I’ve spent considerable space on this blog sharing my journey with my invisible illness -autoimmune disease, but very little space with another invisible malady I’ve wrestled with — mental illness.
Why is that? Why am I so open with sharing about my physical struggles, but very closed about sharing those that are mental? Probably because some of you have already cringed or gasped — “Mental illness? Really?” It’s not your fault; for generations struggles of the psychological kind have been steeped in stigma and judgment. People ‘go crazy’, are ‘whacko’, and find their way to the ‘looney bin’. Right? If we have struggles of a mental nature, we tend to keep them hush-hush. You know, people won’t understand.
But do you know why people don’t understand? Because everyone keeps it hush-hush.
Just recently a friend of mine recalled that back in the 1980s I was the first person she knew who openly shared my struggle with an eating disorder. That’s right, I talked about it. Why? I had to. I had kept my illness a secret and it had almost destroyed me. Part of my recovery was to speak the truth of my struggle. I didn’t have a lot of finesse. I remember I was in the cafeteria line at college grabbing some fruit and a Diet Coke. One of my professors said to me, “What’s the matter, are you anorexic?” I looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes, I am.” Poor guy, I doubt that he had any idea what I was struggling with until that moment. Shortly thereafter, I resigned my RA position and moved off campus. When people asked why, I said, “I have to deal with my eating disorder.” I couldn’t hide it; I had to expose it.
More recently, I entered therapy for continuing depression. In fact, I met with a psychotherapist for about eight years. My time on a couch saved my life and improved the lives of almost everyone who interacted with me. I am not one to put my personal life on blast, but if someone brought an issue to me or asked for my advice, I never hid the fact that I was in therapy and that it was the best investment I had ever made in my life. Nor do I hide the fact that I take anti-depressants. Why should I? If you are on antibiotics do you hide that? How about blood pressure medication? Of course not. No one would judge you if you had a physical illness that required medication. Nor should they judge you if you need a medical intervention for your mental health.
It’s 2015 and scientists have long ago proven a biological component to some types of depression. In fact, there are genetic links to all kinds of mental illness. No longer do we believe that mental illness is purely demonic. That is not to say that the devil is not alive and well and wreaking havoc on all mankind — he is. But he does it all in kinds of ways that don’t carry the same stigma as mental illness.
And here’s the thing, when we attach guilt or shame to mental illness, we give it more power than it should have. Depression becomes depression plus shame. Anxiety becomes anxiety plus guilt. If you’ve experienced mental illness, you know that it doesn’t stop there. All kinds of emotions get attached to what could have been easily addressed as one issue. The problem grows and the afflicted feels more and more helpless, draws into herself, and begins to feel that there is no way out.
That’s like letting a cold turn into bronchitis which complicates into pneumonia and lands you in the hospital! What could have been treated with rest and fluids has become a life-threatening illness requiring acute care.
Sometimes that happens, though. And, if you get pneumonia, you are rushed to the hospital, given IV antibiotics, and ordered to rest. Friends and neighbors rush to your house with chicken soup, bouquets of flowers, and offers to help with the chores and the kids. So why is it when mental illness reaches acute levels and — gasp — someone has to be hospitalized, we tiptoe around, whispering in hushed tones, trying to ‘not notice’ what is going on? Doesn’t someone hospitalized for mental illness need just as much, if not more, help than someone hospitalized with a medical illness?
Yes, she does. And she shouldn’t be made to feel shame for it.
We are complex beings. God created us with body, mind, and spirit. Our bodies get sick. Our minds get sick. I would venture to say that our spirits get sick, too. Why? Because we are human and we live in a fallen world. We will continue to struggle with imperfection until we die.
So, let’s not make it worse than it is, ok? Illness is illness. It all needs a remedy. We pray, yes. We use the resources that God has put at our disposal. And, whenever possible, we support one another through the difficult times. Understood? Good.
I Thessalonians 5:23
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.