Candor. Truth-telling. It’s never been my way, it lets people in, and that can mean strangers in the house. Candor has never been a word in my lexicon. I’m a man who measures phone conversations in syllables. Yet, I am—so it seems—at my most eloquent when I am most honest. Truth has an elegance that can never be mimicked nor manufactured for a purpose, a story or a cause that isn’t worthwhile. If the truth is not holding it all together, the enjoyment is merely synthetic, manufactured to captivate, control, and mesmerize, but leaving no memory to cherish, no lessons to be learned, no legacy to lean on.
And this is the predicament I find myself in. I have indulged in it, in candor, its marked on my front door; I let slip in a few wandering travelers and I can think of no way of ejecting them nor barring the door. I am forever denied the act of warding my thoughts in ways as to present them blank before others; leaving them to manufacture who I am, to fill in the gaps based upon the few carefully slipped words and looks. I can no longer live my life filling empty spaces with quotes and quips of two-hundred and forty characters or less; wit is no substitute for character.
But honesty isn’t a stream of random reflections, sometimes it bleeds coming out. The truth can open wounds when it’s been wrapped up in a heart that doesn’t want to feel because feeling means vulnerability and vulnerability is untenable, unacceptable. How does one go about being honest though, and unmasking when it’s so tight it feels as if your face is peeling off with it when you finally do? How does one tell the truth when it hurts? When the blood seeps through the bandages? And whereas I have begun the process, it remains to be seen, as all endeavors in truth-telling, if I shall endure or collapse beneath the weight of vulnerability. But the catharsis of this “candor,” as a friend described it, is freeing. But cleansing as it is, I think after over fifteen years of often walking alone in the dark, I feel an obligation to others in the same predicament, trapped and held captive by conditions and circumstances of neither their own devising nor desire.
But the obligation goes beyond the immediately afflicted, extending to friends and family that cherish and care for loved ones, often blindly, grasping at straws, reading this book or that, attending support groups with others, all touching different parts of an elephant in a dark room. And I make no claim to expertise, degrees, nor technical facility. I’m an amateur, as all I have is my experiences, observations, many abject failures, and honesty. Yet I hope that what I have learned can be helpful to some. Because life is not something meant to be lived in isolation but in community. Rugged individualism, whilst of some value in capitalistic endeavors, is of little use in building a community of those who love and are loved in return. Family and friends who value each other greater than themselves are not things we purchase but people we sacrifice for. Because understanding and helping is not about efficiency or even success, be it long or short lived, but about the effort and time we put into the ones we call family, that we call our friends, that we call community. It is about a life lived together.
So how do I make sense of my mental illness in this life lived together? How do I make sensible a condition that so often shows itself as a disengagement of my “common” sense and personal relationships? In short, what do you do when you lack intuition. When you lack that innate understanding of the world and others that are honed and learned all during adolescence and young adulthood from each other and the world around you. Of that I have little to none.
Intersectionality of Mental Health
I live in a state of intersectionality, where mental illness, Christianity, a wife, children and whatever of the “outside” world that I can garner up the courage to engage all cross, often without regard to rights of way, or night or day. It’s like trying to juggle chainsaws that are on fire…and I’ve never had a knack for circus acts. But that’s what my life often resembles, flinging fiery chainsaws, yelling voices, tears, prayers, joy, and laughter; a life in contradiction is a life lived together with mental illness.
The often absent self-awareness that would be normal and present in most is another essential to know about those afflicted as I am—I’m not fully comfortable with that word “afflicted,” but I’ve yet to find a better one—with mental illness. Obliviousness in the moment is common, to be expected, and denial is automated. And because mental illness is not a show put on to circumvent the responsibilities of words and deeds, nor a duplicitous mask to hide behind; what I do, how I act, are the results of my inability to not always perceive life as it is; to not be possessed of an intuitive grasp of the difference between what is acceptable and forbidden. And even when I do, the impulse to disregard propriety is tantalizing. To be provocative, to induce reactions from people is an uncomplicated way to disassociate from the kaleidoscopic, nightmarish disorientation my mind can assault me with at any moment.Self-awareness comes after the event(s) and it comes with guilt and shame at behaviors that have gone on display and often unchecked; conduct that isn’t simply socially embarrassing or morally abhorrent but that can be physically dangerous to some or all involved. Yet these are healthy doses of guilt, healthy doses of shame, related to things that we have done primarily to others, not who we are intrinsically; ones that break pride, bring contrition and repentance toward God and those we say “I love you” to and then turn around and do everything to belie those words. Herman Bavinck put it this way, “Shame is a sign of an awakened conscience, that human capacity which pronounces a person guilty and condemns him…Both conscience and shame demonstrate the brokenness and disintegration of human existence, the disharmony of human life, the distance between what a person ought to be and what a person really is.” What Bavinck is getting at is that healthy guilt and shame are manifestation of a conscience and that evidence is of great comfort to those of a unbalanced frame of mind. In short, it means that my conscience is intact. It means that I can love, love strongly and cleanly enough that my pain accompanies theirs. Because pain, the pain of conscience reminds us that we are human and moral and connected and with those around us with love as we live our lives together.