My Response When People Say, “Treatment is a form of social control! You can’t keep me down!”

“Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”
– Proverbs 16:32

When people tell me that medication is a form of social control and that they don’t want to be “normal,” I want to remind them of this verse from Proverbs. It is not a modern thing that we need to be patient and not warriors. It is a prized virtue from even the most ancient of Christian wisdom. Proverbs contains folk wisdom that was passed down over centuries through the oral tradition, in other words when there was no writing, and then it was finally written down some time between 715-687 BCE. And even then, way back when, people knew that if we didn’t cultivate patience and care that we might have the recklessness and power to take down a city.

When I first was experiencing mental health symptoms serious enough that people in my professional setting started treating me differently I was at a loss. I had always been a difficult person, but only with people who had known me most. My first reaction to my change in relationships was a deep sense of betrayal. That people were against me and trying to sabotage my reputation. That they were trying to undermine me by implying that I was crazy. And that they were handling me with kid gloves to be condescending and not out of genuine concern.

In my 20’s, around the time this was happening to me, I was teaching sections on literature of fantasy and the supernatural with a professor who was invested in looking at literature through the lens of psychology. It was then that I saw in books the people that I always knew had been like me through the lens of psychology. And it was there that I realized that what was happening to me had a name and began to research my condition.

Reading psychology papers about people with mental illness damaged my self-esteem and sense of self worth for a long time. I don’t recommend it and I touch on this experience and also what helped me recover from demeaning clinical descriptions of serious mental illness in a different post. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness read memoirs, not Wikipedia or articles for professionals helping people with mental illness.

It wasn’t until I read An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist, professor and researcher who writes about her life with bipolar disorder in her amazingly well-written memoir, that I realized that medicine was possible and essential for me, and that I could live a full life if I just surrendered myself to treatment, had hope, and – though I’m not sure if Jamison mentioned it – cultivated a spiritual lifestyle. Through Jamison I learned that people with mental illness were real people, with feelings, dreams, professions and a future.

“Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city,” says Proverbs. Therapy is typically essential for changing how we respond to stressors and medicine without therapy is not usually successful in bringing about lasting change. And sometimes, if therapy works out, medication is no longer necessary. You cannot will or pray yourself out of serious mental illness. Some people make a full recovery. This is possible. But it is not always possible, and spirituality and theology make the medication and its undeniably negative side effects more endurable. It can even imbue them with meaning. I’m developing a meditation series that helps this transformation take hold.

Reward yourself with love and appreciation when you make good choices for yourself. Peer pressure can be strong to go out and stay out late or drink tons, and such things are to be avoided when we have any serious health issue.

 

 

 

 

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.