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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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I sit here contemplating the design of this psychiatric emergency unit. The psychiatrist has told me he won’t be admitting me. He said I have a history of being resistant to treatment, and that for people with Borderline Personality Disorder (like me), admission often fails. He’s not the first psychiatrist I’ve heard this from. Stigma still flourishes even among mental health professionals (sometimes most among the professionals). He tells me this while I am literally begging for help. My wife, in tears next to me, voices her own deep fears of the possibilities that come with the depth of this illness anytime I’m alone, while she is at work or sleeping.

He can’t send me home because I’ve stated I’m acutely suicidal. Perhaps, by leaving me to wait for long hours at a time, he is hoping that the design of this place will drive me to claim ‘sanity’ so that I will ask to go home. That way he can be rid of me, with a pat on his back for helping the hospital avoid a costly admission. I recognize this is likely not a conscious plan in his mind, but still am not convinced he hasn’t been trained to respond in such a manner as ‘best approach.’

So I sit here while other patients pace the halls screaming in their own terror and delusions; every footstep, every voice, every set of keys echoing through the empty rooms and hallways. The smell of piss saturates the poorly circulated air. There are no windows, only dingy beige walls marked by the aggressions of others, and heavy doors, almost all of which are locked. I lay on a mat on the floor of an almost empty room (if you have a family member with you, they will give you a chair). The sheets are often stained with what looks like blood and the flourescent lights blare unkindly.

A doctor comes sometime between four and ten hours later to see if anything has changed, if I now want to go home. And damnit, I want to go home so badly – to my own bed, to a clean toilet, to a place with hand soap and towels. Apparently even hospital grade non-alcoholic foaming hand sanitizer is to big of a risk for patients like us. So we take our chances with C-difficle, MRSA, and whatever else others bring in with them. Germaphobia does not combine itself well with other forms of panic.

Yes, I desperately want to leave this place. But I remember my promise to Kathryn, my desperate need for help and my inability to manage the fireball of emotions on my own. In one of my most vulnerable moments, I must find within myself strength to stay when my mind is screaming to flee.

So I tell them I’m not safe. I tell them about the racing thoughts and crushing pain. When asked if I will hurt myself if I am discharged, I answer with an honest yes.

The doctor leaves and says someone will come back “soon” to reassess me. I lay back down not knowing if my wish is for sleep or death. In the room next to me someone starts screaming again and inside, I start screaming too.

This must be hell, coming here is its own form of suicide.

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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.

Stigma often places the blame of mental illness on the shoulders of those who struggle.

Resources are scarce and the system is overwhelmed.

We are expected to fight our way to wellness in a society that breeds anxiety and despair.

Those of us who are most sensitive are like canaries in the coalmines, but instead of others heeding our warnings, we are expected to adapt ourselves to the poison all around us.

I am a vase full of pain.

Every crack leaks pain out over those who are closest to me.

I want to destroy the vase and end the pain.

But it would spill out over everyone I love.

My sweet wife carries scars that are not hers. When the monster of mental illness grows strong within me, all too often Kathryn becomes its target. When I can barely keep myself alive, the monster feeds on her to destroy us both.

And still, she is here. Firmly by my side as the monster rages and whispers and crawls inside my skin. For the life of me I don’t understand why she stays. Her stated reason, “because I love you,” sounds like a foreign language, an echo I remember was once native to my own tongue.

She could wake from this nightmare, break free and leave the monster and me to live or die alone. But she stays, endlessly spinning the monster’s battles into a dance, a painful turning, full of the fear of losing me to the monster, the guilt of not always knowing the steps, and the worry that she’ll say or do something to make the monster hungry again.

The dance is slow, dizzying and lurching, our feet falling from under us. But she keeps dancing, pulls me into her, gathering my ragged emotions to her chest, my restless hands to her hips, my screaming and racing mind to her neck.

And for a few moments I forget to fear the monster. I forget the terror to flee and find instead the safety of embrace. A soft rhythm moves from her hips through my bones and together we sway like the river grasses against the coming storm’s wind. And maybe, for a fleeting second, I remember the distant call of playfulness, of silly laughter and simple gratitude and quiet peace. And I remember to breathe.

I remember to believe. With two hearts and eight limbs, our insightful minds, and abounding love, we will keep dancing through the panic till our blistered feet, aching bodies, and pounding skulls carry us away from the monster’s reach to a place where we can rest tangled in each other’s skin, waiting to learn whatever music comes to us next.

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Painting by Karis Kazuko Taylor

*”Dancing through the panic” is a reference to Leonard Cohen’s song Dance Me to the End of Love.

 

Having Borderline Personality Disorder sucks a lot. The struggle and pain of it all is so intense sometimes.

But I’m also discovering the gifts of highly sensitive emotional people.

  • We are naturally empathetic and compassionate
  • We are able to have deep and authentic relationships
  • Our joy is contagious and can be found in the simplest of things
  • We can’t ignore the pain and injustice we see around us
  • We make great artists and storytellers.

I’m glad I’m still myself with BPD and that having intense emotions isn’t inherently a bad thing. Emotions are signals that help us understand what is important to us, what we need in each moment, and how we relate to the world around us. I’m grateful for my emotions, even the sometimes really painful ones, because of who they make me.

I feel mixed about #BellLetsTalk today. Is it a start? Yes. Is it enough? Hardly.

We need a lot more than just talk. We need practical ways to support one another through times of crisis. We need to teach people emotional coping skills (preferably as children). We need actual answers to why our brains sometimes go off kilter. We need medication that isn’t just a guessing game and that so often comes with heavy negative side effects.

I’m not the only one I know who feels frustrated hearing “if you feel suicidal, reach out and talk to someone.” Friends and family can only do so much and find it very frightening and overwhelming. And crisis lines and emergency psychiatric services aren’t much better. Generally you get held until the intensity of the moment passes and you’re sent home, maybe to follow up with your GP. You’re alive, yes, but the root of the problem hasn’t gone anywhere and you might be less likely to reach out next time if you feel there is no hope of actually feeling differently, not just being forced to stay safe.

There isn’t a whole lot that can be done to get to the root of why some people feel suicidal so often (or even just occasionally) unless we have more funding for research and adequate treatment. Far too many people are given 6-8 weeks with a therapist or psychiatrist and that just doesn’t cut it.

The wait list for DBT (the recommended treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder) in Hamilton is now over a year long. And while DBT services are expanding, its not nearly quick enough for the number of people being diagnosed and referred to the treatment. It is available in just a handful of cities, meaning hundreds if not thousands of people who would benefit don’t even get a chance. For someone who is acutely in crisis, suicidal, impulsive, behaving dangerously and feels like life is intolerable this is NOT acceptable. We need funding, and that doesn’t come from just talking about mental illness.

Bell Let’s Talk seems to focus on anxiety and depression. Yes, we need to talk about those – but we also need better understanding of schizophrenia, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and so many more. And we need to understand the complexities of mental illness, abuse, addiction, poverty, gender and race. It’s not just rich white people who struggle. And far too often the people who need treatment the most can’t afford the costly private services available and have to wait on the long waitlists.

I am so grateful to have what many others don’t – a support system I can fall back on, a net to catch me when I need it. And the resources to pay for the treatment I need (with the support of my family). What about those who don’t have either of these things? How can we expect them to reach out if we’re not reaching back?

Ultimately, awareness campaigns like Bell’s leave me desperate for so much more. My friend Kathleen said it best, “No one should have to bombard social media with free advertising for a corporation to get basic health care from our government.” Mental health care is basic health care and we need to start providing better services now, and that takes more than just talk.

Often I have moments when something will cause me to remember a choice or action I’ve made in the past that I feel embarrassed about or regret. Sometimes these things just pop into my head without any apparent reason. And I often start to feel really bad, embarrassed, worthless, stupid. I imagine that everyone who knows me only remembers this terrible stuff too.

Sometimes it’s just embarrassing stuff but sometimes it’s stuff where I’ve hurt someone, especially Kathryn, and I feel so much worse – rotten to my core. It might be from yesterday, it might be from a long time ago. When I was a kid there was a time I was mean to a good friend and made her cry, I remember that so clearly and still feel bad.

What I’ve been trying to consider in these moments is the difference between shame and regret. I definitely regret those moments that cause pain, but I think that’s different than defining my whole life by them. My whole relationship with that childhood friend was not defined by that one mean moment, and yet it’s the clearest memory I have of her. And when embarrassing or hurtful things happened in university – that’s not what people remember me for (or at least not the only thing they remember me for).

Today at work this came up. I felt so bad all of a sudden for a conflict that happened with my coworker a few months ago. I apologized afterward and things have been good since, but the memory of the conflict just sort of consumed me and in that moment became the definition of my relationship with this person.

As I walked to the bus stop, I reminded myself that this was a moment of regret, but not one that has continued to define my relationship with her and not one that defines who I am. This eased the shame quite a bit, which surprised me because I’m not used to finding a way to help shame settle down – usually it just overwhelms me until I sleep or do something impulsive/negative.

Obviously the more painful the memory, the harder this is, but I’m hopeful that this little learning moment will help me remember all the positive things when I feel consumed by only the negatives, especially in my relationship with Kathryn.

It’s okay to feel regret – it’s healthy. I don’t have to pretend like every decision I make is good or that my actions and words don’t have weight. But getting overwhelmed in a shame spiral has never once helped me make a decision that I’ve been proud of, I usually just act in ways to confirm the shame, which only makes things worse.

Remembering that those memories cause feelings of regret but don’t have to cause shame can actually help me focus on what I want to do differently, to think about how I can act more consistently with my values going forward. This is what I am working toward.

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