I pick up my phone and open Facebook to a post from a friend admitting defeat. Depression is pummelling him and he sees no way out. He is asking for help – throwing a “what do I do?” into the universe.
His question is not so different from the many prayers I’ve tossed up – first for my mother and later for myself – asking God to throw a line to his drowning child. Flailing about, helpless.
I feel powerless reading my friend’s post. We are not close, so I may not be in a position to help, but I want to. More than anything, I feel his pain, and the way that pain isolates. I know how deep that pit can get.
Today is World Mental Health Day. A day for awareness. A day to fight stigma.
I’ve been taking medication for anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder for about three years now. Those big pills go down without a fight these days, but it wasn’t always so easy.
I talk a lot about hope. Sometimes I feel that hope and other times the best I can do is to strain towards it.
Growing up, my mom suffered a barrage of mental illness with shifting diagnosis. There was Depression. Schizophrenia. Anxiety. Hallucinations. Bipolar. The lines always blurring. “We are legion”, as the demons shout in the New Testament.
I learned to pray against those demons in Bible College. I learned to speak the name of Jesus against them and cast them out into the dark from whence they came. I learned that faith could move mountains and could most certainly heal mothers.
Only I could not heal my mother.
Some days, I would leave Bible College and take the bus to visit my mom in the mental ward. She was on lock-down behind thick electric deadbolts while I worked up the courage to pray. I would sit beside her on her hospital bed, sheets translucent as sun-starved skin, and I would pray. Nothing would happen. Or she would reassure me that I was helping. Or she would grow agitated as her mind was poisoned by the devils of religion.
The prayers didn’t seem to work.
I would pray for myself, too, and often it would help. I would memorize hopeful bits of Bible. “A peace that passes all understanding”. A God who takes care of sparrows and flowers and even me.
In time, the lapping waves of mental illness grew, drowning me in swirling, swelling thoughts I could no longer control. The stress of life frothed my mind into a frenzy.
To dwell on my painful thoughts was to give them power, and to pray against them was to dwell on them. This is the paradox of prayer and mental illness. It can become a wicked trap, hurting with the very tools that should heal.
It’s not that I gave up on prayer. Maybe God still could do something about my mental illness, but he hadn't. Not yet. And that left me needing some other solution.
It was hard to tell my wife because I could barely admit to myself that anything was wrong. I have watched mental illness tear apart a person and a family.
Believe me when I tell you that I know the worst of what meds can do. Sometimes I see my mom as a frail collection of symptoms and flesh shaken apart by drugs over decades.
Somehow–and maybe this was by prayer–I worked up the courage to talk to my doctor, dragging all my baggage along.
I’m happy to say that medication has been good for me. I am not perfect (and I’m not sure any of us have a perfect mind anyways), but I am better. The voices in my head are quiet enough for me to think other thoughts and live well, anyways. Maybe some day I will lose those voices entirely. I still pray for that.
Other people are not so lucky.
Here is what I would like to say to my friend, though it may be lost in that low isolation that renders all advice mute. Here is what I would like to say to anyone suffering a mis-wired-mind today.
- Everything matters. Prayer hasn’t healed me, but I do believe it helps. So does what I eat. So does medication. So does community. And sleep. What I read and what I watch and what I listen to. Every input. Every output. Construct a healthy life.
- Act as if. Sometimes actions change feelings. Responsibilities remain regardless of my mood or drive towards them. So I do things anyways. Act as if. Do things through fear. Do things feeling lonely. Sometimes it’s the doing that pulls me through.
- Exercise. The brain is a body part, so our bodies matter. Exercise can change body chemistry. Eat healthy and get your blood pumping every day. I almost never feel like working out, but I never regret it. Let your body heal your mind.
- Go outside. Fresh air can work miracles. Walk towards some green. Let the river valley hold you. A dog might help.
- Don’t be alone. Stigma is isolating. So often now I am learning that another friend or family member struggles with mental illness. So long in secret, we hide everywhere. We are not alone, unless we keep ourselves alone. Tell somebody. Let us in. Then go out when you feel like staying in. Let a friend take you to a movie. Have a conversation.
- Faith matters. Whatever small sliver you can manage – use that. I still believe God cares, even though he does not take away all sickness. Or even most. I don’t understand this paradox, but I believe faith leads to hope. Hope that things can change. That things could transform at any moment. That good and wondrous things are happening all of the time, and one might just happen to me. Or to you.
I would say these things to my friend, and he may listen. Or he may not. This is the most frustrating part of mental illness – how it keeps us away from what we need. How it wants to hide the antidote from us. How it tricks and deceives. This is its greatest darkness.
I could also just let him know I'm here. I see. I hurt. I care. Presence is often what is needed most in times of pain.
Maybe the best thing I did for my mom was to be there. To sit on that hospital bed at least once a week under fluorescent lights, feeling powerless.
Darkness cannot survive the light, so let’s start illuminating. This Mental Health Day, shine a light on mental illness where you can. If you sense it in yourself, seek help and tell a friend. If you see it in another, have a difficult conversation. Don’t hide. Make a connection. Not on facebook, but in real life.
Be who you are, here and now.
Presence is light.