The article below was written some years back for my church’s magazine, Keeping In Touch. I’ve reproduced it here exactly as written.
I’ll admit when I re-read this I was momentarily shocked by the level of disclosure. But then I realised that was my point.
At the time, I felt very strongly that the stigma still attached to mental illness shut down conversation about how it feels and what it means to suffer from the effects (direct and indirect) of mental illness, and inhibited people from disclosing, even to those with whom they are close, what their experience has been.
I still see things that way.
This article was me outing myself, to show it’s possible to tell the truth, subjective as it is, and survive. In outing myself I outed my family. I prefer to think it was for this reason that the editors of Keeping In Touch chose not to run this piece. At the time, I felt they’d just proved my point: mental illness is, apparently, so shameful that its discussion is unsuited for a church publication. (Never mind that this church has as an annexe a secular mental health counselling service.)
I love my family. They’re crazy. There, I’ve said it. Each of us has many very admirable, very lovable attributes. But along with that, we’re crazy.
Re-reading the piece now, I consider again the ethics of disclosing family members’ experiences. The fact is I do not know how these individuals perceive these issues themselves. I can only recount my perception of their responses to their experiences.
I am mindful that since this piece was written, I was livid when the mental health of a friend of mine became gossip fodder for people she worked with, the gossip spreading out into our community. I argued then that no one has the right to disclose someone else’s mental health status, presumed or diagnosed, without their consent. By arguing that, am I, too, buying into the cultural belief that mental illness is so shocking, so shameful, that to “tar” someone by association is to damage and denigrate them?
Sharing and Caring
I was struck when in church during ‘Sharing and Caring’ someone shared about a UK friend who literally had to shout to get help in her struggle with depression. She had to present at a social welfare office, line up in a long queue, then publicly explain her situation to a junior clerk behind bullet-proof glass.
I kept coming back to this thought: She had to shout.
The plea for compassion is often tentative, not daring to do more than whisper.
Not long ago, my mother turned to me at lunch and quietly confided, “You know, darling, it was scary growing up with an amphetamine-abusing bi-polar father.”
I believe mental illness continues to carry a social stigma. I use this anecdote to begin to challenge that stigma, and to introduce a few necessarily brief thoughts on how mental illness relates to the faith journey, both for those who suffer mental illness and family and friends who suffer its fall-out.
How can someone with my mother’s experience have a stable concept of an all-loving, all-forgiving, dependable, forever trustworthy parent? Lacking this, how should she understand God?
I happen to have known my grandfather, and I can confirm he could be deeply scary. His illness was dramatic and for most of his life was unmedicated. This was partly because he so valued the ‘highs’ that went with his ‘lows’, and indeed in his manic phases he was filled with creativity, energy, zest and charismatic qualities. As the mania progressed he felt God-like, and that is the image I think his children have of God: a flaming column, a pillar of black smoke, a booming voice stifling the universe’s oxygen.
Yet there is no doubt he loved his children absolutely. I’ve seen photos where the love shines from his every pore; and when my mother speaks of him, the love is as tangible as the pain. I am certain the last thing my grandfather wanted was to leave his children a legacy of self-doubt, anxiety and intermittent, recurring terror. But that was a consequence of the behaviours driven by his illness.
My father, to my knowledge, never speaks of the fiery dynamic between his parents, except in asides he somehow makes sound uproariously funny. Like the story of how his mother discovered his father’s whiskey stash hidden in the woodpile. She chased his father round and round their country property with a huge kitchen knife, while my father hurriedly scaled a high tree and climbed and climbed as far as he could climb. Or the story of how one day, in response to who knows what, his father propelled him to the railway station, bought them both a ticket to Melbourne, many hours away, no luggage, no food – and then when they got there had no plan for what they should do next.
How do people who grew up with these kinds of experiences find ‘safe places’ spiritually? How do they establish stability?
My parents had successful careers and lives. They are productive, capable and deeply compassionate. They are also both somewhat erratic, somewhat unpredictable. Suffice to say I recall the time – not an isolated incident – my father took me to a high profile restaurant and then proceeded to berate me at max volume, insisting I should have my head cut off and be stoned to death (in that order). The waiters formed a protective circle. Or the time my mother pursued me into a bathroom during a heated argument, then burst into tears when I cowered with my arms protecting my head.
So successful, but perhaps not entirely healed. The ripple effects cause choppiness on life’s lake.
Since age 14, I have experienced eating disorders, moderate depression, anxiety and what can politely be termed ‘compulsive behaviours’. That’s not fun for me. It’s not fun for my parents either, or for my sister. For my family, it can trigger memories of earlier episodes of irrational behaviour, from other family members. That “scaredness” my mother speaks of in relation to her father is easily aroused when I or someone else near to her does something that causes her to revert once again to that condition of being vulnerable, helpless, and just wanting the people you love to behave in a reassuring – or at least unthreatening – way.
I offer up the story of my family – or this aspect of the story of my family – not to embarrass them, or to be exhibitionist, but so we might ask some questions of ourselves. When someone behaves in a confronting way towards us, how do we respond? Do we avoid them? Do we get angry? Do we pass on our bad opinion of them to whomever will listen? Or are we capable of compassion? Can we be the space that allows them to settle and calm?
I am often reminded of the words of a woman I admire. She told me, “Be kind. When we’re with someone, we don’t know their circumstances. We don’t know what it takes for them to get up each day. We don’t know what courage it might take for them to live.”
With mental illness, trust is a barrier that can prevent people telling us who they are, let alone what they need. As Christians, we try to be sensitive to what is not said. We need to listen for the silent communications as well as those that spell it out.
Postscript: The spell-check function on my pc points out there is no such word as “scaredness”. It suggested I might mean “sacredness”. Seems to me one invites the other.