PTSD and Me

For most of my adult life I have benefitted from (individual, couple, and family) therapy. Since my time as a graduate student, I have intentionally sought out the support of trained professionals for help and they have been ministers, spiritual directors, social workers, counselors and therapists.  This desire for support comes from a deep place of pain…pain from the brokenness of life that many of us are all too familiar with and know firsthand.

Writing, publishing and speaking about my book “Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church” was and is an act of healing. In the past four years of speaking across the country sharing my story, I have focused on sharing stories of severe mental illness in my family that shaped and still shapes my life. In my public speaking and writing so far I tend to share less about my own personal mental health. After hearing my story, people have asked me, “So, how are you doing?” Or “How did you turn out so normal?”  (That last question always makes me laugh…what *is* normal?)

Then I share ways that I seek to take care of my mental health: I am in regular therapy, practice yoga, eat a vegetarian diet, get plenty of sleep, engage a network of support from friends and family, and nurture my spirituality.

This past year I asked my mental health provider to share with me my diagnosis. I had not thought to ask before. I do not take any medications, so the issue had not come up.

Post-traumatic stress disorder.

That was hard to type because it’s the first time I have shared this in public. It feels vulnerable. It feels exposed. But I hope it is also liberating and healing.

While I think this diagnosis is accurate, I also am sensitive to being defined by a diagnosis. PSTD has many faces. Military veterans are the first to come to mind. I’ve never served in the military. So I’m thinking more about how my life story and the story of people with PTSD intersect.

As I share in my book, over the years I have experienced significat trauma as a child, youth and adult. This chronic exposure to trauma (neglect, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, witnessing execution, sexism, bullying) over the course of my life has led to symptoms that correlate with PTSD: flashbacks, startle response, avoidance, numbness, depression, and anxiety. Over the years these symptoms come and go, but they remain steady and intensify during times of stress.

Having this diagnosis is not a label, but a lens for how I can think about my life story. It’s a way for me to view all that I have experienced and better understand how I have been impacted, shaped, and transformed by what I have lived, what I have survived…all that hasn’t killed me, but makes me who I am today.

PTSD and me. It’s just another way to say, hey, there’s some things I’ve been through that I need to pay attention to because they’ve shifted some things inside me. It’s like an interior earthquake.

It helps to have some one to walk around with me to check and make sure that life’s little earthquakes haven’t cracked the foundation. Under the care of a mental health professional and following a wellness plan, PTSD doesn’t prevent me from enjoying life. If anything, because of all of the trauma I have survived, I am deeply grateful to be alive.

Some days are challenging and those are the days I reach out for help. Experiencing care and love from people in my life has healed my pain.

It’s because of my healing journey that my personal mission is to partner with others to share God’s hope and healing with people in pain.

No matter what the diagnosis, I believe that our ultimate identity is as God’s good creation. We are loved. We are healed. We are whole.

 

Do Not Be Afraid

Do not be afraid of people who experience mental health challenges. No matter what the headlines regarding the most recent mass shooting, do not be afraid of people with mental health challenges. Do not be afraid.

Fear is a strategy. We are living through one of the most fear-based administrations in US history. Fear is a weapon of mass distraction and destruction. Fear diverts the public’s attention away from some of the key underlying issues of these horrific mass shootings: America’s obsession with extreme weapons and a White culture that worships violence.

Growing up in the Midwest I could walk into any arcade and find video games ready for me to shoot people on the imaginary streets for a quarter. I was raised on Hollywood movies glorifying gun violence and bloodshed. I spent holidays at family gatherings with guns as entertainment.

I’ve also spent my life navigating what it means to love family members with severe mental illness. The shame and stigma is so real for people with mental illness and their families that it takes a lot of effort to get help. I grew up knowing what it’s like to wonder if a person’s mental illness would cause me harm. It’s a terrible fear to carry.

What we need to remember is that while certain symptoms of mental illness may cause some people to be more vulnerable to expressions of harm, statistically, the majority of the time the harm is to the self, not to others. Therefore, to blame mental illness alone for mass shootings, as the President and others have done, is to deploy the weapon of mass distraction: fear.

Blaming mental illness for the death of innocent children and adults also creates additional harmful stigma and shame for people already burdened by society’s mangled beliefs that mental illness is somehow the person’s fault and results from lack of faith or willpower. Or worse, is a punishment or curse from God.

From a faith perspective, what is at the heart of the matter is this prison of fear that is slowing killing us all. The God revealed in the Bible and in the life of Jesus expresses a tremendous hope that we would not be afraid in this life.

When we are imprisoned by fear we lose our ability to imagine a different reality. We become captive to the fear mongers and we lose our power to create. When we are afraid we do not grow and change.

The most powerful action we can take is to make a decision to not be afraid. We will not be afraid of mental illness. We will not be afraid of changing gun laws. We will not be afraid of challenging a White culture that worships violence. We will not be afraid to dismantle our obsession with extreme weapons. We will not be afraid anymore.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you: God will never leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Shining a Light on Mental Illness in Religious Leadership

There are some things that you know you have to do and you are honored to do it. This was one of them. Last summer I accepted an invitation to join a focused conversation about mental health and preparing people for religious leadership. The gathering took place last month and the group included national staff leaders from several denominations and I was their guest.

Entering the hotel executive conference room, I was nervous and excited. For me this really was a “capstone” experience where I got to reflect on the hundreds of conversations that have emerged in churches since the publication of my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church (Chalice Press, 2014). I have just spent the past three years touring the country speaking with congregations about my book and mental health ministries.

What I heard and saw confirmed this: mental illness in the church is often seen and experienced as a shameful secret. This secrecy is a problem for religious leaders who do not feel safe disclosing or addressing their mental health challenges. In the shadows of secrets, the shame and stigma grows.

We spent the whole day together shining a light on mental illness: sharing, asking questions, and listening to each other. We realized that the church needs new ways to think about mental health and religious leadership.

We wondered what it would look like to celebrate religious leaders who represent a diverse “color pallet” of mental health across the spectrum.

We wondered what it would be like if we assumed that a majority of people seeking authorization for religious leadership bring with them personal life experiences of mental health challenges.

We wondered what if we viewed lived experiences of mental health challenges as a source of character development, resourcefulness, perseverance, grit and resiliency.

We wondered if God is calling people with neuro-diversity to help us imagine and create new ways of being church.

We wondered if we can better provide those seeking authorization for religious leadership with resources and support services for mental health and recovery.

We wondered if as a church we could participate in preventative mental healthcare by providing religious leaders with a “check up from the neck-up” otherwise known as depression screenings.

We wondered if national Conferences, Synods, and Assemblies of our religious bodies could offer free on-site depression screenings as an expression of Christian love.

We wondered about when to say no to a person seeking authorization for religious leadership out of concern that they might harm the church.

We wondered about when to say no to a person seeking authorization for religious leadership out of concern that the church might harm them.

We wondered about what it means to be mentally healthy and to flourish in our lives and in religious leadership.

We wondered what is preventing our flourishing and the church’s flourishing.

We wondered what is the purpose of providing psychological testing of people seeking authorized religious leadership.

We wondered about many things and in so doing we broke the silence that has kept us trapped in old and outdated systems and patterns.

It was a rich time of sharing that began with my giving testimony to the ways God has shown up in my life as I have faced the reality of mental illness in my family. In breaking the silence about mental illness, family and church, we made space to begin to wonder what if. What if we break the silence?

What kind of religious leaders do we want? Do we need?

If it is from the places along the spectrum of mental health that the most creative and resilient religious leadership emerges, then out of the silence, new religious leaders are being called. New systems and methods of preparing religious leaders will be needed as well.