I know the post I wanted to write. That I still do. I’ve been having a hard time with it, however. The words have just not been coming to me. When I have been able to sit and get some typing done, the experience has been a bit triggering. It just wasn’t the time to write this. Now. Now the time is right.
The picture you see is one of the War Room at my church. It’s our prayer room. The name derives from the movie. Outside of the door is a sign with the room’s name and the scripture II Corinthians 7:14. I attempt to spend Wednesday mornings sitting in this room. I haven’t been too successful at it the past few weeks. My brain’s deep, steading breaths while in there are a silent reprieve from the chaos inside of it the rest of the week.
My illness has not always mixed well with my faith. I was attending a different church at the time of my diagnosis. The response to my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder was not a welcoming one. I was told that I “just need to have stronger faith” and that “I just need to pray harder.” That didn’t come from everyone in the church, but enough that it had a lasting effect. Mental illness is not a moral flaw. It is not caused by a lack of belief or anything else that I could have done [or not done]. I was already raw from the diagnosis. The response received… I placed my Bible on my bookshelf; and it stayed there for a long time.
Over the past five years things have began to change. I started assisting with the Bible Study for the seniors at the nursing home I was working at. Two years ago, I decided to attend a service at the church I had gone to as a child. I’ve been there ever since. Last summer was one of most difficult I’ve had when it comes to my illness. I found solace in the room pictured above. I have been working on my NAMI affiliate’s faith outreach material since November of 2017.
The latter has played a role in my exploring how my faith and mental illness are connected. Not in bad way, but in an incredible way. Often, religious leaders are the first people that individuals seek out during a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, mental illness is not always well received- in any faith or denomination. Often times, when said religious leaders are approached, they do not know the proper way to respond to their parishioner. Others in the congregation may receive the news and avoid the topic (or the person altogether). They are not “casserole illnesses” as a friend puts it. While opinions are changing with more knowledge, it has been a slow go. NAMI’s FaithNet (on their website) and affiliates’ faith outreach are working hard on it.
The end of July brought a test from God. I can’t call it a pop quiz because I knew about it well in advance. Wasn’t quite a final. It was more like a midterm…
Let me start with: I speak for several NAMI signature programs, man tables at health fairs, answer the Helpline, assist at NAMIWalk, and facilitate Peer-to-Peer. Among other things in the office when they need something. When I speak for the programs, talk to people at the health fairs… 99.9% of the time I am never going to be seeing these people again. I go in, talk about mental health, tell my story of living with mental illness, and then leave.
The test came on July 26th. I had the privilege of speaking to a women’s Bible Study at my church. I was beyond thrilled to have the chance. I had been praying for the opportunity… It was also completely terrifying. As I said up top, my previous experience with disclosing my illness to fellow parishioners was not exactly pleasant. While I have found nothing but support and caring since returning to my childhood church, not many knew/know about my mental health conditions. These weren’t people I would speak to and then never see again. These were women that I would be seeing every week. This could have completely backfired on me…
… It didn’t. Not by a long shot. They listened, asked genuine questions. I have the same support and acceptance at my church that I did before. I’ve had one woman come up to me almost every Sunday since I spoke to tell me that she is praying for my ministry and how important that ministry is. Just this past Sunday, she stopped me before service to ask how our ministry was going and to let me know she still hasn’t stopped praying for it. Just hearing that means oh so much.
I have been working on putting together information on/for different faiths- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.- for my local affiliate’s faith/spiritual outreach. I’m currently researching Jainism. For each, I have been attempting to find affirmations, prayers, scripture/sacred texts, quotes, and sayings. Articles and personal stories, as well, that talk about mental health in a positive, supportive light. I have hit some road bumps related to languages (for instance- I do not read Hebrew, Arabic, or Sanskrit), but have been able to get over the obstacle with a little work. It has been absolutely fascinating! Faiths that I knew nothing about, I have learned a great deal. I have also learned that I love linguistics!
It has also been enlightening. And reconfirming. As I have gone through the process- of which I have 6 more faiths to research- I have continually come back to mine with an even stronger conviction than before. I have been reminded time and again how much my faith has helped me to heal over the past two years. Reminded me of the comfort and quiet that I have found in the presence of His loving arms- whether it be sitting in the room pictured above or through an email sent by a friend. Of the confidence and self-knowledge that I have been able to obtain in the work I’ve been led to. Reminded of the amazing opportunities I have been given- speaking to teens, parents, and others about my experience living with a mental health condition has been one of the most gratifying things I have ever done- Openly letting others knows that they are not alone, that it is okay to reach out for help, and that there are people rooting for them.
I never stopped believing in God. I did, however, stop speaking to him. For longer than I want to think about. He never stopped looking after me throughout that entire time. He didn’t give up on me even in the times I seriously wanted to give up on myself. Those times when I was tired of medication adjustments and changes, of sitting in my doctor’s office with a mind that turned against me for the millionth time, of again having to deal with the collateral damage of an episode…
He never stopped loving me even in those times loving myself was nearly impossible-when I would tell my nieces and nephews I just can’t play today, not picking up the phone for Grandma’s calls because I couldn’t handle it, those moments I look in the mirror or down at my wrists and all I can see are every single scar- both on the skin’s surface and underneath.
I have read personal stories of individuals from faith communities that I, honestly, had never heard of until I started my research. Each story accounts the role that their spiritual beliefs/practices have helped them in their journey of recovery.
In the end I can only tell my own story. Have you ever heard the saying about having “one’s cross to bear” that many people recite from time to time? Well, my mental health diagnoses are mine. For so long I couldn’t figure out why God would allow me to go through the trauma of a mental illness. Either I didn’t want to hear the answer or, in His perfect timing, He was waiting until it was time to give it to me. I can’t wait to get to NAMI to get the faith/spiritual outreach materials worked on. Presenting “Bridges of Hope” this past Friday felt… It’s what I need to be doing. Last Sunday’s service was about being an example, using your experiences, and not forgetting the gifts God has given you. While I by no means consider mental illness a gift, it is my experience. I love everything I have the privilege of doing for NAMI, but the faith/spiritual outreach has taken a special place in my heart and eyes.
I will end this post with these two verses:
Hebrews 11:1- Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Jeremiah 29:11- “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”