I hate the designation of mental illness. Loathe might be a better choice, yet I’m forced, for lack of a better term, to use it. Those two words, “mental illness,” hang around my neck like a millstone. The cynic in me even prefers “crazy,” but I’ve never truly settled, truly felt peace with a way of speaking about myself that is both comfortable to the heart, to the ear and requires little in the way of explanation. So as odd and as easy as it rolls off the tongue, I find myself most at home with crazy. It just seems a bit more honest, less contagious and it suits me just fine enough that I can live with it, though I doubt that you’ll find me introducing myself as crazy, as entertaining, and as oddly truthful as that might be. No, I take that back, you probably will find me putting out a hand one day at church with a “Hi, I’m crazy” slipping right out.
The whole point of this little exercise, this downplaying of the label of “mental Illness”, is about embracing the sometimes radically different parts that make up the body of Christ, one that doesn’t need its own section of pews, doesn’t need the dehumanization of coddling; that the mentally ill and those with mental differences aren’t a segregated class and what really is on the table is an opportunity at an illuminating, sometimes humbling, and fruitful interaction with the less often encountered parts of the body of Christ, the parts that at times seem the square pegs grinding into round holes. An opportunity to understand those saints, some who outwardly seem perfectly capable of attending the means of grace and yet are housebound by invisible chains of irrationality, fear, or physical limitations. And I know, because I’m just like them, run down, trapped by four walls that I can’t ever see.
A broken World
I take medication for my condition. Quite a bit, honestly, and I’ve done so without the stigma that often accompanies the realization that you’re no longer “normal,” after years of fighting against what I felt was a symbol of my inadequacy as both a man and a Christian. And in that I take medication, that I take advantage of common grace, I don’t think in any way implies that Christ and the gospel are insufficient for life and godliness. Instead it conveys most clearly that not all things are well this side of glory. And that being the case, the medication that I am prescribed is intended to mitigate much of the psychological conditions brought on by the chemical imbalances and the subsequent buckling of my cognitive faculties. Yet medication can only do so much, only plaster over so many small cracks in the walls of the mind, the large, sometimes structural ones remain. And make no mistake, mental illness is not sin or the result of personal or familial sin but the consequences of the rebellion of the first Adam—warping and breaking the wholeness of creation, of the human mind—but the destruction left in its wake can reverberate through families and congregations, leading to heinous sins and often violent and lamentable ends. Because mental illness doesn’t just mean group therapy a couple of times a week, a psychiatric visit every few months and a few pills a day to keep the crazy away. It can be life and death on a daily basis. And it’s not just about the person with the diagnosis. When someone in a family is diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s the whole family that is being changed and redefined. It can create a life for your loved ones that is overwhelmed by trepidation and fear of what they’ll come home to, of what a phone call in the middle of the night might mean, of the possibility of underlying meanings in offhand comments.
Often it feels as if it’s just you and your crazy self, slipping through the shadows from corner to corner. Lurking even amid the congregation when you can gather the courage to cross the door to the outside. And in my lurking, suicidal thoughts on occasion visit and though we may not be on a first name basis, nor come face to face that often, I recognize them; fellow travelers on my edge of the abyss. Those travelers, though nameless and certainly discomforting, have become semi-tolerated companions, signs of the status quo; of a baseline that I can understand and dig in against. And that is one of the keys of survival, knowing the enemy. And in this instance, it entails knowing thyself. It involves honest self-inventories that border on the cynical and desperate side of exhaustiveness. Now that I think about it, this might be entirely too uncomfortable for some to read. I know that I might speak a little cavalier about darkness and suicide, but at times it feels like I live in a summer cottage on a bluff overlooking the abyss. And it does look back, the abyss, but it’s yourself that you’ll see. Because that abyss that everyone always talks about falling into…it’s inside, close your eyes and if you look hard enough—and I pray that you never do—it will find you. For me, for this very reason, sleep can be a gamble because I never know what I’m slipping into.
THE DEEP END
Nevertheless, there are times when all I can muster is sleep, it’s the easiest and least radical way to deal with panic attacks that doesn’t involve becoming a zombie for a day; anti-anxiety medications are a wonderful palliative development of chemistry but can just as often mask issues through sedation. Some exciting and violent stuff I know, but mental illness is not all screams and violent outbursts, substance abuse and high-risk behaviors. It is those, make no mistake. And as often as those things may happen, speaking for myself at least, they aren’t the preponderance of what it’s like to be mentally ill. More often it’s confusion and depression that dominate, panic and paranoia that accompany me through long days and nights. Days and nights of fear and trembling and desperately trying to extricate myself from feelings of inadequacy before God, because mental illness is wonderful fodder for legalism and self-condemnation. Days and nights of transitions from this medication regimen to another, from this doctor to that doctor, hoping to find the right “combination” of medications and therapies that’ll really tie the room together in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling out of my element. In the something like fifteen years since my initial diagnosis I have been on over a dozen, closer to fifteen different medications, once cycling through about seven in a six-month period during what they called “outpatient therapy” and hospitalized four times. I will tell you this, no matter what they say, psychopharmacology is as much art as it is science, an unending pursuit of the right dosages and combinations that yield results that might last a year or two if you’re lucky or spin you right into a psychotic episode that leaves you cowering in the corner from imaginary pixies…with knives. I’ve been lucky; my menu of the moment seems to be working with some degree of effectiveness. And by some degree of effectiveness, I do not mean to imply I’m that well, I’m simply not so unwell. I still spend weeks, months even, without stepping outside—did not need COVID for that, thank you very much—and on occasion and fueled through copious amounts of coffee I can muster up the courage to venture out toward exotic places like the grocery store or Trader Joe’s or if I’m feeling idiotic, Costco, the Tartarus for all those with Bi-Polar disorder and PTSD; being inside it’s like Wonka slipped me a fizzy lifting drink laced with absinthe and then started setting off fireworks. But I digress…
Sometimes life leaves you feeling out of your depth. Sometimes, sometimes your circumstances leave you feeling as if your faith is slipping and you’re beginning to lose sight of Christ, losing sight of the Cross. The first and most obvious reaction is to turn to the Lord in prayer. This is Christianity 101, yet panic and paranoia have a way of pushing out the person who is Christ, the author and finisher of your faith, insisting that your illness sits on the throne of your devotion. Yet these are moments tailor made for worship and prayer, giving praise in the knowledge that Christ is interceding on your behalf as you spread you heart out before Him. The Westminster Confession of Faith 8.8 has this to say to this, “To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, he does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them…,” we have been both purchased by Christ, and he is interceding for us on our behalf, both indicatives that we can rest in. On the practical side of things, prayer forces us to displace the internality of our mental illness as the central focus of our mind and realign it externally toward God. In short, prayer requires that we open and walk out of the door of ourselves and our sometimes-episodic nightmare and into the sunlight of the day that the Lord has made. Prayer has no time for introspection, it’s a declarative act to an outward reality. As John Calvin said, “The goal of God’s work in us is to bring our lives into harmony and agreement with His own righteousness, and so to manifest to ourselves and others our identity as His adopted children.”
Prayer is an act of worship and submission that I can bring myself to do amidst the throes of mental illness that brings me back to the center, on my knees before my merciful, compassionate, and understanding Lord; it prevents my illness from displacing God’s place in my life, it solidifies my faith. Prayer is more than an act of cognitive reorientation, more than a mere antidote to a dreadful day, it is worship, its transformative, it’s devotional, it is the practice of godliness. It is a fervent act of faith seeking the Lord’s will and comfort amidst your current crisis and rough condition with confidence based upon the merits of Christ, on the accomplished work of Christ. And it is the recognition of His authority and sovereignty in our lives, the declaration that our chief end is to glorify God.
And yet, my illness remains, the chaos it sows still seeps deep into my nights and days, my affliction is not lifted. Some would say, curse God and walk away, for no help is forthcoming and only desperation remains. It’s that very desperation that clings to the promises of God. It’s with that selfsame desperate faith that I can say with Habakkuk,”Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fall and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18) NASB
Bringing this back around, Christians come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and mental capacities, whether that means mental illness, a mental handicap, or some form of dementia, we all rest in the hands of our savior. Thanks be to God that I have been reconciled to God in Christ and that it wasn’t up to me and what often feels like a broken mind to do the reconciling. I’m reminded of the Heidelberg Catechism. The very first question asks me what my only comfort in life and death is? It answers with the assertion that I am not my own, but that I am the possession, both in body and soul, in life and in death, of my faithful savior Jesus Christ, and so fully within his grasp that not a hair from my head falls apart from his knowledge and will. That I have been delivered from the hand of the devil and he assures me by his Holy Spirit that I stand in eternal life. This is the state that I objectively exist in. And this is the place where I can tell the truth from without condemnation and in a state of forgiveness. I’m not a sinner in the hands of an angry God but one forgiven in the hands of a loving Father. My mental illness does not disqualify me from the love of God, rather by his Spirit he makes me heartily willing to live unto him, that the work he has begun in me he shall see through to the end. So, at the end of the day, it’s more than just me and my crazy self, it’s me and my crazy self and Christ my savior.