Post Author: Sarah Griffith Lund
It didn’t seem to be a big deal at first. Doesn’t everybody have somebody in the family who is crazy? Yet as I got deeper into my own family story and saw just how deeply mental illness impacted my childhood experiences of home, I realized why all these years I have kept silent about it. But this silence came at a cost. It turns out that the silence about mental illness, that I so carefully guarded, kept me from being my true self and sharing myself in an authentic way with others.
It turns out that I’m not the only one. And it turns out that many others are ready to break the silence, too. I feel profound gratitude for the outpouring of support for my new book published in partnership with The Young Clergy Women Project and Chalice Press this fall, Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family, and church.
In my book based on my personal experiences along with my professional training as a minister and social worker, I dig deeply into the multiple answers to this question: what happens when the ones we love are crazy?
One in five people are diagnosed with a mental illness, so lots of us are in relationship with people who have mental illness, whether it is a family member, friend or lover.
On Facebook several of my friends are sharing daily updates of things they are thankful for in their lives. Being thankful for mental illness is difficult for me to embrace. After all, as a little girl, it was the untreated bipolar disorder in my father that tore apart my family. Mental illness makes me feel angry, not grateful. It’s a cruel and haunting disease that makes life so much harder.
Yet there is profound gratitude for the visible signs of hope that prevention, treatment and even recovery from mental illness is possible. This is the good news! Mental health treatment and recovery programs empower people with mental illness to be highly gifted professionals and community leaders. I am thankful for the perseverance and dedication of advocates for improved, affordable and accessible mental healthcare.
My story as the daughter, sister, and cousin of people with mental illness is a story of thanksgiving for the ways my sojourn through the valley of the shadow of mental illness has brought me closer to God. In truth, the hell of witnessing family member’s suicide attempts and execution by lethal injection led me initially to totally question God’s existence because God seemed to not be present in these times of extreme suffering. Here’s a scene from Blessed are the Crazy when my mom and me visited my brother Scott, who had recently attempted suicide, in the lockdown unit of the psychiatric hospital the day after Christmas.
“The acute care psychiatric ward was crowded and filled with stale air. A small TV blared in the common room. There was no sign or celebration of the Savior’s birth here. If anything it was all that much worse because it was the day after Christmas. The staff looked bleary-eyed and half dead behind their computers. We went down the hallway and sat at a long table. Another family was there visiting a young man. The volume of their conversation quickly escalated to screaming, but there was nowhere else for us to go. My mother tried to smile through the ugliness. She held my brother’s hand. I don’t remember what she said. It just seemed to be important that we were there. Scott abhorred being there, like a prisoner on death row. He said his doctor was an arrogant, incompetent jerk. He wanted us to sign papers to release him under our care. My mother and I knew we couldn’t do that. We still didn’t trust that Scott would be safe outside of the hospital. Thinking of that grim acute care ward at Christmas, I like to imagine Mom and me in the role of the magi coming to pay homage to the baby Jesus. We brought Scott our warm presence, our advocacy. He didn’t want them, had no use for them. But like gold, frankincense, and myrrh, our gifts were for the person we knew him to be—a child of God, worthy of every one of God’s promises, and nothing less. Scott was vulnerable and needed strength to escape his deadly impulses, just as the holy family fled to Egypt from murderous King Herod.”
I am thankful that my brother Scott made it out of the hospital and is on the road to recovery. But mental illness is a journey and sometimes it takes us through the valley of the shadow of death. But on the outer edges of the valley of mental illness, as I walk through its shadows and emerge into hints of daylight, I discover gifts of divine clarity, moments where I can feel in my bones that God is indeed with me. And I feel like I can breathe again.
Here is my reinterpretation of Psalm 23 inspired by my journey with mental illness:
Jesus is my light and gives me all that my spirit needs to carry on.
God invites me to trust in divine love so that when the still water runs thick with crazy blood, my soul is restored.
God leads me down paths of giving my testimony for the sake of healing.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of mental illness with crazy in the blood, I will fear no evil, for God is with me.
God’s spirit comforts me.
God prepares a table for all who carry the cross of mental illness;
God makes sure there’s abundance, more than enough of everything for everybody.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my crazy life.
And I will be in the blessed presence of God’s healing light and love forever.
I am thankful for the Spirit’s nudging me to break my silence about mental illness. I am thankful for the courageous hope of so many people who have broken the silence about mental illness. I’m grateful for the Spirit’s persistent nudging us through the valley of the shadow of mental illness. I’m thankful for the church’s growing eagerness to engage in sacred conversations about brain diseases and mental illness.
Many of the ones I love have mental illness. Thanks for listening to my story and if you want to read more, you can find it in my book Blessed are the Crazy and on my blog www.sarahgriffithlund.com. There’s a guide for building a mental health ministry for your congregation in the resource section of the book, as well as a free online six week study guide to encourage you to break the silence about mental illness in your community.
Online Resources on Mental Health and Faith
Image by: Karl and Ali
Used with permission