Monday, August 29, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 13: Mental Health I

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith:  Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work / Leadership / Bible Study /

Listen to the audio version here

What first led me through the doors of The Edge in late 1999 was an array of mental health issues.  I was dealing anxiety, depression and PTSD simultaneously, and I was looking for relief and release.  I could not continue walking around like a zombie after experiencing a major trauma at the age of 16.

At 18, I certainly didn’t have the wherewithal to determine what would help me, so I jumped at the very first opportunity.  Something that seemed like it might offer a solution.  In a way, I was lucky it was church and not something more overtly destructive.

FAITH AND GRIEF:

I first spoke to Daniel around the time I started attending The Edge.  We became close friends very quickly, and he opened up to me about what it was like to live with a terminal illness.  Mere months later, he was gone.  I had known he was dying - that he would die - but I had not expected it to happen so fast.

I thought we would have more time.

Though, we did have the gift of saying goodbye, no one is ever ready to lose a 15-year-old.  I certainly wasn’t.

I grieved deeply and missed him terribly.  For a time, going to church helped me cope.

Daniel had believed in God, and he was always asking me questions about the Bible.  “Define innocence,” he demanded when he read a certain passage that struck a nerve.  With almost no experience in church and the internet in its infancy, I did what any self-respecting teenager of the times would - I looked up the word in the dictionary.  (I was able to tell Daniel that what the Bible said about innocence was actually true...based on what I had read in the dictionary…)

I was supported through my grief for a time by people at church.  But after some months passed, I stopped finding a soft place to fall with them.

I had my first falling-out with Liam over why, around the eight-month anniversary of Daniel’s death, I was still so down about it.

“So, how’s it going?” he asked that day on the way to church.

“It’s going okay,” I told him.

“Just okay.  What’s up?”

Well, it was just eight months since Daniel...so that was hard…”

“But he was saved, right?  He was a Christian?” Liam asked.

“Yeah, he was.”

“So...I get being sad a little bit, but he’s in heaven now.  Which means he’s doing awesome, and he’s not sick...and I don’t think he’d want you moping around, you know?”

“He was my best friend, and he’s not here anymore.  That’s not exactly moping around.”

“I know...it’s just…  Don’t you think you should be moving on?”

Liam’s words stung.  It was the first time I had been truly hurt by him.  By his insistence that I should move through loss in accordance with his timeline.  Because Jesus existed.  Because of heaven.  Instead of being sad that Daniel was not alive, church rhetoric said I should feel happy for Daniel because he was free now.  That feeling sad was selfish.

So while I still felt the loss, I spoke about it less and less.

FAITH AND ANXIETY:

I remember the exact moment that anxiety entered my life, because the feeling was entirely unfamiliar to me.  In high school, as the nurse explained the particulars of my sister’s symptoms and that she had been rushed to the hospital, I felt terror rising in me for the first time.

I also developed social anxiety at church activities due to feeling “like an outcast.”  I believe now that this was strongly related to my living with CP and that no one else in the church understood what that was like.  Unfortunately, the commonly held belief at The Edge was that anxiety was a choice, and like “prolonged” grief, it was selfish.

After the healing conference in early 2001, I found my already shaky self-confidence to be nonexistent.  My faith had been publicly proven insufficient, so I hesitated to say anything in church or Bible study.  My prayers had been deemed ineffectual.  Hence, any pressure to pray aloud - to put my impotent faith on display - caused me to be consumed by panic.

I remember one instance when Liam decided we had to tackle my anxiety head-on.  It was just the two of us at his house after church.  We were having lunch, and he asked me to say grace.

Praying aloud was something I never fully got used to.  I was a private person - much more comfortable praying to God silently, or writing my prayers down.  But praying aloud was the thing to do within this church.  (And, by extension, when spending time with its parishioners.)  It was believed that words had more weight when spoken aloud.  Private in-your-head prayers were weaker.

Liam, waited expectantly for me to thank God (verbally) for our food.  He waited.  And waited.

“I can’t.”  I finally said.

“What do you mean?  It’s just you and me and God.”

“I know.  But the words won’t come.  I’m not comfortable.”

“It’s okay.  Just try again.”

Again, he closed his eyes and waited.

I took a breath, which caught just shy of words.  And another.  And another.

Finally, I opened my eyes, defeated.

“This is serious,” Liam said, nodding.  “We’ve got to get you past this, so I’m going to pray for you, okay?”

“Okay…”

So he prayed, and I sat there feeling inadequate.  What was wrong with me that I couldn’t even pray out loud?  When he finished, Liam prompted me again to pray.  This time, I did.  But it was not a relief, and the words did not come easily or smoothly.  My voice tensed up.  I was stilted, awkward and breathless.  But Liam was satisfied.

As usual, it had not mattered how I felt in that moment, just that I ignored my fear and did what God (or, more aptly, Liam) wanted me to do.

FAITH AND DEPRESSION:

Depression was something I had lived with on and off since elementary school.  I was generally a happy child until I turned nine years old and both my teachers (in the classroom and in gym class) were horribly ableist.  Nine months with these teachers destroyed my self-esteem.  Just a little girl, I felt sure that because my teachers were treating me badly and they were adults, what they were saying must have been true.  I could not dream of challenging adults in authority over me to change their behavior because the imbalance of power was so severe.  Six months later, when I was ten, I had major surgery on both legs.  A subsequent surgery followed when I was eleven.

I felt profoundly powerless and broken.

One child’s get-well message to me said: I can’t wait for you to be able to walk like everyone else.

Even at ten years old, I knew she didn’t understand CP.  I knew I was not going to recover in the way that most kids did when they came to school wearing a cast after they were injured.

In sixth grade, though, an older student on my bus recovered from a surgery that I thought was similar to mine.  I watched him progress from a wheelchair, to crutches, to requiring no adaptive equipment at all.  Though his gait was obviously different, he was able to walk independently.

Because of this, I held onto the dream of walking without crutches for the next two years.  When it was clear that this was not possible, my self-esteem took another hit.  This kid appeared to have CP, and he could walk by himself.  Clearly, I was not trying hard enough.

While I didn’t talk about my depression much as an adult, it obviously existed.  After the awful experience at the healing and deliverance conference, Tara, Liam and I sat down and discussed several personal issues.

These were things we had kept private, for fear that Liam would just not get it.  But they were affecting our lives and our friendship.  So, we opened up.  Liam listened and then asked, “What can I do?”

“Just be here,” we said.

“Is there anything else I can do?  I just hate that you guys are going through these things.”

We thanked him but said that there really was not anything he could do.

Sometime later, he brought up the conversation again, as we were still struggling.  “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you guys told me.  And I really want to help.  So, I was wondering if you both wanted to come over tonight.  My mom said she’d be there.  We could pray for you guys.  It wouldn’t be a big deal.  Just us.”

Tara and I exchanged glances.  It sounded awkward at best, but we were in need of something.  Nothing had helped so far, and we were still so new to faith and prayer.  We agreed.

That night, we came over.  Liam and his mom were there.  The energy felt beyond strange. Like both Liam and his mother were horribly uncomfortable.  We were already nervous having shared so many personal details with Liam (and by extension, his mother).  Both seemed ill-at-ease, and much less relaxed in our presence than times previous.

We were with them for a few hours, and I don’t remember a single prayer being said.  We just sat around awkwardly.  They eventually read some Bible passages aloud.

It felt like they were absolutely out of their depth.  Like we had been right to keep our personal business to ourselves, because no one in the church knew how to handle it.

Their silence communicated that they could not receive us with compassion.  That they were overwhelmed by our real problems.  That our sadness was just too great for them.

Within the church, depression indicated a lack of faith. The cure?  Renewed devotion to God.  Like all other mental health issues, depression was not viewed as a medical condition, but a spiritual one.

FAITH AND TRIGGERS:

From the time I first started attending The Edge, the autumn months meant my anniversary-reaction to trauma would ramp up.  I began to feel anxious all the time.  This journal entry from September of 2004, describes some of what I went through:

Apparently, I'm still a freak. Always gotta wait for September or so to see if the anxiety and crap is still an issue and let's see... Yup. Still is.

It just sucks to deal with so much of the same stuff. This is year seven. I don't know how much longer it'll be an issue. But I pray to God it ends soon. 

I mean, what is this? Do I not trust God enough? Is there something I'm not doing? Do I just have to wait for God to deliver me? I'm clueless here, and I'm so tired of this! Please, just can't it be done? Can't I enjoy fall and winter, and Christmas without this feeling in my gut, that I'm gonna lose it all in a matter of seconds? 

And then there's the answer I always get. The advice. That I kind of want, but more than anything I just want someone to listen. To be willing to hear me, and see my pain and not turn away.

It didn’t take long for people at church to tire of the repeated trauma-reaction every fall and winter, when nothing traumatic was actually happening.  Many suggested counseling, which in hindsight, was likely something I needed.  However, at the time, it only served to increase my already sky-rocketing anxiety.

There's nothing to fear, and yet I'm fearful, I wrote.  Everything is okay, and yet I'm expecting it all to give way...for my world to just spontaneously combust.

I guess it's just really upsetting that I can't get past this. That somewhere, I know that things are fine, and yet my body doesn't get it. 

I struggled with the idea of letting go of the trauma itself.  I had a difficult time remembering my life before it happened, and as such, the idea that I might be healed and delivered from it was frightening.  I had no memory of a trauma-free life, as those memories were in hiding.  So, living without the trauma felt like floating into a white hot void.

Simultaneously, I felt that if I loosened my hold the experience, I was at risk of being blindsided again.  I couldn’t cope with that, so I held on tight instead.

Needless to say, my reality was not always readily embraced by my peers in church.  However, there were a couple of people who kept me safe and allowed me to finally begin to heal.

[Me and Tara seated side by side, smiling.  Winter of 2004.]


In December of 2004, I was out to eat with friends.  One (who I’ll call Maggie) was someone I had been able to open up to about my difficulties in the colder months.  I even confided one of my biggest triggers: the scent of a real Christmas tree.  (The year of the trauma was the last my family had a real Christmas tree.  In the years since, we have put up the artificial kind.  The smell is just too evocative.)

We were eating - enjoying our food and each other’s company - when Maggie extended an invitation to come over to her house after lunch.

“That’ll be awesome,” I said.  “It’ll be so nice to hang out.”

Moments passed and a look of concern crossed Maggie’s face.  “Oh crap.”

“What?” I asked.

“I have a Christmas tree.”

All of my friends at this point in my life were Christians.  As such, I assumed that of course Maggie would have a Christmas tree.  I was thinking of fun, not trauma at this point, so the reference went right over my head.  “And?” I asked.

“And...I have a Christmas tree,” Maggie persisted, staring hard at me, but not giving my private struggles away to the table at large.

“Oh…” I replied, as realization dawned.  “You mean a real one.”

She nodded, apologetic.

“I think I’m gonna skip it then.  Thanks for telling me.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

FAITH AND TRAUMA:

The following summer, I was working at Still Waters Bible Camp for a third year.  It was August, and for the past few days, I had been distracted by the knowledge that the weather was gradually changing.  The mornings were getting colder.  As my trauma occurred during a particularly mild winter, these subtle shifts were more than enough to awaken my PTSD.

One morning as I walked to devotions, the air had a particular bite to it that I only associated with awful memories.  My only solace was that it was a Thursday, which meant we would be connecting and praying with our prayer partners.

I took comfort in knowing my prayer partner, a co-worker I’ll call April, had proven to be nothing if not reliable when I needed her.  Earlier that week, during a rare break, I had sought her out because I was struggling and needed some backup prayers.

“Hey, are you busy?” I had asked, because her face clearly said she was.  But her response has always stayed with me.

“Not if you need me right now,” she said, and invited me into her cabin.

When I sat down beside her that Thursday, she saw that something was not right immediately.

“What’s wrong, T?” she asked, using a nickname only she had for me.  Compassion showed clearly in her eyes.

“You know how I told you I was struggling earlier this week with anxiety?”

“Yeah, of course,” she said, totally dialed in.

“And you remember about what happened to my sister?  How that’s still really hard for me?”

“Yeah, I do,” she nodded.

“Well, every time the weather starts to get colder, it’s like…my body and mind get triggered and I start remembering all the horrible feelings I had when that happened.  This doesn’t just happen once or last for a day, it lasts for months out of the year, every single year.  It’s been eight years, and I’m still not over it.”  My voice cracked, and tears came as I choked out, “I don’t want to live like this anymore…  I can’t…”

There were no words for a moment like this, and thankfully, April knew this.  She didn’t use prayer like a Magic 8 Ball to cure me of my fear and trauma, minimizing the depth of what I had experienced.  Instead, she just held me and said, “Oh, T…”

She just was there.

She just listened.

She just held me while I fell apart.

It was the first time in nearly a decade I felt truly affirmed, heard, and allowed to grieve what had happened.  It was the first time someone in the faith community did not push me to get over it.  It was the first time that my reaction to the scariest hours of my life was treated as though it was legitimate.

I needed that.

I truly believe that this moment helped me turn a corner and begin to heal.

FAITH AND A MESSAGE FOR YOU:

Today, I know even more deeply that reactions like Maggie’s and April’s are incredibly rare.  While I had to sift through many examples of how people in the faith community could not handle my mental health issues, Maggie and April’s understanding were two of three examples over eight years when my friends were there for me in this regard.

I wish I had understood that grief has no timeline.  And that anxiety, depression and PTSD were not things I was choosing, as my church so often reiterated..  I wish I had known that they were legitimate reactions to personal trauma and years of spiritual abuse.

My reactions to these things were not my fault, and they should not have been treated like choices I was making to actively live in sin.  If you are reading this, and it’s striking a chord, know that your disability and/or your mental health issues are not your fault either.

Our reactions are legitimate.  Our feelings about our experiences matter.

We matter.

We matter.

We matter.

***

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2 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you had a Maggie and April. And I'm so sorry that so many people fail you. Your experience with grief reminded me of mine. I still have upsetting dreams about my friend who passed away, and speaking of mental health, it was due to schizophrenia. Thank you for sharing.

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    Replies
    1. Cindy, I'm so sorry you have had similar experiences.

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