I have to admit, I really struggled with my first post – the one that introduced me. Well, really, it was one word in it that I wrestled with. I went back and forth, unsure of the reaction it would garner. But in the end, I decided to call a thing what it is. So…I wrote, “mental illness” and left it there.
Illness. I struggled with that word as a characterization of the turf war that plays out in my brain day after day. I wondered whether “illness” was the best way to describe the cluster of mental health conditions that stormed into my life and send me both to prayer and therapy almost religiously.
I played with using mental health “challenges” instead, but it felt false. If it were anything else, any other condition, I wouldn’t even flinch. I wouldn’t hesitate to mention them in the same sentence. Brain cancer…illness. Asthma…illness. Dementia…illness. And it makes sense because illness is the opposite of wellness. To have a condition is to be unwell regarding that thing or even in general. Yet, the stigma that often accompanies anything about mental health makes me want a little distance. And adding that word to a sentence that also includes God, can turn my simple statement into a loaded gun…dangerous.
It’s a word choice that risks turning you off, possibly, forever. Because to some, mental illness means crazy. And to some, to have a mental illness and claim to have a relationship with God is the very definition of crazy or, at least, misguided. It is thought that a person with mental illness is always someone to be avoided because they might hurt themselves or hurt you. It’s something city dwellers are well acquainted with. More than once, I have guided my feet to the other side of the street from someone screaming at no-one that I could see, while angrily sweeping up nothing on the sidewalk or chucking groceries out their front door. No, mental health “challenge” is easier to swallow. The only problem is that “challenge” cannot capture the full experience. At least, not mine.
A mental health challenge is feeling lonely after moving to a new city with no connections. A mental health challenge is listening to a whole SADE album on repeat following a difficult breakup and wondering why you can’t let go. A challenge isn’t chronic and debilitating. A challenge is intense yes, but ultimately, temporary. A challenge is overcome and eradicated after a battle.
An illness is the exact opposite. An illness is a war in the body. It is long-term and unrelenting. An illness brings you to your knees. An illness tries to take you out. And by that description, my own experience has been that of an illness. That’s how I have come to think of it.
If it was a challenge, I might be tempted to tough it out on my own. But because it’s a war, I know that I have to be strategic. I need weapons and power greater than my own. That’s why I go to God with it. That’s why I align myself with God, because on my own, depression, anxiety and PTSD would take me all the way out.
With God, I am reminded to do my part. Move my body, eat right, drink water, go to therapy, rest, practice kindness toward myself, take this medication and use what I learn in therapy. With God, I learn to do my part while relying on God’s power to make it through, not my own. I don’t force it. I don’t strain. I glide. I flow. With God, I am able to do the work of living well with a mental illness.
Now don’t get it twisted, there are bumps along the way. It isn’t always pretty. But with God, I learn that my mental state, feelings, and history don’t define me. God does. And it’s God’s word that tells me who I am. Strong, courageous, and unafraid, because God is with me wherever I go, even when my feelings scream otherwise. God’s grace – the unmerited favor I receive straight from the source – empowers me and makes God’s strength the perfect antidote to my weakness. It isn’t just a belief. It’s something that I know from experience. So, because of that, I am calling a thing what it is and letting it be known.
What’s a word that you’ve had to tussle with before claiming it?