In the face of trying to understand something that seems incomprehensible with that sort of elusive, water through your fingers sort of grasping, which is how I think of mental illness, which words do you use? What do you say that pierces the veil of shadows that often seem to hang in their eyes? It’s quite a striking question when you think about it. Because initiating a conversation is much different than being the respondent. Furthermore, I think it’s often easy to assume that those who need help will seek it out, thus eliminating the need to approach them. But victims, even victims of their own minds, don’t often ask for help, we all just want to close our eyes and wish it all away.
It was that very question, of what to say to those with mental illness, that came up in conversation with a friend over the sort of unhelpful comments that people can unknowingly make about and to those with mental illness. They said, “…if you can help people to know what to say instead of those unhelpful comments you mention, it would be good.” And that resonated deeply with me. It was a question that I hadn’t really given much thought to before. I’m not the most talkative in person, so interpersonal relationships, at least the ones outside of my immediate family, don’t often figure into my daily life. So, I took it as something of a challenge. I’ve already spent a lot of words talking about what it can feel to suffer from mental illness and be a Christian, the general brokenness of the world and what not to do or say to someone who is mentally ill, yet I haven’t spent nearly as much time trying to decipher how to speak to us. And everyone is different, both in diagnosis and treatment, so I’m usually a bit wary on giving advice. Far be it for me to bind the conscience of someone to a certain avenue of travel. I can only speak as someone who has mental illness and survived as a child the devastating and emotionally abusive effects of the illness of a family member that went largely untreated and self-medicated.
Love Covers Confusion
Many of us can wax poetic about loving of our neighbors through civic virtue, charity and participation in the political milieu of our nation. But loving our neighbor starts at home and in the church. When in doubt love your brother and sister in Christ. This is especially true when it comes to those with psychological disorders. Love, I believe, is a fundamental in the face of the ignorance and confusion that often exists when confronted with afflictions of the mind. I don’t expect people to understand through sheer intuition the intricacies and myriad varieties of mental illnesses nor to put in the time and effort that is required to gain that sort of mastery. What they can do however is simple, they can love them, be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). To do what a friend mentioned to me, and not be afraid of silences, of blank looks, of apparent disinterested expressions upon faces that often accompanies mental illness. It isn’t that we don’t care about what you’re saying, it’s that often there are half a dozen disconnected thoughts running through our minds, pulling us in different directions as we attempt to give you our full attention and your voice can be like someone throwing open the door and screaming fire.
So how do you love your neighbors with mental illness in the Church? How do you love your sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and friends who seem to become different people with little warning, whose transformation from being well to ill seemed to come without notice? It can be bewildering because these aren’t the people that you recognize—and be assured, they often don’t recognize themselves either; there is often this sense of personal estrangement, that somehow something essential has shifted and that which is familiar becomes alien. My suggestion is with humility and empathy; strip away any preconceived notions of how you think they should react to you. Yet keep in mind that it wasn’t an ontological shift that occurred, there is still much of that person that you knew under the layers of illness and whatever treatment they might be undergoing. Because what they are experiencing is often not as foreign as you might think, their experiences are simply amplified to the point of distortion and harmonic dissonance. So, if you listen attentively, you’ll start to hear the parts of the melody that you recognize, sometimes wrenched out of tune by mental illness and suffering. And in that harmonic dissonance, that is where the alterations of how emotions are felt and expressed begin to shape, how our perception begins to bend out of form, not unlike the difference between the traditional national anthem and the version by Jimi Hendrix. All the main melodic points are there, but that is where the similarities end and the points in between commonality become excursive adventures.
Now, getting back to those unhelpful and at times condescending comments my friend referred to—and yes you can be condescending and sincere at the same time. The comments were from something that I had previously written. In it I listed a few of the common, cliched phrases that I have grown accustomed to hearing over the years. Things like “isn’t Jesus enough”, that’s one that has come when they found out that I take psychiatric medication. “Do you pray for deliverance”, that one is usually more sincere but no less frustrating and “you just need to give it to God” which always comes off sounding like they’re saying let go and let God, which is just obnoxious. And the old standby of “we all get depressed, it’s only natural” or the more general statements as to whether you read your bible and pray when you get a panic attack, are depressed, or some other manifestation of your mental illness. These are all meant, to one degree or another, with a genuine kindness and a desire to comfort and comprehend how it is that mental illness afflicts a person. And they’re all as thin and disposable as a Hallmark greeting card. What gets lost during the mental excursion trying to grasp mental illness is many people either forget or fail to realize that our affliction doesn’t render us intellectually or theologically inept. We have the same bible, access to the same books, the same confessions as you. In essence, our suffering isn’t for a lack of knowledge, even though at times it can seem locked away. You can’t think your way out of a mental illness any more than you can think your way out of cancer.
On the other hand, one of the simplest ways that I can think of for people to connect with those of us with mental illness in a positive way, one that avoids condescension is to simply listen, be our friend. Listen to us without agenda and with as much empathy as you can muster. Lace your presence with a sense of investment because we need to feel invested in, we need to matter to those whose obligation it is to care. And this simple transference of time from yours to ours is something that will change the day of someone with mental illness in ways that you can only imagine; it’ll change the day of anyone really. For me there is a certain epiphany that occurs when, after I’ve returned the usual greeting with the expected response, the person lingers, clearly not satisfied with an “I’m fine.” A lingering that says that “I want to know how you are really feeling.” This is that moment of love that conveys that sense of investment and it requires nothing but your time, nothing more than your interest.
Nevertheless, I think it is easy to assume that a lot of the concerns in the church, mental illness as a good example, get addressed through direct pastoral care and elder oversight, while we patiently await our truncated prayer list to arrive with the week’s bulletin. And that’s wrong on at least three counts. First, there usually aren’t enough elders to go around to address each individual parishioner as much as they might need or as much as the session or consistory might like. Secondly, speaking for myself, though in my experience it tends to be a somewhat common thread for those with mental illness, I don’t like to ask for help. I’d rather be weak and alone than vulnerable amongst friends; it’s terribly difficult for me to take the initiative and ask for help even when it is obvious to anyone that would take a glance my way that I’m not okay. And thirdly, on account of the second reason, many of the needs of the Church never make it the awareness of the Elders and as a consequent aren’t disseminated to the general congregation. Instead, we each need to, as members of the body of Christ, take the health of the Church seriously, because I guarantee you that there are people in your congregation who suffer in stoic silence.
Patience and long suffering, a slow tongue and a slow temper, these are the tools to reach and dialogue with the mentally ill in your church, with those whose moods can swing from tears to fears to screams and anger. This is the way to reach out, though it isn’t a promise that you’ll reach us on the first try, but one thing it will do is let us know that someone is there. Sometimes all that is needed is the presence of another human being. Because after all, there isn’t phrase book for speaking the language of the mentally ill. Because we don’t speak another language, though sometimes it feels as if we live in another world. A world where up is down, and right is wrong. Love though can often pierce the illusion and open channels for emotions and thoughts to travel farther down than the surface of the mind.
And that brings me to another point. How can the mentally ill open to those who are their brothers and sisters in the church, because it’s a two-way street, a monologue does not a conversation make.
Vulnerability is Love.
Relationships between the afflicted and those around us are dialogical, they ebb and flow with the amount of effort we put into it. In other words, they aren’t static, but they grow and retract depending on how we nurture them. So, no matter how much you may want them to understand your illness, if you don’t open your mouth and heart to them, nothing will come of it. If we, as those who are mentally ill don’t take our need for understanding and belonging beyond mere recognition, if we don’t attempt to further our journey toward the fulfillment of the those needs, then I fear that we shall endure darkness far more than we ought.
And we’re often told by the secular communities in which we seek treatment that what we really need to do is love ourselves, that if we don’t know who we are apart from everyone else, then we are not fit to or capable of loving someone else. So, along those lines, in order to be totally free, we need to love ourselves unconditionally, only then will we “find ourselves.”
Jesus though, in John 13:34-35, seems to tell a different story, he seems to imply that the world has the path to discovering yourself inverted when he says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (ESV) For the disciples, who they were, their authentic identity if you will, was revealed by their love for one another. In other words, who they were, who they identified as, were disciples of Jesus Christ and they gave that identification meaning and life by loving one another as Jesus had loved them, doing so publicly and without qualification. Paul encountered Jesus and was changed almost entirely. He went from publicly persecuting the Church to declaring to live is Christ and to die is gain. He too discovered that selfhood was about finding yourself through encountering the revelation of Jesus Christ.
And today is no different. We encounter the revelation of Jesus in his word and are changed and we show the world who we are through our love for one another. A love that requires time and effort on our part, one that requires investment and vulnerability. We may not live with all things in common today, but we should live in such a way that what the world sees are disciples of Jesus as we love one another, as we share our lives and burdens with each other. And for those of us who are mentally ill that requires vulnerability and honesty about where we stand in the faith and the state of our battle with mental illness. Because truth is the common currency of love.
And when all the cards are dealt, if you can’t love you brother, then loving your neighbor is simply out of your reach. Because love is the antidote to confusion and apprehension in the face of the unknown. And to we who are the mentally ill, the world outside is dark and full of terrors. We need our brothers and sisters, and we should covet their prayers, but more than that we should provide them with content for those prayers. We need to let them in as they seek to love us for it is only as we share our burdens amongst each other do we function as the body of Christ.
Love renders the incomprehensible face of mental illness approachable. When it comes to how to engage and dialogue with the mentally ill, unfortunately there isn’t a list or a formula for success. In other words, there is no “right” thing to say, but there is plenty of wrong things to say. Actions, when it comes relationships with those who suffer from mental illness, speak much louder and more effectively than any words that can be contrived. And for the wounds inflicted upon those of us who are afflicted with mental illness, love is both a salve for wounds and the bandages for binding them. At times it won’t seem that effective while at others it will appear to be a panacea of all things psychological. In either event we must resist both discouragement and triumphalism.
Love. It endures all things, is patient and kind, knows no evil and doesn’t make demands or give ultimatums. It listens and sits through all the misunderstandings and antagonisms and bears all things. And love is what we owe one another, it fulfills the law, as Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10) ESV