A dear friend was recently diagnosed with Borderline Personality. For the first time in this person’s life, they are getting the support, counseling, and help they need. He shared:
When I first heard that [diagnosis] I was in shock and disbelief but I took the time to read about it and find out why I was the way I was. Over the 7 months I have been working multiple times a week with a therapy group and seeing my own counselor. It hasn’t been easy at all and I still have a daily fight with my demons but I can happily say I’m in the best spot that I have ever been in my adult life.
First, sharing this was a courageous act. Second, how can we not rejoice to hear that someone who has struggled is now in the best emotional health of their whole life?
Third, we can make this possible and so much easier for others to experience.
Mental Health Awareness Month was introduced in 1949. In the Fifties in the United States, people with mental illness were ostracized, to put it mildly. My dad, who grew up in that era, called therapists “head shrinkers.” This is unfortunate, to put it mildly, because Dad was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in the last six months of his life. I loved and love my dad, very much, but he was not easy to grow up with. Our lives–and more to the point, his life–could have been very different if he could have been as open to self-awareness as my friend above is. But Dad’s response to medication for his mental health was, “I don’t want them scrambling my brain.”
I’m not blaming my dad or post-humously criticizing him. He made choices and those choices had consequences, for all of us, especially for him. I can’t change those decisions he made. But the environment in which he learned how to regard mental health issues clearly impacted his life. I don’t play “what ifs” all that often (I do spend far too much energy playing “Why did you do/say that?”), but when I want to get sad, I imagine how Dad’s life might have gone differently, had he gotten diagnosed earlier in his life and responded with openness and confidence. Imagine “This could help me truly live and enjoy my life!” instead of “Don’t scramble my brain!” As I’ve shared before, after Dad died, they found thousands of dollars in medication that he had refused to take. Of course I’m sad about my father’s death, but this adds another dimension to my grief: he was a compassionate, loving man and he didn’t have to suffer the brain chemistry imbalance that made much of his life so difficult.
I deal with depression; I’ve made no secret of that. I have various reasons for speaking up about it: being raised by a father with undiagnosed mental illness, my belief that God’s grace necessarily involves transparency about our weaknesses, and my hope to free others from the stigma that makes living with this vastly more painful. My friend’s testimony above is one of the most compelling reasons. If my encouragement was any small part of my friend’s breakthrough, it was worth it to me a thousand times over.
People fear what they don’t understand. Not always, but all too often. We are also living in a time when many seem to lack basic empathy. That gives us, you and me, more of the weight to carry in helping to create a culture in which addressing mental illness is normal and assumed. Imagine hearing “Oh, my friend had a broken leg, but she was too embarrassed to tell anyone.” “Well, why don’t you just try harder to walk like other people?” “Stop focusing so much on the pain and swelling and think positive thoughts.” I yearn to live in a world in which this kind of response sounds as ludicrous for depression as it does for a broken leg.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you struggle with something debilitating, be it anxiety, depression, mood swings, or something you can’t yet put a name to–especially a thing you don’t understand that makes you feel bad about yourself–please, please step back and look at my friend and my dad. It’s a stark difference. If you have people around you who still ignore, belittle, or naysay what you face–I once had a friend say, “Good thing we were lucky enough to have normal parents,” and in my head I was like, “Yeah, wasn’t that lucky!”–seek out support from those who know better. Message me if you need to. Don’t just hope for it to get better. As another friend has pointed out, when things get really bad, he’s not going to be asking for help; we have to act before things go that far. Awareness means you do not have to go this alone.
We’ve come a long way in destigmatizing mental health struggles. I remember a moment in my twenties when one of my sisters and I were both in counseling and my dad said, “Well, at least one of our kids came out okay.” Meaning my other sister. Ouch. People in my generation got very mixed signals about caring for our mental health; we’re still passing those mixed signals on. But acceptance is much better than it once was. We have the opportunity to make a better world, now. Again, I’m not throwing stones at my dad’s grave, I’m urging you to speak up, especially you who have not faced these issues personally.* Offer support. Read and learn about what you don’t understand. If you hear yourself asking, “Why would you do that?” about a friend whose behaviors look very different from yours, remember that people with broken legs or torn ACL’s might run funny. The more encouraging and empowering we can be, the less our friends and family will feel pressured to hide these struggles from the world.
*This is probably obvious, but if you have dealt with your own depression, anxiety, et al, I trust you’re already speaking up.