Tag Archives: mental health

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 Shape of Love

Love takes many shapes. It can be like the groove worn by a steady stream of water into a canyon bed.  It can be majestic and powerful like the great mountains of the Earth. It can be fleeting and fragile like a snowflake. 

The shape that love takes often surprises me. With my face into the wind walking alongside the ocean with the darting sandpipers at my heels, disciples by the sea, my thoughts twisted with worry: work assignments, deadlines, and important decisions weighed heavily. Just moments before these intrusive thoughts invaded my mind, I was fully present, awake and aware of my surroundings, able to enjoy the simple pleasures of the sun’s rays shining on my face and its light dancing on the sea. 

I willed myself out of the worrisome thoughts, like thieves in the night stealing my serenity, and instead focused my mind on my greatest joys: my husband and six year old son. In particular, the relationship they share with each other. Like the way yellow and blue when swirled together make green, my husband and son together make magic happen. Their delight and joy in each other is a joy to behold.

And so my mind found a womb-like home in these gentle thoughts. The moment when my mind made the switch from worry to joy, I glanced down and saw a small golf ball sized reddish-brown shape sticking up out of the sand, where the tide ebbs and flows. I stopped, as if magnetically pulled towards it, and reached down to pick it up. What did I discover? Not a seashell, but a sea rock in the shape of a heart. 

I’m confident that the only reason I was able to see the heart-shaped stone carved by the sea was because my mind was freed from worry to focused on love. It was not a perfect heart like the kinds wrapped in plastic for sale at the store for Valentines Day. It was perfectly real: rough and smooth at the same time, worn and weathered. This heart had survived worry and landed on love’s shore.

I gratefully and tearfully accepted this gift from the sea, dipping it down into the saltwater to rinse the sand off. As I tucked the stone deep into my pocket, I squeezed it tight, pressing it into the palm of my hand. It fit perfectly. I promised myself that I would remember that the shape of love is not only all around us, but also within us and within those we love.