Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Cross of Mental Illness

The life-size wooden cross in the middle of the sanctuary at Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis is draped in purple and beneath it sits a bucket of nails. For the 40 days of Lent the cross represents both a reminder of God’s activity in the world and an invitation to realign our lives if we have gone astray. In the week leading to Easter, a time where the life, death on a cross (a tool of state execution), and resurrection of Jesus will be remembered, millions of Christians will gather together to celebrate that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.

Central to the theological theatrics of Christianity is the symbol of the cross. For contemporary Christian artist Mary Button, the cross is the key to connecting Jesus’ ethics to modern day suffering. In my own thinking and writing about the stigma and shame of mental illness, I’ve asked the question, “what does a crazy cross look like?”

Mary provides us some answers. In her 2015 installation of the Stations of the Cross, her theme is mental illness. The Stations can be used to enhance the observance of Holy Week because the raw and provocative images draw us into deeper reflection on the mystery of the Christian faith.

I met Mary this spring at the Mental Health Symposium hosted by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge, where Mary’s father, the Rev. Mike Button, is the pastor. Mary presented her Stations of the Cross during this Symposium at both St. Paul’s and at Our Lady of Lakes, the largest Catholic Hospital in Louisiana. I learned afterwards at dinner that Mary was the first woman in remembered history allowed to give a homily from the pulpit in the Catholic hospital’s chapel. She just took breaking the silence to a whole new level.

I asked Mary to share with us about what inspired her to create the Stations of the Cross Mental Illness and explain some of the images she uses in her work.

Sarah: Mary, your art is a visual testimony and tells stories about mental illness. What inspires your work?

Jesus is Nailed to the CrossMary: Station 11 “Jesus is nailed to the cross” is a super personal one. It addresses the epidemic of suicides at New York University when seven students in the course of one academic year committed suicide. This was in the wake of my own hospitalization for depression.

Sarah: Your art weaves together your personal experiences of living with bipolar disorder and the tragic history of the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness. This particular Station reminds us that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people. Your art also is another way to help break the silence about mental illness and opens up conversations that otherwise would be avoided.

Jesus Dies on the CrossMary: In Station 12 “Jesus dies on the cross,” I do realize that, on the face of it, the piece could be read as being opposed to psychiatric medications which I most definitely am not. What I’m trying to get at with that piece is to ask folks to consider some of the questions raised by issues of self-determination and civil liberties when dealing with the care and treatment of people with mental illness. It’s important to be open about developing treatment plans and medical directives in advance of the medical crises that happen even when folk are doing the very best they can. I’ve benefited, along with many others, from mutual support networks like Depression Bipolar Support Alliance and NAMI’s peer-to-peer programming.

Sarah: Everyone could benefit from having a mental health directive so that we are prepared and informed about all of our rights and treatment options. According to research by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one out of four Americans will experience a mental illness, so why not prepare ourselves and family members. Wellness Recovery Action Plan is also another resource to help us in our mental health prevention and recovery. The silence about mental illness, the shame and stigma, prevents us from making these positive and proactive steps.

Jesus is Taken Down from the CrossMary: Station 13 “Jesus is taken down from the cross” addresses the stigma of mental illness. In our conversations about mental illness we can find grace. No one is untouched by this issue. People with mental illness have a lot of gifts to bring to faith communities.

During Holy Week, take a few minutes to look at Mary’s Stations of the Cross Mental Illness. How can we see mental illness differently through the lens of faith? What does a crazy cross look like to you?

Blake’s Blessing

Blake Brockington blessed us.

In the face of bigotry, transphobia, racism and ignorance, Blake blessed us by standing for the right to be fully human.

When Blake was crowned the first transgender homecoming king at his Charlotte, North Carolina high school, Blake blessed us with hope that the world was changing, becoming more accepting and more loving.

Now we know the cost.

At the age of 18 Blake is dead. Early reports say he died Monday from suicide.

But some say he died from hate.

You see, even though Blake blessed us with his free spirit, and advocated for others to be free, some in return cursed him.

The Internet exploded in the aftermath of his new title as homecoming king.

Hate poured in, like the worst oil spill in history, gushing toxins into the ocean of Mother Earth.

Blake said, “Really hateful things were said on the Internet. It was hard. I saw how narrow-minded the world really is.”

Blake blessed us by being open-minded and using his Internet visibility to be an advocate.

Where did hate get its killing power so as to overcome the life force of such an inspiring 18 year old?

Is there anything more insidious in this world than hate?

How could we allow such a lethal societal attitude to destroy such a blessed child of God?

What can we do to help prevent suicide among trans teens, especially those of color, who are among the highest percentage of suicide victims?

These are the questions that Christians must carry with the cross into Good Friday.

If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBT youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.

Crazy Strong

The people I know who live with mental illness and their family members are crazy strong. By now you know that I use the word “crazy” with intention. Here it means what my New England friend calls “wicked,” as in “that’s wicked awesome,” not as in the witch of the West.

Crazy strong are those who day-to-day wake up in the morning on the precipice of catastrophe. It could be a quiet, smooth day where things hum along. Or it could be the day that all hell breaks loose and life is forever altered: 911 is called, psychiatric hospital forms are filled out, and everything is on hold.

Becky stood close to me in the church hall as she shared in a lowered voice about her young adult son’s life with multiple mental illnesses. As she spoke tears poured from her mother’s eyes: eyes that have witnessed her baby’s first steps, first day at school, and first depressive episode.

Becky stood strong as she recounted all the steps she’s taken to address her son’s health problems: all the phone calls, all the doctor visits, all the treatment centers, all the prayers.

And still there is no real answer. There is no real cure. Her son is in a current stage of defiance, not wanting to take any medication. So she waits, crazy strong, for him. So she loves, the kind of crazy strong love of a mama bear. So she stands by her son, no matter what.

And she cries right there in the church hall. And I listen, nodding, knowing what it feels like to be crazy strong. And knowing how exhausting and overwhelming it is to be crazy strong all the time. And knowing how isolating our crazy strength makes us.

By projecting an image of stoic survival, we are strong alone, not allowing others to see how much we are hurting. Becky said she doesn’t talk much about their family’s daily struggle because it’s too much. And so this muchness, wrapped up inside our hearts, does make us crazy strong because we have to be or else we would collapse. But keeping all of the muchness inside, not talking about our challenges, also is harmful to our own wellbeing.

Sure we can be crazy strong and sometimes we have to be in order to survive. But to thrive in the face of mental illness we need to free ourselves to be vulnerable with one another. And in our weakness we will find solidarity, and community, in our unguardedness we will find solace.

Becky’s tears were holy things that told another story. It’s in the listening and seeing of each other’s stories that we can begin to heal.