"I bet you didn't know I carried a gun," a man I loved once told me. Moments before, he shut the door behind me. Unexpectedly. The rest of the building was dark and we were alone. Many times I had come before, but never to this room and never with the door shutting behind me. There was no need to be in this room. We had never come here before, but I followed. I would follow him anywhere.
He pulled the small, silver revolver from out of his sleeve as if it had been taped and hiding. Waiting.
I knew he loved me and he would only ever protect me. I knew that. It was all I had ever known. But something was different. The tone of his voice. The wild, gone look in his eyes. My heart began to race. The mutterings of days long gone. The brief musings on finality. My legs felt like led. How much he loved me. My mind gripped into a mantra. Nothing bad is going to happen. Nothing bad is going to happen. But the way he took out each bullet, rolling it in his fingers and putting it back into the chamber. It felt imminent. God please make it stop. Please make it stop God. Please make it stop. The click of the chamber as it closed shut. Oh God. The click of his eyes as the monster left him and he himself seemed startled back into reality. The click in my mind, my body frozen in terror.
My heart raced for days. For years. I was never again the same.
I told my dad before I got married. When I was all grown up and the fear had done its damage.
Five minutes in the 8th grade changed me forever.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I share my story freely because there are so many people who deal with mental illness and there are so few of us with mental illness who are willing, or capable, of talking about it. If one person feels more human and validated in their experiences through my words- it is a victory. If one family member or friend is better able to understand a person in their life with a mental illness because I talk about mine- it is a victory.
I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and ADHD, and when they are both firing at once, I have panic attacks.
Forget what you've seen in the movies about a stereotypical person with OCD who washes their hands one hundred times or an angsty, dramatic teenager battling depression or the hyper-active speaker who tries to look cool by running around on stage like an idiot and blaming it on his "ADD." Images that are conjured up through the lens of a stereotype are often not helpful.
Mental illness manifests itself in many, many ways.
And it kills.
Just this week a friend was at my house when she received a call that a family member had committed suicide. Just this week my dad, a Chaplain in the military, learned of his first confirmed suicide of the year within his ranks. To be clear, not all mental illness leads to suicide. And not all suicide is because of an underlying mental illness. But in the same way that a diabetic eating sugar and not taking their insulin will ultimately kill them, having a mental illness and leaning into its triggers while not taking medicine and staying in therapy will kill a person with mental illness.
So we have to address mental illness because suicide rates are high. But also, as a society, we have to address mental illness because acting as though it were not a real disease only perpetuates a culture of people who are quietly suffering, often without knowledge or access to life-saving and life-giving treatments and therapies. And that's not boding well for us.
If our lives are on a trajectory of wholeness and redemption, both in our spirits and our bodies, we must make room for the wholeness of the mind as well. To seek healing for the body and for the spirit, but refuse to seek healing for the mind is high treason against yourself.
Misconceptions Mental illness runs deep in the veins of my extended family. I have seen small traces of obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD and anxiety attacks in myself, my entire life. But nothing that ever warranted medication or counseling. If mental illness runs in your family, it doesn't hurt to take stock of yourself. To be aware that it might be there and that something traumatic or life-changing or just time itself might bring it to the surface would be wise. I believe the incident I described above led to the full maturation of my obsessive compulsive disorder. It may have been in my blood and in my brain at birth, but it was his bullets that triggered the disease that has since run wild in my mind.
My OCD comes in the form of obsessive thought patterns that I cannot get rid of. Sometimes, no amount of prayer, scripture recitation or singing of worship songs takes the thoughts away. Sometimes, no amount of medicine or therapy make them go away either. They are not thoughts based on reality or truth. They are often, for me, questions without answers. And questions and questions and questions and questions. My psychiatrist says I latch on to moments where good people change on a dime and suddenly do something evil. He says deep down somewhere my mind is trying to answer how that can happen. To make sense of it. Because that one time a man I loved counted his bullets and shut the door behind us and had the power to kill me if he wanted to. And an uncontrolled reel plays out in my head. Trying to make sense of the senseless. And sometimes its a reel of threats that won't stop. The obsessive compulsive disorder, for me, is a condition that allows my brain to imagine and think things that are not real... and I can't stop the thoughts. Someone is in the house. Or the person at the stop light next to me is going to shoot me. Or Annie is dying. It plays out. My last breath. Her last breath. The fight with the intruder. The feel of the knife. The click of the gun. The click of the gun. The click of the gun. I hear it a million times in a row.
And then I snap out of it. I realize thirty minutes later that I have sat in a terrifying stupor, my body waiting to be attacked, losing grip with reality- not living.
Before I took medicine, met with counselors and practiced spiritual disciplines that could help break me out of the cycle- I would have these episodes on a near daily basis. I had no idea I could live without having these episodes. I thought everyone had them. Imagine the joy when a doctor finally looked me in the eyes and told me I was sick and no amount of saying "Fear not I am the Lord your God" and fierce prayer would make it go away. I needed medicine. I needed coping mechanisms. I needed support. I needed to fight a disease.
If you or someone you love suffers from depression, anxiety, bi-polar, panic attacks or other mental illnesses- remind yourself daily- you are fighting a disease. And if you would fight cancer with prayer and chemo then why fight a mental illness any differently? It is not a matter of the mentally ill just "choosing" to have better thoughts any more than it is for the cancer patient "choosing" to have healthier cells in their bodies. It is a grave misconception to assume a mental disease can be prayed away or fixed by working out, doing yoga or simply focusing on happy words! As a child of God, I live a fearless life. As a child of obsessive compulsive disorder, sometimes disease-induced fear wrecks my brain. That however has no bearing on my spiritual life or the way I pursue Jesus and live wild, free and fearless. My spiritual life and my disease are separate. I cope with my disease and pray for healing from God in the same way a person with cancer begs for healing and prays for strength and endurance. It is not as simple as mind over matter.
And perhaps that's the most damaging thing that we can do for those around us suffering from some form of mental illness. Deduce it to a choice being made by that person- as if anyone wants to be depressed, or fixated on their own death or riddled with paralyzing anxiety. The best thing we can do to begin to address mental illness in our society is to label it for what it truly is: a disease. If we do not assume that it is someone's fault for acquiring pancreatic cancer, then we should not assume it is someone's fault for acquiring depression. If we do not suggest to a patient with heart disease that they pray away their illness, then we should not suggest to a person with obsessive compulsive disorder that they pray away their OCD.
The sooner we begin to treat mental illness as a common disease, the sooner people like me can realize they indeed have a disease and can begin a journey towards healing and wholeness.
Healing I no longer live with debilitating episodes on a daily basis. They still come on occasion, reminding me of the lifeless place I used to live in. Reminding me how sick I used to be and how much better I am now. Like a type one diabetic- I was born with this disease, one day it triggered and it will be with me until the day I die. So I mange it the way one manages their sugar and insulin. I take my medicine. I recognize that my tendency to cycle through episodes is higher during seasons of stress, so I avoid triggers (like reading the news or watching violent movies), I up my level of exercise, ask my family and friends to check on me, start visiting a counselor on a weekly basis to help me process and take my medicine. And still the episodes come. But they are fewer and farther between. And at the end of the day- I know the click will come- and the monster will go away. I know it is temporary. I know it is not my fault. I know it is not a result of me being weak or broken or somehow less-than; as if my emotional, passionate composition as a human is the only reason I suffer from this sickness. I call it a sickness. I look it in the eyes and let it know that I will fight it. I will fight like hell against it in order to live a full, free, fearless life.
And then I talk about it. I talk about it, not because it consumes me anymore, but because it used to consume me. And no one knew or understood. And my sweet husband so much wanted to help me but didn't know how. But now we know. And so we speak. We tell you that you are not alone. That there is hope. That there is healing. That there is a way to live with mental illness- fully live- and not be a slave to it. We know now that it is a disease and should be treated as such. We know now that what I was living with every day was not "normal." We know now that there is a road- a long road worth traveling to new life. And we pray that by opening up about this rampant family of elusive diseases that we begin to change the tone of the dialogue and conversation, that we dispel some unhelpful myths and misconceptions and that we empower others to not live in fear or shame, in judgement of what they do not understand or in hopelessness.
There is hope. Always. Everything rides on hope now.
"For some people, psychological health is a birthright. For many others, like Abraham Lincoln, it is the realization of great labor." -Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Shenk
Further thoughts: http://www.jennysimmons.com/2013/04/09/simplifying-war/
For help finding a counselor and tons of resources: http://www.aacc.net/