On Being Mentally Ill
When I was a teenager, there was a man in our tiny, tight-knit community who was crazy.
And by that I mean, of course, that he was mentally ill.
I was afraid of him.
It didn't help that his appearance fit every stereotype about craziness. His long, curly hair stuck up around a balding pate, earning him the nickname "Pauly" after the 90's comedic actor (and similarly coiffed) Pauly Shore.
"Pauly" didn't speak, at least not that I ever heard. I think maybe he talked to himself (speaking of stereotypes) but whenever we saw him, but I never heard words come out of his mouth directed at other human beings. He walked around our town alone, sometimes pausing to send an unflinching stare at an object or individual.
One time his stare was directed at me and my friends, a table full of precocious teenage girls. It was uncomfortable. It was troubling. But that was all it was. As usual, he stared until he was done staring, and then walked off.
When I went home, I complained about it to my father. I didn't think "people like that" should be allowed in public, making others uncomfortable. They should be kept somewhere else, on their own, in some kind of guarded space away from normal people.
"You sound very much like someone you don't like right now," my dad said, as I got particularly heated and uncharitable at my plans. He was, as usual, getting to the heart of the matter and hinting at my obsession with a person who had similar ideas about the mentally ill: Adolf Hitler.
I wept indignantly and denied it. I stalked out of the room.
And I never forgot the conversation, nor complained about crazy people again.
Because of course, my dad was right.
Do you know who wants to be mentally ill?
Do you know who wants to admit they are mentally ill?
But some of us are learning to admit it publicly, by the support of our friends and family or not; with the help of a culture that is slowly but surely changing the way it talks about mental illness.
I have a mental illness. I was diagnosed a year and a half ago.
In my stronger moments, and with the right people, I describe myself as crazy.
I use the word when a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. and the nauseating cycle of blame and shame begins: "Hey, don't rush to blame this on mental illness," I say as I read claims that guns are not the problem in shootings (which by definition involve a gun).
"I'm crazy and I don't go around shooting people."
I use the word also when describing engagement with other, more severely mentally ill people: "They were totally crazy. I mean, I'm crazy, but they were CRAZY."
I hear people talk about the need to destigmatize mental illness, and that's what I'm trying to do when including myself--an apparently healthy, fairly normal person--among the crazies. But I drop the term in less familiar settings because, in common parlance, crazy people are scary people. Crazy people are unpredictable and prone to violence.
I'm mentally ill, but I'm not prone to violence, and I try to give a heads up about what I'm feeling to give predictability to actions related to my illness.
"I'm not feeling very well, I might need to step out for a minute," I say when my ears start ringing, a sure indicator that a panic attack, unchecked, is not far behind. Or, "Just so you know, my anxiety level is about HERE," I say, gesturing to my chest or collarbone or throat, "So we may have to stop talking about this."
"This" is almost always church-related: theology, questions of vision and mission, cultural challenges. My sickness manifests itself precisely where I used to feel strongest, most certain, well-trained.
I prefer to say I am unwell or sick, leaning especially on "unwell" because not everyone sees my sickness as such and frankly, unwell sounds more respectable. I am unwell enough to be prevented from working for pay. I am unwell enough to have to still avoid certain situations and even certain books or discussions. I am unwell enough to need treatment, but it is not the kind people typically think of when they think of debilitating disease. I don't need surgery, I need antidepressants and therapy, regular doctor's appointments and a lot of self care.
"I am not well today," is how I let Matt know my PTSD is flaring up and we may need to change our plans. He takes such warnings seriously and is willing to adjust as he always has. My husband. God should give all sick women such husbands, amen and amen.
An easy way to beat myself up is to think about all the women and men in the world who have been through far worse than me and have to make do with far fewer supports. My husband tells me this isn't helpful to them or to me. And of course, he is right.
This much I know: being sick in a country with a social safety net is better than being sick in a country without one. Being sick in a country that is fighting to destigmatize mental illness is better than being in a country that says mental illness is something you should just "get over" and until then should be a carefully guarded family secret.
The reality is that all kinds of people get sick, sometimes in their hearts, sometimes in their guts, sometimes in their minds. All kinds of people get injured, sometimes in their bones and sometimes in their brain matter. Which begs a few questions:
Do we as families, as faith communities, as nations, reserve space for people who get sick?
Do we extend dignity and respect to those who get sick in the head?
Do we as families, as faith communities, as nations, invest resources in preventing sickness and, when it comes to it, in helping sick people get well?
Do we also invest resources in those who have a sickness of the mind?
Do we support the families of the mentally ill and help them shoulder the burden? Because, stigma or no, mental illness brings cost and difficulty as every illness does. I am now completely dependent on my good husband for my house, my food, my clothing. I am a financial burden instead of a fellow earner. I have thrown off the shame that I was saddled with when I first became ill, but I must name the reality, for it is the truth.
"I want to be well Lord," I prayed the other night, after being reminded of how much I can't do now that I used to be able to do. "Please make me well!"
It's been a year and a half since I stopped working. So long! I went on leave thinking it was a temporary setback. I thought I would be back at work within a few weeks. I certainly thought I would have "gotten over" the symptoms by now and been either at my church or in an even more challenging assignment.
But no, I am still not well, and I don't know what to do about it.
Except keeping taking my medicine (and I call it medicine instead of medication, but that is a whole 'nother post) and do more therapy and go on runs and keep pushing the borders of my capacity gently, slowly; willing to withdraw and wait if what I want to do is beyond what I can do.
I read the Bible a few weeks ago for the first time in months. And it was good.
I had a conversation about church vision with my brother-in-law. And I didn't panic.
I listened to a sermon. I had to, simultaneously, draw pictures in the notebook I always carry to keep myself grounded, to keep my anxiety from rising beyond levels unbearable; levels that would force me to stand up and walk out of the church.
My pen skimmed the surface of the paper; I pressed down harder to create an image I could focus on. One minute passed, two, three. Eventually my nerves settled, and I stayed in the pew.
People ask me if I want someday to go back into ministry. Want is a funny word in this situation, because want and can really are two different things when you aren't well. Returning to ministry is not on my List of Things to Do because it is so far beyond my reality of Things I Can Do.
So what can I do? That I can answer, though it changes day by day. And it's where it is important to keep my attention right here, right now.
Today, I can write. Thank God.
Today, I can cook and clean and care for my children. Thank God.
I can go to church when I can go to church. Thank God.
I can pray. Thank God.
I can be with friends and out in public without being too overwhelmed. Thank God.
I can read some theological perspectives on the hows and whys of this extraordinarily strange time in history. Thank God.
I can argue. I can love. I can even, sometimes, dream.
I am unwell. I am a little crazy. But I have help and I have hope.
And for now, that is all I need.
3/9/2017 11:26:00 am
I read your article as I sit with Joy today. I want to thank you for writing with such transparency about your journey. Your are a brave woman Kadee and are loved and appreciated by so many.
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