Some of you know I’m working on a book for Herald Press about best ways for Christians to support people (like me!) who live with mental health diagnoses. I keep running across fascinating stuff in my research. This week: a report by AARP that describes using painkillers to assist people who are lonely.
Loneliness is epidemic in the US, and was long before COVID forced many of us into physical distancing from each other. It seems that the psychic experience of loneliness shows up in the body as inflammation and a surge in white blood cells seeking to attack the loneliness threat. But when the body reads “threat!” the psyche is less able to do relationships effectively.
Pat Deegan, who has schizophrenia, owns a mental health consulting firm and teaches at Dartmouth medical school. She recently blogged about “being normal.” For us of faith, the crux comes when she describes what “recovery” from a “mental illness” should look like:
… recovery is not about becoming normal. The goal of recovery is to become the precious gift that we were born to become. …The goal of our recovery is to become the unique, never-to-be repeated gift that we are.
Pete Costas was still a Captain — that is to say, still relatively young in his career as a Salvation Army officer — the Sunday evening that a fidgety, distracted, and somewhat disheveled, young man walked in well after the service had started and seated himself at the center of the front row. Capt. Costas was just beginning his message when the man’s hand shot up in the air. He had a question.
Capt. Costas answered it and returned to his message. A few sentences later, the hand shot up again.
This time, after answering the question, Capt. Costas asked a favor. He pointed out the other people in the room and asked the young man if he thought he could hold his questions until the end so the others could hear the rest of the message. Afterward, the Captain said, the two of them could go together to his office and he’d answer all of the man’s questions.
The young man nodded his agreement and quickly sat on his hands.
During the eight years I taught NAMI’s Family to Family course, the session that most powerfully impacted participants was the one near the program’s end where they got to meet a person who relies on mental health services.
They’d look around the room expectantly and I’d announce: “I know you’re expecting a special guest tonight, someone who lives with mental illness as your relatives do.” I’d pause a few beats, then say: “Hi. My name is Carlene and I live with bipolar disorder.”
Eyes would widen. Jaws would drop. Sometimes I could hear a sharp intake of breath. No one expected their teacher to have a diagnosis. No one imagined that an ordinary-shaped life could also include bipolar disorder.
A few years back, I interviewed for a 20-hour job at a mental health nonprofit. The part-time, benefit-free position offered a paycheck comparable to what a hospital in the same city paid its part-time switchboard operators, but since everyone seemed to consider me overqualified to run a switchboard, I kept applying for positions in line with my experience.
I made it to the second interview and found the team quite concerned about whether I would be able to consistently represent their views about mental health at all times, in all places. Even though I was being considered for a part-time role outside the community where I lived.
This wasn’t the first time that an organization expected my paycheck to buy round-the-clock commitment. I started my career in news media at a time when they were expected to be politically “impartial” and so prohibited staff from any public engagement in causes. I later worked for a large civil engineering company that was often the presenting consultant at local meetings. I therefore could only participate as a citizen in public hearings when I agreed with the view the firm propounded.
In the case of the engineering firm, the paycheck was big enough to buy almost anything. In the case of the news operation, the honor of the profession (at that time) allowed me to walk proud even under constraints on my citizenship.
But the idea that I should never express a view about mental illness different from that of my part-time employer in exchange for less than $15,000 a year — I found that staggering. I didn’t think it would be a problem to present their program to potential funders, but it would definitely be a problem to limit myself to their perspectives during the remaining 7,696 hours per year.