Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Mask

Lately I’ve begun talking about the mask. It’s another way to talk about what we keep hidden from each other on a regular basis. As I speak with people about mental health and my experiences, talking about the mask helps me tell the story of what it means to hide mental illness.

The mask is a cover. It covers up the real me. I can make the mask look like whatever I want. Wearing the mask I feel in control and confident. The mask allows me to blend in or even to disappear. The mask is what normal looks like. The mask is safe.

Talking about mental illness and its impact on my life is an act of removing the mask. As a gentleman at a church recently remarked after hearing my testimony, “we need a shelf to put our masks on.” I had thought about simply throwing my mask onto the ground and watching it shatter. But there may be some sociological value in keeping them. 

People seem to resonate with this concept of wearing masks that conceal our true selves. It seems to be an aspect particularly common in Christian culture in the United States. What happens when we remove the mask of perfection?

The mask looks like stoic individualism. It reinforces the idea that anything given to me, I can endure without help. It says to the world “I am fine.”

But what if I’m not fine and I need help? Recent studies about the use of social media point to this “Instagram effect” where we curate the ideal public image of ourselves. I point to this as another way we wear masks. 

To be authentic by being vulnerable risks rejection. But what you realize with age is that those who reject you actually don’t know how to love you. Find the ones who do.

The irony of wearing masks of perfection in church is that loving our neighbor as ourselves is at the heart of the Gospel. And it’s this core love ethic that is woven into the fabric of Christianity’s most beautiful hymns and prayers. It is this divine love that keeps me grounded during the hardest days of my life. 

I didn’t expect that what started as breaking the silence would turn into breaking the mask (or putting it on the shelf). Yet, as I engage with more people about mental illness, family and church, I discover in others an intense longing to be real and to be loved that is universal. Looks like the church could create an entire Museum of Masks, if we were ready to shed them. And the good news: we are ready.


May is Mental Health Awareness month, so now the top of the Empire State Building is aglow with green light at night. I don’t know why green is the color that NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is promoting as representative of the mental health movement, but there are worse colors out there, like fluorescent orange. 

Kermit the Frog sums it up for people with a brain disease and mood disturbances: it’s not easy. As a friend and I talked about today at lunch, it’s not easy having a mental illness because it’s an invisible disease that, like shadows across the earth, come and go with the day. 

Not that any disease is easy. But there does seem to be this additional burden of stigma and shame with mental illness (and other disabilities) that just makes living with it hard. 

An audience member asked me about shame recently. He asked me to explain why I experienced the mental illness in my family as shameful.

I said, “It has to do with my identity. Do I think of myself as the daughter of a successful animal doctor? Or do I think of myself as the daughter of a homeless man with untreated bipolar disease? I’m both. But one identity is a source of pride and the other is a source of shame.”

I realized that only when I looked at my father’s life through the lens of compassion for a person with a brain disease, does the shame start to fade away. My father was very sick. Why would I be ashamed of his illness? He also had heart disease, but that wasn’t a source of shame.

We feel shame when we cannot feel compassion. I regret my lack of compassion for my father and am sorry that compassion for his condition came to me towards the end of his life and not sooner. 

I wish there was no stigma for mental illness because it’s the stigma that made me feel ashamed about my father. 

The stigma made me feel ashamed.

The shame kept me silent. 

The silence kept me alone. 

The isolation kept me from love.

I hope it will be different for younger generations who have permission to speak openly about mental health.

I hope for a future where there are no shadows of stigma and shame that sweep across and dull this green earth.

A Prayer for Mental Health

In the beginning, God, when You created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from You swept over the face of the water.

                                                               “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God, You saw that the light was good; and You separated the light from the darkness. 

You called the light Day, and the darkness You called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

We take comfort that you are a God of darkness and a God of the night. For people of faith this means that even in the void you are there, perhaps unseen, but there you with us, holy and quiet. 

We confess that in the face of human struggle we long to see Divine light. For people who live with brain diseases and disorders, the Day and the Night can seem far from your loving presence.

Too often shame and stigma associated with mental illness prevent us from asking for the help we need. We are afraid and we feel alone in the dark.

Help us, we pray, to break the silence about mental illness, family and church so that people who suffer from invisible disabilities and their loved ones can get the support we need.

For all who feel trapped by darkness and fear that daylight will never come, O Divine Light, grant us hope. 

For all who question life’s value, meaning and purpose, O Holy Comforter, grant us peace.

For all who grieve loved ones whose lives have been lost to suicide, O Father and Mother God, grant us healing.

For all who go without medical care and treatment for mental illness, and are behind bars or living on the streets, O Great Redeemer, grant us justice.

For all who self medicate through the abuse of alcohol and drugs, whose addictions consume and destroy them, O Holy Sustainer, grant us serenity.

For all who suffer from post traumatic stress, moral injury  and other emotional, mental and physical difficulties as a result of military service or victims of war, O God of the veterans and trauma survivors, grant us abundant life.

For all who live with serious and unpleasant side-effects of medications and whose quality of life feels diminished by the onset of illness, O Holy God, grant us salvation.

For our young people whose lives are high stress and high pressure, where depression and anxiety is common, O Christ with us, grant us grace.

For the members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning community who are at the highest risk of experiencing life-threatening mental illness and for communities of color where the stigma and shame prevent people from getting help, O God of Diversity, grant us acceptance.

For mental healthcare professionals, counsellors, therapists, pastors, psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, and brain researchers, O Great Physican, grant us wisdom.

For the family members of people with mental disorders, who at times feel both guilty and helpless, both exhausted and afraid, both hopeful and discouraged, O God of Mercy, grant us patience. 

For the brilliant minds often touched by mental illness, the ones who create masterful works of art, who astound us by their brilliance and confound us by their complexity, O God of Robin Willams and Vincent Van Gogh, O God of Virginia Woolf and of Kurt Cobain, grant us joy.

For the spiritual Mystics of the past like Julian of Norwich who listened to that still small voice and for post modern Mystics today like me, O Divine Lover, grant us vision.

From the first day of creation to the last day of our lives, grant us generous amounts of courage and compassion so that we may truly be the beloved community…a people of love and justice, a people of radical welcome and inclusion.

Help us all to know, to trust and to believe that no matter how we are created, no matter what our struggles or disabilities or differences, that You see us just as we are and that you proclaim that we are good. And may we enjoy this goodness together, night and day. 

Guide our thoughts, words and actions to witness to your great faithfulness.

Help us to rise up out of the long night of the soul and walk into the morning light, where we will discover new mercies.

Help us to have faith that all we have needed Thy hand hath provided— so that with the saints that have gone before us we can proclaim:

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!