Living large with mental illness: the other side of the coin

flames of spirit

James Turrell’s Light Raiment II at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus Ohio

It is commonly said that many more people suffer with severe mental illness than we realize and that this is because of the bitter stigma that surrounds mental illness in our society. It is dangerous to share and so many people suffer in silence. This is no doubt true and I have experienced this stigmatization first hands in ways that have been cruel and rather violent in their effect on my life. There are good reasons why many choose not to share their sufferings which, unlike some chronic physical illnesses, are often invisible to those outside.

But there is another side to this invisibility, and it is a more positive side. The truth is that many many people labor under the cruel effects of mental suffering every day and do so incredibly successfully. And not just the so called suffering artist that is so often trotted out as an example of mental illness and creativity. No, its also doctors, social workers, teachers, therapists, yes, even parish priests, who have mental illnesses of some severity and yet day in and day out they do their jobs with great skill, consistency, and even joy at their labors. The resilience of the human spirit is nowhere greater than in such remarkably full, productive, loving lives.

Part of the stigma is in not believing that this other side of the story is real or even possible. This is why revealing one’s illness is crucial, because it gives a lie to the idea that having a serious mental illness is either a death sentence or a mark against one’s ability to be incredibly skilled in one’s job and loving and supportive in one’s family and other relationships. And it gives some  courage to those who are still in the early stages of their diagnosis and recovery to know that a full life is not only possible, but even enhanced by the skills gained and disciplines developed in the ongoing effort to live into the fullness of life one has been blessed to be given. I will never forget the day I discovered the work of Kay Redfield-Jamison, one of the leading psychiatrists specializing in bipolar disorder who also suffers under its afflictions. It is no exaggeration to say that her bravery in describing how it nearly took her life, and exuberance in the full life she now lives helped save me when I was at my lowest. So we pay it forward.

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