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.

Kierkegaard on the recursive consistency of sin and the need to be a constant gardener

“To despair over one’s sin indicates that sin has become or wants to be internally consistent. It wants nothing to do with the good, does not want to be so weak as to listen occasionally to other talk. No, it insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.” —The Sickness Unto Death

So we must prune the rank and sordid overgrowth of sin by nourishing the lilies of the valley even in the shadow of death.

Was Robin Williams selfish?

The following reflection came in response to an online discussion by a group of Episcopalians about a bishop of the church’s statement that Robin Williams’ death by suicide was selfish. This is very delicate territory, so I advise readers to be gentle with themselves if they choose to read. It is not usually helpful to think that there is a ‘wrong’ response to such a trauma–nor do I think the bishop in question is wrong in his expressions of anger and anguish, feelings that so many of us have felt about the loss of a brother (Williams was Episcopalian). In fact, I admire him for his bravery in speaking from his heart.

Is suicide selfish? The question itself puts the matter immediately into the realm of moral theology, which is where the church has often put it. But I wonder if there’s a better way. Christian thought has often struggled with dualistic assumptions regarding the mind and the body, with the mind thought to be something completely other than the flesh and not subject to its limitations.

Recent work in neurobiology has challenged this assumption. The brain is of course a part of the body, and our thoughts are themselves inextricably bound to our bodily states. This is something the desert monks knew as well as today’s neurobiologists and body-oriented psychotherapists, of course, but alas, it is too often forgotten. Ravaging physical illness can lead the mind astray, and severe depression can leave the body utterly listless and undone.  Read the rest of this entry »

Dealing with Nightmares

It’s always a joy when my girls decide its time to ‘do some theology.’ Last night at the dinner table we began to discuss the meaning of our dreams. My eldest offered a theory that these were unsifted thoughts in the backs of our minds that came out under cover of night. Egads, has she been reading Freud?

After the kids indulged their daddy’s thumbnail sketch of Freud’s theory of the unconscious (structured like a language as I explained!), we laughed a bit about our nightmares. Alligators, kidnappings, and worse, even the three year old has nightmares, of big foxes who won’t let him out of his room!

Snuggles and stories ensued, and the old Bob Dylan line came to mind, ‘Those dreams are only in your head.’ But the truth is, that’s precisely the problem. Many of us have recurring dreams, or nightmares, ones that cling to us in the early waking hours and can haunt us throughout the day. We wake up feeling ‘blue’ sometimes, not even aware of the power a forgotten dream is having on us.

The early church knew of this dangerous power of dreams, Augustine warning us that dreams can be of God (as in Daniel or Jacob’s ladder), but also of the devil. He even thought that nightmares were proof that hell existed, and that it would be like a nightmare from which we never awake.

Thanks Augustine! In any case, because our sleeping hours make us vulnerable to unbidden thoughts, some of which can do us serious harm, the desert monks committed themselves to daily prayer. Compline, right before bed, has prayers for a peaceful night’s rest, a version of which I always do with the kids,

And morning prayer begins with a turning toward God and a thanksgiving for the new day. The monks knew these prayers to be therapeutic, in that they are a deliberate effort to turn our minds, which may have been assaulted by dark thoughts the night before, back toward the loving grace of God. “New every morning, is thy love,” as the wonderful John Keble hymn for morning has us sing. That’s a particularly good way to begin the day, in song.

Resolve: Remembering that my mind is vulnerable to thoughts I do not control or even want, I will turn it each day to daily prayer. Even if it is only the briefest of prayers when I first wake and when I finally fall asleep, I will strive to turn my mind back to God throughout the day, trusting the mind of Christ promised to me in my baptism.

God’s merciful mind is like a sieve–thank God!

I learned a remarkable word today while reading the Shepherd of Hermas, a second century Christian text of great importance to the early church. The word is amnesikakos. Its a compound word made up of two greek words, amnesia and kakos. Amnesia is just what it sounds like: forgetfulness. Kakos is the Greek word for evil or bad. When put together, the word has the meaning of forgetting the bad, or forgiveness. Here’s how the Shepherd of Hermas uses it:

“For God is not as men who bear malice, but is himself without malice [amnesikakos], and has mercy on that which he made.  Therefore purify your heart from all the vanities of this world, and from the words which were spoken to you before-hand, and ask from the Lord, and you shall receive all things, and shall not fail to obtain any of your petitions, if you ask from the Lord without doubting.”

While forgiveness is God’s very nature, our minds tend to be storing houses for hurtful comments, slights and other wounding words. By means of prayer, especially intercession and contemplative silence, we can learn to make our minds more porous, more able to release the thoughts that bind us or keep us boiling mad. Prayers for mercy may settle our minds a bit more each day.

Resolve: For today, when I find myself holding onto words that mean no good, I will turn to God in prayer–asking for my own forgiveness and for that of others. I will include in my petitions those by whom I may feel wounded, and strive to set aside time for silent prayer.

Demons, Trolls, and Logismoi: Oh My!

I read a troubling article today in the New York Times. The topic was trolls. Perhaps you’ve met them—these disembodied words that scroll across the pages of blogs, facebook and twitter feeds, saying the most hurtful things imaginable, as they did to Robin Williams’ daughter recently in what we can only accurately call evil.

Trolls, the article’s writer suggests, have only become worse as the internet has become more ubiquitous in our lives. They incite flame wars, inhibit genuine dialogue, sow deeper divisions than may have already been there in a difficult political or ethical discussion. They have prompted some people to quit reading good blogs, and prompted others to harm themselves or others in response to the violence inflicted by the hateful words. And trolling occurs not just on the internet, but anywhere where words are used with the aim to wound and to obfuscate the truth. We have trolls, do we not, in our own heads some of the time? Read the rest of this entry »

One little word can save us

In ancient philosophy, there was something known as the argos logos, or the lazy argument. In essence, the lazy argument is a disorder of the mind, in which our thoughts play tricks on us, convincing us that nothing we do or will do matters at all. Though mocked by Cicero and others for its sophisty, its effects on a person can nevertheless be deadly. Using every thought at its disposal, the argos logos twists the mind into knots, convincing the person undergoing this intellectual seize, “What’s the use?” “Nothing I do matters” or “My life has no value.”

Ironically, the lazy argument is itself anything but lazy, and uses the tremendous energy of our minds to keep us running ragged from one thought to another, never allowing us to stop long enough to discern the truth. Intellectuals and keen thinkers are especially susceptible to the lazy argument for this reason, as their minds can race with tremendous speed. This is the gift of the intellectual, but it is also a danger. Depression and mania are both diseases of an unsettled and often racing mind.

The desert fathers and mothers of the eastern church knew the problem well, using frequently the Greek word for chatter, argologia. Sitting in their cells day after day, year after year, they perceived the mind at work and discerned that there was just as much danger as there was light to be found in the thoughts that swirled about them. One later writer in the desert tradition, Peter of Damaskos, contrasted the blooming confusion of his own thoughts with the penetrating simplicity of the divine word: “God’s speech is not chatter…for though we were all to speak at length, we still would not have uttered the equivalent of a single word of God.” As an example, Peter cited Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.

If we made this briefest of divine words (theo-logia) truly resound in our lives, Peter marvelled, we would have the antidote to all of the useless chatter that distracts us from our highest callings. A single holy word, kept in the heart, carried about in our daily work, recited ‘when we lie down and when we arise,’ (Deut 6:7), is more than enough to guard the entryway to our heart-minds, protecting them from lazy arguments and useless words.

Resolve: For today, I will turn from the chatter both inside and outside my mind, and seek instead to hear and absorb the divine word of love in all of my activity and in all of my resting moments. When I am distracted by my mind, I will return gently to God’s word of loving mercy. Choose life. (Debut 30:19) {this post written in loving gratitude for Sister Cecilia who gave me this simple word)

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