(The following post is about a topic that is close to me heart – er – rather me head)
In Canada, it is national Mental Health Awareness Week so I thought that I would share a bit about my personal battle in the hope that it may encourage others who suffer and help to educate those who don’t.
According to Wikipedia, Expressionist painter, Edvard Munch, wrote the following poem based on a diary entry he had previously made, onto the frame of the 1895 pastel version of his famous artwork known as “The Scream”.
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”.
The artist, Edvard Munch suffered from mental illness. Many, many famous artists, writers, musicians and actors have suffered from various mental problems. But mental illness is not the sole domain of creative people – many “regular” folks suffer too. I know, because I am one of them.
Although I have had cancer, it does not seem as if it has come as close to threatening my life the way that mental illness has done. I have battled depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Like Edvard Munch, I too have sensed “an infinite scream” passing, not through nature, but through myself. I have stood at the edge of the black abyss contemplating a jump into nothingness.
This post is somewhat of a personal challenge to write as there is a stigma attached to mental illness. I have encountered that stigma from both the medical profession and the public, including some family members. I even had one doctor who told me that the reason I was having panic attacks was because I was “high strung”! And then there are those “well-meaning” Christians who like to quote the various scripture verses that tell us not to be anxious and to “count it all joy”.
There is the idea out there that all we have to do is “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “buck – up”. If only it were that easy! Most people will experience periods of sadness and/or anxiety in their lives due to various circumstances – illness, death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc. however, when those circumstances are over, the sadness and /or anxiety usually ends. But for many of us who suffer a mental illness, the episodes may be triggered by exterior circumstances but more often they happen for no apparent reason at all. The reality is that while there may be no “apparent” or visible reason for a mental illness, there still is a very real reason. Brain damage from illness, injury, or substance abuse; prolonged and elevated periods of crisis and stress; and inherited genetics can all affect both the structure and function of the brain. Just one of the preceding factors can upset the delicate balance of chemicals within the brain. And often the only way to adjust that imbalance is to take medication that affects the creation, absorption and metabolism of of those chemicals.
Recently, a friend and fellow sufferer told me that her doctor explained it to her this way: the brain is an organ like the pancreas, liver and kidneys. When the pancreas doesn’t work properly, a person has to take insulin. When kidneys don’t work, dialysis is required. So when the organ of the brain doesn’t function properly, medication is required.
I want to make an important statement here: if you suffer from mental illness and are currently taken medication for treatment – “DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICATION” without proper medical advice and supervision! As a Christian, I believe in divine healing, and as such, I was led to believe, by many healing ministries, that if I truly believed in healing, I would step out in faith and stop taking my medication. I tried and BIG MISTAKE! Not only did I start suffering symptoms again, I had to go through very unpleasant withdrawal. On top of all that, I had feelings of guilt over the fact that since I was not manifesting my healing I must not be believing enough. (Again, if you are a Christian, DO NOT allow another Christian, whether they be a minister, faith healer or another believer, lay guilt at your door and pressure you into stopping your medication) I believe that God led me to finally understand that what is most important to Him is my quality of life. God wants us to be healthy and happy. So I have decided that if I have to take medication in order to enjoy a fulfilling life, then so be it! I still believe in divine healing, but until that time arrives, I will do whatever is necessary to be as happy and as healthy as I can be. I can’t be an effective (I hope) witness for God if I am dead!
But by God’s great mercy and grace, I am still here. And by His incredible, matchless love and grace, I am the mental “healthiest” and happiest that I have ever been in my life. The road has been long and hard and there is still the occasional speed-bump, but I have hope that the journey before me will be much smoother than the one behind me has been.
If you think that you may be suffering from some form of mental illness, please don’t be ashamed. Seek good medical help and counselling. And seek God too; He loves you so much and He wants to help.
If you know of someone who may be suffering from mental illness, please don’t be judgmental. Be patient, kind, compassionate, understanding and supportive. And pray for them!
I steal part of a quote from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – “WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER”
May God bless you with peace and joy.