I can still remember the day that I realised I was no different than many of the people I’d worked with in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, that I was no stronger than a loved one whom I’d helped into the hospital many times, no more sane than the friends whose suffering I’d seen painfully up close. The moment I knew I too needed help was in the heady, sleepless month after my daughter was born, and I realised, as yet another strange and wild thought skimmed across my mind, that I too, was “crazy.”
In that moment, everything changed for me.
All the professional training I’d had, all the hours of serving and caring, all the sympathy and patience in the world, all the helpful prayers and ready bible verses slipped through my grasp. The professional had become personal.
And instead of reaching out, I reached inward, spurred by my fear, and tried to find a place of control, a place of being sane that would somehow pull me out of the darkness. But after so many years of being in control - being the “sane” one, the “strong” one, the smart one with all the answers, the big sister and loving friend, I was in desperate need of help. And I couldn’t help myself or talk my way out of it, or fake it until I made it through the tunnel. But I didn’t want to end up on the other side of the line - the place that I’d reserved in my prideful compassion for “those people” who struggled with keeping it together.
If you’ve ever wrestled with a mental health crisis in your own mind and emotions, you will understand the Psalmist’s misery as he laments: “You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.” And this is one of the tragic ironies of mental illness, as it isolates a person and makes it difficult to provide the very thing that will help them on the road to healing: friendship, companionship, and a place in the community.
We don’t want to admit that we may be struggling with mental illness because we are afraid of losing our loved ones and friends to fear, misunderstanding and judgement.
We don’t want to find ourselves in that place where darkness is our one constant companion.
And we definitely don’t like to talk openly about mental illness. We may have awareness days and handy lists of bible verses and lots of phrases like “well, you should…pray more, exercise more, be more positive, stop being so negative…” but those are all ways to put something that is mostly unquantifiable into a tidy box - a controllable package that can be solved or contained. And we definitely don’t like admitting that we might be a little less sane than is currently socially acceptable, that we might be the ones whose crises are unmanaged, unsolvable, untidy.
But we need to talk about it. We need to work through our fears and our prejudice - and believe me, the person most judgmental about my personal mental health crisis was myself - and press into a place of vulnerability. Into compassion. Into knowing that 1 in 5 people in Canada is currently suffering through a mental health issue.
And knowing that it’s pretty normal to feel strange sometimes.
Mental illness is mostly simply defined as an internal crisis that is unmanaged and externalised. And whether it enters your life through trauma, grief, stress, a sudden change in circumstance, a response to pain, a chemical imbalance, a hormonal shift or all of the above, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Whether you are suffering through or sharing life with someone you love who is wrestling the beast of the mind in crisis, it’s hard not to react by running away (avoidance) or saving the day (rescuing). Neither of these reactions help anyone, not the person suffering, not the person trying to care.
I began my own journey on the winding road to recovery (and let’s be clear - recovery is a lifetime pathway that rarely goes from A to B) through the faithful presence of friends and family who, in the midst of my suffering, simply stayed near. I was helped through the rough bits by people who continued to treat me as if I was still a person, not a diagnosis, still a dynamic being with a history, a past and a hopeful future. I also was able to swallow my pride and grasp the lifeline of a peer support group and society dedicated to helping women through postpartum struggles. I needed the support of my whole community, one friend, doctor, counsellor, psychiatrist, parent, and pastor at a time.
This may be the first time you’ve thought seriously about mental illness, or it may be that you have been struggling in silence for a long time, or living with someone who is in crisis and trying your best to support them.
I have come to love this verse from 1 Peter 5 as it offers me a way of being that touches on my fears, my pride and my need to care and be cared for.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Wherever you find yourself on the continuum of mental health, know this: you are not alone.
You are loved. And there is hope. Together, as we seek to relate to each other in humility instead of judgement and fear, as we are honest about where we really are, and as we look to the mighty hand of God and cast all our anxieties on him, we can start to wrestle our way out the darkness. There is no line. There are no sides. We are all in this together, and we desperately need each other to stay sane.
Sarah serves as a coach with Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries as well being a writer, facilitator, podcaster and mother with a history of front line mental health and community support work both in secular and faith based communities.
Book by Craig Rennebohm: Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets, 2008 (http://mentalhealthchaplaincy.org/)
Book by Rod Wilson: How to Help a Hurting Friend, 2010
Book by Kathryn Greene-McCreight: Darkness is My Only Companion, 2006
Mental Health First Aid Course: Mental Health Commission of Canada: http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.ca
Sanctuary Ministries: www.sanctuary-ministries.com
Preparing people of faith to support mental health recovery in their communities.