Monday, May 20, 2013

The Blessing of Mental Illness

I have come to realize that the exertion of wrestling with the monster called Mental Illness has enabled me to lead others toward life.

In the New Testament of the Bible, there is a story of a man born blind. Jesus' disciples asked him, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him."

 I heard this story and for most of my life never understood it.

To a certain extent the disconnect is cultural. Our society sees a man or woman who is blind and we chalk it up to genetics. Blindness has nothing to do with this or that person's sin. The concept is completely foreign. (I will come back to this in a moment.)

But there is a far deeper level here as well that, frankly, repulsed me: why would God make a person suffer so that he might gain fame? Why would God give someone cancer or lupus or tuberculosis or leprosy so that He can heal them and amaze any onlookers? Isn't there a way to amaze without inflicting so much pain?

To consider the problem from a less spiritual point of view, we can return to this cultural assumption that illness or disability is caused by some sin. We may not think this true about a slipped disk or autism but this is the standard assumption, otherwise called the stigma, about mental illness.

Why does that person have major depression? Because they made terrible life choices or they are weak or their parents mistreated them when they were children. Because they didn't pray enough or try hard enough. Not because they have a illness that needs treatment just as much as diabetes.

The similarity is striking to me in particular because I have been in treatment for chronic major depression for six years and have likely had it for most of my life. In addition I was a psychology major focusing in on mental illness and have worked in clinical psychology research labs and as a mental health paraprofessional on a suicide prevention hotline.

And still I think I have this mental illness because I am doing something wrong. Because I've sinned. Because I'm weaker than other people. In many ways I believe the stigma.

And there was definitely a part of me that saw the story of the blind man and wanted to revolt against the vanity in it.

But recently I've come to understand this story from a different point of view.

I may still have some part of me that believes the stigma but I've also broken loose of its most restraining bonds. It was not without tears of shame and self-loathing that I went to therapy the first time. How worthless I felt going to a psychotherapist - I have to pay someone to talk with me.

But I went. And I over the years I came to realize that the problem I had wasn't normal. I was reading C.S. Lewis' description of his grief after his wife passed away and I shut the book thinking - what's the big deal, this is what my life looks like at least a couple months out of the year. I didn't think much of it until a good friend, who also struggles with depression, described to me her grief after her father passed away. She said that it was as though she was going through another depressive episode, only there was a reason for it.

And I realized. The depth of despair and suffering in the midst of severe depression is comparable to the grief after the death of a loved one. Only there's no understandable cause.

This is what it means when people call Major Depressive Disorder an illness.  And an illness should be treated by a healthcare practitioner.

So what does all this have to do with the concept "that the works of God might be displayed in him?" 

I, a woman who has nearly drowned in the cesspool of depression, became a suicide prevention counselor on the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. I've come to realize that because I somehow dragged myself out I've been able to guide others how to escape. 

I've literally saved lives because I, too, have suffered.

No comments:

Post a Comment