Suffering and the Mind/Body Connection in Mental Illness

Suffering and the Mind/Body Connection in Mental Illness August 31, 2015

Thoughts on Suffering and Mental Illness  | Mere BreathOver the last month or so, I’ve felt debilitatingly sad and overwhelmed. A feeling that was reinforced every time I learned more about Planned Parenthood, saw the orange, hazy smoke outside my window from the fires and every time I visited with my dear (incarcerated) sister online. She should not be locked up and the way Idaho prison systems work is truly wicked.  My sister has only had one visitor since being arrested several months ago. A lady pastor she didn’t even know came to visit her. God bless that lady pastor. She is doing what so many of us cannot or will not do; she is reaching out and being there for somebody who needs it most. Anyway, between those and various other more normal challenges, I simply wasn’t able to function. I lost enthusiasm and interest, I lost my desire to dance and sing and create. I couldn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps or snap out of it. I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I was exhausted no matter how much sleep I got. It wasn’t about faith or even about undiagnosed conditions. I know who I am and I know who God is: He is my savior. He knows the number of hairs on my head, He knows everything that is going on with me in my mind, body, and soul. Prayer and staying in God’s Word are essential to the Christian life and I was and am cultivating both, but sometimes it is easy to forget that God isn’t a magic cure-all. I think that can be particularly easy to forget when you are watching someone else go through a trial. Of course, God can cure all, but He doesn’t because He has a better plan.

My husband sent me in to get a massage today. I’ve had several massages before, but only one with a male therapist.  That time I didn’t have to get undressed because I was post-partum in a hospital. I wore my pajamas and fell asleep during the massage while my husband sat nearby, rocking our newborn son.  I have trust “issues”, but especially with men. My heart sank when I realized that of the two massage therapists who work at my chiropractor’s office, the guy would be working on me. “Undress to your level of comfort,” he says casually before leaving the room. Comfort? Comfort would be eating Häagen-Dazs out of the carton in my sweats on my bed at 2 o’clock in the afternoon while binge watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix. I strip down to my undies, carefully tucking my bra underneath my folded clothes. Bra straps always get in the way of a back massage, so there is no way to retain that comfort without complicating the whole process. I slid underneath the blanket on the table, face down, looking through the doughnut pillow at the industrial carpet on the floor. Deep breath. God is good, He is my protector, my strength, and my glory. I try to control the stress spasms that begin to make my legs and arms twitch. After 5 minutes or so, the therapist knocks and waits for my answer before entering the room. He apologizes that his hands are cold and begins working on my shoulders. He asks about the amount of pressure and what hurts the most. He feels the tension in my neck and back (aka Motherhood). “My hips” I confess. “Ever since I cracked my foot last year, the pain is constant and often sharp”. He checks my feet, sure enough, one is much higher than the other. He goes back up and keeps working on my shoulders and spine. Gradually, I feel the tension begin to dissipate. The therapist doesn’t need my help anymore, my muscles tell the whole story. I was athletic once. I’m not anymore. I’m busy and stressed and have been in pain for so long I don’t remember what it is like to move without it. He is very professional, only uncovering my back. He works expertly on my legs, hips and the knots in my glutes through the blanket, explaining what muscle group he is working on. I’m able to relax and focus on breathing evenly without drooling. He holds the blanket so I can turn over modestly and then folds it underneath my chin — full coverage comfort. He sits above my head and works on my neck and face. I can smell the warm, pure coconut oil. It isn’t overpowering, it reminds me of my house. He told me to take my time getting up and he’d have water for me when I came out. He padded out of the room, barefoot. I dress. Breath deeply and emerge. Nothing hurts. NOTHING! He hands me a cup of water and suggests it might be helpful for my hips if I get an adjustment from the chiropractor before I leave. I thank him and do so. As I drove home, I couldn’t believe how good I feel. I’m still sad, but not overwhelmed. Nothing has changed except that the pain is gone. I notice the feeling of hope creep in again. My spirit has been strengthened by treating my body.

Depression is tricky. Anxiety is maddening. I’m not sure why folks have such a difficult time understanding that mental illness is real. That mental illness can have physical manifestations like exhaustion, fuzzy thinking and pain. Last time I visited my doctor for severe anxiety, I measured a full three inches shorter than I usually am. Yes, really. You might be amazed at how often people like me hear that our illness is self-inflicted, circumstantial, weak or even sinful. The only time in my life I heard that my suffering was my fault more than I do now is when I had Hyperemesis Gravidarum. If you can’t see the problem, it must not be real, right? I don’t often talk about this aspect of mental health because naysayers are so cavalier in their misunderstanding. They are unforgivingly confident in their knowledge. Too many councilors, too many pastors, too many people, upon being confronted with mental illness ask the age old question posed in John 9:2, “Who sinned? This man or his parents.” Is it really so difficult to recognize God’s signature on mental and emotional suffering?

Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” –John 9:3

 

Of course anxiety, depression and other mental illness symptoms can be caused by sin. Similarly, mental illness can be aggravated by sin. However, mental illness does not equate to sin. We still live in a fallen world, remember? At this point, we are mere reflections of the coming glory. But I know that it has been during the darkest times of my life that I have fallen the most in love with God.  It is when I can’t trust myself, when I am helplessly hopeless that I feel His comforting presence shining warm on my face.

Suffering and The Mind/Body Connection in Mental Illness   | Mere BreathIn my considerable weakness, God has only grown stronger, and more wonderful. Sin was conquered a long time ago. Sometimes we will still have to walk through  remnants of that war. We will be confronted with our brokenness; brokenness that isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. It is in those times that we need to keep our eyes trained on the horizon. The glory is coming. You’ll see it when you look in your children’s eyes, in the embrace of a loved one, or in a really, really good cup of coffee. You’ll feel it when you wake from a lazy afternoon nap, when medicine works and when pain stops.  Life is hard, but God is always good. Please, don’t be resentful or suspicious of suffering. Every trial, every pain, every weakness is an opportunity to experience God in the fullness of His glory.

“You did it: you changed wild lament into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.” –Psalm 30:11-12

 

 


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