The Church: When it Leads People to Suicide

We are all equal as living, breathing humans. We are all of us, equally, God’s children. The gospel – which preaches humility and loving the outcast and not judging – is a castle made of sand if it is causing harm. And the gospel has led plenty of mentally ill and LGBT folks to suicide even.

St. Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” How sad it is that people who do not conform to the ways of the “world” learn to hate themselves for it, and often through the church and the body of Christ.

People who do not conform to this world and who suffer teach all of us, especially Christians who are eager to fit in, a good deal. Because they remind us of the fate of Jesus. Because they resemble him as outcasts crucified for bringing into the world an inconvenient truth: the reality of their existence.

I have learned a great deal about living with a stigmatizing illness that cannot be cured from my LGBT friends, who over the years have expressed that, though it was not their choice to be LGBT, people often treated them as if it had been. For my Christian LGBT friends, they become immoral in the eyes of fellow Christians for living out the way that God created them, and they suffer accordingly for it.

We do well to do as my friends do who understand their persecutors with compassion rather feeling shame or anger. I personally try to remember that before I began to suffer with mental ill health I thought that mentally ill people were either dangerous, half-human, homeless, or other things that are unflattering. And my LGBT friends who grew up in the conservative church often prayed every hour that God would make them straight. If they had not experienced the profound pain and isolation of being gay in a conservative church, they would have judged gay people very harshly themselves.

If you are LGBT and in a dark place, don’t hurt yourself; instead get help, and consider clicking on the following link to the “It Gets Better” website for more resources:

https://itgetsbetter.org/

Warning: We Must Change to Heal

Ask yourself:

Am I committed to getting better?

Is there something I am getting from being ill?

What steps am I willing to take to improve?

There is always a chance we have an investment in staying ill… and often we hide this from ourselves.

Ask yourself:

Am I taking responsibility for myself?

Am I thinking of others?

Am I committed to my treatment?

Am I praying for others?

Am I being humble?

Pray to the Lord that he would purify your intentions and give you a fire in your soul to get better. Sometimes we hold on to our illnesses because they help us in unhealthy ways.

If you love someone who is suffering: pray to the Lord that he would purify your intentions as well. Sometimes when one person is unhealthy it is threatening to us to see them change. Maybe we are getting something unhealthy out of things as they are and we are threatened because then if they change, we have to change, too. Be aware of this.

Never forget that no matter what, we must love ourselves as we are to get better, but we also must be willing and open to change.

“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” – Psalm 9:9-10

First Episode Psychosis: What is it Like, Why Don’t People Just Get Help?, and How to Help

I didn’t know I was becoming ill when psychosis took hold of me as a graduate student. The first time we become psychotic – or lose contact with reality, as it is more graciously referred to by professionals – is referred to as first-episode psychosis. It is usually a gradual process and people can die from this by suicide or recklessness or cause great harm to others. And since there is no mental health education in this country except for psychology courses that often treat mental illness as something that you only see in a museum, a psych ward, or jail, everyone is astonished when it turns out they too are capable of experiencing it.

Unfortunately the nature of psychosis is such that people by definition do not have insight into what is happening to them. Insight is a clinical term. It means that you can see that you are suffering. A person with OCD, for example, will often know that what they are doing is not “normal” or desirable. Not so for psychosis.

A story comes to mind just now to illustrate the point:

My grandfather, Ross, played polo competitively as a young man. One game he was struck by a mallet and lost his eye. Being in shock, he didn’t know this had happened to him initially, and he wondered why the men around him were fainting off of their horses when they looked at him. He felt fine. What was the big deal?!? Fast forward to me in graduate school: I’m doing fine!!! Why are people so suspicious of me and not willing to hang out with me? Why are they being compassionate?!? Why does it seem like they pity me?!?

People experience psychosis and have fully functioning families and careers all the time. No one talks about it! But the first time… – even if we do sense that something is amiss, no one wants to admit it might be happening to them. And the vast majority of people do not know that it is treatable. It took years for me to find the right medicine and mindset. But I never gave up and neither should you.

This denial about becoming ill is just natural human behavior. For example, some people also experience shock at a cancer diagnosis, or disbelief when they are in a serious car crash. This is a natural, universal aspect of getting a devastating diagnosis or of surviving horrific events. It is so natural and we must be compassionate with ourselves and with others when we are struck with bad news and know that it is natural to be taken aback and be incredulous that horrible things can happen to us.

It is natural human behavior to deny what is going on and, in the case of mental health, to not want to accept help, realize that you can, or trust that it will work out if you do. But in some ways it is harder with first episode psychosis.

Can you imagine how it would feel to grow up hating psychotic people and blaming them for their suicides and transgressions, to be a person who hears about a suicide and says, “that’s the most selfish thing a person could ever do” – only to realize that you are becoming psychotic or are experiencing suicidal thoughts in spite of being a good person? In spite of being a faithful person? A religious person? In spite of, maybe, even being a person who had a good childhood? What if you just had a baby? Nothing could be better, right? Know that there is such a thing as postpartum psychosis. And know that it is treatable and imperative to get help immediately.

Just think how different it would be if people had to learn mental health first aid as children. That’s what would help. And just think if that first aid wasn’t just showcasing a shop of horrors, but actually featured stories of recovery and talked about prevention… and had survivors like me?

Just a thought.

On Involuntary Hospitalization: Taking Back the Narrative of Serious Mental Illness

Ethnic studies is taking off in some parts of the US. Groups of people who have been historically discriminated against are defending their right to tell their stories their way. I see the value of people who are marginalized – and those of us with mental health challenges are certainly marginalized – controlling their own narrative. My starting this blog is liberating, and this is so largely because I’m controlling my own narrative and sharing it with others to help others. I’m saying what has worked for me.

How can people with serious mental illness take back their narratives? By admitting we need help. And if we have been involuntarily hospitalized, this means that we have lost the dignity of being able to control our own narratives without help.

But guess what? Once we’re stable it never needs to happen again.

We cannot hope to control our narrative and become full and respected members of society if we do not commit to treatment.

Taking back the narrative on serious mental illness means admitting we need help. Taking back the narrative on serious mental illness means that we are taking the appropriate steps to stay stable. Like sleeping regularly, eating well, and exercising. Like avoiding workaholism. You know – things that everyone, and not just the ill, should do.

Question: Why should we do this as Christians? Won’t God cure us??? And aren’t we lacking faith if we rely on medication? 

Answer: Is a diabetic lacking faith that they take insulin?

If we are eating all the junk food we want and have developed late-onset diabetes due to lifestyle issues, we should not just take insulin. We should make healthier life choices. But we cannot forget that God works in human history through advances in medical science. Why wouldn’t we take care of ourselves so that we can help others and serve the way we were meant to as Christians?

A lot of us don’t take medicine because we feel like it means we’re weak or defective and that by taking medicine we are admitting our own failure. But consider this: if we are worried about why God isn’t working in a certain way in our life – why isn’t he curing me? – then perhaps, just maybe, we are focusing on the wrong thing. In Luke 6:42, Jesus criticizes followers who are judging others without taking care of themselves first by reminding them that they must tend to their own well-being before setting about transforming the world in the image of Christ. Jesus says,

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This is so apt in the case of mental health. When we are really struggling, we can’t see straight. Our mission as Christians is to help people. Helping people is more important than feeling like we’ve been cured or healed, and the healing that can come from medicine and therapy allow us to take the focus off of ourselves and put it back on the kingdom of God where it belongs. We must help ourselves so we can get over ourselves and get back into the game of living. And help comes from community, not just professionals. This is a picture of my husband and myself taken the year I was hospitalized twice.

“Should-ing” People Out of a Pain that Heals: Why Snapping Out of It Is Bad

“Snap out of it!”

In this post I talk about why it would be bad to snap out of suffering and how we can help people who are suffering see the bright side. Hint: it’s not what you think!

Know this: it is impossible to “snap out” of serious mental illness. And actually, even people who suffer from less officially “serious” mental health issues (i.e. non-psychotic or non-mood-related disorders) cannot just “snap out” of them; many do well to seek professional attention. But that’s not what this post is about.

Did you know that telling someone to snap out of their woes is terrible, terrible advice, let alone whether this is even possible or not?  People should not just stay in a pit, suffer and wait until they suddenly feel better and can act independently again! Usually this is not even possible. But I’m saying that even if they could, I would stop them from snapping out of it completely. Because by “snapping out of it” we miss the valleys that helps us grow.

“No pain no gain” is a horrible expression, – never use it! especially not to someone with mental illness! And yet this phrase wouldn’t be around if there wasn’t some truth behind it.

We must treat pain as our teacher.

In my own case, pain has taught me what matters in life. To me, what matters is helping people who are suffering. I spent years of my life terrified of and paranoid about things that weren’t even happening. And now that I’m no longer suffering, I can draw on my purified priorities to do what I think will help the most people.

Helping others, even to the detriment of our reputation, is Biblical. St. Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 about the importance of our dying to our outermost self – the bragging self – the what’s my resume look like? self. Because what is inside is being transformed when this happens into something glorious. And that wouldn’t happen if we could just “snap out of it”:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

I would add to St. Paul’s assertion that just as things which are seen are temporary, that things which are felt are also temporary. We must always remind ourselves that we are not our feelings and we are bigger than how we feel. Always!

In a way, Paul seems grateful for pain. Granted it is a light pain. In one passage he rejoices about the thorn in his flesh that has helped him to remember that he is not God but one of God’s creatures.

Now the next question is this: How might we help loved ones who are suffering to see this very real bright side to their suffering? How can we frame this for the person so that they can see how they could grow from this?!? How lucky they are?!? How exciting to find something positive! The silver lining!!!!

The answer: we can’t make anyone see it. We can only hold space for them to find it out for themselves.

Unfortunately, it is easy to provide encouragement by forcing collective wisdom like “no pain no gain” or “every cloud has a silver lining” on people who are suffering. I say unfortunately because it’s not long after we have done this that we have alienated the person we had meant to help. They probably won’t trust us with their pain again! And they’ll be still more isolated for it! In fact, they might do the opposite thing to spite us! (Read anything by Dostoevsky for more on this dynamic – my favorite is The Notes from Underground).

I will conclude with an example from my own experience.

I remember how, while stuck in the bleakest despair, my grandma once gave me a gratitude journal and told me to find something to be grateful for everyday and write it down. It’s not so bad! Indeed, from the outside things looked great still. To HER! The practice of looking for the good could not have been further from my mind. The thought of it repulsed me and I threw the journal in the trash, determined not fit into the stereotype of the shallow Californian superficially pretending that all was well when I felt like crap. Life went on. (By the way, it’s not only Californians who do this…)

Several months later my mom bought me a gratitude jar. Mom instructed me to write on a piece of paper something to be grateful for every day and then to put it in the jar. And then she backed away and left.

Hmmm…. This felt different….

….

…Because she did not press me on it, and because she did not lecture me on how important it was to be grateful… because she did not “should” on me and say, “you should be grateful!” …Because she did not ask me again, let alone daily, if I was doing what she had recommended…, or remind me that so-and-so had it worse because they had problem X… Because of all of this, I did not throw it away. No – while I did not use the jar, – I’m too much of a contrarian for that – still I did not throw it away. And then something amazing happened.

Somehow, over the course of a few months, I began to feel, and eventually to know, that that empty jar was waiting for me for when I would be ready to fill it. It became my space for hope. This was completely unconscious. And with time I visualized myself being able to put notes in it.

What can we learn from this? This: Even though gifts can fall flat, they might not. It doesn’t hurt to try. And the person can always throw them away if they don’t like them. Just don’t take that personally if it happens, and definitely don’t “should” on the person, saying, “but I spent 100 dollars on that!” And don’t “should” on the person telling them how to solve their problems in the manner in which you would solve them if you were them. You’re not them. And no one suffers in the same way.

Give the gift and back away. Don’t bring it up again. And don’t give gifts too often. Frame it like this, maybe: “Hey, when I was having a hard time, this really helped me. I know we’re all different but give this a shot if you ever feel like it. Up to you… Hey I gotta run!”

Finally, and I say this to the ill and well alike, if you haven’t bought yourself a gratitude jar, consider it. It is a place holder, a reminder that no matter how bad we feel, – and it’s not just people with mental illness who can feel horrible – we are not our feelings and we will not feel the same way forever. And some day, if we do not give up all hope, our gratitude will be deeper for our pain. And that we will be better servants of God and better able to minister to others for it, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Remember, as St. Paul wrote, “the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen [or felt] are eternal.” Amen.

 

How to Listen to Me When I’m Hurting: Communication Skills For Working With Loved Ones in Crisis

A friend of mine has been distressed and so we’ve been talking more than usual lately. They asked me if I could talk to their family about how to treat them when they’re having a hard time because I’m such a good listener and their family only freaks them out or makes them angry. To which I said: “First of all please tell my husband that you think I’m a good listener! He’ll be amazed!”

In all seriousness though, what I learned about being a good listener actually came from my husband Todd and how he had to learn to listen to me when I was distressed. So really I just try to act like Todd when I’m talking to my friend. I’m not hurting anymore, so I’ve picked a picture of myself for this post from a time when I was hurting very much so you can see the anxiety that was there, and yet also my humanity. There was a lot of love for humanity in me then, and I think it comes through in this picture.

I will share two things from Todd that I channel when talking to my struggling friend on the phone:

First, to use an expression from teaching, I show them unconditional positive regard. This means that no matter what the friend says I continue to view them as fully human and worthy of love and respect and I don’t take what they say personally if they get triggered by my reaction. I treat this, instead, as something to learn from about how to interact with them in the future. (Obviously there are some things that need reporting, like any ideas of causing harm to people or self – never keep this kind of thing confidential and never leave a person who is suicidal unattended. Obviously if they are violent or dangerous, leave).

And second, I never push them to give me more information than they’re sharing. I just repeat back with some variation what they’ve already said with genuine feeling and interest to show that I’m listening, that I care, and that I want to hear more if they want to share. This is so important, especially if the person is experiencing paranoia, that you are not pushing them to share more than they want, which will just make them more anxious, paranoid and isolated.

Honestly, I recommend taking classes or talking to a therapist about how you can help your loved one since every person with mental illness is mentally ill in their own way. I’m just sharing my experience here.

And know that things may not be this hard forever! The brain changes! Especially with medical help and therapy! And if you take some therapy to help yourself cope then it will greatly help your family unit.

“You’re Crazy!” How to Invalidate Someone Permanently and the Christian Imperative to Accept the Ill

There is perhaps no better way to invalidate someone in terms of career, familial status and worthiness of social investment than legitimately calling into question their sanity. This is why people attain stability or recover rarely share.

What is really going on when we invalidate people with mental illness? We are taking away their wholeness as a breathing creature of God who matters just as much as the rest of them. And we are certainly not following any Christian mandate to serve the least of these.

Hear the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:

 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

When we reduce someone to their pathology, in other words, how their illness is showing up in their lives, we are taking away their personhood. And this is un-Christian, as St. Paul teaches us above. When people are struggling with serious mental health issues, they need professional help and medication and it is often, though not always, dangerous to proceed without professional intervention. But if we had mental health education in high schools in this country, people would not judge people with mental illness as harshly. It would be normal to go into treatment. And then people would not deteriorate. Life would be more meaningfully lived.

Every case is different, but I would err on the side of caution regarding going off of medication. I always encourage people to continue to take at least some medication if they have serious mental health issues. If they go on medication, it doesn’t mean they have to stay on the same amount forever. Community and love are needed and not just professional help. Some doctors’ worldviews can hinder a person’s ability to heal. It is imperative to find the right community if one cannot find a supportive doctor.

The Fruits of the Darkest Night: When the Great Darkness Breaks and How to Speak to Travelers of the Dark Night of the Soul

Several years ago I spent many months researching the poetry of Tiutchev and Novalis, two poets from the 19th century. One was Russian and the other German – and if you’re wondering, yes, this was during my graduate school years! My goal: to understand why the night was so important to them in their poetry. Night is depressing, terrifying or absolute bliss to them in their writings and I wanted to figure out what made them tick.

Honestly, though I didn’t tell my professors at the time, I was interested in how that process of turning from light to darkness related to me as a person with mental illness. You see, my life had gone from light to darkness, and would go to still darker depths in the years ahead, through the experience of mental illness. But I thought that in studying these poets I could find at least something positive in the night.

If all is dark, everything looks the same: bad! If it is dark we can look inside ourselves and can’t see outside! Have you ever felt that no matter where you go in the day, no matter what wonderful thing happens, you will be stuck in the gloom of your mind? Take heart: those of us who have known and experienced this great darkness in our lives seem to know ourselves best. And our joy later is still deeper for it.

God forbid we stay in the darkness! As Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!”

While all of us who have been through the dark night of the soul can speak to the growth and joy that came into our lives after experiencing it, we should be careful how we sing songs to a downcast spirit living through that hell in the present. We must inspire hope, and speak to light after darkness, yes. But we must never forget that sometimes speaking itself is not the right approach. Maybe we shouldn’t speak of Christ. In fact, we should call upon Christ and be a witness to Christ by merely being there with the person as a witness to Christ’s love.

I don’t know about you, but when people have tried to talk me out of my suffering, it has made me feel horrible, and actually angry at myself for not being able to snap out of it.

The most important thing I learned from Tiutchev and Novalis is that our way of understanding ourselves and looking at our nature while experiencing darkness is often inadequate. We become estranged from ourselves when we dissect the darkness of our minds without care and compassion.

When I first started struggling with mental ill health, I read a ton about it. But not uplifting things about overcoming. Not stories of survival or triumph. No, I read books written for therapists describing what was wrong with me, I read horrible Wikipedia articles and books on how trauma never is fully healed, how my childhood had damaged me. And then all I could see in myself was a problem to be fixed… and one that would never be fixed or lovable again.

And I realized that some people thought that just because of my illness I was not worth their time, and worse, that I could possibly be dangerous.

I lost all of my awareness of my own humanity and sense of self-worth.

I would like to conclude with a message of hope:

For my favorite poets, the world of night, which could be so terrifying to them, was also a spiritual place that brought them closer to God. God is accessible when we are in Nature, and God is always there with us in the darkness of the darkest nights of our lives.

If our modern drive is to dissect our minds and the minds of others, and if that is creating illness and disharmony that is becoming ever more frequent in the world, then I firmly believe that being in nature and God is what will bring us back to ourselves. Reminding ourselves that we are not God, the DSM whereby our illnesses are laid out is not God, and our therapist, though hopefully God’s helper, is still not God.

Many churches facilitate this return home to God through Christ, while others create still more judgment and self-hate that will only further separate us from the Lord. My prayer is that all hurting people seek God in multiple churches until they find their church home. A home that is meaningful, enriching and affirming, and allows them to access their God. Our God. The Father wants all of his children to come home. This is why he sent His Son, who willingly endured the darkness of the crucifixion so that we might all be spared eternal darkness.

6 Months No Facebook?!? A Love Story

Six months ago I got off Facebook. Good riddance!

“Great job, Erin!” said a friend. “Facebook is horrible for our mental health.”

Little did I know HOW greatly my world view would shift.

You see, with Facebook I had judged a person’s whole being based on the articles they posted or their stance on a certain political or social problem. And then I judged whether they were worthy of my attention in the future based on if I agreed with what I saw.

I could go on…

What if I told you how much my relationship to my own identity as a Christian, as a supporter and advocate of civil rights and a participant in my community has GROWN outside of the influence of Facebook?

What if I told you how much better I am at reading now? How much more thoughtful I am…? How much more often I will try to see people in person now? Or at least call them…?

You see, Facebook locks us into patterns of interacting with ourselves, our thoughts, and the people and ideas in our culture(s). It does this in a way that makes change, transformation, inspiration, and social compromise, highly unlikely….

…And when we are suffering from mental ill health, this locks us into our illness and makes it permanent as we continue to engage with technology in a way that makes our struggles long term. St. Paul teaches that we must renew our minds in Christ. Facebook makes this impossible.

I am a new person, unashamed of my faith, and filled with love for people who think differently than I do now. And I’m curious about them and what makes them tick. This would have been an impossibility 6 months ago… I highly recommend it!

Confidence and Assurance: Negotiating Meaning in Self-Help and Self-Improvement

My Experience Speaks

The language teacher’s intention to reach beyond student errors into the deeper meaning of a communication, her willingness to see the intent of an utterance and not merely its means of conveyance, enables students to speak with increasing confidence in a foreign tongue, even when there is no assurance that the actual message has been accurately conveyed. Balancing confidence, correction, and assurance keeps students growing in their study of a language.

Teachers must be aware of the dangers of giving false assurance as a means of boosting confidence in their students. It is better to approach the task of teaching with confidence paired with humility, hope, and hard work rather than a false sense of assurance.

The Practical Application to Mental Health and Relationships

This truth applies to spiritual, psychological, and community learning as well. False assurance is deceptive, and it is readily available in the 21st century. It breeds co-dependency.

We must be honest when people are being hurtful, reckless and causing pain. False assurance causes everyone harm.