Friday, February 10, 2012

Radical Honesty about Mental Health

Happy Mental Health Awareness Week!

I was having a conversation on facebook and one of my friends mentioned that she wished that my comments related to being radically open about my experiences as someone who has a mental health disability were a blog post so she could bookmark it. I found this very flattering and it got me thinking. At first I figured that the disability topic wasn't well suited for this blog, as this is a place for discussions about my religious and spiritual journey here at PSR. But as I thought about it I realized that this is exactly where this conversation belongs.

I'm taking a class on Gender, Sexuality, and the Bible and we are talking about the historic Jewish conceptualization of the body.  Much of the bible talks about whole vs. non-whole bodies, and how people whose bodies aren't whole (missing a limb, lame, deaf, blind, diseased, etc) were seen as unclean. There are discussions about the healing of these people and the generosity that should be shown to them, but even the kindest discussions reinforce the stigmatization.

Which brought me to my own thoughts about spirituality and disabilities. I think there will be a lot more to say about this in the future, as my work here develops. But for now let's just say that understanding ourselves as whole and complete people, especially when we are disabled people, is an essential part of experiencing healthy spirituality. I often talk about feeling like I live in a broken body. But at no point do I ever feel that somehow this is not a whole body or not the body I am meant to be living in. My diseases and challenges have had such a huge role in shaping not only what I can do in the world but how I can empathize and engage others about their broken places.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that a grief shared is a grief lessened.  I say that any challenge or struggle shared is lessened by the sharing.  When we talk about being broken, we become broken together, and through these discussions and friendships, we lift each other up.  This is why I think it is so vital that we disabled people create community so that we can share these struggles and feel normal in our brokenness and differentness.

My disabilities have given me many opportunities to support, counsel, and heal others.  This work has always felt like it was part of the promises I made many years ago to the Goddess about being her hands on earth.  I serve her divine will and I always have, whether I talk a lot about it or not.  Even when the discussion have nothing to do with religion, providing solace, comfort, and hope has always felts like part of my life's divine work.  So in that light, I share with you my discussion about living radically open and without shame regarding my own struggles with depression and anxiety as an example of my ministry:

After posting this picture, a friend shared that she has lived with anxiety most of her life and wanted to know what tools I use to cope with mine. Here is my answer:

Well, at it's root, I find that my anxiety (like the depression and my spinal disease) are manifestations of internal dis-ease that I'm not conscious of. So when I get really anxious, as I did at the beginning of this week, I just slow everything down and try to figure out what is really triggering me. This week (the second week of classes here at seminary) I found myself having trouble getting out the door and feeling a lot of dread around going to campus. Eventually I realized that I was having reactions to some old issues around Christianity and that my attending chapel was a lot harder on me than I realized. So I made a promise to myself to go slower and be way more mindful before going back to chapel and I sealed that commitment by openly sharing my discomfort and need for patience with the people around me. Now that I have told others that I am going slow, I feel more inclined to actually follow through. lol.

I find that when I am responsive to my body and emotions, things calm down. Ignoring my needs is what gets me into the anxiety or depression place in the first place, so my preventative work involves being very mindful of my feelings and honoring my instincts, even when I don't understand them. I've been living fully with respect to my gut reactions now for many years (though I continue to get better at it) and it has had a VAST improvement on my quality of life and the management of my mental health issues.

Early on, I was forcing myself to deal with things I knew were bad for me - jobs that were too stressful and not healthy, relationships that were abusive and damaging. Even small things were hard. I would have anxiety attacks trying to get out the door to go to some social event I had agreed to, even though I didn't really want to go. I had friends who I didn't really like spending time with. Eventually, I just started saying no in the first place, and viola! no more anxiety. As I became more committed to myself, I worked my way out of those jobs, schools, and relationship situations that weren't good for me. I am a much happier and healthier person for it. It's a long road, but in my opinion, it's the only thing that works.

So I guess the real question is, what is making you anxious? What is your mind/body trying to tell you that you just aren't hearing? That's my approach.

Also, I'd like to say that despite the cultural understanding of depression and anxiety, I believe that these are normal, natural, and healthy responses to the toxic culture we live in. Those of us who are a little more sensitive are going to experience psychological reactions to living in the modern world. American ideas about work, our denial of death and grief, the ever-shrinking range of what is considered "normal", the over medication of our population, oppressive body images, the pollution of our food and water, continued world-wide genocides, hungry people in the streets... the list just keeps going. The weight of these pressures and world issues are tremendous. Many of us just shut our eyes and hope we can keep our heads down long enough to get through the day.

The classic bumper sticker says, "If you aren't angry, you're not paying attention." I think my version would say (far less eloquently), "If you are paying attention, you are probably depressed or anxious sometimes."

And my other solution to this is to get involved in something. Nothing eases that sense of helplessness like actually doing something to create good in the world. Just pick something, anything, and work to make things better.