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Entries in Mental Health (2)

Friday
Feb082019

Four years ago, I was a basket case

On my 50th birthday, my husband took me to a jewelry store and told me I could buy what I wanted. He said later that he was surprised when I walked by the diamond earrings. He knows I like diamonds. What I chose was the most boring, unnoticeable pair of gold hoop earriings I could imagine. But on that day, I was in the middle of a serious anxiety attack. The whole day was a blur. I spent much of the afternoon under a blanket in the family room, cold and shaking, and then I had to go out for dinner with my in-laws, a meal which I choked down.

My birthday is later this month, and on that day, my three children and their significant others will come for a meal. We're going to play games, and there will be laughter. I don't care if anyone brings me a gift. In fact, given their financial situations, I hope they don't spend anything on me. I just want them here. It is a difference from four years ago.

That winter and spring, I could barely leave the house, and when I did, I was always afraid someone would notice the cracks. When I taught Sunday school to my ladies class, I was often shaking in my legs. But I pressed on. I remember one particular morning I realized that I had lost more weight because my pants were baggy. Right at that moment, without any warning, my chest began hurting and my heart to race. It was only God who could have kept me calm in those next forty minutes. But even while I taught, I wondered if anyone would be able to see what was going on. I'm an easy person to read; would they notice?

That is one of the worst parts about anxiety: the anxiety that people will notice our anxiety. When one begins to have that feeling, she knows it is out of control. We shouldn't feel so worried in the church, but unfortunately, that is the place I felt the least safe. The place where I felt the safest was with my husband, and to this day, I am so thankful for that.

I had a brief exchange on Twitter a couple of days ago (as I was procrastinating from the term paper I should have been working on). The one tweeting commented that she noticed that there are so many young people struggling with anxiety. Someone suggested the answer was technology: our young people are more anxious because of technology. 

My first reaction was "Every generation has struggled with the stress of technology." Do we honestly think people weren't stressed about the telephone intruding into their lives? My second reaction was: "We're looking for an external cause." That is what we try to do most frequently with mental health issues. We want to attribute to something outside of ourselves, whether it is blaming it on sin, lack of faith, or technology.

We are never comfortable in the church saying that it is simply the way some people are wired.

I believe young people may seem like they're more anxious, but in reality, it has a lot to do with being given the freedom to express their anxiety, and a vocabulary to do so. Looking back, I see how my anxiety has been a problem all of my adult life, and going back to my teen years. I was just better at supressing it, and it had not spiralled out of control.

Why are we afraid as Christians to reveal the depth of what sin has done to us? Why do we think that our conversion turns us into perfect, happy, smiling, magazine-cover-worthy people? 

Last night, before bed, I began Simonetta Carr's book Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them. In the introduction, written by Michael Horton, he ponders the attitude in the church toward mental illness:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that we imbibe a modern dualism (one that's associated especially with the philosopher Descartes) between mind and body, and then confuse the mind with the soul. But the mind is not the soul. It is the brain, and the brain is an organ -- like the lungs and liver. Mental illness is a medical problem, a physical ailment, that requires professional treatment. Like all illnesses, it certainly involves the soul and requires the spiritual remedies of preaching, sacrament, praye, pastoral care, and fellowship of the saints. But we need to think of mental illness like cancer.

I have been researching the problem of evil for the past two weeks. I have read a lot. It has been helpful for a simple understanding of who God is and who we are. We are fallen creatures. Do we really think that sin means mere bad behaviour? It goes deeper.

I'm thankful that women like Simonetta Carr are talking about mental health. I hope more people will open up and share their experience.

Thursday
Feb082018

Why we need kind, compassionate dialogue about mental illness

Recently, in conversation with some family members, I learned that there has been a history of depression on my father's side of the family. My mother's father suffered from depression, and was actually institutionalized at one point, and I was aware of that. The news about my father's family has been a recent discovery. And it is only recent because no one talked about it. It was a shameful thing to admit, so it was never addressed. But now that we are getting more information about mental illness, we can gain a little understanding into what some of our family members experienced.

Three years ago, I felt like I was losing control of myself. I told my husband one day that I felt like anxiety was coming from outside and attacking me. I knew something was wrong. I didn't tell very many people. Why? Because of the guilt associated with it. Especially as a Christian I was embarrassed. And I was aware of the attitudes of other Christians in the face of mental illness from having heard comments over the years: 

"Philippians commands us not to be anxious."

"They just need to trust God more."

"Don't they know that anxiety is a sin?"

"They're self-absorbed."

Today, I don't mind so much talking about it with others, but I'm careful, because frankly, there are just some people I know who will not be kind. And it is the people who have never struggled with it or have never known someone who has struggled with it who are the worst.

One of the things that helped me was knowing that I was not alone. My own father went through five years of clinical depression, and when he knew what I was going through, he called me and offered the kind, tender sympathy that only a fellow sufferer can offer. His attitude was not dismissive nor did he suggest things that would promise instant results. No, my father did not remind me to "Be anxious for nothing," but he patiently listened. 

We need people to talk about their mental health issues because those who came after us need to know; our children or our grandchildren. For some, the first signs of mental illness may frighten them. They may not understand why it's happening. They may need to know if there is a familial link. It can help them cope with it, and provide guidance to their doctor.

Not all people who are depressed or struggle with other kinds of mental illness are obvious about it. Some people are able to mask their suffering quite well with outgoing, gregarious behaviour. They may even make you laugh. But after the laughter has died down, their feelings return. I was able to teach a Bible study regularly while at the worst of my anxiety, and no one but those closest to me knew what was happening. My closest friend sat in on my studies and told me one day that she would never guess that I was overwhelmed. We find coping mechanisms. Simply because someone doesn't look like they are suffering doesn't mean they aren't.

It's lonely to struggle with anxiety and depression. I can testify to that. I was in God's word daily; sometimes hourly. There were nights when I couldn't sleep and I poured over the Psalms and the gospels. I credit that with keeping me from completely falling apart. But it didn't cure things instantly. And I am thankful that I know about our family history. As a mother, it has helped me to discuss things with my children, and to be observant and attentive. We need to talk about mental illness. But more than that, we need kindness and compassion. And we definitely don't need simplistic remedies that betray ignorance.