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.
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.
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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