(Warning: If you are my mother, do NOT read this post lest you worry needlessly about me. I will be okay. You have been warned.)
I want to write today about mental illness. The Christians I’ve known in my life never really discussed mental illness. It has always been one of those things that we sort of think exists but deep down believe that if a person will just “get a grip,” “grow up,” “put on the big girl pants,” “trust Jesus,” or “relax,” then it will all go away. It’s all in the mind, and if your mind is strong enough, then you can overcome. Or, failing that, if your faith in the Lord is strong enough, then He will heal you and renew your mind. After all, scriptures teach us that once we become Christians, we are to “let God” change our thoughts.
From Romans 2: “2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
I suppose when the Lord was passing out the thought-changing aspect of the Holy Spirit, He passed me by. Please be assured that I am in no way mocking the Lord. I am honestly trying to work out what it means to “let” God transform me into a new person.
Because I’m still the same, messed up me inside my head. Despite my faith.
My worst nightmare came true one week ago when my daughter got a stomach bug mere hours before my husband left for his overseas trip. If you do not have emetophobia, you have no idea how stressful the past few days have been for me. My husband offered to cancel his trip of a lifetime. I told him to GO, when inside all I wanted was for him to stay and take care of me and my child, because I knew from experience what would happen to me as I faced the responsibility of caring for my girl.
I became anorexic. I lost five pounds from last Wednesday until today, when I finally began eating and drinking somewhat normally again, although with a great deal of trepidation and anxiety. I also did not sleep — at all — for several nights straight due to severe anxiety.
Normal day to day tasks are fraught with danger. Germs lurk on every doorknob, every light switch, every sink, every handle. I wore gloves and a mask in order to clean surfaces enough to feel comfortable touching them. But Mt. Laundry has achieved Everest proportions — at least in my mind.
I’ve washed these clothes — some of them twice — through the “sanitize” cycle on the washing machine. I have ruined many garments because I used bleach even on colors. Yet I can hardly bear to touch them long enough to fold them. So they sit on the floor of my bedroom, mocking me, making me realize yet again how pervasive and nasty this mental illness is that I carry around with me. The swimsuits my daughter wore are destined for the trash because somehow in my brain I connect the ocean water or pool water with her illness. Ditto with the beach towels. Every piece of clothing we wore on our vacation is suspect to me. I know in one part of my brain that I am being ridiculous. Yet the other part of my brain whispers insidiously, “what if…” So I attempt to control the situation by putting off the folding just like I attempted to control my own possible stomach bug symptoms by not eating.
There are several anti-anxiety medications I could try if I could get up the nerve to try them. Unfortunately if the label says that a medicine has nausea as a possible side effect, the chances of me taking it are slim to none. Any of the neurotransmitter drugs have nausea as a possible side effect, either while taking it or when the drug is stopped.
While I don’t meet the criteria for actually having anorexia, I suspect I do have an eating disorder. Food is the enemy. I hate it. I hate cooking it, I hate eating it. I hate trying new things because — guess what — they might make me sick. The only reason I eat is to make my stomach stop hurting. That is pretty pathetic….but it’s the way my thoughts invade. When I have been around someone who has a stomach bug, like my daughter, I go into overdrive anxiety.
To illustrate my point, consider my food intake on that first day: 1/4 cup of cream of wheat for breakfast. 1/4 cup of dried cereal for lunch. No dinner. A sip of water. The next day I had another 1/4 cup of cream of wheat for breakfast, no lunch, and 1 Eggo waffle for dinner along with small sips of water (less than 8 oz, I’m sure). I don’t know why I do this to myself. My stomach cramps horribly and I feel terribly hungry, yet I absolutely refuse to eat because….I might get the stomach bug, and if I did get it, I wouldn’t want much food in my system.
Yes, I am aware that this is not a normal, healthy way to think or behave. Yes, I have given it over to the Lord and have asked for strength to overcome these overwhelming compulsions and thoughts. Yes, I am in therapy and have learned some strategies for taking myself to a quieter place. Yet the darkness remained. I felt overwhelmingly alone. Depressed. Hatred of myself and my thoughts. I hated myself for not being able to pull my daughter into a bear hug…for making her sleep on the couch instead of with me. I wished she had any other mother but me, someone who would comfort her the way she deserved and who did not wear a mask in the car on the way to the doctor. She told me, jokingly, that I looked ridiculous. I agree, but I still kept wearing the mask.
I also stopped taking care of myself. I took a very hot shower to de-germ myself but then didn’t brush my hair or my teeth. I didn’t care what clothes I put on or even if they matched. I threw away all my makeup in case it was somehow contaminated. I also threw away my daughter’s makeup (wearing gloves) and got her some replacements. I threw away the clothes she wore when she got sick. I have yet to enter the bathroom she was in despite a thorough cleaning by my husband and by my wonderful housecleaning friend.
And the danger isn’t even over, in my mind. I probably won’t relax my vigilance until at least this weekend when I am certain that I won’t catch this stomach bug or that she won’t catch it again…although with the amount of bleach cleaner used in this house over the past few days, I’d be surprised if anything survived. But just in case…I am still having a hard time making myself eat or touch anything. Even typing on this keyboard is difficult for me, and I’ll probably wipe it down with another Clorox wipe before the day is through.
And that laundry! Oh, that laundry is the bane of my existence today. I’d rather throw it all away and start over with new stuff, but I’m pretty sure my husband wouldn’t appreciate that. Seriously, I have a compulsion to stuff it all in garbage bags and at least donate it if not throw it all away. Towels, sheets, jeans, shirts, nightgowns, and especially those swimsuits. (Shudder. Even if I had a “laundry fairy” visit me and fold it all for me, I would not want to put it away or wear any of these clothes again.)
So here’s my pain. I am a Christian. I read my Bible every day. I KNOW God heals and performs miracles every day…in fact, He did just that a couple of weeks ago with one of my neighbors who accidentally cut her eye with scissors.
But somehow He hasn’t healed me.
That makes me feel like maybe I am not worth healing. Maybe I am not strong enough in my faith. But I don’t know how to be stronger. How does a person increase her belief?
Yes, I look at this past week and see that my daughter is better. I see that I have survived. I’ve lost weight again, and I am heavily sleep deprived, and I am depressed. I know I’m depressed because I take no joy in anything right now. All I want is to be alone. I don’t want to take photos or read or watch television or spend time talking on the phone. I don’t want to take a walk or smell the flowers or take a shower or wash my hair. Getting out of this bed is a herculean effort I make only for the sake of my daughter….getting her to school, picking her back up.
Despite my faith, I am still dogged by mental illness. And it IS an illness. It’s easy to tell people that you have diabetes or heart disease or a broken arm. There are medical interventions and explanations for all of those. But the mind…the mind is the place where our personhood resides. It’s hard to admit that screws are loose deep down in the PERSON that we are. Doctors tell me that perhaps my seratonin level is too high or low, or perhaps my epinephrine levels are out of whack, and they prescribe drugs to try to change those levels just as they prescribe drugs to change the level of insulin in the body. YET medical practitioners don’t really know. In fact, even a blood test for my levels would not tell them what my levels are up in my brain. They only way they’d find that out would be to autopsy me. And since I plan to be around for awhile longer, that’s not an option. I don’t want to take some pill because it *might* raise this level or lower another, especially if it has nausea as a possible side effect.
I don’t have any answers. I don’t know where to go from here except to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to encourage you: if you have loved ones going through mental problems, please understand that they have no more control over their symptoms than a cardiac patient has over his heart rhythm. Telling them to “get a grip” or “grow up” or “just relax” will only serve to increase their anxiety about their situation. Telling them over and over again to just “trust Jesus” might make them question their own faith.
So what can you do to help people like me who have anxiety disorders, depression and other mental illnesses? I can’t speak for them, but I would be helped immensely if people would:
- Pray with me on the spot.
- Call, text, or email me once a day just to keep me accountable. Knowing that I will have to tell someone what I did eat today *might* make me more inclined to eat.
- Don’t wonder why on earth I am so depressed or anxious when from the outside everything looks splendid. There is a lot of internal pain that nobody sees but God.
- Recommend good books that will help take away the anxious thoughts.
- Encourage me. Tell me about your struggles and how the Lord helped you overcome them.
- Please don’t write me off as a neurotic idiot beyond redemption, even if that’s the way I feel about myself.
There are times this week that I thought someone needed to intervene. But I was too ashamed to ask my friends and neighbors for help. What was I going to say, “Can you come take care of my sick kid for me so I can go have a melt down in my bedroom away from the germs?” So maybe if you have a friend who is going through a rough time with a mental illness, you could help them by being present. Validate their illness as something more than just a need to “relax” or “take a chill pill.” Do something for them. When my house was cleaned for me on Monday, my spirits lifted as the invisible germs were scrubbed away.
Perhaps going through this kind of suffering myself makes me better able to help others who are going through their own trials. I pray God will give me eyes to see and ears to hear, so that I can offer whatever comfort He grants me to give.