Mentally Speaking

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.

Galatians 6:2

Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.

But Weight….a re-vist

Click on the arrow above to hear me read this post.

In Monday’s post, “Off the Couch, at the Table”, I briefly mentioned my weight. As age, illness, and circumstance are reflected in my body, I am often tempted to address the surface issues rather than what lies underneath. In this revision of a post from 2015, I recommit to not falling into this old pattern.

What’s your Achilles’ heel — that one weak spot that, if carefully targeted, can render you helpless.

I know what mine is. No, it’s not my drive to be successful. It’s not my tendency to jump in and do things in order to take charge of a seemingly out of control situation or my ability to turn off emotion in order to get through difficult times. It’s not even autoimmune disease. Those are all things that I battle, of course, but they aren’t what the enemy uses to bring me to my knees. Sure, he can distract me and get me a little off course with any of the above, but I have another weakness he can prey on if he wants to totally render me ineffective. He has been using the same strategy since I was a little girl, and his methods are extremely sneaky and deceptive. I am often nearly in the fetal position in the corner before I know what has hit me.

This weakness I have is hereditary. It started at least with my grandmother, and likely long before her. Somewhere along the family line, a woman believed this lie: “You are fat, therefore you are worthless, therefore you should be ashamed.” She believed it and made it her goal to be anything but fat, and we in her path have followed suit.

Now, the women in my family are very strong. They can handle what is put in front of them — family illness, financial difficulty, and crises of faith. I come from a long line of soldiering women who will not easily back down from a challenge. My great-grandmother, born in 1895, lived to be 95. She was a mother, step-mother, widow, bowling champion, and international traveler.  My grandmother also lived a long life and, after raising four children to adulthood, took a job at a local jewelry store that she kept until she was in her late 70s! My mother raised four children, often single-handedly, worked in a hospital for over forty years, and then began a new career with kindergartners! She raised two very independent and strong women — me, and my sister, who is retired from the Navy and manages the Texas region of a government agency. We’re strong all right, but many of us have wrestled or still wrestle with issues of weight and self-image. And here’s the thing — not one of us could truly be considered over weight.  So why do we struggle?

Because we believe the lies whispered so deceitfully into our ears — the lies that a number on a scale or the size of a dress is somehow a measure of value. When I say it like that, it sounds ludicrous. But I am not exaggerating when I say that I have considered my weight and the size of my clothes as a measure of my worth for more than half of the days of my life.

Yes. It’s true. And it’s embarrassing to admit.

In the 1980s I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I underwent treatment at the University of Michigan and began my recovery. I am still in recovery. I had to admit it to myself again last week.

Yes, last week. Thirty years after I entered recovery. Why have I not yet put this to rest? Why can’t I walk away from this issue? I wish I knew. I believe it is hardwired into me. It’s like a computer program that runs on automatic. I have to daily interrupt the program and insert an anti-code in order to hijack a system that is bent on destruction.

The program says, “You’re clothes are too tight. You are getting fat. You are a failure.” The anti-program fights back, “That’s ridiculous. I bought this dress five years ago. I am going to be fifty in less than a year. I am not fat. I am just changing.”

The program says, “You used to look a lot better. You are letting yourself get fat. Everybody is noticing.” The anti-program counters, “Aging is a natural part of life. All bodies change. No one looks like a teenager forever. This is normal.”

This internal dialogue has been running for decades. I was beginning to think it was automatic and that I wouldn’t need to keep working at it so hard, but a friend posted a picture of me on Facebook last week and the anti-code failed. The program said, “Oh, you look terrible. Everyone who sees this will think, ‘she’s really let herself go!'” And I believed it. Over the next couple of days I had to retire two blouses and one dress because they just don’t fit any more. I did the mental work, but it surely wasn’t automatic. “I guess I need to go shopping to get some clothes that fit. I am not the problem; the clothes are the problem.”

This ongoing dialog is exhausting. It’s meant to be. If the enemy can keep me in the fetal position in the corner, he has paralyzed me from doing all the things I have been called to do. He probably doesn’t use this exact strategy with you, but I bet he does something to slow or immobilize you.

If my focus was on the truth, I wouldn’t be worried about my pants getting a little tighter. I wouldn’t be giving myself messages about inferiority and worthlessness. If I was looking at my Creator and Redeemer, I believe I would view my self as created and redeemed.

My identity is not in a number on a scale or in a dress size. My identity is based on my Creator who created me in His own image, redeemed me, called me by name, and established the work of my hands.

I am resolving and committing right now: I will not continue to believe the lies that are whispered into my ears.

I’m not going to spend my life in the fetal position in the corner — this body and I have places to go, people to see, and things to do.

I am one strong woman, from a line of strong women, and the lies stop here.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:14