In light of Robin William’s passing, a lot of people have been talking about depression and mental illness. The message is to “Talk about mental illness.” Any time a tragedy occurs, we try and find a way to prevent it. It makes sense - if your family was attacked by a pack of wild bears, you’d be promote bear spray. But, just like bear spray, there are some important precautions you should know before talking to just anyone.
Let me tell you a story.
When I was five, I was molested. This was the catalyst leading to PTSD/Depression/Anxiety in my teens. I know that is the cause now. I didn’t then.
I told myself, and was told by a few others, that everyone in the world had it worse than I did. So I locked up the emotions and hid them deep inside. Fighting them on my own. This is not recommended.
At age 18, I was suicidal and depressed. Maybe that’s why I joined a missions team. The mission was set up like a school year. In September you meet your dozen other team mates, spend two months living in a tiny boarding school environment, and then spend the rest of the year touring India, England, Canada, and some of the States.
Being on the mission’s team, my depression got worse and worse. I think there are lots of reasons for this… some of them being away from home for an extended period of time, un-dealt with social anxiety after ten years of homeschooling, and the extreme culture shock of living with missionaries. My identity was stripped away, one lip ring at a time.
I grew more and more suicidal. Couldn’t sleep. Eventually, I decided to talk to one of the leaders on the team. Since I was suicidal, he needed to report it to the higher ups, which I was fine with. He began asking me about demons, why I liked to draw skulls, what music did I listen to, did I watch pornography, and on and on and on. Essentially “How did you cause your depression?” I learned that my depression was caused, or worsened, by my actions.
By “reporting my problem to higher ups” I suppose the leader meant “telling everyone about your problem regardless of who they are.” The entire staff found out about my depression, and would ask me about it randomly, when I wasn’t prepared. “Well, everyone needs to know so they can pray for you!” I learned asking for help meant giving up the right to having boundaries.
When I would talk about my depressed thoughts, all of which I know now are common, I would be told “Oh, careful you don’t let anyone hear you talk like that. You’ll end up in the insane asylum.” Some of my team-mates and the leaders treated me differently, “Still sad all the time?” I learned to be afraid of what people would do to me once they knew my “secret.”
Over time, I eventually went to India, and England. I tried to force myself to be better. To be cured of the illness. I began cutting, and that’s when I quit the team. That was my option: Be cured or quit the team. I was allowed one break, and never again. It was made clear if I needed another break, I was done. I was gone. I learned that my illness could give people a reason to cast me out. To make me alone.
On the team, you have to write “Prayer Letters” to all the people who support you. The missions organization then sends them out after editing the grammar and what-not. For my final letter, I quoted the Doors, and talked honestly about what was going on. The missions team refused to send it out because it was too depressing. They feared people wouldn’t understand. I learned that my illness made me not good enough.
As I spent time talking to my parents and other people, I began to manage my depression better and better. I learned that it wasn’t just depression, but a cocktail of issues (again, common.) And the better I got, the more the missions organization wanted me. For years I was a spokesman on the depression front. They accepted me. They wanted me! Finally. I learned that I could be accepted, if allowed myself to be used.
It took years for me to really see. To really see that everything that I’d learned from the first people I spoke to about my depression really fucked me up. I saw that everything they told me was bullshit. So here I am now. Six anti-depressants, four therapists, and one exorcist later. My illness is mostly manageable. I’m doing well and I want to tell you something about talking. It’s a double-edged sword. Talking is risky, but it’s the best way to feel better.
I want to tell you what I really learned.
There are two types of people when it comes to talking about this stuff: Safe People and Unsafe People. Unsafe people don’t respect boundaries, use your vulnerabilities as a weapon, tell you to hide, shame and blame you.
Now, just because someone is unsafe, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a terrible person. It can mean a variety of things. I don’t hate the unsafe people from the mission’s team, or hold any grudge, but I do wish I could’ve recognized them as being unsafe. I don’t regret anything I said when I was being a “Depression Spokesperson,” and I think fondly on a lot of the pastors I worked with in those days (Definite safe people). I only regret my motivation, and how that was occasionally, often unintentionally, taken advantage of.
Before you talk, it’s smart to figure out who you’re talking to. An illness doesn’t effect your worth, but it is a vulnerability. Not unlike a wound. You let a doctor check out your wound, because he’s safe and gonna help you. If you let random people poke around in your wound, you can get an infection.
TALK TO PEOPLE! YES! Definitely! But before you do, it’s important to know:
You are your own highest authority. Call something bullshit if you think it is. Especially advice on mental illness.
Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re waiving any rights to your boundaries. Boundaries are essential. If someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, they aren’t safe.
You are not defined by your illness.