02 May 2014

The Ivory Tower has a Rock Bottom: When Depression Taught Me Humility

And this mess is so big
And so deep and so tall,
We cannot pick it up.
There is no way at all!
~ Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.  Join me in blogging to erase the stigma of mental illness so our loved ones will seek the help they need.

f you get up and go outside/go to the party/stop sleeping so much ~ you’ll perk right up!”

“You’re not praying/meditating/centering enough.  You would feel so much better if you were.”

“You wouldn’t be depressed/have schizophrenia/be bi-polar if you went to church regularly/volunteered/did something for someone else.”

Willfully Blind
Can you imagine going into a hospice and telling everyone in there that they’re just being lazy or selfish and that if they weren’t, their cancer would go away?

You would get disbelieving stares, some disgusted glares, and might even be thrown out on your rude and ignorant ass.
Image credit: DepressionIsReal.org
Yet people who suffer from mental illness are routinely bombarded with hurtful and rude statements like those I listed above.  As a Christian, the refrain of “God heals all your ills” is just one such thorn in my side.

Before I found my current kick acre therapist, I would hear these words, cringe, and add on another hour of prayer, and feel worse than before.  Or scrupulously re-examine my conscience and mentally beat myself up. 

After all, I must have done something very heinous indeed to feel so wretched and worthless.

Now that I’ve been in therapy for a while, I hear these phrases, roll my eyes, think to myself ~ what a dumb ass ~ and say,

“Oh yeah?  Did He heal your leg when you broke it last year or did you go to the ER and have a doctor set it?”

They mean well.  But they have no idea what it’s like to suffer from mental illness.  Best case? They awkwardly show support for someone in pain.  Worst case?  Their words cause more harm than good.

Woefully Ignorant
Someone with a family member with cancer once told me, “If you don’t know what to say, just hold their hand.  Or cook dinner for the family.  Best thing  ~ do, and not speak.”

The same could be said for mental illness. 

Today, we have knowledge at the touch of a finger.  Want to know the feeding and mating habits of the Mexican grey wolf?  Just “Google” it.

Want to know all the No. 1 hits of 1980?  Type it and hit “enter.”

Have a family member who’s been diagnosed as Bipolar II?  The DSM will give you pages of information, GoodReads will recommend books, and Google will give you pages of both information and support groups in your area.

There is no excuse for ignorance.

There may, however, be a reason for it.

The Ivory Tower has a Rock Bottom
I admit it.  For years I was a hard-ass, rigid, know-it-all.

People who hear me wax poetic about sustainability, organic farming, and the beauty of Alaska will say I still am, but I digress. . .

I had been blessed with the TRUTH and therefore I was obligated to:

speak it at all times;
hit people over the head with it;
feel sorry for those who didn't know it.

Pride was the blanket I wrapped my heart in.  If I knew it all, then pain couldn't touch me.  I wouldn't get hurt, and my heart couldn't break.  And I could be sure I was doing the right thing.

But despite my best efforts, one day, the unthinkable happened.  I fell from my ivory tower and hit rock bottom quicker than Monsanto pays off politicians.  Suddenly, everything I thought I knew was called into question.

But I’m grateful that it happened.

I’m grateful I got sucker punched by depression.
I’m grateful the lines got blurred.
I’m grateful for the humility it taught me.

Because my penthouse view had a foundation of elaborate defense mechanisms and emotional walls that I began building at the age of five.  And once all that rot was torn down, it was obvious how much pain I’d been ignoring all these years.

So now, when well-meaning friends blab clueless platitudes about psychology vs. spiritual healing that make me want to simultaneously gag and punch them in the nose, I take a deep breath and remember that no one had a perfect childhood.  And that underneath all of the well-meaning phrases is probably the saddest ignorance of all:

Denial of their own pain.

And I wouldn't be able to see that if I hadn't had my own blinders ripped off.

Say Something (and) I’m Giving Up on You
Short of getting knocked on your proverbial backside, the best advice I can give about supporting those who suffer from mental or emotional illness is the one my friend gave me years ago:  say nothing and just offer the comfort of your presence. 

Or do something for them as you would anyone who had a physical illness: bring them dinner.  Offer to clean their house.  Watch the kids for a night.  Most important?  Do all this without judgment and without comment.  I assure you, we already feel like the lowest of the low, thanks to our biggest critic: 

the one inside our head.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What are some other ways to support someone with mental illness?  Share in the comments, Tweet them to me, or post on my Facebook wall!
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