Thoughts on Mental Health

A lot of what I have to say has been said before, but when someone asked me today what I thought contributed to my feeling better this morning than in months, I realized I had SO much to say to answer that. This is going to be stream of consciousness again and will veer off on a tangent or two, but hopefully I can keep it connected and coherent. 
First, I want to say that I’ve known for years that mental health was as real and important as physical health. That is not new to me. But what has had to evolve and is still evolving is my understanding of how it relates to and interacts with my faith. That’s where it gets sticky, because a vast majority of the “church people” I’ve known until recently have believed, or at least communicated that they believe that there is a choice involved in this. I think that’s where a lot of distinctions need to be made. I’m not making the choice to wake up choked in fear or blanketed in sadness (or on very special days, both!) before my eyes open each morning. I’m not choosing for the breath to be sucked out of my lungs when something (as overused as this word has become) triggers me. I don’t choose for these thoughts to pop up and consume me. What I do choose is to keep fighting against them every time-to get out of bed each day-even during the darkest days I have gotten up every single morning and cared for my children and, so some extent, myself. Even though the pain of the moment and the fear of what’s to come have been unbearable, I am still here. I have not chosen to give up by death or give in and lay immobile. I have not chosen to abandon my faith even when God seems so far from me in my darkness, because I choose to search for him and ache to hunger for him even when my mind tells me he’s either abandoned me or was never there in the first place. 
The “let go and let God” mantras are great-they are, and valuable in their place, but they don’t meet you where you are when where you are is hanging onto hope by a thread. E asked me if I’ve ever been suicidal, and instead of a yes or no, I said this: “I have wanted to escape from the pain. I have never  felt I personally am worthless or my life was not worth living, but the thought has popped in my head as an escape fantasy when I can’t imagine another way to feel better. I would never do that to my children though, and I know, that beyond all this pain, in reality, my life is beautiful.”  She said she totally understood and that yeah, relief can be found and calm reached, by having that thought cycle. (Even in that, she gets me.) 
Something I’ve wrestled with it’s been said or implied that I’m not praying enough, don’t have enough faith, or I don’t *want* to let go of this. I’ve been told “God has given you a big brain, and you’re very smart, but you think/dwell too much” like it’s a choice, and I’m willfully sinning by remaining in this state or returning to it often. And I feel so troubled by that-because when I’m given criticism I really do try to take it to heart! It’s taken me so long to be able to accept for myself that this is real and it’s not a sin (any more than any imperfection in our world is caused by sin from the Fall), it’s an illness. And while it would be possible to give in and give up, and that might be walking outside God’s plan, this is not. I’m learning that when folks don’t understand, yeah it hurts, but also I can find a moment to be thankful on their behalf, because, while we all have struggles, clearly theirs is not this one, and that’s the gap. Not to mention there is a spectrum on which people are capable of empathy, and while I’m on the extreme end of the spectrum ( my biggest marital scuffles happen because I feel his feelings and take them personally when they often have nothing to do with me), most people are not.
The biggest distinction that I see needing to be made is between *being/feeling* depressed/anxious and *having* Depression/Anxiety. We all have times of feeling depressed or anxious, but for most, these are not chronic states of being. In many cases a healthy mind can choose to focus in what’s positive and realistic and overcome. And that’s where a lot of those motivational phrases can encourage! But when your mind is ill, it’s just not that way, and even well meaning encouragement or exhortation can do more harm than good. Its analogous to a broken leg or cancer. Would you tell a person with a broken leg to just stop focusing on that and go for a run? Would you tell a person with cancer to just forget about that for today and have fun? It would seem ridiculous to sit next to a vomiting person and ask them how long they are going to be like this. I like the broken leg or cancer analogies specifically because they can and often do heal, but require rest, time, and treatment-just like mental illness. 
I think another area that needs more understanding/less stigma, particularly in Christian circles is getting clinical help. Most Christians are comfortable with “counseling”, especially if it’s from a “christian counselor” or a pastor, but many balk at seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist (I’ve already been amused to hear people change my reference to my *Therapist* to “counselor”, but maybe they are interchangeable to people?) , or I’ve heard it said that psychology “is using man’s wisdom instead of God’s.” I’d point to the above, and ask if they’d recommend getting someone off the street to set a broken bone or treat their cancer. God has gifted people in many different ways and on purpose-lets not dismiss that. Now, I personally find it very important to see a therapist who shares my faith, but I definitely don’t think it’s wrong to seek help from someone who doesn’t. I also think that there are many wonderful Christian Counseling centers and practitioners out there, I just knew my situation was dire and I wanted the big guns. 
—-Here’s a tangent related to Christians and psychology that I want to talk on for a minute because it’s something I’ve kinda just recently been able to articulate well. I was involved in a discussion about Myers-Briggs types recently, and someone piped up something along the lines of “we aren’t God and we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought.” Which is true, but I think dismissive of something very special and powerful that He has given us. I use Myers-Briggs (MBTI) to really try to understand people and it helps me relate to them and even give and receive love better by that understanding. It’s not analysis for the sake of “I can put you in a box”, but more “ok, you’re an introvert, but you are in a career where people are demanding of your time and energy a lot. I can love you best by giving you space and time to recharge and not freaking out if you don’t answer my texts for a day or 5.” Or “you’re an ‘Sensing’ type,  so you don’t really naturally intuit or read into things-I need to be more direct with you and not assume you’re going to figure out what I need from you.” Or, “You’re a Thinker vs a Feeler, so my overflowing well of emotions at all times seems a bit ridiculous and unnecessary to you. I can’t/won’t change that about myself, but I can try to rein it in a bit for you.”  (btw my parents are both Sensing Thinkers and I’m an intuitive feeler- those are the core features in MBTI and it means our personalities function almost completely opposite. Yay! Hahahaha)  So, maybe psychology isn’t playing God, as much as it’s using another aspect of being made in His image to build and heal- just like being a medical doctor or a pastor or a teacher. Lets not put limits on the ways God can use people to be part of His healing. 
There are so many avenues of help available to us, and it’s not one size fits all. For some, a psychiatrist, who can help diagnose you and manage medication, is the right avenue. Or a Psychologist like E, who can use different therapeutic approaches to help treat you, might be a better fit. Or maybe you don’t think you need anything intensive and a Licensed Professional Counselor is best. Or maybe you just need to meet with a pastor or mentor regularly to talk things out and have someone who you trust to share what’s going on. None of these is right or wrong, it’s about finding what’s best for you. 
I have had a long journey to get to where I am and the therapeutic choices I’m making now. I did take medication for 5 years, and then again for 6 months again, and it helped manage some things, but made others worse, and I cannot afford those things now or to experiment with what other drugs could do. I thought for a long time that my issues were purely chemical, and that therapy would not help, and then, when I started to realize that there was some actual emotional/traumatic connection too, I began to fear that opening up all that would be far worse. I came to a point, though, where I was hurting so badly I could no longer go on as I was, and I started looking, and found E on a website. It took me another two months to contact her. I’m so glad I did. The journey ahead will be challenging, but E truly cares and is willing to go slow and do what’s best for *me*. I told her about the Jewel song with the lyric “Please be careful with me, I’m
Sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.” And she said “I LOVE that! and that’s what we will do. We will protect that for you. We just need to rein it in a bit.” 
One more thing I want to touch on tonight: please be mindful of co-opting mental illness in a flippant sense “oh my gosh I have so much anxiety about xyz” when what you mean is you’re nervous, for example. Your nervousness is valid, but for some of us, anxiety is crippling and seeing our illness used flippantly feels like watering down or making light. “That crooked picture is killing my OCD lolol” -You can be persnickety or bothered by visual disorder or not like dirt and germs without having OCD. Having OCD is not something laughable to those who suffer from it. This isn’t always a huge deal, but on a bad day, I know it can really upset me and others. 
Thanks for reading, y’all, and I look forward to continuing to share what God shows me on this journey! 

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mental Health

  1. Mae,

    Thank you for sharing. I read many of your posts but don't know how to respond other than to like the post. I'm very much an introvert and don't display my emotions but I want you to know that I always say a prayer for you when you ask. I don't know the depth or the breadth of what you are going through. I don't know what has happened in the past. But, I want you to know that I do care.

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