One evening at Quaker Spring I invited Friends to join me for supper if they wanted to discuss mental illness, healing and the spiritual journey. I was nervous about offering the invitation; I caught myself thinking (repeatedly) "Probably there aren't many other people here who have mental health problems, and the ones who do probably don't want to sit and talk about it, and if there are some here who are in distress and do want to talk you don't have any brilliant way to help them, and if nobody comes and people see you sitting alone at dinner they'll think they have to come over and try to fix you when they really want to catch up with their old friends who are coping."
I still felt a need to offer a space for the discussion of mental illness and Spirit, partly because it's a struggle I have in my own life. We were talking about being broken open by God and called further into faithfulness. For me part of the breaking open has come through my struggles with obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors. We were talking about making Spirit-centered community more true and deep. For me part of the true-community thing is owning the parts of myself that shame me.
I also wanted to have that conversation because I live in a community where we often host and try to be present to people dealing with mental illness. I'm still learning to do that in a way that is centered and appropriate. I think that both Catholic Worker communities and Friends Meetings attract many people who don't quite fit into the wider culture, and that both open up a space in which people are fairly likely to speak openly about their wounds. I see these things as gifts and strengths, but they require us to have some idea of how to deal rightly with others' mental, emotional and spiritual struggles.
Plenty of Friends came for the dinner discussion, more than filling the small space I'd chosen. Many of us had mental illnesses; some of us were responsible for loved ones with such illnesses; some were therapists. We talked intensely until it was time for the evening plenary to begin. Some of us--and some who hadn't attended the first session--met again the next afternoon and talked until another group needed the space. I found the conversation challenging, healing and opening. My sense was that some other Friends shared this experience, that this is a conversation that we need to have. I don't have permission to tell the stories of other Friends or to present any authoritative conclusions that our group reached, but I wanted to raise some themes and questions that have stayed fresh in my mind since our conversation, and to invite you to share any questions or insights that you've had in this area.
The recurring themes I remember seem to come in paradoxes. I'm dealing with one of them here, and others in later posts.
The need to be honest and open, and to be seen, accepted, and confronted
Many of us felt it important to be able to own our mental struggles in our faith communities. When I first admitted to myself that I was not just fine, that I had a problem and that I knew its name, I stopped being so afraid and my energy was freed up to research coping strategies instead of denying facts. When I told the people I loved what I was dealing with and found that they were willing to remain in relationship with me I stopped being so ashamed, and my attention was freed up to really hear and connect with them instead of trying to maintain an image. Henri Nouwen has written about prayer as the opposite of illusion. This makes sense to me, and I think it underscores the need for openness and honesty among people who come together to pray and to open themselves before God.
It's easier to be open in this way if we believe we won't be condemned, dismissed or simplistically 'fixed' once people know what we're dealing with. Several group participants named this. One described the QS gathering as "a place where I felt I could be my broken, imperfect self and that people would love me for that -- not try to reassure me or help me." I think this is very important. Perhaps especially so in this society where mental illness is so often feared and stigmatized, and where the willingness to sit attentively with hard things before trying to fix them seems increasingly rare.
I also think that sometimes acceptance is not enough. We didn't talk as much about this. I don't know if or when I would have admitted and dealt with my mental illness if the folks who loved me hadn't told me repeatedly, caringly, firmly, sometimes gently and sometimes in exasperation, that they could tell something was wrong and that I really needed to figure out what it was. I am grateful for this now. I wasn't grateful then. I was angry, resentful, apologetic, desperate; I didn't want to know and I didn't think I could deal with knowing; I hissed, cried, sulked. Finally I listened. After I'd recognized what was going on and started taking steps--research, judicious resting, self-directed CBT, reexamining foundational beliefs--I still had to be confronted sometimes. "You seemed to be doing better for a while, but you're really weepy again; do you know what's wrong? What do you need to do about it?"
It's hard to do this loving confronting appropriately. Sometimes when guests seem to be struggling with some kind of irrational thinking or upsets but don't speak of having any mental difficulty I talk to them about my own experience; some seem to find this helpful, others get hostile or pull away. Sometimes I try asking what is wrong. If they insist that nothing is, but their behavior suggests otherwise, I don't know where to go next.
I know that confrontation had better come from love and from a Spirit-centered place that allows me to care for the other person and at the same time to be a bit detached from their response. If I am annoyed with them for complicating my life, if I am trying to prove how different I am from them, or if I am desperate for them to like me, need me or be helped by me, I am more likely to do harm than good.
I would rather have people confront me and remain in relationship than withdraw discreetly. I have been helped and healed by the simple fact that people were willing to keep working and worshiping with me even though I was struggling to think clearly and not emote inappropriately. I've sometimes been able to help welcome people with similar struggles into my community. But sometimes we have had to set a boundary and acknowledge that there are problems we can't deal with. We've learned through difficult experience that it doesn't work to have people with serious mental illness staying with us if there is not some professional backup and/or some safe place where they go if they find themselves unable to cope. It's hard for me to say No to people in this situation, knowing my own fear of being rejected because of mental illness. I also believe that it can be harmful for the prospective guests as well as for us if they come without a safety system and then find they can't cope. I try, when we have to say No, to offer what I can--distance listening, suggestions for possible reading or local support groups, prayers.
I have written of mental illness so far as though it were clearly identifiable. Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I find it confusingly entangled with mystical experience or with spiritual blockage. More about that in part 2, which will appear sometime in the next week when work allows.
Link to part 2
Link to part 2