When Mental Illness Hits Home

I have always enjoyed an optimistic personality and have typically looked on the sunny side of life, always open to new possibilities and believing that hidden within every problem is a promise of creative transformation. One of my favorite verses is Romans 8:28: “in all things God works for good.” I don’t blame God for the pain of the world; I see God as a companion who provides comfort, energy, and possibility in life’s most difficult situations. God is not the source of diseases of body, mind, or spirit; nor are such incidents the result of divine punishment or some inexorable karmic debt, even though I believe that we share some responsibility for certain health conditions. God does not cause our pain or test us with suffering, but seeks wholeness in situations that God neither desires nor could totally control.

As a result of my spiritual practices and affirmative approach to life I had always felt myself more or less immune to the mental health issues that plagued my mother and brother, both of whom had serious mental health issues related to anxiety, depression, obsessional thinking, and schizoid tendencies, according to the judgment of health care professionals.  In fact, these mental health issues often “set me apart” emotionally and relationally. I wasn’t always as patient or understanding as I could have been, no doubt some of this due to the inconveniences, emotional bullying, and traumatic encounters I experienced during my brother’s lifelong struggle with mental illness.

I felt immune from such emotional aberrations until one Friday evening a few months after my brother’s death. I had an important interview and was scheduled to give a sermon as prelude to being one of the finalists for a congregation in the Washington DC area. As I prepared to go to bed, I discovered that I couldn’t get a deep breath. I felt short of breath and there was nothing I could do about it. I discerned it wasn’t heart-related. This went on for three nights and often during the day. None of my typical creative responses to stress – meditation, walking, or even two gin and tonics – eliminated my growing sense of panic regarding my breathing. I survived and did well in both the sermon and interview, but I still felt ill at ease. On Monday, I secured a medical appointment, took tests to rule out any somatic based problems, and received prescriptions for Ambien and Zoloft. In a few days, my condition was resolved, although I on occasion have a brief sense of shortness of breath when I think of that weekend, experience a stressful event, or when I eat heavy foods. I have returned to “normal” but always have a concern that the condition might return without notice.

My anxiety-related episode was a window into my brother’s condition. He was anxious most every day and night and often was nearly paralyzed by feelings of panic. I often was harder on him than he deserved, although sometimes my “tough love” enabled him to grow emotionally and in life skills. Although he had died earlier that year, my brief experience was a lesson in empathy that now joins me with others. As a pastor, I was trained in mental health issues, but when it came to my brother, who regularly called me several times a day, often with unreasonable requests, I often emotionally shut down, had diminished empathy, and, even if he was unaware of it, perceived him as a nuisance and constant test of patience. He was the “other.” But, was he really?

My brief weekend of anxiety, regardless of the cause – emotional, grief, physiological, or all three and then some – awakened me to the reality that there is no “other.” We are all vulnerable. Our mental well-being exists within a small comfort zone; we are all susceptible to the maladies we associate with the mentally ill. We are all vulnerable and in our recognition, we can find a healing of the spirit that enables us to reach out to fellow companions currently struggling with mental illness.

Amy Simpson’s Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission is a wake up call to the pervasive realities of mental illness in congregations and our need to move from alienation and otherness to communion and partnership. Within the body of Christ, everyone counts – our joys and sorrows are one. There is no “other” – we are joined in an intricate fabric of relationships in which the health of one shapes the health of all, and the health of the community shapes the health of each of its members. Our sense of invulnerability is the greatest source of alienation and judgment. We think “it couldn’t happen to me or my child” and then discover that what we perceived as alien is a daily companion, shaping every decision and interaction.

Although the theology behind Simpson’s Troubled Minds is more conservative than my own, her practical applications come from someone with a heart for healing. We share a common vision of congregations as places of healing and wholeness; safe places for those who suffer from mental illness. I believe that Jesus is both a model and source of transformation for us as we explore mental health issues. Jesus’ healing ministry was characterized by both affirmation and negation – by his words and deeds and by what he did not do or say.  Jesus’ touched persons suffering from illnesses of body, mind, and spirit. He welcomed them, reached out to them, and accepted them. He did not require confession or apology, he simply healed. In a time in which physical and mental illnesses bore the stigma of contagion, ritual uncleanliness, sin, punishment, and divine displeasure, Jesus embraced lepers and demon possessed (persons we would describe today as epileptics and mentally ill). Jesus recognized that many illnesses were beyond our powers and could not be solved by an act of will on our part. Only the Great Physician can restore us to a future and a hope.

Jesus’ healing ministry was also characterized by what he did not say: he did not blame the victim, see illness as God’s will, or related illness to divine punishment. Jesus saw the angelic and the holy beneath layers of emotional and mental disease. He experienced God in their pleas and committed himself to bringing forth the divine hidden by all its “distressing disguises.”

I do not want to repeat that weekend of anxiety. But, I am grateful for the lesson in empathy I received. I am “one of them,” and in no way immune or superior. My well-being is not solely of my own creation but the result of many forces outside my control, any of which could contribute to a recurrence of this or another mental health issue. There is a hidden grace in such vulnerability: it opens our hearts, deepens our spirits, and joins us with our diverse companions on the human adventure.

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on Troubled Minds.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).