Category Archives: bi-polar

Mental Illness She Spoke

Unknown to me are the people in the audience who show up to a talk I’m giving about mental illness. I do not know 99 percent of the people for whom I share my story. I look out into the tent or the church or the room or the web camera and I have never seen most of these people before. Yet what I do know is that chances are good that their lives have been impacted by mental illness: a friend, a lover, a family member, and/or themselves.

What I’ve learned in doing this work is that in the space that we create together through the sharing of our stories, grace enters in like a steady breeze. Then one-by-one, people lean into the flow of the conversation and open themselves up to being known. We are no longer strangers, carrying anonymous hurts and struggles. We are known in the naming of our shared shadows. We are named not by the illness itself, but by identifying as people who survive each day in the midst of such deep and chronic invisible pain. 

At the Wild Goose Festival on July 8, I spoke about mental illness and faith. I gave a testimony to the healing hope that can be found in the experience of telling the true stories of our lives. I shared how at my father’s funeral, speaking as his youngest child, I muttered words of God’s love for a man that was often hard to love. Severe and chronic, untreated mental illness, like a greedy thief, stole from us decades of goodwill and affection for our father. 

Then I shared how in the aftermath of witnessing my cousin’s execution, the trauma I suffered was fuel for advocacy efforts. Part of my cousin’s story included a long history of mental illness, including the psychosis during the crime that landed him in death row. Three years after the state of Missouri killed him by lethal injection, I served as a minister for outreach in Minneapolis. I soon found myself giving a testimony at a Minnesota Senate hearing when they were trying to reinstate the death penalty. It failed. 

Lastly, I shared how my brother asked me to be a witness for him at a critical point in his life. He was going before a judge with regard to his mental health. I witnessed the procedure but couldn’t bring myself to speak the words that my brother longed to hear. I chose to keep silent, regretting that I did not believe he was mentally well enough to be released from the hospital. I hoped that my presence alone was enough of a witness. I hoped my brother knew that I loved him. That he is known to me for the whole of life’s story. That he is not defined by his illness. 

Sometimes our greatest witness is not in the words we say, but in the way we show up. Showing up with no expectations of what we will get out of it. Showing up is an act of sacrifice, an offering of our very selves, our flesh and blood. At the funeral, at the courthouse, at the hospital. Simply being fully present to listen, see, and be with others in the midst of suffering is an act of grace. 

As long as our minds continue to be vulnerable to mental illness, we will need compassionate witnesses. Ones who see the suffering and help name it out loud. Ones who journey with and alongside. Ones who can stand up in court and in the hospitals as advocates. In our broken lives there is real power to bring about positive social change. It begins with sharing our true stories.

Mental Illness and God’s Grace

I’m not worried. I’m impressed. I looked out over the crowds of people gathered in the Boston city park. We came to walk together to support awareness about mental health. I’ve done cancer walks and HIV/AIDS walks and domestic violence walks. But this was my first mental health walk. And I was struck by how young the crowd was, easily half of them under the age of 30.

While I could worry that so many young people are personally impacted by mental health challenges, I choose instead to be impressed by how younger generations are helping to eradicate the stigma around mental illness. The silence and shame associated with mental illness that myself and the generations before me faced is being replaced by truth telling and acceptance. 

The entire human family was represented in the park at the mental health walk that day…not one of us free from the impact of mental illness in our lives. I walked for my father whose life was cut short by mental illness. And I walked for my brother who struggles daily with bipolar disorder. 

It was a perfect spring day in May, mental health awareness month. It was a blessing to feel the sun shining on all the mental illness in the park, light as if God was saying, “come out of the shadows and walk in the sun.” 

The next day we celebrated mental health Sunday and I met with a church group after worship.  We talked about how powerful it is to teach young people about their inherent value as children of God. 

One of the nasty tricks that mental illness plays on us is that it makes us believe that we are too broken to be loved. So when young people are taught that they must earn God’s grace and be deserving of love, or think the right thoughts or do the right things, then God starts to feel very far away. Then add depression or anxiety into the mix and God seems to vanish. 

One of the most important things I can say when I share about my faith story is that God does not vanish in the valley of the shadow of mental illness. God is the stream that makes its way through and out of the valley. God is the energy that sets us free from the unseeable present and moves us into the daybreak of tomorrow. 

That’s the one thing I’m certain of: whether you can feel God’s presence or not, God is there, right at the edge of things. 

Here’s another thing I’ve come to believe: God is everywhere and God is always in the deep. Waiting and wanting us. 

No matter what.

We are not falling into nothing. We are falling into grace. God’s grace is plenty big for all of us with mental illness. It’s Texas toast big.

 
Growing up when we were on food stamps my mother took us kids to “kids eat free night” at the local Western Sizzler. What I remember best is the Texas toast. It was buttery deliciousness and it filled me up. God’s grace is like that Texas toast…it’s free and it’s plentiful. 

I dream of a world that shows grace to our kids living with mental Illness. 

I dream of a world where it’s always “kids eat free night” in God’s economy of grace.

The Resurrected Mind

I don’t know what else to call it. We’ve been calling it “mental illness” for so long now. And we almost called it death, more than once. My brother Scott’s chronic and severe mental illness has nearly killed him multiple times now. I’ve documented my family’s struggle with mental illness in my book Blessed are the Crazy.

Earlier this month I was sure he was dead. Late at night he told me he wanted to die. He said that we were the ones keeping him alive. It was our fault for loving him so much. So he promised us he would live another day. 

But when we called, sent text messages and left voice mail the next morning he did not respond. I was sure he was dead. I knew it was my fault. I didn’t call 911 the night before when he was so suicidal. He said he had no hope of a better future. He said he just kept getting worse year after year. He just wanted the mental pain, real and unrelenting, to end.

As I said goodnight to my brother I promised to call him in the morning. And he promised he would be there to pick up the phone. But this time he wasn’t. 

I began thinking about my brother’s funeral arrangements. As the family minister I worried that it would be up to me to bury my brother, me wearing the long black robe, saying the prayers and covering the grave with handfuls of dirt wet with tears. 

Frantic to know if Scott was dead, I called my sister-in-law and asked her to go to his apartment. She would be the one to find him. Alive. And showered…his reason for not responding to our calls and text messages all morning long. He was in the shower.

My brother did not die that day. Exhaling fear and inhaling hope, I asked him what he planned to do. He said he was going to check into the psychiatric treatment inpatient program in Jacksonville. It’s a facility he’s been in before and the food was decent and they let him have smoke breaks. 

Scott drove himself to this place, wanting to die and wanting to live at the same time. Who could blame him? I asked him to text me when he got to the treatment center. About nine o’clock at night I got a text that he had to pullover on the side of the road half way there to sleep, his body too exhausted to continue. Would he even make it there alive? 

There were so many times when my brother almost died that we’ve grieved in anticipation of his life tragically ending. Despite all the treatment of new drugs, therapy, electroconvulsive shock therapy, and prayer, his bipolar disorder truly disabled him. He could not find anything that worked. We all began to think he would live with chronic mental pain until his last breath.

When Scott had finally communicated so clearly to me why death was the only way for him to find relief, during his stay in Jacksonville, he experienced a breakthrough in his treatment–a new cocktail of medications. It is a new medication combination that in the past month has provided incredible relief to him from his mental pain and suffering. For the first time in over a decade, Scott reports experiencing feelings of wellness. 

Today I hardly recognize my brother. Yet, if I stretch back far enough in my memory I start to see the resemblances. The witty sense of humor, the teasing big brother, the love of adventure. That’s who Scott is and he’s coming back to us. We thought we had lost him forever. 

In every sense of the word, my brother’s mind has been resurrected. His mind was once locked in a dark lonely tomb, behind a cold stone blocking any hope of light. 

Depression is a tomb. Mental illness is a betrayal and crucifixion. 

I am one of the women standing at the empty tomb. His mind has been raised from the dead. The stone is rolled away. He lives. My brother lives.