Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rid of My Shame: Opening Up About Mental Health Issues (Part I)

Last night, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in California shared his family's story of their son's suicide in April after a lifelong battle with mental health issues. My wife and I watched with tears as we imagined their anguish and grief. 

One of the things that stood out to me from the interview was Pastor Rick's words about mental health issues in our country. He spoke about how mental health problems are still a lingering taboo in our culture. People don't like talking about or admitting they struggle with these things. As somebody who has dealt with ongoing bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, I know exactly what he is talking about.

My Story

When my son, Kaleb, was born, he had numerous medical issues. We lived in the hospital for months. Two months after he was born, doctors felt he needed to have surgery to fix what was going on. To make a long story much shorter, the surgery went incredibly wrong, leaving his life in the balance. We were faced with decisions about his care that would determine whether he lived or died. We chose to fight. That fight was a two year battle which finally led to Kaleb receiving a kidney transplant. However, the battle had taken its toll. 

Approximately six months into Kaleb's treatment and hospitalization, I had a panic attack driving down the road. I was on my way to a college class, and out of nowhere, had a full scale panic attack. My heart was pounding rapidly. I thought I was having a heart attack. I broke into a cold sweat. I was freaking out. I pulled over on the side of the road and started crying. I called my wife, trying to calm myself down. I explained to her what had just happened, but even as I explained it, I felt foolish. What was wrong with me? Am I going crazy? What just happened? Will this happen again? All these questions and more lingered the entire day at school. 

Living with Mental Health Struggles

Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Until this point, I was a picture of perfect health, especially mentally. Over the course of the next several months and years, I would deal with these attacks. I would feel anxiety driving in my car, laying in the bed to sleep at night, sitting in a movie theatre, riding in a plane, and many other places. I learned a few weeks after my first attack this was called anxiety. I was told many people suffer with it. This both comforted me and saddened me. I had never had any issues like this before. Prior to these episodes, I would have dismissed such things as created in the mind, not a real issue.

I felt I was crazy, or at least going crazy. I wondered if telling other people about my struggles would only confirm this thought. I didn't know how to explain to people what was happening, because explaining it only confirmed (in my own mind) how ridiculous it was. I was ashamed. I attempted so hard to "think about something different." But it doesn't work that way. You cannot control it with mind over matter. Mental health doesn't work like that. It is real. You can't outtalk it. You can't manipulate yourself into dismissing its realness. You can't reason your way out of it.

At one point, during some of the worse times I faced, I remember thinking to myself: this is why some people commit suicide. I get it now. I wasn't suicidal, nor have I ever considered it. But for the first time in my life, I finally understood the feeling of hopelessness that ensues when you think your misery and suffering will never end. When I would sit and think about struggling with anxiety and panic attacks for the rest of my life, it would depress me. 

Finding Hope

But friends, we are not hopeless. There is a God who gives grace to us in our hour of need. It is a sufficient grace that comforts us, even in our afflictions (2 Corinthians 12:9). I have found this true. It doesn't mean that my problems always go away or get better. It means that I have a hope and comfort from God that accompanies me in the suffering. Even when the suffering doesn't lift, I know He is with me.

Lastly, to all who have or are struggling with mental health issues, it's okay to talk about it. You are not strange. You do not have to be ashamed. There are others who face the things you battle each day. I have found that sharing my struggles over the last few years with others has opened conversations about their own struggles. Talking about it has actually helped me. I hope this post will serve to do the same. You don't have to live silent about your struggles. Get rid of your shame. You are not alone.

Tomorrow in Part II, I will discuss ways that I have found hope and help in my struggles with mental health. We'll talk about misconceptions and what I believe to be poor Christian counsel on this subject. 

Leave a comment below if this is something you or someone you loved has faced. What do you struggle with? What has been helpful to you? What feelings and emotions have you carried with this battle?

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  1. Eric, I had my first panic attack when I was 15 & have battled with them ever since... 23 years now. When they first started, I thought I had to be having heart problems from the pain in my chest & doctors ran tests on me with the same expectation from the description I have them of what happened to me. The tests showed that I was perfectly healthy. Back then, panic attacks & anxiety just weren't talked about or even understood like today. It wasn't until 3 years later when I saw a show on TV talking about these attacks that I finally knew what was happening to me & knew that I wasn't alone or crazy! Because of traumatic events in my life, I still struggle with this but have come to recognize when one is coming and am able to stop & take a minute to calm my mind and just breathe. I mostly get them at times when I'm alone in public. Malls are the worst place for me when I'm alone, that's where I had my first attack also. I know why my mind goes to that place & my body responds but I'm just waiting for the day that it stops. I've never taken medication for it but was just talking to Andy about that possibility last week. It's a really helpless feeling & a scary place to be in. There were about 5 years in my 20's where I struggled with suicidal thoughts because I thought that I was going crazy. I thank God that I made it through those years! I'm glad to hear more & more people talking about this! I think it's a huge issue in our society & it's all too often just swept under the rug in humiliation. Thanks for letting people know that normal people struggle with this, the ones that seem to have it all together & always have a smile on their face sometimes are fighting a battle no one knows about.

  2. Misty,

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is a struggle that people who have never experienced it can understand. It is a very helpless feeling, just as you described. I'm hoping and praying many more people will realize that there is help and hope. I'm going to share more tomorrow about things that have helped me.

    May God teach us to trust in Him, even in those valleys of darkness.


  3. Very well written! I also hope people realize that anxiety and depression can affect any age! Family members thought I was crazy when I had my son Jaden tested for a million different things when he was in kindergarten because he would flip out, cry, shake, pitch fits, etc for no apparent reason at all....but I knew from my own experiences that something wasn't right. He was later diagnosed with anxiety OCD and ADHD. His medicine treats anxiety and it has done great things for him! He has come so very far over the past few years!!

  4. I have delt with this for many years (late teens) Eric. I have had many tests to which all come back as normal. I have had to try to learn to deal with it on my on. I have had the same thoughts, feelings, etc.. I have tried to explain to my wife and close family and while they are very sympathetic they just can't understand. I have had Drs to try to subscribe medicine but maybe I'm wrong but I feel the medicine isn't for me. I feel that I don't have mental issues that I can't control. I have prayed, begged and pleaded with GOD to take this problem out of my life because at times it consumes me with worry about if and whem my next attack will happen. I feel trapped I limit myself to what I do because I have found any thing outside of my comfort zone sometimes will trigger my next attack. This may seem wrong because I don't wish this on anyone but it helps me to hear stories about other people with this problem which I know so contradicts me saying I don't wish this for no one. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. My husband was diagnosed with manic-depression 8 years ago. This stemming from treatment he received for cancer. The worst time came in 2007, he was starting a new job as a correctional officer in a maximum security prison, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and only given 3 months to live. She passed away exactly 3 months later in 2008. His depression was much worse and he was totally detached from our family. During that year thing became progressively worse, our marriage took a dramatic hit because of his choices. Then he finally was able to get on meds and he started to even out. I was not able to grieve my mothers death because I was having to work on healing our marriage. A couple of years passed and then our 17 year old son decided to start using drugs, became very disrespectful and refused to go to church any longer, saying he no longer believed in God and was sick of us "forcing" our beliefs on him. This continued to get worse so on mothers day 2yrs ago, we kicked him out of the house. He continues this downward spiral today. He was arrested last year and has walked out on 3 jobs. All of this finally caught up with me, last year around December, I started shaking internally and externally, extreme nausea, legs feeling like they would collapse, rapid heart rate, feeling like I could not breathe, and feeling like I was floating off the bed when I tried to sleep. I had no idea what was going on with me. We started seeing a new doctor who immediately new it was anxiety and referred me to a psychiatrist. She was a Godsend to me, she is a born again Christian who does not like to use meds unless it is a last resort. She read scripture with me the very first visit. Unfortunately I had to go on an anti-anxiety medication but that's ok, it has helped and I almost feel sane again. I have triggers and they are not always the same ones. I know that I am in this season for a reason and I am trusting God to take care of me in His time and in His way. If it means medication for a long time, then so be it, I'm ok with that.

  6. Steven, thank for sharing, bud. I have not taken medicine either, but I'm not against it. I know some people need it. I could have probably used it in some of my worse days, but God sustained me in those times.

    Janette, thank you for sharing. Like you, I'm okay with people who need medication for these things. I have some friends who need medication. Praise God for medicine that can help us.

  7. Looking forward to Part II. Thanks for addressing this issue.