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.

Hope is Coming

How much hope is enough? I understand and experience hope to be “leaning into better.” Hope is trusting that as things change, good will come. When we are hopeful, we lean into things getting better, not worse.

Is hope a precious natural resource? Is there a limited amount of hope in the world that we need to carefully monitor? Or is hope a renewable energy, like the wind?

What if hope is sourced from a divine energy, limitless and eternal? Hope never runs out. The supply is unlimited.

We live in a time of a “scarcity culture” says social scientist Brene Brown. A culture of scarcity is where we live in fear of not having enough. If she’s right, then this mentality of scarcity is impacting our national supply of hope. We feel as if we are running low on hope. And too many of us are flat running out of it. Our hope gauge is on empty.

In my conversations with people of all ages, economic, educational, gender, ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, I hear their stories about struggles with finding hope. The topic of conversation is mental illness specifically, and how we’ve all come to know its impact intimately on our lives. Almost every time the tragedy of suicide is unearthed, along with it is this profound sense of hopelessness.

From listening deeply and seeking to understand from the heart, I’ve come to believe that hope is the very thing that can save us. Without hope, all life ends. 

Why do some have hope while others do not? When it comes to suicide, it is one way a person can take action to end pain when there seems to be no hope remaining. No hope of getting better, no hope of recovery, no hope of healing, no hope of being forgiven and loved.

How did hope become so finite and limited? Has our culture of scarcity infected our ability to hope? I believe this flaw in the fabric of our society, the scarcity of hope, is impacting our most vulnerable and is contributing to the highest suicide rates we’ve seen in the U.S. in past three decades. 

What can we do to transform a culture of scarcity? Brene Brown suggests “wholehearted” living. This means taking risks to be our authentic selves and being vulnerable, along with believing that we are enough. 

I will add that we also need more people who are seers, translators, vessels and communicators of hope. Traditionally this has been a sacred and saving role of faith communities and their leaders. Historically the church offered hope as part of its weekly gospel message. Yet with fewer people entering churches, this hopeful word is reaching fewer and fewer people. The real danger here is not the sustainability of the institution of the church, but the communication and distribution of hope into the world. 

We need spaces where we can practice leaning into better, practicing our hope muscles. For a long time, that is what the church provided…what Calvin called “a gymnasium” for the soul.

If hope is a divine, unlimited and eternal resource, then how does it get equally distributed, especially to communities that need it most?
On the other hand, what if we are in a point in time where we are actually running out of hope? Have previous generations used up this precious natural resource called hope? Afterall, we can only lean into things getting better for so long without seeing any significant positive results. 

Perhaps like measuring the level of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, there could be some way to measure the level of despair in the air.

One way to measure the level of despair in a society is by looking at the suicide rate. The statistics on suicide tell us about how much despair is in the atmosphere and which communities are hit hardest. In the U.S., we know that trans youth of color are the most vulnerable to the toxicity of despair. We have counted the dead and the dead do not lie…they have the highest suicide rate. 

What does hope, leaning into better, look like for trans youth of color? This is not only important for the sake of saving trans lives, it’s the salvation of the world that is at stake. Living in a world where trans youth are systemically hopeless is not the kind of world we want for our children, is it? If children are dying from despair, what does that say about us, and our society?
How can we cultivate hope with and for people who, driven by despair, are planning to die by suicide? 

Is spreading hope enough to save lives? I think it’s worth a try. 

Getting more hope into the air is what we all need in order to breathe…in order to live free. Can we create hope-turbines or hope-mills? Or how about hope-panels on our rooftops? In a Dr. Sueuss world, perhaps such hope could be manufactured. But we live in this world that we’ve each helped to create. We need real solutions, hope that we can stand on.

Hope is believing in change for the better. We need one another if real and lasting change is to come.

Things can and will get better. Despair is not forever.

You are loved.

You are forgiven.

Your life is valuable.

You are enough.

Hope is on the way. 

Hold on. Hope is coming.
 

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.