Call it What IT Is

WHO World Mental Health Day, October 10, 2020

There was a time when I didn’t understand the term “mental health.” Granted, I was much (much) younger. But still, in my early twenties I recall someone taking a mental health day off from work. I couldn’t remotely wrap my head around it, and assumed the person didn’t have what it takes to overcome a difficult day. When in fact, that was exactly right. On that particular day, this person did not have what he/she needed to manage.

But because I could manage, I didn’t understand why others couldn’t do the same. Many (many) years later, I know there is much more to that person’s story than the simplistic narrative I’d assigned to it. To date, I’ve been fortunate enough to have not taken a mental health day off of work, yet I’ve taken days off for the flu or strep throat. No one questioned me. It was “deserved,” and in fact, co-workers would be glad that I spared them from a contagious illness.

My lack of understanding was ironic, because I am no stranger to the tragedies of mental health diagnoses. Before I was placed in a foster home at a young age, I lived with my mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and then also bi-polar.

Years later, as an adult with my own family, I faced the complexities of various diagnoses with immediate family and extended. I also have friends whose depression cripples them and impacts the trajectory of happiness their families anticipated.

Our mental well being, whether clear and intact, or plagued with an altering state, penetrates our relationships and affects the dynamics of our families and friendships.

A mental illness can cause frustration, weariness, and unbearable grief. When left ignored, confusion and disbelief at circumstances create havoc, and a nonproductive battle against a nebulous enemy ensues.

Like cancer or ALS, or any other physical ailment, grave or not, an illness must be identified and attacked with fervor if there is a chance of survival. That’s why people will say, after many trips to a doctor, “At least I know the diagnosis.” Now they can consider step 2.

People experiencing mental illness often call the symptoms something other than what they are, ashamed to assign a diagnosis to it. Instead, they adopt an “I can manage this on my own” mentality that is the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” signature of old American culture.

That is not all bad, which is to say, put things in place that will give you an advantage. Pulling oneself up by the bootstrap does not mean, doing it alone, or without assistance from medicine.

Pulling oneself up requires vulnerability.

It’s asking of ourselves, what we ask of each other.

It’s recognizing the stigma that unfairly accompanies the illness, but not giving it any power.

It’s a decision to build scaffolding around your world, to safely navigate in an effort to reach what seems so very unattainable.

It is exposing the condition and speaking truth. It’s saying, “I have strep throat and it’s completely debilitated me. I will need to see the doctor, and take medicine to overcome this illness.”

Except, it sounds a little different.

Instead, it’s, “I have anxiety about the things I can’t change, and I want to run from them and ignore them at all cost. I don’t think my perspective is what it should be. I need to see a doctor, and I will take the medicine prescribed to me.”

For me, it will first always include:

“God, show me the way. I cannot do this on my own, point me in the direction of joy and happiness.”

And then I will lift the lead-heavy blanket and make my way out of bed because God has told me I have a purpose. Ephesians says, For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Once, someone I love very dearly said to me, “I don’t want to have to take medicine my whole life.” I replied (I hope gently), “Our friend doesn’t want to wear a prosthesis his whole life.”

Life can be so unfair. Our streets are filled with unfairness; those who couldn’t figure a way out. My own mother was one of them. She didn’t understand that she was mentally ill. Her mental illness prevented her from seeing the world with clarity and perspective and from self-sufficiency.

That is the tragedy. Unlike a person with a physical ailment, who is keenly aware and might equip themselves for battle, some mental illnesses rob a person of their ability to see the enemy, in which case, the enemy has the advantage.

And that is why, if we can see the enemy, we must all call it what it is, and attack. That is pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps.

The WHO is hosting a big event today. Click here to access.

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