Shattered Images In Unbroken Glass
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Unfortunately, mental health eludes many in our world resulting in considerable distress, stigma, and isolation. Mental illness troubles our relationships because it can affect the way we process information, relate to others, and choose actions. Consequently, mental illnesses often are feared in ways that other illnesses are not. Nevertheless, we know that regardless of our illness we remain created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
No person deserves to be stigmatized because of mental illness. Those with mental illness are no more violent than other persons are. Rather, they are much more likely to be victims of violence or preyed on by others. When stigma happens within the church, mentally ill persons and their families are further victimized. Persons with mental illness and their families have a right to be treated with respect on the basis of common humanity and accurate information. They also have a right and responsibility to obtain care appropriate to their condition. The United Methodist Church pledges to foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care and eradicate stigma within the church and in communities. – The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012
Few things are more annoying to me than people who take up a particular cause, especially one that impacts them personally, and demand that all other causes be set to one side. Like conservatives with gay children who suddenly become compassionate, all such behavior does is demonstrate the lack of fundamental sympathy not only at the heart of conservative political ideology, but within the shriveling souls of the people themselves. It’s far better, I think, to admit one begins from positions of ignorance, a need for contrition for past failures, and the desire not so much to make one’s personal matters suddenly a thing of the gravest public concern, but at the least to let others know there is yet one more person who is learning about something we in America would so much prefer to set aside.
Mental illness is certainly one of those things. Anything that negatively impacts our national self-image as happy, youthful, beautiful, thin, sexually aware and competent without being too boastful about it, and certainly without anything such as scars from acne, a couple extra pounds, skating on the edge of financial ruin, and mental illness really isn’t something people wish to discuss. Physical and cognitive impairment are obviously on this list as well. We no longer tuck such individuals in our attics or basements; we do, however, ignore them in most of our policy discussions, our leisurely conversation, and most certainly in our churches. We have a hard enough time figuring out how to get folks to come, sit in the pews, and worship without adding such things as how we live with people who deviate from our social and cultural norms.
In our midst, however, are millions upon millions of people who live with mental illness. While depression is perhaps the most common form among people who are otherwise functional, anxiety disorders, OCD, even schizophrenia exist in our churches, our congregations, and our families. Unlike people with physical impairments, and some with cognitive impairments, it is impossible to know who is living with mental illness. You can’t look at someone and say, “Oh, this person has narcissistic personality disorder. Just look at her!” In part because of ignorance, in part because of fear stoked by imprecise and too often erroneous discussions in the media, despite the prevalence of mental illness, there continues to be an abundance of silence, overwhelming stigma, and deep prejudice about people who live with them in all their varieties.
For example, the painting above would represent, for the artist, Bi-polar disorder. Yet, when I found it online this morning, it represents what I see all too often when I look in the mirror. Because the self-perception of those living with mental illness is so severely impaired, this has implications not only for how our churches socialize with the diversity that is the American public. It also has deep theological implications: for pastoral counseling; for matters of theological anthropology; for the awareness of grace and how that becomes lived in the lives of individuals; how individuals understand doctrinal statements regarding anything from who God is through what it is to be sinful and saved to how to live in beloved community.
For my own part, despite my willingness to discuss my own experience generally, the internalized stigma associated with mental illness – “he’s that crazy person” – becomes a hindrance to dialogue. Especially since “depression” is a word tossed about without adequate understanding; “anxiety” is often dismissed as the creation of a pathology out of privilege (which it might well be, I don’t know); and even well-managed mental illnesses have flare-ups either from improper medication, poor counseling, or just a bad day; all these make it difficult to clarify that “depression” and “anxiety” aren’t moods or states of mind. They can be crippling pathologies, leaving those who live with them incapable of speaking, of standing, of doing much of anything other than wondering how those long hours are actually just minutes. Awareness of the outside world is changed; not just one’s self-image, but how one perceives any stimuli becomes distorted through the various lenses and ear-pieces the diseases create. It becomes nearly impossible to notice even drastic changes in behavior, demeanor, interaction, and related perceptions without help from the outside. Then, there needs to be the willingness to hear and respond. Especially since, again speaking only from my own experience, the preference is to lock up inside myself.
Hostility and anger are just as much a part of one’s emotional responses as sadness, apathy, and silence. Particularly as Wesleyan Christians, what might this mean for how such a person might react to the teachings that our salvation, for us, is primarily a lived expression of love for others? When one’s internal mental and emotional make-up skews stimuli toward being perceived as hostile, and fear dominates a person’s interactions with others, how is it possible to move toward a healthy understanding of grace, of the internal sense of salvation? When one sees the horrific in the mirror, and accepts it as normal, how can love from others be contemplated?
We in the churches have so much to consider. I am not a very good teacher – particularly on days like today, when my brain-chemistry is off, and just getting through sentences is a bit of a struggle; when I’m using a great deal of energy to present this without too much deviance – and my only real goal in being public with what I live with has been to offer some kind of help, perhaps, to just one other person so he or she might come to know there are others who get it, so I don’t really know what good I’d be as such. On the other hand, I do think that, before any of us get so excited with how much we know, or think we know, that we consider the possibility that there are millions among us for whom spiritual reproof, or benevolent encouragement, or even proffered assistance just isn’t enough. How is it possible to have a meaningful theological discussion about, say, the imago Dei, when there are folks like me whose self-image is so fragile at the best of times – and at the worst of times shattered in tiny fragments – that it might be helpful to remain quiet?
Too many of us are too eager to rest comfortably within our own walls, our own comfort zones, it is good to remember there are many for whom those walls are not comfortable at all, but rather a prison cell with no light. Some of us don’t have comfort zones at all, because our living is a day-to-day process of negotiating with ourselves about moods, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. For those we are in need, first, of a willingness to extend compassion through listening to the stories others tell. Then, perhaps, if the invitation is made, a journey with folks such as myself would be a good way to remember how much we have to learn, how far we still have to go, and how much our words as well as our deeds need to reflect an understanding of how little we actually know before pronouncing judgment upon others.