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.

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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.

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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.

Despair grows in the darkness of half-truth and silence

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“From the depths of despair, O LORD, I call for your help.”  Psalm 130:1

These heartfelt words of David are voiced with unedited emotional honesty. I think David’s unfiltered expression of soul is one of the things that makes him a man after God’s own heart.

The depths of despair?

We all experience them.

I recently gathered with thirty-some women at a cozy mountain retreat to participate in a conversation about hope: Hope as an Anchor for the Soul. Some of the stories I heard were deeply painful and seemingly hopeless— hard journeys visibly etched on sad faces.  Other women were on the rejoicing side of a long and soul-rendering season of suffering, their faith in God, thankfully, renewed, strengthened and contagious.

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One woman quoted a line from Anne of Green Gables, “To despair is to turn your back on God.”

I would add:

Despair comes from believing God has turned His back on you.

Many times I have found myself crumpled on the shores of despair. I’ve been so distraught and overcome that enduring one more day seemed impossible.

I am tempted to throw up my hands and quit when I’ve concluded my situation is hopeless–when relief is not even a spot on the horizon.

Despair knocks on the door when my incurable diagnosis seems to have disqualified me from my purpose or leaves me less than who I was meant to be, no matter my effort.

When my mind darts around and I can’t focus or remember what’s truer than my swirling emotions; when imbalanced brain chemistry hijacks my personality and pelts me with lies; when I’m confused about who I am and where I belong–despair sneaks in.

But despair moves in when successive storms leave me bone weary and void of any hope for relief. When I’m daily faced with the collateral damage of childhood traumas and the resulting grief suffocates me. When life piles up, as life does, PTSD launches a synaptic wild-fire inside, robbing me of sleep and subjecting me to an adrenalized fight with myself. It squelches peace of mind along with the joyful ease of simply being myself.

Throughout my complex set of issues I feel unrelenting guilt for letting God and others down, for not being able to control it or, after all these years, failed to overcome it.

“From the depths of despair, O LORD, I call for your help.”

I have a deep reservoir of empathy for people in suffering and affliction. One thing I’ve learned in my blind journey through heartache is that it helps to tell your story. I think too many people feel invisible and insignificant, in part, because their stories aren’t heard.

If your story isn’t known, can you be known? Maybe if your story remains hidden you are hidden as well.

Could a portion of despair stem from not being seen or known or heard?

There is a woman in my town. I see her regularly sitting criss-cross-applesauce under a tree or on a random sidewalk. When she’s not sitting and staring from haze, she’s walking in a staggering jerky motion along Main Street.

She’s pretty, or used to be. Light blue eyes pop from the ruddy canvas of her weathered face—her hair is sun-streaked but matted and stringy.  I don’t know her story, though it’s not hard to imagine the trail that led her to where she is now.

To me she is a picture of a life void of hope.

Despair doesn’t generally spring from one isolated event—though for some it can. The complete loss or absence of hope usually comes from a years-long, life-consuming, hard-fought series of battles where loss piles upon loss and grief layers upon grief. It comes when defeats far outnumber victories and circumstances repeatedly cycle from bad to worse.

Remember Naomi? She lost her husband and then both sons–the equivalent of destitution for a woman in those days. When she returned to Bethlehem with Ruth she said to the welcomers,

“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

Despair is found when the promises God spoke to your soul feel like mocking empty memories of a time you dared to hope at all.

When was the last time you cried out to God with that voice of anguish trying to outpace despair? Psalm 130 continues:

Hear my cry, O Lord! Pay attention to my prayer.

Emotionally translated it sounds something like this: Aren’t you listening to me, Lord? Why don’t you answer me? It’s too much…Your hand has been too heavy upon me. I can’t go on. 

It’s a cry of anguish—an honest prayer that comes from the heart of one whose circumstances have wrung faith and hope right out of the heart.

David models the value in identifying our despair–calling it what it is. Nothing is gained in feigning otherwise. But identifying our hopelessness is only half the equation.

Despair grows in the darkness of half-truth and silence.

The apostle Paul reveals the hope side of our hardships:

We are experiencing trouble on every side, but we are not crushed; 

We are perplexed, but we are not driven to despair; 

We are persecuted, but we are not abandoned; 

We are knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  (2 Cor. 4:8-9)

Paul admits the trouble yet he caps the lesser truth with the greater one…the incorruptible truth of But God!

He continues.

“So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now: rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (2 Cor. 4:18)

Despair is like the water Peter dared to walk upon. When I look at my problems, I succumb to the depths of despair. When I willfully lift my eyes from the temporariness of this life and fix my gaze on the eternal glory I’ll share with Him, I am able to turn my back on despair.

“I am counting on the LORD,” David says; “Yes, I am counting on Him. I have put my hope in His word.” 

My emotions may be a rudder-less ship at times, I may succumb to the currents that drive me hard into the storms BUT GOD has kept His hand upon me. I could easily have become that woman I see around town.

No matter my thrashing, God’s love has been an anchor for my soul. His promise to care for me has been proven over and over and over again in my life. I call it to memory.

Today, I’m hunkered down. My bible and journal sit on my lap. I’m choosing to lift my eyes. I have determined to blindly, inexplicably fix my gaze above and place my hope in Him.

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Can I encourage you, my friend, to lift your eyes from all that beats upon your soul? For a moment, look instead upon the Christ of the cross? He knows your suffering and He’s purchased the price of your hope.

Would you consider going a step further and remind yourself of a time when God came through for you?

Will you let those words tumble past your gritted teeth? Will you speak it out loud and let your heart be reminded to hope?

Will you echo the Psalmist with me?

 “I am counting on the LORD, yes…I have put my hope in His Word.”

SPEAK IT OUT

SPEAK IT OUTWe sit propped on pillows in bed drinking our morning coffee. We grant ourselves the luxury of resting on the Sabbath and decide to skip church. He has injured his back and can’t move without feeling significant pain. I am fatigued by a week-long push through depression and I can’t speak without choking up.  My soul is exploding with a slew of thoughts that have no home. I need to articulate, to debrief, but I don’t want to indulge while he’s hurting.

“I think I need to clear my head–are you feeling up to it?” I test the waters. In past years I wouldn’t have recognized my need until it had reached the fevered pitch of angst. Urgency to find relief and a solution would have driven us both into fix-it mode. In the end we wouldn’t have solved anything and would likely have ended up misunderstanding each other—the whole laborious ordeal culminating in frustration and anger.  I no longer expect to find a solution and he doesn’t feel required to provide one. Like an infected boil, I’ve learned there’s great relief in just lancing through it and letting it drain. Giving words to my pent up emotions does that for me.

The opening line of my monologue reads like a comic strip: “I feel like Charlie Brown.” I peel the thoughts from my reluctant tongue and continue. “I keep trying and trying but I still feel like an unaccomplished outcast—like I will never complete the edits on my draft of a significant life.” My words sound self-pitying as they bounce around in my adult brain yet at the level of emotional honesty, they are on point. We had watched the Peanuts movie the previous day with our grandchildren. I couldn’t help identifying with Charlie Brown throughout the movie. “I feel like people just don’t get me, like I’ll never belong, like my contribution will always fall flat.” I wipe tears and blow my nose. “All I can see are my failed attempts caught in a tree, dangling like the kites Charlie never managed to fly?”

“Actually, I thought of you through the movie as well,” he says. “I thought about how hard you work to get through what you’re up against.” He goes on to tell me how he sees me as a good-hearted woman and that, like Charlie, my character is far better than my accomplishments. For the next thirty minutes I pour out the weeks’ encounters and the bottled-up feelings I had cloaked in BRAVERY and bravado. I tell him about all the areas I feel confused and directionless. I tell him how I just wish I knew where my lane was and could stay in it. I confess to him my fear of being an imposter—that while I’m pushing past my illness that I worry I’m fabricating a better self, feeding a performance. I talk about how inspired I get by what the confident women around me are pulling off—and how it also makes me feel inadequate. I blow my nose and wipe the smudges of mascara from my face. I tell him that I don’t know if I can manage both a significant impact in the world and have anything left to manage my own world.

“A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.” 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

He listens with kindness and I can tell that he’s not just enduring one more gripe session or self-pity monologue. He sees my genuine desire to get it right. I tell him about the things that overwhelm me, scare me and break my heart. I offer that I’m confused about medication and diagnosis and shrink at what my faith community thinks about me and my struggles—of how I get tired of trying to please and appease. I tell him that I know God loves me, that I don’t doubt His nearness. I tell him about my gratitude for His faithfulness that no matter how hard things become, there is always, always, always something to rejoice about. I admit that I need to close my ears to all the voices around me and simply stand silent before God and listen to what HE has to say.

I pause for a while and soon I feel peace beginning to take shape inside me. Nothing has changed except that I have been given the gift of a safe, non-judgmental friend to sort out my conflicting thoughts with. I haven’t answered any of the usual questions. I haven’t devised a new life strategy. I have, however, dislodged the words, errant or true, from my crowded soul and made room to receive the grace I so desperately need. God’s grace and the grace of those with skin on. When I have spent my words, I turn to God’s word—an assigned scripture–and I smile at what I read and I think I can see Him smiling too.

“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!

His faithful love endures forever. 

Has the LORD redeemed you? 

Then speak it out!”

Psalms 107:1-2

And so I speak it out!

Amid the things I do not understand, I understand this: God is good and He faithfully showers grace upon brokenness, imperfection, illness, failure and loss. Perhaps the calling of my life is simply to model trust in this God we cannot see. Maybe the way I follow Jesus will be the publishing house for my story. I may or may not speak from a platform or from the printed page, but my life can be, and is, a living epistle of God’s grace and redemption.

Whether or not I am ever healed, whether my life is ever notable or significant, I know that I am redeemed and God is faithful. And I’m speaking out!

THE HOLE

shame“Every time I see you, you’re always crawling out of some hole.”

Her words sucked the air out of me. While the ragged syllables settled on my heart, my mind raced to understand what would have prompted her to speak them.

It has been some time now but that sentence will still loop in my head. And when it does, I’m still  tempted to defend myself. I decided then, and I keep re-deciding that Jesus can do a better job of that so I just keep giving her words and my shame back to Him.

But if I did find an opportunity to speak to her, I might say something like this…

Dear Sister,

I’m not sure what prompted your words–those hard words that made me feel judged and disqualified; those words that nailed my feet to the ground. I’m sure you had no idea the indictment they would become. I’d like to believe that they weren’t intended for my harm–that you simply had a lapse of grace.

You see, I am here, in the walls of this church today lifting my heart to Jesus and extending my hands to serve. I keep showing up. I don my greeter tag, put on my best smile and offer Jesus’ love. I lift up my face and worship the God who redeems and I declare through tears, You are Lord and I will trust You!

You see, my friend, I have chronic depression and PTSD and a racing mind that demands a lot from my faith. And then there’s the cloak of shame I throw off every day of my life, the one left by my molesters and neglecters. But I keep showing up.

My sister, what you may not know is that this has been a year of grief for me. I’ve watched helplessly as my daughter’s marriage disintegrated. I anguish as I observe my grandchildren’s lives and hearts be uprooted. In the process I have lost a son and our entire family limps with the loss of him as well. I have been leveled by the grief of it. But I keep showing up.

If I seem, dear friend, to be crawling out of a hole it’s because on some days I am doing just that. It’s the choice I’m given every day: will I stay in the darkness or will I move out in blind faith, in the Truth that supersedes my feeling?

Each day I put on my unseen prosthetics and maneuver life as gracefully and grace-filled as I can. And yes, some days all I can do is reach my hand up through the hole and let Jesus take a firm hold. Every day I get the privilege of living this miracle life, this life Jesus touched by grace for His glory. And I keep showing up.

More than you will ever know, I want Jesus to shine brightly through the shadowed side of my life. I want my witness to say: There is Hope–He never leaves and He never forsakes.

Let me speak for those of us battling mental illness, those of us carrying broken hearts, those of us sifting through loss, or those of us picking up the pieces of our shattered dreams; on the days we don’t make it out of the hole, Jesus shows up.

In the furnaces, in the caves, in the lion’s dens, in the storms, in the deserts, in the besieged cities, and in the broken lives JESUS KEEPS SHOWING UP!

He speaks life-words, “My grace is sufficient for you…my power is made perfect in your weakness.”