Although I have been a mental health professional for 28 years, I learned most about my own stigma through having lived experience with mental illness. This was 12 years ago … when I developed severe major depression.

My family had moved to Southern California from the Seattle area only 9 months before, when my husband accepted a new pastoral call. I was 36, had two elementary age children, went through a stressful re-location, and then landed the worst job of my life after arriving in California.

I had always been a goal-focused person: able to take on challenges and, in most instances, succeed.  But it seemed there were too many challenges happening all at once. I was rapidly developing anxiety problems, losing my focus and confidence, and, worst of all, finding myself unable to sleep. Combine all this with a genetic vulnerability toward mental illness … and swiftly, it became too much for me.

Although it had rarely been discussed openly, I had long been aware of  the mental illness on my mother’s side of the family. Early in life, I developed a steely determination to avoid such a fate. One of my deepest drives was to never have problems like my mother.

My grandmother had an unnamed mental illness. Nobody talked about Grandma’s ailment, and I’m not sure they knew what it was. But my father told me one day, in a rare moment of openness, that one time Grandma was psychiatrically hospitalized. It seemed she tried to jump off the roof of the house – she thought she could fly.

When I was a child, we had to be very quiet around her because of her “nerves.” Although grandma was gentle and loving, she could not tolerate lights, noise, television, or active children.

My mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While I was growing up she had to be hospitalized a number of times for what was then called “nervous breakdowns.” She was treated with Electro Convulsive Shock Therapy (ECT), and took medication that made her seem less lively, detached, and kind of dull. She hid the bottles of medication in her bedroom dresser, tucked between her nightgowns. She never let us four kids see her take it.

As an observant young girl, I got the impression this medicine was something to be ashamed of because it must be hidden from others. I also learned early on that the kind of hospital she went to was not something to tell people about. Not if you want them to like you. I sure wanted to be normal and accepted, so I learned the rules quickly.

Rules we learn from our families aren’t easily changed. So, as an adult, even though I was a therapist myself, when I began having symptoms, I felt too ashamed and overwhelmed to seek help until it was too late. I plunged into the most devastating depression imaginable. Seemingly overnight, I went from being the treatment provider to being the treated patient. I no longer knew myself. I felt like I had shattered into a million pieces.

Why take the risk to share this story publicly? Why violate the rules and beliefs that I learned as a child? Especially that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, and that it is not something nice people talk about? Why? Because I have come to believe that those are lies.

In recovering from my own depression, I learned how profoundly I was affected by stigma – both external (which came from the culture surrounding me) and internal (which came from within me).

The stigma I held – about my mother’s mental illness, and eventually my own, kept me from properly addressing my symptoms as they arose.  This was not a recipe for healing. Instead, it was the key ingredient for disaster.

When I finally got treatment, my stigma was a gargantuan wall I had to break down to fully accept treatment for my life-threatening case of depression. It’s not an exaggeration then, to suggest to you this: My stigma almost killed me.

Am I a little scared to write about this? Yes. But stories need to be told. And … I spent enough years being ashamed. All it did was contribute to me getting sick and staying sick. It compromised my humanity and robbed me of my joy. My wise mother had a good reason for giving me the middle name Joy. I intend to live up to it!

The great American writer Maya Angelou said this, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

It is critical to do everything we can to combat stigma in all its forms. It was stigma that kept my mother from ever properly managing her mental illness. It was stigma that made me wait dangerously long before seeking therapy. It was stigma that prevented me from benefitting from treatment for many long months. I consider it a miracle that I even survived those terrible days.

But, fortunately, I have not only recovered, I have pro-covered. In short, to me that means I came out of it an upgraded edition of myself – Lisa 2.0 if you will. My life is fuller, more joyful and abundant than ever. I now have a better understanding of myself – both my strengths and my vulnerabilities.  I am acutely aware of the many holistic and healthy practices that are necessary for sustained wellness. My effectiveness as a social worker has been deeply enhanced. I have even worked through most of my stigma.

Overcoming my stigma allows me to share a bit of my story. I hope it may give you some understanding and help you overcome any stigma that you have toward those living with mental illness.

10 Recovery Lessons I learned the Hard Way:

  1. The pathway to joy is gratitude.
  2. What other people think of me is none of my business.
  3. Mental illness can strike anyone, at any time.
  4. It is no one’s fault.
  5. I can choose to forgive myself and others for not knowing or doing what was best in times of trouble.
  6. People recover, and often develop lives that are more purposeful and satisfying than the ones they had before their illness.
  7. Wellness requires a holistic approach – supporting all aspects of the human being.
  8. Wellness is a lifelong commitment and a daily lifestyle.
  9. Getting well and staying well isn’t possible without “grit.” (Definition of grit: “the tendency to work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress”).
  10. Resources, education, and support are extremely important. Here are a few I recommend:

NAMI (link)

Pacific Clinics (link)

Each Mind Matters (link)

Bring Change 2 Mind (link)

 

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”                -Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

 

 

Moments of Being

Does your life ever feel a bit stale? Are you bored, impatient, or finding that your relationships and daily routine have become tiresome? Are you walking around in a state of listless malaise?

Maybe you need an infusion of vitality. Something that gets you feeling pumped, juicy, and motivated. Just a little fun and laughter. A glimpse of beauty. A touch of passion. A sound of harmony. A taste of pleasure. Oh, to recapture that youthful wonder, approaching your day like a child skipping through a meadow with a new butterfly net. That would do it. But you’re an adult, with so many worries and responsibilities. How can you get a break from the drudgery and let go like a child?

VirginiaWoolfPerhaps you need to locate some moments of being. The great English novelist Virginia Woolf writes beautifully on this subject.* She speaks of life as having both “moments of being” during which one is aware, engaged, and living consciously and “moments of non-being”, which is filler, the “cotton wool” of our lives, non-descript – doing what has to be done. It may include washing clothes or fixing the vacuum cleaner. “Every day includes much more non-being, than being. When it is a bad day, the proportion of non-being is much larger.” This is the normal experience of life and its rhythms.  But sometimes those moments are rare, or escape your notice entirely. Maybe you feel smothered by cotton wool.

There may be another explanation for your weariness. It is possible you have fallen asleep – figuratively I mean.

Those who have had the cursed blessing of an awakening experience know what I am talking about. These come in many forms: a life threatening illness, a major accident, or a significant loss. Any “close call” can initiate your awakening, opening you to your own mortality … waking you up! Maybe you have endured such, but have forgotten the lessons. Time has a way of obscuring what was once so abundantly clear.

Winston Churchill commented on this kind of learning, “Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth, but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened.”

That truth, once discovered, and actively remembered, can be a passage to a new way of living.

It happened to me. Coming out of major depression ushered in my awakening. I had confronted deathly despair, and after a sublime moment of hope, began actively choosing life, minute by minute, hour by hour. My turning point would be barely noticeable to any observer, yet to me, in the condition I was in … it was monumental. This spark of hope felt earthshattering because of its sheer contrast with the bleak underworld I had been trapped in. I could suddenly feel the acute distinction between life and death. This awakened me with a jolt.

I quietly pushed through … emerging like a germinating bean coming forth from the ground. In an instant I was above the soil – in the land of the living. I was alive. I had been dead and now I was alive.

What was happening? It was some form of metamorphosis: I was quickly and slowly, awkwardly and gracefully, cautiously and courageously … moving from one form of existence to another.

Woolf describes coming of age at Hyde Park Gate in the following passage, which poetically describes my unfolding process: “… I was thinking; feeling; living … with the intensity; the muffled intensity, which a moth feels when with its sticky tremulous legs and antennae it pushes out of the chrysalis and emerges and sits quivering beside the broken case for a moment; its wings still creased; its eyes dazzled, incapable of flight.”

Sitting beside my broken chrysalis … I knew my days of flight were coming.

I discovered on that day, in that hour, that my new life had begun.

To fully heal, I had to embrace living with every cell of my being. During that intense recovery phase, there was no cotton wool, no moments of non-being. Even the mundane felt pleasing and deserving of gratitude. Maybe I was like one of those annoying “too happy” people, smiling incessantly, apparently without a care in the world. But my smile was about celebrating the life I had reclaimed, the love I felt, and the beauty that surrounded me. It wasn’t a Pollyanna outlook, oblivious to the reality of pain. Rather, it was authentic joy – the result of being delivered out of the depths.

Being alive was electrifying and mobilizing. I was greedily stuffing the goodness of living into every day. There was no heaviness, weariness, boredom, or doubt, at least until I got used to this new way of being. Having been profoundly depressed for over a year, I was not yet accustomed to happiness, nor could I take it for granted. I was filled with love and meaning – precious moments of being.

This was the perfect recipe for my healing. I prefer to describe it not as “recovery” (for I did not go back) but “procovery” – moving forward and allowing the emergence of a more enlightened and stronger self. Although ten years have passed since my illness, I reflect daily on the lessons it provoked. They have helped me become a better version of myself. I like the new me, so I’m determined to never go back.

I am committed to staying well. This requires me to engage in thoughts and behavior that support my wellness. Each uplifting thought I entertain serves to strengthen my mind toward optimism. Every productive, positive endeavor I get involved in serves as another “insurance policy” for my health.

What lessons have arisen from your struggles? My guess is that the most powerful ones were born of some form of suffering, maybe even a brush with death. Having to look into the cold face of death can give you a mega dose of compassion, a connectedness to others, and a sense that we are all in this together. You may have a heightened authenticity and some recognition that we are all fellow travelers. I hope that you may be fully restored from the pain of your struggle.

But as for the lessons? Keep nourishing the wow of their initial discovery. Marvel at them. Remember their truth deep in your bones.  When you have an opportunity, share them. These lessons will produce triumph from your tragedy. And, in no small way, they will open your eyes to moments of being.

 

“Man always dies before he is fully born.”

-Erich Fromm, German Psychoanalyst

*Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing by Virginia Woolf, Edited by Jeanne Schulkind, Harcourt, 1985.

 

 

Let Your Heart Be Broken

Nobody wants a broken heart – this is an organ we safeguard protectively. But as I sat in the pew recently at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, listening to a powerful challenge by Marilee Pierce Dunker, daughter of World Vision founder, Bob Pierce … I decided I was hearing the best advice I had heard in a long time. She urged us, “Let your heart be broken – by the things that break the heart of God.

As she spoke, I felt a stirring inside me, and thought, “What breaks both my heart and God’s? And what might this require of me?”

Marilee described growing up in the 1950’s, with a father who was heartbroken by the suffering of children in impoverished countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Somalia. He didn’t simply indulge a mournful compassion for them or feel satisfied after fervently praying for them. No … he put hands and feet on his prayers.

He made it his life work to create and administer a humanitarian organization dedicated to fighting poverty and injustice – one that would eventually support the transformation of the lives of millions of children and communities in underdeveloped countries.

In the 60 years since its inception, World Vision’s work has prevented countless deaths from preventable causes such as hunger and treatable illnesses. In 2010, sponsors around the world cared for over 4 million children by providing sponsorships of children. These sponsorships provide basic necessities that help children achieve their potential by offering access to clean water, better nutrition and agricultural assistance, basic health care and immunization, school fees and materials, and economic development opportunities.

Not everyone can take on such an ambitious vision. But everyone has a heart, one that can be broken for the benefit of others. What cause, problem, or purpose is your heart breaking for? And what are you willing to do about it? As the famous African American preacher T. Garrot Benjamin is fond of saying, “Find out what makes you cry, and pursue it. This will be your life’s work.”

What makes you cry? What inspires your passion to get involved and engage in change to improve the lives of others? This is precisely the issue that will compel you to do whatever it takes to succeed and to overcome every barrier in your path. The world will then be a better place because you lived.

When you let your heart be broken … you care so deeply, commit so passionately, sacrifice so freely, and give so generously that anything is possible. Eventually, you improve the world around you, and equally important, you improve yourself.

You might be arguing, “But, I’m not that talented; I have real flaws.” When you allow yourself to be fueled with what I call “pit bull determination,” your inadequacies and weaknesses become irrelevant. You simply transcend them.

Consider Moses. An awkward man with a speech impediment, he asked of God, “Who am I . . . ?” Despite his exile and refugee status, Moses had something important to do, he accepted the challenge, and God equipped him.

It took me only a moment to answer Ms. Dunker’s question: What breaks my heart? My heart is broken by the suffering of people living with mental illness … especially when it results in suicide. Suicide surely breaks the heart of God. Depression is a treatable illness, and suicide can be prevented. Thousands of lives are cut short every year by suicide. More people die by suicide in the world every year (883,715) than by war, murder, and forces of nature combined (669,956). [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease 2010].

I have been trapped in that dark and desolate place, believing there was no way out. Yet, by some miracle, I was blessed with recovery. In a chapter of my memoir on my experience with depression, I write about how in the short period since writing the book, my life has been touched by 3 suicides. Tragically, each time I go back to edit the manuscript, I have had to increase that number. After a mother of a 16-year old who hung himself on Thanksgiving presented at my office and shared her anguish with me, I had to change that number to 6. God’s heart is breaking. What am I willing to do?

Having gone through severe depression myself, I have found that this is an area that my own testimonial can be used to help others. Public speaking does not come easily for me; in fact I have struggled with public speaking anxiety for decades. But, despite that, and because I care about this issue so profoundly, I have found the courage to speak out on this subject.

I have a wonderful quote hanging in my office, “Speak your mind, even when your voice shakes.” I enlist this sound advice when I share my depression story to educate the public about mental illness and to help overcome the stigma associated with it. So what if my voice shakes? I have an important message, and though my struggle to speak eloquently humbles me, it won’t stop me. Is it difficult? Yes. Am I tempted to say, “Let someone else do it, someone who is more polished and poised?” Absolutely. But, when you feel a calling about something, you just do it. And somehow, every speech I have given  has gone surprisingly well.

This week was intense for me, and I am bone tired. But mine is the satisfying kind of tiredness – the result of worthwhile toil. I had two occasions to “speak my mind” and share my story of depression to reach out to people living with mental illness and the professionals who treat them. It was exhilarating to feel such an intimate connection with members of the audiences, and discover how deeply I was able to help them. Our shared stories, our united quest for dignity, and my  own triumph over depression provided hope and encouragement. It made me feel that my devastating illness had some redeeming value for others. In this, my long held prayer was answered, “Lord, let my life be a reflection of your power to restore the broken.”

Paradoxically, when I let my heart be broken, it is healed in the most powerful way.