Last summer, when Robin Williams perished from suicide, more people began to come forth about their mental health struggles. Many believed that if we spoke on the issue of mental health, others would feel like they could share their stories or find help.
My friend Kevin Necessary wrote his story for WCPO. Another friend, the Rev. Sarah Lund, recently wrote the book “Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church.” She shared her family’s struggles with mental health issues. As others placed themselves in vulnerable spaces telling their stories, I began to feel the call to tell my story as well. That’s when I realized I had to talk about my experiences.
In the summer of 1979, we were on our way from the St. Louis area to southern California to visit my aunt, uncle and cousin, and Disneyland too. Somewhere in the state of Arizona or New Mexico, we stopped for dinner. I was already a pretty anxious kid – not a fan of escalators, steps, slides and a host of other things. But that evening, as a six year old, the least unusual thing happened: I discovered the first loose tooth in my mouth.
At that moment, I began to have my first panic attack. Over a loose tooth. But as experience has proven: you never know what will set off a panic attack.
Being that it was over 35 years ago, I can’t remember exactly how that first attack felt. From what I can recall, I felt out of control and waves of nausea. I couldn’t eat anything else that night. Beginning that evening, my eating habits drastically changed. I consumed very little each day due to the nauseating anxiety in my system. I lost weight, and my mom did everything she could to help me find ways to eat. My parents were beyond worried about me, but during eras when people never spoke of certain issues, I would imagine that it would be difficult to find your children the help they need.
Of course, this was in the late 1970’s. People weren’t talking about childhood anxiety or mental health issues, and even speaking of one’s mental health illness was taboo. Personally, I thought there was something wrong with my stomach. I couldn’t put into words what I was going through.
As time went on, I sought help in trying to be find wellness in my soul, heart and mind, and this meant counseling sessions. At the age of 16, as I headed into the office, I scoped the parking lot for any signs of people I knew. I refused to let anyone know what I was going through. I couldn’t let anyone know how flawed I was. I would have been horrified if anyone knew I was in counseling. Even my closest friends in high school never knew until years later. Finally in college, I began to speak with friends about my anxiety, and over the years have been more and more open about this challenge in my life. My sixteen year old self would never have imagined that I would ever speak or write publicly about this struggle.
I’d like to say that I’ve had my last one, but I know that’s not the case. I’m on a life-long journey with anxiety and panic disorder. It isn’t fully gone. But I’ve learned how to live with it and take baby steps so that it doesn’t fully define who I am. I realize now that I probably have a chemical or biological predisposition to anxiety or panic. It’s not something I brought about on my own – six year olds typically don’t bring these things on themselves. Even forty-somethings or sixty-somethings will have panic attacks happen without any real cause.
Sometimes, it’s been hard to see God in the midst of my anxiety. I’m sure others find it hard to see God in the midst of their mental health issue – no matter the issue. But during the other times, God is all I know and what I can see in the chaos.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, “ ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Today, to use the phraseology of Paul, I boast of this weakness of mine. I boast not from pride, but because I feel free and light in being able to tell my story. I boast because I see the presence of God in my weakness, and my relationships with God and others have grown closer in this vulnerable state. And that means, like Paul, seeking contentment in this very vulnerable moment and becoming transparent will hopefully bring strength to the entire body of Christ.
Jesus called the most vulnerable to do his work. Mary Magdalene found relief from her seven demons – which could have included many mental health issues. And Jesus called her to be the first person to share the good news after the resurrection. Paul didn’t exactly have the best track record with life as he persecuted others. And yet God still called him. God called Jacob after he deceived his brother, Abraham after dismissing Hagar and Ishmael, David after his indiscretions, and Levi even though his career brought pain to others.
With God, there is grace and there is a future in our weaknesses and vulnerability. There are second chances to be had and given.
Like dust, like ashes, and even like the powdery snow outside, we are vulnerable. We are blown by the wind because of the frailty of our human condition. But in that vulnerability, in that powdery, dusty mess that we humans are, we find our strength. We find out where God is because sometimes, all we have is God. And then we start to find each other as we all share our struggles. To believe that any of us don’t struggle with something is a fallacy. It’s unrealistic to believe such things.
Our next step in the process is finding the strength to be transparent about some of these struggles – especially once we’ve found some healing and can testify to God’s presence in our healing.
When I tell my story, I feel like this is the most vulnerable place I’ve been. Like I said – I never realized that 25 years ago or even a year ago I would feel the call to stand up and speak my truth. But this story needs to be told because maybe a parent out there will recognize that their child has anxiety and panic disorder and will find help for their child. Maybe one of you will realize that there is no shame in receiving help – whether that help is counseling or medication, whether it’s for anxiety, depression, bipolar or a number of other mental-health related issues. We may feel that it’s necessary to keep being strong, but actually, we will be healthier if we just admit that we are weak and get the help we need.
And that is why we take this time during Lent to raise all of the voices who break the silence on stigmatic issues. I stand with all of my sisters and brothers who have the courage to live in the boldness of their frailty. When we are able to say, “I’m as strong as ashes, and I’m mortal and messy,” then we can move into new ways of relating to God and one another.
Ash Wednesday is the day where we remember that we are mortal, not perfect, vulnerable, and limited. And we rejoice in our weaknesses. We thank God that we can come together as limited humans, in our brokenness and dustiness to celebrate the strength in our weakness and transparency.