Last year, during Lent, I wrote what would turn out to be one of my most popular blog posts of all time. In this post, “Loving My Body for Lent,” I decided that for Lent, I would give up the harmful teachings I’d inherited from purity culture, and I would take on a new attitude toward my own body.
I’m setting it free from the hatred that I have directed toward it for years and years. I’m setting it free from any responsibility that the church tries to put on it for the sins of men. I’m setting it free from Platonic associations with the carnal, the base, the non-transcendent.
I’m embracing my body for what it is–one of the amazing manifestations of a universe filled with divine wisdom. Also, me. My body is me.
I’m glad this is something I chose to do. I learned a lot from this experience–learned to find both the sacred in me, and the fleshiness in the Divine. I learned to see my body as my Bible (as Alan Hooker puts it), as a way of learning about God.
But I missed something in this Lenten journey of mine. There was one part of my body that I overlooked. That I failed to love.
Our society seems to think that our minds aren’t really a part of our bodies. There’s health, and then there’s mental health. There’s illness, and then there’s mental illness. There are doctors, and then there are shrinks.
Even though my mind is a function of my body–something I can only have or be or use because this body includes a working brain–there’s this idea that my mind is something else, something outside. Something that can’t, or shouldn’t be, touched by the same physical forces that work against my body.
Because of this idea, a lot of people think that mental illness isn’t real.
“It’s all in your head,” they’ll say.
All in my head.
I didn’t go to an Ash Wednesday service this year because I was sick in bed at the thought of leaving my apartment to go to an Ash Wednesday service. I have chronic clinical depression and an anxiety disorder, and, my doctor thinks, possibly agoraphobia. I don’t really need the ashes to remind me of my mortality anyway, because after years of being depressed, I have enough self-injury scars that I am reminded every day.
Even though a few years ago I finally started to seek treatment for my mental illness, I couldn’t shake this feeling that I wasn’t really depressed. I was just lazy. I wasn’t really anxious. I was just a wimp who couldn’t handle normal life. I didn’t really need the medication I’d been prescribed. I just needed to suck it up and be a stronger, better person.
I stopped taking medication. I beat myself up for being a “failure” at life. I pretended I was okay, and went through the next couple of years “sucking up” the misery I was in because it was “all in my head.”
“Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
I started going to therapy and taking medication to treat my anxiety and depression again earlier this year. I know deep down that mental illness is a real thing, and that I really have it, and that I am really sick most days. Yet I continue to treat myself badly because I can’t just “get over it.”
During my latest therapy session, I told my therapist that sometimes I have panic attacks because I worry too much about what people think of me.
My therapist asked me, “Well, what do you think about yourself?”
I answered, “I think I’m lazy. I think I suck at being an adult.”
My therapist’s response is one that I am going to hold onto during this season of Lent. It is going to be my daily prayer as I attempt to fast from self-hatred:
“I don’t think you’re lazy,” she told me. “You have an anxiety disorder that drains all of your energy. That’s not lazy. Sometimes we live with mental illness for so long that we start to think that the effects of our illness are our own character flaws. They aren’t. That’s not true.”
I know I can’t just stop shaming myself for having a mental illness, any more than I can just stop having a mental illness to begin with. But I can take small steps toward taking care of myself.
I can treat this like I would other serious physical illnesses (because mental illnesses are physical illnesses): with medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and help from my doctor.
I can spend more time journaling about my healing process, more time in self-discovery, more time educating myself about mental illnesses and what causes them.
I can admit that I am not completely independent right now, and sometimes I need help taking care of myself. I can remember that I have a partner who loves me and is willing to provide that help when he can.
I can stop falling for the lie that lacking joy, or being in a constant state of fear makes me spiritually inferior. I can take comfort in the idea that God has a preference for the marginalized, and in a world that stigmatizes mental illness, that includes me.
Coming from a church background where it was basically Lent all the time because we were constantly expected to give up things that made us happy and healthy, the most radical thing I can do for Lent is learn to love and take care of myself.
I’m going to take care of my mind for Lent. It’s sick, and it needs love, and I am going to give it all that I can.