Category Archives: mania

For the Love of Brains

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 4 is declared by the White House as National Mental Health Awareness Day. Let’s just come out and say it: brains. I have a seven year old son and so it’s  hard for me to say this word without hearing the zombie character from the 2012 film ParaNorman gurgling, “braaaaaaanes!” In the past year I have come to embrace the fact that mental health is the same as brain health, accepting  that mental illness is just as much a physical issue as heart disease and diabetes. 

Even as common as mental illness is in the US (one out of every four) still the stigma that we encounter related to mental illness is real and prevents people from getting help. Stigma can be deadly. 

I wonder if some of the stigma would decrease if we made an intentional shift in the way we think and talk about mental health and mental illness by focusing on its physical nature. By focusing on the brain, we focus in on the key area of the body where the illness originates. As we learn more through research about the physical nature of mental illness, and what is actually happening in the brain, we realize that people who have depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder have what is most often an “invisible disease” of the brain.

Now brain scans show us what depression looks like and we can see how the brain is impacted by different forms of brain disorders, diseases and illness. I believe that normalizing the spectrum of brain status is where we are headed in the future if we are serious about erasing stigma and saving lives. Everyone has a brain and each brain is different. 

Getting to a place of inclusion for each person, regardless of brain status, is not going to happen overnight. Yet it begins with honest and open conversations, sharing about personal experiences with our own brain, sharing our brain status.

What if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental health as we could about our physical health? Said differently, what if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental illness as we could about our physical illness? Aren’t they the same thing? My brain fitness depends not only on enough sleep, healthy diet and exercise, but also working with a skilled therapist, spiritual practices such as prayer, and time spent relaxing, all on a regular basis. My brain status today is improving, thanks to professional mental health care and intentional self-care. 

What if there was a useful tool, like Fitbit, but for the brain, that could help motivate us all to integrate daily practices of brain health into our lives by measuring our level of activity engaging in therapy, sleep, prescribed medications, and stress relieving activities…Brainfit, anyone? We need more ways to encourage people to take care of and love their brains (and not in a zombie way). We talk about loving our bodies, so why not talk about how to better love our brains.

As I talk with people across the country about mental illness and my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and faith, one thing I know for sure: even though we have come a long way in breaking the silence about mental illness, we are still too often reluctant and afraid to talk about it. I’m hopeful that conversations will continue to happen more and more because we need places where people can be educated, encouraged and embraced for who they are, regardless of brain status. 

So, for the love of brains, see a therapist, connect to a friend, take your meds if they help your brain, hold onto hope and share with someone your brain status. We’ve all got brains and they are all beautiful. 

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.