The God Who Understands Mental Illness
I hadn’t been in the office very long this morning when I was summoned to the front. “Are you busy,” I was asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Are you about to be doing something?” I replied, “Planning on it. What’s up?” One of our sisters had called, crying that she needed someone to come and pray with her.
“What’s the matter,” I inquired. I was told that she had no family of her own save for some nieces and nephews, and they don’t visit her too often, but do visit here or there. “She suffers from ‘nerve’ issues,” I was told. “I’ll go right now,” was my reply. I arrived, found her in her room. She was visibly unsettled. I announced my presence, sat beside her, and listened.
I have a very sensitive spot in my heart for anyone who struggles with any mental illness. My mother is bipolar and manic. This developed while I was in my late teens. It may have been going on longer, but that’s around the time we learned a diagnosis. The person I knew before while growing up versus the one I know now seem like two different people despite looking alike and sounding the same. I love my mother very much, but there’s nothing that I can do for her other than love her and pray for her, which I do. She’s aware of her illness. She has good days and bad days. I’m thankful that she’s managing her disease as best she can. I know it isn’t easy to her, but she shows immense strength given what she faces.
When I learned of my sister in Christ’s struggle, I thought to myself, “If I wasn’t around, and my mother needed someone, I’d sure hope that someone would care enough to make the time to minister to her.” That’s what led me not to hesitate once I learned the circumstance of the call that came in this morning. I know I didn’t cure the struggle. If anything, I might have masked it for a short time.
As I listened to my sister, I heard her communicate her embarrassment at her “weakness,” as she called it. I listened to her be hard on herself for not being stronger. After she’d had time to talk, I read the Twenty-third Psalm to her because she’s legally blind. I held her hands and prayed with her, and for her. I’ve prayed for her three other times since I left her this morning. I’d do anything to take it from her.
This year, 2016, has been a year of joy and sorrow for me personally. The joy has arisen from publishing a few short books, completing my Ph.D., and beginning a new ministry at Glendale Road. However, so many life changes have their pressures too. Other circumstances proved so stressful on me that I developed clinical anxiety. I finally broke down and went to a doctor, and am taking medication. I’ve had some other health issues that may be intertwined, and they may have contributed to causing my anxiety. Before the medication had a chance to get in my system, I felt like I was trapped in a living hell. I can’t explain what it’s like to have anxiety, to want to escape from yourself, to isolate yourselves from people, to hide it from your children. All I can say is that it’s rather torturous.
What’s more, I feared that it would render me incapable of being an effective minister. After all, I told myself, who can trust a broken person? While I haven’t had an official “coming out” party about my anxiety, I suppose this is it. As a writer, I can easily say things through what’s written or typed than I can sometimes in speech. “My name is Steven Hunter, and I suffer from anxiety.”
Only those who are blithely unaware of mental illnesses will say that I need to have more faith or a stronger faith. They wouldn’t say that to someone with sugar diabetes, would they? My faith is anything but weak, and I don’t feel compelled in the least to have to justify myself to someone so selfish that they would refuse to empathize. Walk a mile in one’s shoes who has this, and you’ll sing a different tune, I promise you.
When my Lord agonized in the Garden, it’s recorded that he sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44). The medical condition is called “hematidrosis.” It arises due to severe mental distress that causes the capillaries to rupture and the subsequent blood to spill into the sweat glands. In the link provided in the title, “acute fear and intense mental contemplation were found to be the most frequent inciting causes.” Therefore, my Lord was well acquainted with mental illness Himself. Did He need more or a stronger faith? I think not.
While I’m coping with this, I recall the surpassing grace of Jesus. As He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). While the medicine is helpful, I see in my weakness the power of Christ. If I’m to live with this illness, I will serve others so lovingly and tenderly who struggle with it too. I will also look to the strength of my Lord, and in my weakness see Him.
Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison.