Being David’s Harp: Walking Mercifully with Mental Illness

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep
and there is no foothold.
I have entered the waters of the deep
and the waves overwhelm me.

Two important posts to share with you today—not on the theme of Rethinking Catechesis, though I invite you to keep your cards and letters coming in, as it were. This is another critical issue that requires rethinking and merciful response, an issue with which readers of this blog know I have the most personal of connections. I’m talking about how people of faith live with mental illness, their own and their loved ones’ and that of their sister and brother parishioners.

Yesterday Patheos blogger Calah Alexander went bravely—and humorously, since both courage and wit are among her many gifts—public with her demon, anxiety.

Anxiety.

Funny how one word can change everything. I never considered the idea that anxiety disorder is something that I could have. I figured, like the asshat I am, that people who can’t leave their house and who have panic attacks are probably just super unable to suck it up and deal. In a way, that’s true, they we are. But the idea of all that stress and fear being even partially a physical reaction wasn’t something I gave a lot of credence to. Again, asshat here.

My therapist said that anxiety, while not always simple to treat, is always simple to understand, because it is always, 100% of the time, based on avoidance. That’s not always a bad thing; we’re biologically programmed to be flooded with adrenaline and cortisol when our brains sense danger, so that we can avoid it. But when you can’t chillax and everything you see is danger everywhere you look, when disaster and death and the downfall of your family and probably civilization as well is lurking behind each heap of dirty laundry, you become completely paralyzed by the fear of failure, of what will happen if you don’t get it together, which paradoxically renders you incapable of getting it together because when you try to open the laundry room door and it won’t open because there’s too much laundry, you collapse in hysterical sobs on the floor and gasp for air and hold your head together with your own hands because you’re really afraid it’s going to split in half. But not in the cool way, like where Athena jumps out to save you from the laundry. In the way where you’ll have to put it back together with superglue and live the rest of your life with a broken head, which will make doing the laundry completely impossible forever.

Clearly, this is not an academic description of anxiety. It might not even be a terribly accurate one. It’s just my description of how I spent the first month of 2014.

Please read it all, and if you can identify—or even, especially, if you can’t—give Calah some love and prayers in her combox. Your prayers have literally made a life-saving difference in my own battle, so I know their efficacy.

Read Leah Libresco‘s response piece, too. And I second Leah’s request that you consider providing Calah and her family that work of mercy that is material support, if you are so moved.

Consider, too, whether it isn’t time to begin more linking around, more conversation, more concerted and compassionate action on this front. It’s the season, I think. More than a few friends have shared with me and asked my prayers for and company on their perilous night journeys in these weeks following the light of Christmas, which can be dazzling yet painful to those who believe themselves doomed to be that Fourth Wise Man, always in the dark and alone and longing. It’s literally seasonal, too, of course. But Calah’s post underlines how impossibly awful it is to be in the dark alone and think you belong there because you are not faithful enough, to think that asking people for help is letting the side down.

That, at the very least, we can do something about. We can withhold, even when it requires tongue-biting so extreme as to constitute mortification, comments or actions that constitute judgment or indicate revulsion. We can remind ourselves that the Scriptures and the Communion of Saints are full-to-burstin’ with folks whose mental health status was questionable—and just as full of those, Jesus himself at the head of the line, who reached out to listen, to embrace, to walk with, to heal. And we can remind Calah of just how many of those broken people, those habitations of the demons of fear and despair, once having encountered healing became healers themselves.

I started this post with the words of a soul in the depths of anxiety and despair. Tradition gives Psalm 69 to David, the harpist, who reached out with healing to Saul, his demon-plagued enemy. Perhaps Psalm 69—which alternates cries of suffering and of hope—is the mingled song of Saul and David, of those in the mental and spiritual abyss and the Church, of Calah and you and me and all of us with our God, who alone makes the broken heart to sing.

I will praise God’s name with a song;
I will glorify him with thanksgiving.
A gift pleasing God more than oxen,
more than beasts prepared for sacrifice.
The poor when they see it will be glad
and God-seeking hearts will revive;
for the Lord listens to the needy
and does not spurn his servants in their chains.
Let the heavens and the earth give him praise,
the sea and all its living creatures.


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