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Last week I was a panelist at an LGBTQ+ Mental Health and Faith conference organized through Generous Space. One of the questions I was asked was what we can be doing better as individuals and church communities to support people who deal with mental illness. Here’s the response I had prepped beforehand for those that may be interested.
 
(Sidenote: I think this is relevant far beyond christian communities.)
 
1) I think it’s important that as christians and in our churches, we find ways to express difficult emotions in healthy ways. Feeling anger, doubt, fear or despair is seen as negative and sometimes even “sinful” when these are actually natural and needed emotional responses. Our emotions help us understand what is important to us, and how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. Denying the role of these important emotions encourages individuals to just wear masks of happiness around each other and struggle alone in silence. So, we should be asking ourselves – are we talking about these emotions in our churches? Are we practicing feeling them in healthy ways? How can we give each other space to release them, and have them validated, instead of just suppressing them? Are we talking about emotional coping skills and actually practicing them together?
 
2) Churches are often pretty good at organizing support around those who are experiencing physical illness. I remember a lot of casseroles that got dropped off at our house when my brother was sick. This is the kind of response people who are experiencing mental illness need to, not just emotional and prayer support but help with the practical needs of life and recovery – so show up with some groceries, or walk their dog for them, or wash some dishes after having a coffee with them. If you don’t know, you can ask someone what they need or want. Maybe they just want to stay in their pajamas and watch tv, so offer to do that with them. It’s hard to ask for help when you are struggling because we are so conditioned to hide our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, which is why we can’t just wait for a mental health crisis to start building safe and supportive relationships. You know long before you start to struggle who will accept you and be there for you, and who you will feel judged by.
 
3) It can be hard to avoid giving people advice or trying to solve their problems for them. It’s uncomfortable to sit with someone else in their pain. We need to get better at this, and it will only happen if we practice and make mistakes and keep trying and encourage honesty about our vulnerabilities.
 
4) And then, equally important, is giving people opportunities to give back too, to share their strengths and not be defined by their struggle. We who are sick are not fragile, we might be tired or scared or hurting but we are also resilient and resourceful. We need opportunities to show this to others.
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My heart bleeds with you when your pain demands to be felt.

And I know yours bleeds for me too.

Your breath surrounds me with the air that keeps me alive.

And I will keep breathing life over you.

The Bear, Part 1

Death consumes me.

I am fighting a bear that is 1000x stronger, 1000x more vicious than me.

They tell me to be brave, to have hope, to take one moment at a time.

I believe the voices that say I am stronger than him.

I tell the bear and he laughs and grows 100 more teeth to rip at my flesh.

He stalks me while I do the things that show that I’m still alive – while I put on clean socks, while I brush my teeth, while I try to sleep.

My death would mean less to the bear than a mosquito does to a windshield.

I beg the bear for a merciful death, for release. I can’t remember why I try to flee from him.

He does not show mercy. While he hunts me I can no more choose to die than I can choose to live.

The Bear, Part 2

Who is this bear that stalks me at night when I am alone, when I am most exposed?

Perhaps he is chemicals and broken synapses in my brain. A hallucination caused by disordered biology. I swallow the pills that they tell me will tame him.

Or, he is a loud roar, no more of a threat than the rolling thunder at night. A desperate cry composed only of Fear. Like dark clouds dispersed by a strong wind, he is quieted to sleep by their assurance that dawn will come and Love will Win.

Or, he is a fragmented part of me, a distortion in a fun house mirror. I invite him in, so that both he and I can become more whole.

Or, he is the escape I hold on to when being alive means experiencing pain. The dark shadows projected against cave walls intensify the size and threat of the bear. I have rejected my own nourishment so that he can grow stronger. I have given him more power than he deserves. When I call for help, the Universe answers with Light to help me see.

The bear and the terror are real. The struggle and the wounded flesh and the monstrosity of feeling caught between life and death are real.

Yet, even as he hunts me, I sharpen my weapons. I find strength left like bread crumbs by those who have been chased by their own bears. I reach through the isolation; my community is my arrows. I scratch my words into rock faces; my  voice is my spear.

I am hunted by him, but night by night I learn more of his secrets. For tonight, the bear and I will rest.

I am still alive. I can choose to live.

Here is the question:

“If you really knew your own worth, if you knew you would not fail or be judged, what risks would you take?”

The following is my response:

Be bold. Speak life and light into our personal and collective brokenness.

Admit. Own and apologize for when I’ve been mean, hurtful, racist or selfish. For when I’ve judged another person, and assumed less about them than who they truly are.

Reconcile. Seek and offer forgiveness. Seek and offer grace. Seek and offer peace.

Race

Last weekend I was at a retreat. A spoken-word poet named Jenna Tenn-Yuk shared a piece entitled “Everyone loves a Jamasian girl” about her experience having Jamaican cultural roots but a predominately asian appearance. Later, the leader of the retreat was introducing a keynote speaker, who was also Jamaican, and said “Jenna may be a Jamasian girl but he’s the real mccoy.”

The next day, Wendy stood before the 100+ attendees and acknowledged the root of racism in her remark. By attempting to make a clever segue into the keynote presentation, she had diminished Jenna’s experience, mere moments after Jenna shared about the way these different aspects of her identity have made her a minority in both Jamaican and asian circles.

With humility and regret Wendy acknowledged her mistake and sought reconciliation with Jenna. As Jenna shared how she experiences these subtle forms of racism all the time, I realized just how blind I am to all the ways our words and our systems oppress people of colour. I left understanding the deep need for us to listen closely to the ways we talk to and about one another.

Mental Illness

At this same retreat, I was a participant in a group workshop on shame. The facilitator, Steven, shared some stories from his own experience. Among many others, one of the things he mentioned was not knowing how to respond when he meets someone who has had a suicide in their family.

I felt myself cringe as I heard this phrase. When we refer to someone as ‘a suicide,’ we are boiling that person’s entire life story down to their death, as if nothing else about them ever existed. I knew this was not Steven’s intention in the comment he made, and yet it represented a lack of awareness in our society about how to talk about mental illness.

Overcoming my own hesitation, I approached Steven after the workshop and shared my thoughts. I told him I was not being judgmental or critical of his presentation, only that I sought to share some of my own understanding around mental illness and how we speak about those who have died because of it. Steven was receptive and even grateful that I initiated the conversation, and I left feeling empowered for speaking up.

Sexuality

One of my family members is in the hospital and I’ve been spending as much time as I can visiting. She has very limited movement currently, and when I offered to adjust her gown for her, my mom jokingly said “be careful, she’s gay,” implying that I might try to somehow take advantage of her vulnerable state.

My heart sank. Personal care for other people is something I do everyday in my job. While it’s true that I am attracted to females, my heart belongs solely to my wife, and I make every effort to avert my eyes in places where other women are temporarily exposed (hockey changing rooms, for example).

My mom knows this about me, and when I expressed my feelings about her joke, she quickly recognized my pain and apologized. She could have been defensive, offered an excuse, or told me to “lighten up,” but instead she took my concern seriously and made a commitment to consider the impact of these types of jokes in the future.

Gender

My dear friend Maxx, who is trans, recently posted about wanting to be able to grow facial hair. In response, I jokingly commented, “I could draw it on with a marker for you, if that helps.” I thought I was being funny.

He messaged me shortly after to say that he had been hurt by my comment. He knew I meant it as a joke, but it only reminded him that unlike so many cisgender people he knows, he is not yet able to fully express his masculinity in his body the way he desires. I instantly felt deep regret. Hurting my friend with my ignorance was furthest from my mind in that moment.

I offered an apology, immediately removed my comment, and wished I could do more to show Maxx that I want to be a fierce ally for the trans community. He told me he had hoped I would be receptive to his feelings, and that he is learning to stand up for himself when someone diminishes him for his gender identity.

Ubuntu

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” In other words, “if I diminish you, I diminish myself.” To all the people mentioned in these stories, thank you for showing me that we can acknowledge our mistakes, hope for reconciliation and forgive one another with love. You have reminded me to consider the weight of my words carefully, and to listen before I speak, especially when the conversation involves those whose experiences of minority differ from my own. We are better for having had these moments together.

Over the past few years, I’ve been a part of many little groups that have focused on “building community” from my Bronte Creek Project days and Katimavik, to the communal living focus at SSU and then living and working with L’arche communities in Cape Breton and Hamilton.

I’ve had a lot of experience building community with others, but I still get nervous in new groups.  Especially in times of stress, I naturally resort to isolation rather than community. When I was first admitted to the Acute Mental Health ward two weeks ago, I spent nearly all my time avoiding others by sleeping and trying to shut out the world.  It’s easy to isolate oneself on a psych ward, because everyone knows to just leave you alone if you don’t want to talk.

I learned something about community recently from an unexpected source, a man named Frank.  From Monday night to Tuesday morning, my family gathered in a visitors’ lounge at another hospital to wait with my brother for the surgery that would bring him new life: his double lung transplant.  Frank came and went throughout the night.  He would have a nurse roll his wheelchair into the room, ask what we were watching on television, and then sit with us as we waited.  Eventually he would start dozing off and I would ask if he wanted to go back to bed.  He would call me “miss” and ask that I roll him over to the nurses’ station.  My family laughed at the camaraderie Frank and I shared that seemed to come from nowhere.  We didn’t talk much and I didn’t learn much about him except his first name, but we both made the long night a little easier for each other.

It turns out Frank was being discharged from the hospital on Tuesday morning.  I didn’t know this at the time, but maybe that’s why he was having such a hard time sleeping, maybe that’s why he kept asking the nurses to be rolled back to the visitors’ lounge to spend time with my family.

When I came back to the Acute Mental Health ward on Tuesday afternoon, I decided to follow Frank’s example and try to be a little more social.  I ate in the dining room for the first time on Tuesday evening, instead of taking my dinner back to my room.  I started playing the piano in the common room, and other patients would stop by to listen or comment.  One gentleman, Paul, pulled a chair right up beside me and sat down.  He asked if I knew any good songs.  I told him I could play pretty basic versions of Across the Universe and Let it Be by the Beatles.  He said good and started singing the first verse of Let it Be before my fingers even touched the keys.  When I finished playing he said, “It’s therapeutic, eh? Maybe they should give us a salary, eh?”

Paul was right, music is therapeutic.  I started playing just to pass the time while trying to be patient, but I ended up playing because I enjoyed it.  I could feel the weight of the last two weeks in the music I played, without feeling crushed by it.  By coming out of my shell, by expressing myself in this social atmosphere, I invited others to do the same.

Life on the ward changed once I began looking past the illnesses all around me and connecting to the faces, the individuals.  It took vulnerability and the chance of rejection, it took a step towards involvement, but it was worth it.  My own mental health benefitted as I spent less time in my room.  Once I started getting involved, I even spent more time smiling.

Now, having been moved to a different unit, I find myself back at square one.  I see the other patients on the ninth floor as just that, patients with illnesses.  Nothing more.  Their humanness doesn’t immediately present itself to me.

Before being moved, I never would have imagined missing those familiar faces on the tenth floor.   I don’t even know most of their names, but I know their faces, and I know what to expect from them.  Now on the ninth floor I wonder about others’ motives.  I feel suspicious and insecure when someone tries to start a conversation with me.  And this time, there’s no piano.

I am back to square one, and the only way to force myself though this stage is by looking past illness to see people for their humanity.

I came back from vacation yesterday and got smacked in the face.  Apparently Christmas is less than two days away.  No, I have not done my Christmas shopping.  No, I have not paid nearly as much attention to Advent as I wanted to (yet again).  No, I do not feel the jolly, warmth of Christmas Spirit bubbling up within me.  Not because I am particularly against warm bubbly feelings, I just haven’t had time to get them simmering yet.

So on this Christmas Eve’s eve, I reflect.

I am cooking the Bird for L’arche Hamilton’s Christmas Day Feast.  A large portion of our community will be spending the holidays with family members or close friends, but the sixteen of us who will be here in the various L’arche homes will be gathering for a special meal on Christmas Day, and I am responsible for what one core member has informed me is the most important part of his Christmas.  I have not prepared a turkey on my own before.  (Though I do believe there was an instance in Katimavik involving a turkey and an oven set to 500 degrees.  But I don’t think we ate that one.)  My back-up plan this year is to show up with a large roasting pan full of bacon and scrambled eggs if something catastrophic happens in the kitchen.

By far, one of the best things leading up to the 25th has been singing Christmas carols with Bev and Charlie while Brian orchestrates from the couch.  Laurence is always the captive audience member, applauding graciously and with a huge grin at the close of our performance.  Silent Night and Away In a Manger are our strengths.  We get almost all the words right, though not necessarily in the same order, and certainly not in the same key.  Charlie, who has an incredibly high falsetto singing voice, comes in strong on the “I love thee Lord Jesus” verse in Away In A Manger, and Bev can hit some rather high notes herself in Silent Night.  She also performs a powerful solo on The First Noel.

There are days that feel like we are everything but silent and holy.  We lack stillness and calm, especially in the hectic Christmas preparations and the emotions the holiday stirs in some of us.  Our house is not always one of peace.  But we have our moments.  Gracious, loud and off-key moments, that pull me in and renew my spirit.  When I think I have found a new level of depth in my relationship with each core member, they find a way to pull me deeper.  I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else this Christmas than here with folks who have no where else to be, but here with me.  I am the one receiving the gift.

In all things, Immanuel.

I realize I haven’t actually written very much this month.  The truth is I feel like I’ve hardly been in the house at all, barely begun to know the core members and assistants with whom I now live.  A week into my new role at Cornerstone House, I developed what might be an allergy to something, or might be a skin infection… no one is really sure.  Needless to say, for a while sleep did not come easy.  So I was off sick and then back for a bit and then off again and back for three days, and then suddenly it was time for my vacation to begin.

This past Wednesday, the L’arche Hamilton community gathered for our weekly prayer time with a special focus.  Earlier we had been given sheets of paper with questions about what it means to belong to community.  Core members and assistants alike were asked to come prepared to share stories, thoughts, art or music that reflected times of struggle in community, our hopes for our future in L’arche and what specific things help us to grow and participate more fully.

As I sat with Charlie, Beverley, David, Casey, Laurence and Brian (my Cornerstone family) reflecting on these questions, I realized that being off sick was not the only thing that has kept me from writing since I moved.  When I began at Sherman House in May I expected to be there for a while and spent a considerable amount of time intentionally rooting myself in my relationships with Alice, David, Richard, Doris and Attila.  The move unsettled me.  I still see the members of Sherman House on a regular basis but nothing can replace the depth of relationship that is shared when people live in the same house.  I miss those moments – resting on the couch with Alice, grocery shopping with Attila, the moment Richard came downstairs each morning smiling, Doris’ voice when she was excited, or David’s wit.  (I have a habit of drumming on the steering wheel while driving and David frequently scolded me for the behaviour.  Once when I claimed I couldn’t help it because I had ants in my pants, he quickly responded “I think you have ants in your brain!”)

I’m still finding these moments of grace with my new housemates too, when Charlie tells a joke, or Brian holds my hand, when I greet Laurence in the mornings and Bev tells me secrets and smiles mischievously.  But in general, I have felt so much less present.  As we talked on Wednesday afternoon about what we would share at prayer, I realized what has held me back – I am afraid that I will be asked to move again.  The uprooting from Sherman has left me a little more hesitant to nurture deep relationships, to risk love.  I desire stability for my future with L’arche.  Rootedness.  To be settled and home for a significant period of time.  I know nothing is permanent and my path will likely wind down different roads at some point, but to be at Cornerstone for now, present to those I live with, I have to be able to risk love.

Last night, I went leafing through an old journal, one that I kept while I travelled across Canada with ten other young people.  While we were in New Brunswick (in the town that would eventually become my home for four years), we made up a treasure hunting game that involved a van, a blindfold and a lot of sugar-induced hyperactivity.  The blindfolded person would make decisions about which direction to turn at intersections, taking us in circles and down sidestreets until they shouted STOP! – at which point the driver would park, we would all jump out and begin running desperately around trying to find treasure – any treasure.  An incredible leaf.  A swingset.  An ice cream shop.  It didn’t matter what the treasure was, so long as it was considered treasure by the beholder.  It was all inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes books and Calvin’s claim that there is treasure everywhere.  And really, there is, if you go looking for it.

As I drove home through downtown Hamilton today, this idea of treasure everywhere wandered through my mind.  I looked at the people walking along the sidewalks, waiting for buses, coming out of stores.   I looked at the drivers who were passing me.  I looked at the shops and thought about who their owners might be, who might work in them.  I thought about the people I’ve met downtown.  Agnus, who came to Canada from Vienna fifty years ago; Dave, who runs an art/book shop; Jenny, the artist I wrote about a few months ago.  And so many others.  Downtown Hamilton is a busy place.  There are people everywhere.  Treasured people.

But these people are so fragile.  Some of them have been very obviously broken by poverty or addictions, abuse or mental health issues or unemployment.  Some have very obviously fallen through gaps in the system – be it the mental health system, or the education system, or the justice system.  And there are others who you would never know are broken.  Who walk around in nice clothes, with jobs and kids and smiles on their face, while society hands them every kind of mask they could possible need to hide what exists on the inside.  Because people are so fragile.  So easily broken.

And yet, these same people are so resilient.  Some of the most caring people I have met have stories of abuse and cruelty in their past.  People who have been treated like garbage by family or society who choose still to love and trust and reach across the space between us.  To try again and again and again to get on their feet, despite others knocking them back down.  To believe for something better.  Or even to just keep going in the absence of that belief.

I am astounded by this paradox.  The fragility and resiliency of humankind.  I see it everywhere.  On their faces.  In my own reflection.  I see it in you.

It’s raining again tonight.  I would like nothing more than to be sitting across from you in the living room, drinking peppermint tea, listening as you tell your story.  Having this conversation face to face.  But there is space between you and I.

I use this blog to try to reach through the disconnect.  To share something.  To be something other than an island.  “You’ll find us reaching into screens that echo back our discontent.” (source)  We spend so much time defining our independence.  Building our walls.  Living our separate lives.  There is space between you and I.

But we need each other, desperately, I think.  I need you.  Society tells me admitting this is weakness.  Vulnerability is seen as something to overcome.  I choose to believe otherwise.  Only through relationship with you am I made human.  Ubuntu.

Yet community is not easy.  Community is process, not outcome.  I need you, as you are.  Not as I wish you to be.  I need you with all your flaws and weaknesses and gifts and beauty.  I accept you as you are, where you are.  I welcome your gifts, your weakness, your vulnerability.  I invite you into mine.

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