Blessing #4: Understanding Mental illness

A recent poll was done, asking Christians whether or not they felt that mental illness could be cured just be reading the Bible and praying. Half of those asked said “yes.” Now, to many Christians, I know I may sound like I don’t have as much faith in God as I should, but that really disturbs me. Mental illness is called an “illness” for a reason. And just as we would never “just pray” over a little boy’s broken arm or a woman’s breast cancer, we shouldn’t “just pray” over someone struggling with deep depression or some other mental issue.
But I didn’t always feel this way. My wife was actually taking some medication while we were dating to help her with anxiety. I didn’t tell her to stop outright, but it kind of disturbed me. “We shouldn’t need these things”, I thought. “We shouldn’t be addicted. We shouldn’t just pop a pill to solve our problems.” Ren, I think, recognized my uncomfortable attitude towards medication and, when we got married, feeling that life was looking up, she stopped taking her meds. At that time, to be fair, neither of us knew that Ren’s issues were a lot more serious than just taking meds for anxiety. BPD, her own demon, doesn’t show up till adolescence or early adulthood. And, while single and with not too much responsibility in her life, life was easier to manage, if not perfect.
After her therapist confronted her with how serious her situation really was after the birth of our third child, it was a steep learning curve for me. She entered a program that went for weeks that took up about as much time as a full-time job – except we were the ones paying for it. It was insane trying to sort out child care between family and friends. All the while, going through this “secular” program, half of me wondered whether this was the right decision – spending so much time and money trying to solve her problems outside a Christian environment.
But as I read more material (particularly “A Catholic Guide to Depression”), and as I learned more about what mental illness really is, my mind began to change. Studies have shown that the best way to help someone with mental illness is for them to have a combination of therapy and medication. The therapy helps them explore the way they think about life, the lies they’ve allowed themselves to believe, and the hurts in their past that need healing. The medication helps the biological aspect of the illness. To express how important the medication is and how different my wife’s brain chemistry is, a worker in the program once told her that the meds she was taking that helped her to just get to sleep at night or calm her nerves would put the average person out cold for days. All to say, something else is going on biologically in a person who struggles with mental illness, and that part of it needs to be addressed.
This is not to say that our Christian faith has no place in Ren’s recovery. Far from it! There are so many insights that modern psychology has “discovered” to be effective that essentially mimic Christian truths. And even atheist psychologists will suggest their patients delve into spirituality because the data is there to show that religious people are, on the whole, just happier people. Besides this, our faith is what grounds us. Jesus is a part of our daily lives anyway. Bringing our woes and worries to Him and trying to understand this whole crisis through the lens of faith is just part of who we are – hence this series of posts.
But the fourth blessing of going through all of this is my waking up to the fact that people, every day, struggle with this invisible demon. People who struggle with mental illness try to hide it. They act out or get infuriated at small things – feelings they can’t control. It makes their friends and family shake their heads and turn away, hurt and dismayed. And then, after all this, they are told to just “get over it”, as though a person who has the flu could just decide to stop having the flu, or who’s amputated arm could just stop bleeding if they willed it away.
This is the last post about the blessings God has brought us through all of this. And in closing, I want to say, I debated whether or not to share all these things about our lives. I wondered, “Is this too personal? Am I just sharing this to be a ‘shock jockey’?” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about other friends I may have who deal with this or other people who think they need to pretend they are OK when they are not – who hide each day, putting on a smile while inside they are a hair’s breathe away from suicide. They grit their teeth and bear it. They struggle daily with this. And they are not understood.
They need to be understood. And I hope these posts bless you, whatever your own demons are. Please, be patient with those who struggle with this silent illness. And if you are struggling yourself, please get help. There is a way out of this that takes hard work, but it’s worth it. You are worth it. Find a therapist you feel comfortable talking to who can help you navigate these troubled waters. There is help.
And if you want me and/or others to pray for you, please contact me. You are not alone.

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