A friend shared this article from the Washington Post on facebook a few months ago and I've found myself thinking a lot about it ever since. In the essay, Charlotte Donlon writes about living with bipolar disorder, her faith, and her frustration that the church rarely addresses mental illness in meaningful ways, if at all. For me the essay cuts me in a couple different ways.
First, as a pastor, I read how the author's pastor dismisses her mental anguish in conversation and unintentionally shames her in a sermon and I cringe. I cringe because on days where I feel like less than a superhero, that's what I worry I'm doing. I am in near constant fear that I will say something that shames or hurts someone without me meaning to or that I just won't have the right words to say to help. I've learned in my ministry that there are many times where the only true answer is "I don't know." But when someone comes to me with a difficult question looking for some kind of help or hope, it rarely feels like that level of theological honesty is the right answer. Chronic illness, serious childhood diseases, and sudden deaths are all things that make me want to scream "Why God?" with everyone else.
At the same time, I resonate strongly with Donlon's essay because it's my own story, too. I've lived with depression for my entire adult life and shortly before I first read this essay, I was also diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. I have more family members and friends that live with mental health issues than I can count on one hand and I know they are not uncommon in the faith communities that I've served. And yet, there is still a stigma around mental health.
Many churches do awesome work around feeding programs, addiction recovery, poverty assistance, and even healthcare, but it's interesting to me how almost all those programs are directed externally. Meanwhile, internally, few churches in my experience foster an environment that normalizes things like mental health, divorce, addiction, autism, and other issues that are, in fact, normal for most people. Instead, many of us put on masks and pretend to be what we think is "normal" and think we're the only ones faking it.
I don't have any answers for fixing this, certainly not on a grand scale, but I am a big fan of Brené Brown's work that says risking vulnerability and honesty is the root of joy and wholeheartedness and I know Jesus said "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). So I hope that being vulnerable and honest about my own struggles with mental health might start to normalize it for others.
I have anxiety and depression. I'm medicated for it now and it's helped me a lot. Most of the time I'm fine, but like arthritis or diabetes, it can flare up at times and I can't function at 100% when it does. I'm not ashamed about living with anxiety and depression. In fact, sometimes I think of them as my super powers because I know they are closely connected to my drive to be my best and my creativity.
And I know I'm not alone. And if you're like me, then neither are you.
I pray this is something we can talk about more and I pray that the gift of God's grace gives us the confidence to make being normal... well...
From the Gray,
P.S. If you struggle with depression or think about hurting yourself, please get some professional help. If you can't, have a friend help you. Take it from me: things can get better.
“There’s one more thing I want to say: Our brains are sick, but that’s okay.” -twenty one pilots, “Fake You Out”