Mental illness, in all its various manifestations, is a heavy burden to bear. Certainly for the sufferer himself. But, also for those who suffer along with the one afflicted with mental illness…family and friends.
My thoughts about mental illness refused to jell until I picked up a book published by Breakwater Books and supported by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Newfoundland and Labrador Division. Out Loud: Essays on Mental Illness, Stigma and Recovery is comprised of more than 50 essays written by people affected by mental illness.
According to the publisher, this “ground-breaking collection” includes individuals “who have experienced mental illness themselves, family and friends, community members and professionals who deal with mental illness.” Their voices speak of “hope, pain and honesty.” The significance of the collection lies “in the courage and willingness of the essayists to…share their experiences,” the intention being to lessen stigma and broaden discussion of mental illness.
My friend, Marylynne Middelkoop, contributed to the book. I later asked her why.
“Abuse alters a person,” she replied. “It affects how they think, act and relate to the world around them. The effects of my abusive history permeated every relationship I tried to develop, left me with an inability to trust, and destroyed any sense of self I had, exacerbating the emotional challenges I already faced.
“When I finally sought help and began to learn these things, it became my heart’s desire that no one else suffer as I did. I believed that if I could use my past experience to help just one person, it would make the pain easier to bear.”
A second question I asked Marylynne concerns the role faith in God plays in sustaining her in her personal journey.
“I cannot judge anyone for how they deal with life’s curve balls,” she responded. “People cope the best way they know how, and I was/am no different.
“When I was young, I coped with my intense emotions by hurting myself–using tangible pain to over-ride the intangible–and by imagining scenarios as I wanted them to be. In my young adulthood, I ate and drank to excess in order to dull the pain.
“To date, even though I know they are ineffective in the long run, I still sometimes revert to old patterns of behaviour when I get overwhelmed.
“While I firmly believe that my faith in God (and position in Christ) is the real source of my healing, I feel there is no shame in seeking the help of a mental health professional or counselor. I have learned much, and benefitted greatly, from being able to talk things out with them.
“People with mental illness are not stupid, lazy or inherently dangerous; they are ill. Just as diabetes and epilepsy are diseases that require medication to control, so too do certain mental illnesses. I find it sad that so many of the unaffected fail to understand this.
“In the end, I can only share my experiences with others, and what has helped me in my journey from darkness. The rest I must leave with God.”
Some years ago, while I chatted with a psychologist, he asked me, “Burton, what would you do if you had a broken leg?”
“Go to a doctor,” I replied.
“Well, then,” he said, “wouldn’t you do the same thing with a ‘broken mind’?”