So, I’ll tell you what inspired me to write this: One of my friends was disgusted at this Facebook post from a “Prophet” in a particular church that basically said certain mental illnesses are “syndromes that we adopt when we WILLFULLY disobey the word of God”
Yep. Someone really said that foolishness in a church where people were expecting to hear some semblance of the Word of God. (The correct thing is that mental illness is due to a number of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors that doesn’t have a crap to do with a person’s moral character or lack thereof) Of course, your girl was up in the comments section with the quickness to spread some awareness but meh rude answer is not why I am writing this post.
This situation caused me to reflect on my experiences as a Catholic Christian with a mental illness, namely bipolar disorder. My experiences have been like Clint Eastwood’s movie- “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” So let’s start to unpack some of them.
“The Good” – over the years, I have had good relationships with a handful of church people after my diagnosis and stay at St. Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital in the early 2000’s. Two very special people continued to have relationships with me just like I was the same old Nicole and they are my friends to this day – the kind of friends that even though sea water and married life separates all three of us, we can still pick up like nothing ever happened. When I was in hospital, another priest who I had an acquaintance with came to visit me in psychiatric hospital and it was so huge for me. It was such a light in that time.
Once I got out of hospital, I had support as well, I would say that I had the fortune to have two spiritual directors from the age of 16 till about 34. Both of them are now deceased. They both provided wonderful support to me and my deceased mom but moreso, myself. Once I became mentally stable and started moving on with my life, the relationships with my respective spiritual directors were not affected. Both priests did acknowledge the illness and its effects but they concentrated on making me a whole person in faith. I am tearing up a bit now because all four of these persons were a huge part of the reason why I did not leave the Catholic Church after diagnosis. Two are now gone and I will share the post with the other two so that I can tell them how much I owe them a debt of gratitude and love.
“The Bad” – I always seem to encounter well meaning but overly enthusiastic church people (Catholic and non) who want to pray the bipolar away and who feel it is demon possession. I am wary of people who , within minutes, hell seconds of hearing my diagnosis and not hearing the whole story are like” God wants to heal you completely”
Also, trust and believe, when any person of faith starts to attack medication and tell me not to take them, there is a laser beam side eye with the quickness from me.
In a church counselling session, I disclosed that I had bipolar disorder as I do in all medical and therapeutic situations. The person look at me and asked, “Bipolar disorder? Is that where they does get violent?” Believe you me, it took all my self-restraint not to answer back with the quickness, “Normally no, but I can make an exception with you, if you wish.” I just decided to be mature and answer a flat “NO.”
“The Ugly”- The bad for me came after coming out of the hospital. I don’t know why or how the circumstances played out how they did. What I do know was at the time, I was an active part of a Catholic church group who would go to pray with family of its members when they were sick or recovering. I don’t know how or when the memo got missed but it did get missed with me after I got out of the hospital. But for the two friends, I described above, I was very isolated. I remember reading once that everyone breaks out the prayers and casseroles for people who have cancer or heart disease but for persons with mental illness – silence. I could only nod my head in a agreement because I lived it.
The end result (at least for me) was a serious case of church hurt. For about six months, I could not stand to even enter the church. I eventually made up my mind to go in and just be about the Eucharist and its healing. My motto back then was ” If I am not wanted, at least Jesus in Eucharist wants me” I went to Mass but stayed away from church groups for many years. It was ugly for me because it got to the core of my faith.
Also, church people affected my romantic relationships. One church person advised me that I shouldn’t marry which messed me up for a bit (thank God I eventually ignored that and I am now happily married). In some of the relationships I was in, the families who were church folk did not like the idea of me with my bipolar-“ness” contaminating their possible bloodline and so made those relationships difficult.
For me personally, thus far, it has the good few individuals who kept my faith in God and the Catholic Church intact despite the bad and the ugly. However, for me, it is the ugly that until now, has meant that I keep my mental health activism in a box and my faith life in another when it comes to being a church community. I am now seriously thinking about integrating the two. Let’s hope I can do it successfully.
Pastorally, however, I would say that the church (small c) and the Catholic Church in particular still has work to do to deal with members of their flock who have mental illness and to train those in ministry to deal with persons with mental health issues. Stats say that at least one in five persons will have to deal with a mental health issue. The spiralling crime rates and the breakdown of the family will ensure that the church will be dealing increased instances of post-traumatic stress disorder, grief issues behavioural disorders in children, sexual and physical abuse, etc. The Catholic Church (and by extension any other Christian church) can’t afford to put its head in the sand on this one because in many cases, the priest or the ministry leader is the first person that people call on when they have issues.
And, finally, YOU. Yes, you – the average, everyday believer sitting in those pews or outside those pews. In this time of high crime, immorality and lawlessness, YOU must realize that you are just one murder, one robbery, one rape, one cheating spouse, one job loss, one loss of a relative away from a serious mental health problem. Having those mental health issues are not about a lack of faith but about the effects of extreme trauma and emotional pain on the human nervous system.
So talk to me, Catholics and other Christians, what you have to say about church and mental health issues?