Weary and Burdened: Mental Illness and the Church

Stained glass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC
Jesus as depicted in stained glass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC. My Jesus loves everyone. Everyone is precious in his sight.

Meet Joe.

Joe is a Christian who struggles to keep his blood pressure under control. Following his doctor’s advice and having the support of his family, he manages to healthy. He keeps encouraged by those who love him, and that makes all the difference.

Meet Sarah.

Also a Christian, she is a survivor of breast cancer. She has suffered through a double mastectomy and many chemo treatments, and is currently in remission. She surrounds herself with people who love her to stay in a positive mindset, and has the admiration of the community for the brave fight she has waged.

And Sam.

Sam’s  diabetes demands constant care. The dietary and medical choices he makes impact his life every day. Sam is very open with others about his condition, as he depends on their support and his own healthy choices to keep him going.

Joe, and Sarah, and Sam. They each battle a disease. Each need a place to rest, as rest is essential to wellness.

In this life, we will have trouble. If God’s own son was not spared suffering, we will surely not be either. Health challenges are simply a part of life.

Now meet Amy.

Amy is a follower of Jesus Christ who suffers from mental illness. Perhaps you know Amy – or someone like her. We all do.

Maybe she cuts herself. She might even have visual and auditory hallucinations.

Perhaps depression weighs her down, making even the most mundane survival tasks difficult.

She could have anxiety, the dreaded foot race between her worrisome thoughts and the beats of her heart.

She may have crippling compulsive behaviors, making her a social outcast.

Her moods may soar to the top of the stratosphere – beyond logical control – and then crash and splinter in too many pieces for her to put back together.

Her emotions may be too wild for her will to handle.

She might rage or isolate, with the same outcome: shame.

Amy is just as sick – but no sicker – than others with chronic diseases to be managed, but that makes some people feel uncomfortable. So she hides, even from her own church. She knows there are others who struggle with issues like hers, but she is wary to share her story with them.

She depends on Christ to help her through each day, but desperately needs other Christ followers to walk with her.

Christians struggle with mental illness, too.

A brain that does not regulate serotonin levels is – spiritually speaking – no different from a pancreas that does not regulate insulin. The biological propensity toward addiction and alcoholism should carry no more stigma than having genes that could carry cancer.

High blood pressure can be managed and so can mental health. And having a mental illness has nothing to do with having a relationship with Christ because that relationship is simply, not “all in one’s head.”  It is all in one’s heart.

The church is the first place that the mentally ill should seek to stay encouraged, become surrounded with love, and depend on the support of one another.

To bear our own crosses while we help others keep from collapsing under the weight of their own.

To manage the pain of life and all the challenges it doles out.

To combat the stigma of mental illness, and nurture the brave ones coping with it every day.

To stay encouraged by those who love us, which makes all the difference. To have a safe place to find rest.

Joe, and Sarah, and Sam. They each battle a disease. And so does Amy.

It takes a village to build one another up, yes – but it also takes a church.

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus. (Matthew 11:28, NIV)

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – Jesus. (John 16:33, NIV)

 

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Friendship – Sisters by Design

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” – C. S. Lewis

By: Jana Greene

This letter is a gift to someone who is a gift to my life.  I asked her permission to publish it, to which she responded:

“You have full permission to publish it if you want—I hope it inspires others to have real friendships like ours!”

Amen, Sister-Girlfriend. The world would be a much better place.

My sweet Melissa,

Do you remember the first Christmas that we became friends? Our daughters – now freshmen in college – were fourth-graders who had just declared themselves Best Friends Forever. I was a struggling, single mom, just having divorced my children’s father after fourteen years of marriage. My little girl was having a terrible time.  I got her a good therapist, and tried to calm her fears of loss, which were pretty well-founded.

What she really needed was a very good friend. Your daughter was that very good friend to her.

It was a horrible, awful  time in my life. I was working four jobs to feed my girls after being a stay-at-home mom all of their lives. They became latch-key kids. I became a hot mess from the guilt.

When we first met, I was holding on to my four-year-old sobriety by a single thread, it seemed, and living on high anxiety. You invited me over anyway when the girls were having a play-date, serving coffee (and, I’m certain)  sweets.  You asked questions that nobody else had bothered to ask, and didn’t judge me when I answered honestly.

Sometimes when you stop trying so hard, God makes mystical things happen. Like our friendship.

At the time, you were wary of organized religion, and I was wary of everything. But in your guest bathroom, you had a display of decorative crosses. Every time I went to the loo at your house, I thanked God for you and your kindness. I prayed that you would trust Him again, even as I struggled to trust Him myself. Yes, on the loo!  I can tell you that now, all these years later.

That Christmas, I sat with all of our girls while you went on a date with your hubby. Before you departed for the evening, you gave me a pretty little wrapped gift box, and instructed me to open it when you left.  I did, and it was a lovely new wallet.

When you came back home, I thanked you, and you said that I should make sure to look inside of it. Folded in the zipped compartment was a hundred-dollar bill.

“Get your girls a little something for Christmas,” you said, like it was not a big deal.

It was SUCH a big deal, Melissa, to fill the girls’ stockings that year. Such a big deal.

Little did I know that praying for you on the loo would be the least of what we would come to discuss as our friendship deepened!  No subject was off-limits, no pretending to be who we were not. No pretense, all acceptance – what a wonderful foundation for a friendship.

I have to tell you, my friend, throughout the storms, you were my safe place. And always – even if there were tears –  laughter was ultimately the order of the day.

We are pretty cool that way.

Over the years, we have really been through it together, have we not?  With six daughters between us, holy cow – have we ever!

Teenagers and all the stupid stuff they do. Teenagers and all the awesome stuff they do.

Through a divorce and a new marriage (both mine) you were such a support. Through your steady marriage, you taught me so much.

When our husbands drive us bonkers, we have a kvetch session, and are a-okay again.

When our kids drive us bonkers, well … together, we find the strength to soldier on.

We’ve done the Mom Circuit, and weathered the “Mom, leave me alone!” syndrome.

Between us, we’ve done new careers, and unemployment.

We’ve drowned our sorrows in Queso dip at every Mexican food restaurant in town. (Cheese plays a major role in our relationship, as well it should!)

We’ve had pajama parties, and felt the betrayal of gravity (especially me….you look MAHVELOUS!) and – as we schlepped into our forties – the reward of chasing dreams and catching them, on occasion. (Or should I say, we sashay gracefully into our forties – and beyond.)

We’ve struggled with the discovery of what is out of our control (everything, essentially) and celebrated what we which we can control (keeping the faith.)

We’ve threatened to write a book togetherwhich, incidentally is still TOTALLY happening!

Most meaningfully, when my own family members high-tailed it out of my life, you ran towards me.

You and I …. we’ve  had spiritual crisises and awakenings, stumblings and triumphs. And shared with honesty every experience.

We discovered together that we are NOT orphans after all, but beloved daughters of the Most High King….princesses, really!

And that makes us sisters. Family.

Even our husbands became MFFs (Man Friends Forever…please don’t tell them I said that,) and our daughters as close as any siblings.

Family, like I said.

Your love, prayers and steadfastness have helped keep me sober. Honestly, I doubt I would have maintained it without your support.

That love….those prayers and acceptance – they have kept me from running away from home on numerous occasions (“This parenting teens thing? I QUIT!”)

In the midst of building this friendship, you had a revolution in your spirit.  When God lit a fire under you, he used spiritual kerosene!

Girl, you were on FIRE, and you are still on fire!  It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever been witness to.

A spark from the heart of Jesus himself caught the hem of your garment, and you just had to serve Him. You served Him by helping other women, like you helped me. By genuinely loving them – fiercely. From it came additions to the sisterhood – the WAYwards – and lots of tears and laughter.

And laughter came in handy during the difficult times.

Several years ago, when I got sick, I stayed sick for nearly three years. It was another awful, dark time in my life.  Chronically fatigued. Endlessly in pain. And with no answers in sight, living on high anxiety once again.

For three solid years, I fought numbness, pain, fatigue….every single day, and bitched about it plenty. My complaining and frustration had to have tested your dedication! But you listened every time, and never gave up.

You prayed for my health fervently. Sometimes, when I was in the middle of exhaustion and complaint, you would just extend your right hand toward me and pray so hard that we would both cry – even when I was right in the middle of a bitching session!

It’s hard to be hopeless when someone is that dedicated to asking God to help you.

But sometimes – when you stop trying so hard – God makes mystical things happen.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I remember telling you. And I meant it. “I can’t!”

“God can,” you said, with no judgement. More listening, more praying, more encouraging. You listened. Like a true friend, you loved fiercely, calming my fears of loss, which were pretty well-founded. “Father,” you prayed. “Please heal my friend. But even if she doesn’t get better, we praise you. We LOVE you!”

Because you see, what I really needed was a very good friend. You were – and are – that very good friend to me.

All these many years later, how many cycles have we gone through !– Distrusting organized religion, and calling on God. Trusting God, and being there for each other.

I’m so grateful for you.

Thank you for being so steady a prayer-warrior. Thank you for never, ever saying, “This friendship thing? I QUIT!”

Thank you for all the times you still give me encouragement (and chocolate) and for being my “nothing is off limits” sister.

When I think about who you are and who you’ve become, and all God has in store for you, it brings me to my knees.

When I pray for you, I ask God to take that beautiful, bright, effervescent and glorious spirit of yours and just unleash it on the world in a way that brings him glory. I pray that the same joy your spirit brings me gets unfurled on the world, and comes back on you like a tidal wave.

I never forgot the Christmas that you folded a Benjamin in the gift of a new wallet  … so that I could give my daughters a Christmas. But more importantly, I never forgot that you reached out to this hot mess girl, that you went out of your way to be kind.

I never forgot that you treated my frightened, maddeningly insecure and hurting fourth-grade daughter like your own. Now a confident – gregarious, even!- young woman, she never forgot your love, either.

I love that you never stopped praying for my healing. I love your heart, that it breaks for hurting people.

I love that the most important prayer I ever learned to pray, I learned from you – “I trust you, God. I may not understand a single thing you are doing, but I trust you.”

It was a  beautiful thing to do for an old friend, to teach me that prayer.

I love you with all my heart. Thank you for being a friend. Thank you for being family.

And Merry Christmas, BFF.