Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mental Illness As a Character Defect

With Robin William's recent suicide, there has been a bit of a conversation about mental illness.  A popular Christian blogger (who I will not link here, and thus give more pageviews) wrote an incredibly judgmental post that several people in my feed shared on Facebook, and I want to comment more about that here.  (If you are one of those people, I am sorry to mention it.  I am not picking on you, by any means.  But will you read here with an open mind?)

I have a lot to say on this, friends, because it is an intimate part of my life.  This isn't something I've written about much, because it's not my story to share.  But in so many ways, it is a part of my story too.  One of my sisters has struggled with severe mental illness since she was a child, and she continues to do so.  Our stories are so entwined for the first twenty years of my life that you cannot pick the threads of mine up without seeing hers as well.  This post is solely about my experience.  But it's not about me.  At all.  Those are just the parts that I can tell here.

Here is what I know:

I know that mental illness can take a middle-class, master's degree educated woman with a loving family, and make her homeless.  I know that making the decision to allow a daughter or sister to be homeless, and not allow her to simply stay with you indefinitely, can and will destroy a family.  I know that virtually every decision relating to a mental illness has the power to destroy us.  I know that it will ultimately always come down to a choice of which family members need and deserve protection more.

I know that mental illness has been a part of every Christmas, every birthday, every regular day of my life for as long as I can remember.   I know that there have been long stretches where I have spent several hours a day, everyday, in some way trying to help, or mitigate, or deal with the problems and effects of this illness in my sister's life.  And it's not even me that is suffering.  I know that someone who did not have any of those advantages, or love, or family that my sister has to begin with will hit ground zero even faster.  (And not that illusive "bottom" people are always talking about either.  Many mental illnesses have no bottom).

I know that treatment does not cure mental illness, often.  I know that someone can spend fifteen years in various hospitals and leave no better.  I know that trying harder is not the answer here.  I know that even with insurance, inpatient mental health care costs many, many thousands of dollars, every single time.  I know that most mentally ill people have declared bankruptcy.  And sometimes their families have too.  I know that when a mentally ill person loses health insurance, they lose access to any kind of continuous care.  I know that a mentally ill person will lose their job, over and over and over, when their illness becomes evident.  I know that person will lose friends who she adores, and sometimes even family.  I know they are often driven to things and places that they will never be able to talk about.

I know that magic pills are not magic for everyone.  And neither is going to church, or the Bible, or prayer.  I know that a whole lot of people can be praying the same prayer without noticeable effect in this lifetime.  Which is not to say that prayer doesn't work.

I know I am scared every time the phone rings.  I know the exact sound of my parents' voices when something bad has happened (again).  I know that I fear for the future of my children.  I know that mental illness runs in families.

I know you can learn to tolerate a lot of fear and messiness, if there are huge amounts of love there too.  And there are.

I know that God allows children to get cancer, and that he takes the lives of infants that are precious to their mothers, and that he allows some people to suffer from mental illnesses.  And I don't know why.  I have no clue, and I promise that is something that I have many questions on.  But I do know that all those things are exactly the same.  EXACTLY the same.  In the same way that only the worst person would blame a little girl for having cancer, and suggest that if she just worked harder, it would disappear, only the worst people should say that to someone struggling with mental illness.  Let me be clear on this.  Does that mean I approve of killing yourself?  Absolutely flipping not.  Does that mean I approve of all the actions of mentally ill person that come with illness and addiction?  NO.  Trust me, I am angry at those things too.  I have been furious, for years at a time.  (Being angry is ineffective too).

But guess what?  Love, real love, (you know, like the kind described in the Bible), does not leave the wounded and suffering alone to die.  Real love does not blame them for their suffering.  Real love does not call a disease a character defect.  Love says "I hate this disease and I don't approve of those choices, and there are days when I don't recognize you anymore.  But I remember everyday who you really are. I will not allow you to harm others,  but I WILL stand here with you, forever.  I will not abandon you and then blame you.  I will love you, in the best and most humanly-flawed way I can.  Period."

I know that this is not easy.  I know that this is hardest thing I have ever walked through with someone, ever.  I know that I am scarred and haunted by some of things we have been through and choices we have had to make.  I know that I want to give up sometimes.  I know that I want to blame.  I know that I want to scream try harder, do better, stop hurting yourself.  I know that I am making mistake after mistake.  I know that I say wrong things and misunderstand and wallow in ignorance myself.  I know that she might tell this story very differently than I do.

But I also know DAMN WELL that this isn't a choice.  NO ONE would chose this.  No one.  And to suggest that it is a choice is just so profoundly and astonishingly ridiculous that I cannot even fathom how anyone could think so.  Anyone watching this would know better.

And I know I am proud. I am SO proud of my sister.  And I love her.  And I never, ever want to do without her.  Ever.  There is so much love and laughter here too (especially humor of the dark variety).

I know that people with mental illnesses are judged and stigmatized, even at church.  Maybe especially at church.  And I see them facing life with courage and hope.  And I see them not giving up.  I see them starting again, over and over.

I know there is hope here.  There is HOPE here.

I know that people who have no clue what this is like should not be writing blog posts.  And I know that we need to be very, very careful what links we share on our Facebook pages.  And I know that as Christians, we are called to do better than this judgement of one another.

If you are looking, here is a much more compassionate and real blog post by Ann Voskamp on Christians and mental illness.  (Be warned, she has music on her page).

If you must make a choice, and you don't know that answer, choose kindness.

We are all just walking each other home. (Ram Dass).


  1. This is so beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your heart!

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