I am a complex bundle of stuff. What you see is not what you get. My body is the least of things. The brain, completely invisible to you, is where I seem to live. Without the brain functioning, everything else begins to fail. I am not me. I am the living dead.
When I last saw my Nana, her body was struggling on. But, as we say so easily, no one was home. She wasn't there anymore. I had friend who would come and go as the Alzheimers slowly corroded her nerve endings. We may not be our brains, but we seem not to be all here without them. We're all mental as anything
It's surprising then, given how important the brain is to us, that more doesn't go wrong. How resilient it must be; so many people at the doctor's for arthritis and flu and dandruff, and so few for brain fade.
Or has that changed? They say that 1 in 5 of us will have a mental illness sometime in our lives. When I hear that, I feel like the social worker who was told 1 in 4 women will suffer violence or sexual assault during their lifetime. "Is that all?" she exclaimed.
That's not all, except when we lie about it.
I've just come back to work after five months off. Granted, the first month was some kind of flu bug that so thoroughly knocked the physical stuffing out of me, I could barely walk around the block. But the next four months result from an unrelated pastoral issue that absolutely flattened me. It happened because I cared enough to take my faith seriously, and live it out. As a result, I was simply not able to function for work, and am still pretty fragile if I have to deal with people. I wear out very quickly.
The doctor told me very plainly that I was having "a trauma response." I think he is not sure I am really fit to return to work; he gave me a little lecture about the PTSD Vietnam veterans he has worked with.
Another way to look at what happened to me is to use the word "burnout." I simply had too much, too quickly, to deal with.
However we dress it up, it is actually a mental illness. The brain bit where I live, is simply overloaded and not functioning the way it should; or at least, not the way it usually does.
Qualitatively, I am no different to a friend who recently spent time in a "mental hospital," and no different from the man whose Vietnam nightmares would scream out from his sleep, in the room across the corridor from that friend.
I am not sure just what the difference would be between his brain and psyche, and those of the hard smoking veterans I saw restlessly loitering in the car park each time I visited. All of us have brains that are not managing as well as we would hope.
On the outside, the visitors in the car park seem to be coping better. But another friend, who is chaplain in a veteran's hospital told me how 70 years after the war, some of her patients are beginning to have war nightmares for the first time! I can't help but think of the dietary diseases we suffer, which take years to appear.
When we stop hiding from the stigma of the label "mental illness," mental illness jumps out all over the place, just like physical ailments. One of the great preachers of my denomination; indeed, he was President in his day, told us in a Sunday night sermon that if he took one "just tiny white pill" each day, he could function. If he did not take it, he was good for nothing. No one said it, of course, but he was mentally ill.
That was 30 years ago. Now we are free to call what he suffered, "depression,"
which sometimes seems to be the new word for "nervous breakdown,"
which used to be the catch-all phrase for those people we didn't want to call "mentally ill,"
but who were, for a while, anyway, mentally ill.
My colleague and mentor took a little white pill daily. I take one, too. But to say that we are both depressed, is to hide something. It covers up our fear of mental illness. The fact is that our brains don't work the way they should. Just because he and I have a brain problem, doesn't mean it is the same problem, anymore than it means we are more or less worthy than someone with a heart problem. We simply live with an illness, like so many other people.
Age, another friend told me, is not for the faint hearted. Just as the joints grow old, so does the brain. Getting sick in the brain as we get older is not some spiritual judgement; it is getting sick. Even if we have contributed to the disease in some way, like the person who ate to excess for too long and got diabetes, or heart disease, we should not be judged differently for becoming sick in the brain.
And the brain getting sick is also luck of the draw. I had a parishioner who fell off the roof while cleaning his gutters. He was an interesting colour, and very sore, for three or four weeks. Later I met a much younger man who fell off the roof cleaning his gutters around the very same time. With everything in life to look forward to, he was a paraplegic. It happens with brains, too. It's nobody's fault. It just is.
You'll notice I keep saying "a friend," or "a colleague." It's because it is our friends, not some weird alien others who get sick in the brain. Like we do. When we stop worrying about "mental illness" as though it was some kind of special disease it loses a lot of its power. Certainly, we can end up unable to care for ourselves, just like any other person in hospital, but we're only sick, not something to be feared.
A relative is working on a web page called Parents of a Normal Schizophrenic Child. That says it all.
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