of the psych ward many times. Doctors have diagnosed me with everything under the sun and I’ve been on loads of medications, enough to make me drool. PTSD and dissociative disorders are treatable, but the reality is that the medical profession-on the whole–would rather put me on tranquilizers and other horrible meds instead of guiding me to proper therapy to make me better. Good therapy is hard to find and most people I know can’t afford it anyway. Some would say “well just go to community mental health”, but in reality most community mental health agencies i have gone to don’t provide counseling for PTSD and dissociative disorders. Because of the dissociation, I have a really hard time with the concept of time. I can’t tell how long things are going to take, how long has passed, so planning is a chore for me. I’m learning… I have panic attacks in new situations, places where there are a lot of people in a small space, stuff like that. I’m terrified that I’ll have a flashback in public and be unable to control my emotions and actions, and everyone will think I have really lost it. From the outside, people do not see this part of me. But they don’t live in my head.
describe a little what it feels like in your head sometimes?
Mostly it’s loud–different voices, often fighting to be heard. Sometimes it gets out and I say something off-color or unrelated to what’s going on around me on the outside. I’ve been evaluated and told that my mind thinks very quickly as well, so my cognitions get WAY ahead of the people I’m talking to, which causes a lot of relational weirdness. If I’m nervous, it gets worse. Words escape me and I sound like an idiot because I’m trying to censor, tone down, and be normal to the point that communication just breaks down completely. I’m told this often happens to kids who grow up in an environment where they had to sort of always figure out what would happen next. The more intelligent they are, the further ahead they get, and the more unhealthy the “mindreading” of other people can become because they’re always trying to avoid negative consequences of making a wrong move. I have to consciously slow down and really hear what people are saying with their body and their words. Mostly I feel like a total stranger to this world, like everyone knows I don’t belong and there is something wrong with me.
what does depression sometimes do to you?
Depression just takes hold…It’s so hard to describe. I don’t eat because it feels like I’m feeding a useless body with a useless, worthless life. I can only sleep during the day because nightmares get absolutely intolerable at night. I don’t want to see anyone or go anywhere— I just can’t… move… my… body. My mind doesn’t care either, because it forgets everything.
what are some of the ways that “the system” provides for you? what services do you get? how does it feel, getting those services?
I get a small amount of disability, and Medicare with that. The money is enough to help pay a couple bills to help the family. Medicare is helpful as well, but most doctors won’t take it. Definitely the good doctors won’t. I feel like I am expendable; some doctors are actually negligent and don’t care at all, because I am a medicare recipient–not worth saving. The attitude is, “it sucks to be you.” There are always exceptions, and in my case it’s a BIG one. My therapist is a Christian therapist and willing to work with Medicare to pay for my therapy. That is unheard of. If it weren’t for this, I would not be getting better! I’m a lucky one. Most people like me are forced to go to their community mental health agency. The turnaround there is hideous, the care is usually nominal at best, and most take a lot of medication to keep them sedated so they stop “causing a problem.” I also am involved with Vocational Rehabilitation. They’ve been wonderful as far as paying for my college classes. Before my husband had a decent job, our family was receiving food stamps, daycare assistance (since I was in the hospital a lot and heavily medicated), and our kids had medicaid. It was all very helpful for us, but the cost personally is HUGE. Workers at social services are among the worst abusers of the poor and needy… There is nobody to tell about this poor treatment, and the general public generally feel beggars can’t be choosers. I personally feel that if social services would employ only those who have received services before, it would be a much better and efficiently-run program. Even better, wouldn’t it be grand if the church put social services out of business?
what is the hardest part about your battle with mental illness, what do people need to know?
I may look like I only need you, but you need me, too. I’m a very capable, competent person. I need people who will push me to dream and reach. I have a future. I cannot get better without your encouragement and acknowledgement that I can do this, just as you have needed it too.
in the middle of the night, what are some of the things you cry out to God?
I need some sleep!! 🙂 Please, please change me; make me normal; if i’m not gonna get better, and my dreams are gonna go to waste, if you can’t use me— just strike me dead. I beg of you… and I’m really thankful, He hasn’t struck me dead yet.
what keeps you going, battling, fighting for healing?
I have always felt there is something special I must be here for, something only I can do… And I don’t want to miss it.
how has God given you new eyes to see your struggle?
He has shown me that he made me a certain way in the beginning, that my heart is very soft for good reasons. Evil got to me when I was young and defenseless, but it’s not a bad thing to be tender and sensitive. Nobody is allowed to beat me or abuse me now, so it’s ok to carry on the way he made me. It’s taking a TON of healing, but in this moment I feel like I’m worth it.
what are some of the crazy ways God provides for you and strengthens and sustains you?
My therapist is quite a long way from where I live. Vocational Rehab has a mileage reimbersement program that saved my butt when gas prices were so high. Because I don’t bring in much financially right now, God seems to find a way to meet our basic needs. God also saw fit to find me a dad…a man I’ve known a long time has sort of adopted me as his daughter and loves me just the way I am. It has helped in a BIG way in therapy. I have a dad, so I don’t have as much trouble wanting my counselor to take over that role. I get more done in therapy because of it. He even pays my copay for counseling; He must think it’s worth it. Another thing that I now have are friends who don’t let me stay stuck. Kathy kicks my ass and tells me to keep fighting because I have certain abilities and gifts that are needed! She reminds me that I am not wasted breath and am valuable to this world, and that she is holding my place for when I am able. I have a community of safe people who will NOT give up on me. I have a feeling that even if this was the best I could ever do, they would still love me and be cheering for me. I also have a service dog that provides tactile stimulation to stay grounded, and that great constant, unconditional love only dogs can give. My dog is truly a Refuge icon!
what pisses you off the most about mental illness?
That this is not my fault, though “the system” treats me badly as if it is. No wonder it gets perpetuated in most families…
what brings you the most relief?
Talking. Being held. Hugs. Eventually getting busy again.
are there any really stupid things christians have said to you along the way that made you want to punch them?
“We don’t need you anymore.”
“After all our help, you’re still not all better…”
“There comes a point that is beyond our grace.”
“You are too damaged to (insert ministry of choice here– be in the praise band, talk about your story in front of people, clean the church toilets).”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Well why in the world are going to counseling if it brings the past up and makes you feel WORSE? Leave the past behind and follow Jesus.”
what are some of the ways people have helped you the most?
Watching the kids when I was unable, making sure I got to therapy, asking if I’m taking my medication properly. NEVER giving up on me, seeing the best in me, meeting with me regularly to check in.
have you felt marginalized by “the church” or christians sometimes? how?
I feel like I’ve been labeled “Christian flunkie.” Trust me when I say I KNOW exactly what to say to get favor with most Christians– I lived that way for a looong time: “well, I was a little down today, but I know God is renewing my mind and I am new every morning! I am so thankful for all he has blessed me with.” Nothing wrong with all that, unless you’re faking it. I get the feeling that if I just talked a little more in “Bible”, and hit all the right positive phrases, I would be more widely accepted by my evangelical friends.
how does shame fit into the church equation?
In my experience, the Church have been the worst offenders of everyone at heaping shame. Rarely do I come across Christians who want to be examples of grace, hope, love…
what does it feel like to be part of a faith community like the refuge? what are you learning about yourself and people and God through it?
This the craziest bunch of sane people I have ever seen. People strive to be healthy, safe, loving people without exception or condition. We are like family. And that causes so much questioning and messiness, and struggle…and real growth and beauty and change.
any other thoughts you’d like to add?
Don’t diss any of Kathy’s friends–she will kick your ass.
okay, kate, thanks for making me cry (i know that makes you happy). my favorite line: “wouldn’t it be grand if the church put social services out of business?” for some, like kate, mental illness developed from trauma. for others, it stems from chemical wackiness & a wide variety of other things. regardless of how it got there, here’s my hope: we learn to better respect mental illness. i know there are some out there that say “we can’t give in to it, we can’t accept it. if we do, then we’re giving the enemy a foothold” respecting does not mean giving into it. i think we need to be praying our hearts out & fighting our tails off against the damage that it can do. but i believe we, the church, as brothers and sisters on the journey, must learn to quit being so afraid of it and stop expecting that people who struggle with depression & anxiety & a whole myriad of mental health issues should “somehow figure it out and get better soon so we can feel less uncomfortable.” i’d love to hear some of your thoughts & perspectives (hey, let’s all be careful to not give advice!).