My Red Letter Words

Stigma |stig•manoun :a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something; a mark of shame or discredit; (archaic: a scar left by a hot iron: a brand.)

Invalidation. | in•val•i•da•ion | noun :to discredit; emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged; it disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance.

Alienation. | ālyəˈnāSH(ə)n noun :the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong, desires to belong or in which one should be involved.

Misunderstanding. |mis•un•der•stand•ing| noun :a failure to understand something correctly

sad1I’m writing today from my bed.

I’m writing this post for myself but I’m publishing it for those who find themselves in a similar place.

We don’t have the flu.

We haven’t broken a leg.

And we’re not recovering from surgery or a chemo treatment.

 None the less, we are in legitimate pain. And we suffer.

We have varying degrees of mental illness. 

We’re not crazies, psychos, nut jobs, whackos, Looney Tunes or straight jacket models.

We are more than the slang that labels us. Much more. 

We’re not pretending, manipulating or lying. We’re suffering.

It has been almost three weeks since I have been able to leave my house. I’ve cycled through all my pajamas and visited the shower less than I’m willing to admit.

To be clear, I don’t choose this and neither does anyone else whose lives are abducted by imbalance brain chemistry. We have no more control over our illness than a cancer patient has over theirs.

sad2

Like other sufferers, sometimes I hide. Other times I just need to shout from the hole:

I’m really, really scared. I feel desperately alone in here and I’m in excruciating pain and I wish that it mattered to those who are afraid of me, who keep me at arms length–who don’t understand.

Most of the time I can rise to the occasion and do regular life–enjoy it even. I smile, entertain, and care. Sometimes it’s a mask. The price of pretending is less costly than the price of alienation or abandonment, judgment or rejection. But other times it is genuine–hopefully nobody knows the difference. 

People with illnesses like bipolar, major  depression, complex post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder are said to have invisible disabilities. They often feel and experience emotions much more intensely than neurotypical people. We also experience tremendous social stigma and too often our disabilities shadow our beautiful abilities.

sad5

Tears, Talking & Time

It turns out that one of the things that most helps people dealing with mental illness is to be invited to talk and be given the gift of attentive listening and empathy.

On the other hand, the most emotionally dystregulating and hurtful experiences for us is when our vulnerability is met with dismissal, invalidation or criticism. Being misunderstood magnifies the battle.

My husband is amazingly supportive; he’s taken the initiative to learn, given time to listen and exercised loving patience. He’s virtually my only support. I tell him regularly that he is God with skin on but I worry my illness will wear him out–that his love for me will slip into resentment and detachment.

Today is his birthday  but I’m unable to throw the family party I had planned. Someone else is doing my gift shopping. I hope to shower, fix my hair and put on makeup before he gets home from work–after he stops at the pharmacy, the grocery store and picks up take out. You have no idea how strong my feelings of shame and self-loathing actually are.

My doctor added another medication and I can barely keep my eyes open. The side effects will pass, he says. 

This week my husband and I have spent our evenings researching, reading, crying, praying–and holding each other.

Research statistics reveal 26.2% of Americans 18 and older suffer from some form of diagnosable mental illness. That’s a staggering 57.7 million (based on the 2004 census–how much higher it is now), which means 1 out of every 4 people you know could have mental illness. 

……. 1 out of 4 …….

The following letter echoes some general sentiments of those suffering with mental illness.

Dear Family Member, Friend or Church Leader,

When our invisible disability takes us out of commission or away from our commitments, please don’t assume we’re undependable–our illness is unpredictable

When depression sucks joy from our lives, please don’t refer to us as Debby Downer or Bob Bummer. Please don’t tell me to put on a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness or that I’m just under spiritual attack.

When anxiety cripples us and it is all we can do to keep our breathing regulated, it doesn’t help when you tell us to chill out or quote the Psalms.

It isn’t helpful when you tell us to just think positively. Contrary to popular belief, for us happiness is NOT a choice.

We know you sincerely mean well. You may believe we actually have a choice in whether or not to experience our illness. What you may not understand is that to us this feels like judgment, coercion and invalidation. It pours salt in our wounds.

It hurts when those with visible illnesses are offered meals while those with mental disorders are offered avoidance–when we are accused of manipulation, self-pity or attention-seeking. 

We with mental illness diagnoses are real people with valid struggles-we need your patience, understanding, kindness and love.

We feel guilty for the burden our illness places upon those we love. We don’t want to need your support. 

We are more than our illness. And when we forget that we are also bright, caring, collaborative, generous, sensitive, creative, and insightful people, we need you to remind us!

Even when it looks like we aren’t trying, we need you to believe we are doing the best we can. 

Thank you for trying to understand. We’re not looking to you for a solution–we just need your kindness and validation. 


Friends, it was not an easy decision to post this. The ramifications could be brutal but as I have said from the onset of this blog, I write with honest vulnerability and transparency–not for self-focus but for the impact on those who tell me how much  my words resonate with them.

My hope is that if you suffer from mental illness, you will gain more courage to come out of hiding. If you know someone who is afflicted that you would have more understanding.

If you have a  family member who suffers, consider taking the time to offer the gift of inquiry and attentive listening.

12 thoughts on “My Red Letter Words

  1. Dear Sherrie, Your words bring enlightenment and hopefully some progress towards understanding. I remember once when I responded to a question in our ladies bible study that said, “What do you want to be in 5 years that you are not right now?” I responded at the time, “Happy.” I was dealing with a reoccurring clinical depression in those years and I thought that my spiritual community would be a safe place to admit it. It wasn’t. The perfectly put together lady next to me looked at me with astonishment and said, “What? What do you mean you’re not happy? Christians are supposed to have the joy of the Lord? That doesn’t make sense!” I was also a musician at the church at the time and my public persona was of an upbeat, encouraging worship leader. Well, with that response I shut my mouth up. Didn’t say anything more to anyone and continue to be private about my sufferings. Eventually my inability to handle the reoccurring depression found me crashing in an “I give up.” I’m thankful for progress and healing, but I never forgot that moment in that circle of ladies. It matters how we respond to those suffering with mental illness. Especially as a community of faith. Compassion, reflected in discerning words of comfort and then actions of mercy make a difference. I am thankful for several women who understood and my husband who made a huge difference and helped me persevere. Sherrie, I am sad for your sufferings. And I’m thankful to read that you have a husband whose character and love for you keeps him in an enduring alliance with you. Thank you for not giving up your poignant blogging and for being truthful with all of us in your journey as a beloved daughter of God. Sincerely, Shari

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shari, thank you for your compassionate response. I’m sorry you know by experience what I’m writing about. I loved your words, “Compassion, reflected in discerning words of comfort and then actions of mercy make a difference.” I remember when I was a young pastor’s wife an older woman said, “Sherrie, people fear what they do not understand.” So I’ve tried to have grace for that. I sad to say, most of my deepest wounds have come from Christians. Thank you, Shari, for this loving comment…I was really nervous to publish it. Grace and peace, Sherrie

      Like

  2. Thank you, Sherrie! This is so vulnerable and so helpful for those of us who have been (or are currently) there. I too feel like Marcus is often God with skin on to me and it’s such an incredible blessing. However, when he is holding me when I’m sobbing in bed several nights in a row, I worry that I’m “too much” and if his patience will ever run out. It is encouraging to know that you and others deal with similar things…it makes me feel as though I’m not alone!

    I’m so thankful that God has given you the grace to write through all of this! Truly, this is a HUGE blessing! I’ve had the “can’t get out of the house times” many times, but they pretty much always accompanied by “I have absolutely no will/desire/skill to write!” I haven’t blogged (personally) in years and it’s been a tremendous struggle to feel like I’ve been stuck in writer’s block along with depression/anxiety. Your ability to write in the midst of your struggles truly is an enormous blessing…of God to you, and of you to your sisters in Christ!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh Jen, I hand no idea you have experienced depression and anxiety. Thank you for commenting and adding your voice to this message. It encourages me and reinforces my desire to continue to touch on it. We have hope…this life, as Paul says, is a momentary and light affliction compared to the glory that awaits us. I have grown in my trust of God’s love through the years of my progressive healing. I can now rest in Him and know that He is not mad at me when I am ill. He constantly reassures me that I am His. I am praying for you, my sweet sister. Grace and peace, Sherrie

    Like

  4. What courage- I don’t know the exact definition of transparent but usually you can see through something that is. Thank you for letting us see through and actually see more of whose you are- and how you are allowing your journey to inspire and awaken others. I am constantly amazed by you-

    Like

  5. My dear, precious friend. I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of you for having the courage and boldness to share this. I wish that everyone with friends or family suffering from mental illness could hear your words and begin to understand what it’s like for their loved ones. There is so much information out there if people would just take the time to watch a YouTube video or read an article about mental illness. It’s an eye-opening experience to listen to others describe the same suffering your loved one is going through. It’s like the reality of their pain hits you upside the head and you finally get it. Your words have the same effect. Please keep writing. Maybe one of these days, people will finally get it and learn how to help, not hurt, people who are suffering from the effects of mental illness.

    Kathy

    Sent from my tablet

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s