Hi, I'm Wendi. I love Jesus and I have a mental illness.

I don't know if you've noticed but in the last few months, particularly in the days following Robin Williams' tragic suicide, there has been an increase in the discussion of mental illness. For the most part, it's been good stuff. People sharing their thoughts. People admitting their fears. People hugging it out via social media with happy face emoticons and virtual embraces. I like seeing it and I'm proud that I live in a time when - despite the amount of untruths that still worm their way into the media at large - those of us who live with a mental illness can say so without fear of being ostracized.

The term "mental illness" does still, however, bring on a sense of foreboding as terrible images of mothers drowning babies and men shooting up schools flash on our televisions as frequently, it seems, as the weather changes. It's a blanket statement that covers all manner and severity of mind sickness, including anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and a hundred more. But it doesn't define them, not by a long shot. Each disease is not only different in its makeup, it's also different in its manifestation. And that's because each person who has a mental illness is different. My depression is going to vary vastly from yours because mine stems from the anxiety I experience as a result of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yours might stem from PTSD. Or a chemical imbalance. And, yet, it seems our culture still struggles to see mental illness as more than just a "personal problem" (I actually had a gentleman - who, ironically, suffered from a brain injury and subsequent behavioral issues - describe my anxiety in exactly that way). Worse yet, some still say mental illness is something to "get over". We've heard it all before, haven't we? And, unfortunately, our fellow Church members can often be the worst offenders.

The brain, like any other part of the body, can break. It's physical. It has limits. It gets tired and worn out. In this way a mental illness is no different than a broken leg, but I would say the reality is that it works more like a cancer. Here's why:

There are dozens of types of cancer which can affect various parts of the body. They respond to both internal and external changes and can, under the right circumstances, be removed. They can also stick around and remain dormant. Or they can take over and diminish life until the point of death. Brain cancer is not the same as prostate cancer. Breast cancer is not the same as adrenal cancer. You wouldn't call one of these the same as the other.

So why do we do that with mental illness? And why do we treat each person as if she is defective and her disease is a personal flaw? 

I can only speak for myself and what I've experienced. With that said, I think believers find it difficult to reconcile mental illness with what is perpetuated as the "perfect" Christian life. We still want to believe, no matter what biology and our own humanity tells us, that loving Jesus and making Him the Leader in our lives means we become physically perfect. That it means we don't experience sadness or failed relationships or anger or car wrecks or any other negative thing after that moment. But why do we think that? Our sins are forgiven and the magnificent, all-consuming love that we call Grace has made us whole again. God certainly sees us as nothing less. But as we live and breathe on this earth we will find trouble and it will find us. In fact, we can count on it (John 16:33). And isn't that what makes grace...Grace? Isn't that what makes the redeemed woman so beautiful? That she has known pain and been able to find joy? That she has been broken and is bound up? Isn't that why God's love is so heart-achingly wonderful? Because He gave us the choice to love Him and even when we didn't He still made a Way for us? Our hope should not be to never find trouble; our hope should remain in Him and what He has done for us. The pain, after all, is temporary because it only lasts as long as our bodies do.

But...can I say something else?

Our bodies, generally speaking, last a hell of a long time. And we have to live in them.

So when we diminish people because they live with mental illness, we are diminishing those whom God made in His image. We are diminishing their bodies. Their minds. And the handiwork of God Almighty Himself.

Does this mean I think we don't sometimes create this junk ourselves? No. In fact, it has been proven that mental illness, like cancer, can be brought on and affected by environmental changes.

Let's go back to the cancer comparison for a second: I know a woman who has been living with breast cancer for twenty years. She didn't undergo chemotherapy or radiation. She made radical (and I mean radical) changes in her diet and exercise habits. She prayed God's Word over her body. And she didn't fight the cancer. She let it live there with her, as much a part of her as the legs she walks on. And like her cancer, mental illness can be present without becoming our authority. As a human being who doesn't always make the right choices, it's scary to think I have so much power over what happens to my body. But it's also liberating. 

The brain is neuroplastic, which means it does not stay the same. God is the Expert Designer. As a part of the human body, the brain's function can improve or be damaged by a number of things, including thoughts. Repeated mental patterns create connections that drive behavior. It's biblical that "as a man thinks, so is he" (Pro. 23:7) and it's also science (two things I don't believe are mutually exclusive). What I think about becomes a part of who I am. For someone with OCD, like me, this can be both encouraging and frustrating: encouraging because it means I can change what I think about and frustrating because the mind makes connections on its own all the time. For example, when you smell cinnamon your brain might immediately conjure up Christmas memories from when you were a child. You don't actively say to your brain, "Hey, you up there! It's time to think about Christmas!" (Although if you do I won't judge. I mean, it's Christmas.) And trying to change the way you think when your brain latches onto things - either real or imaginary - like a leech is incredibly, maddeningly difficult. But it's not impossible. As I said, the brain is neuroplastic. And that gives me great hope. I believe God designed us this way. And He is sovereign over all of it: what I can change and what I can't.

The part of my illness I cannot change is the OCD. It's biological. It's there and it has been my whole life, although I didn't recognize it for what it was until my early twenties. The part I can change is what it obsesses over and why. I can't shut my mind off. But I do have the ability to cut the negative thought patterns off at the knees and thereby change the way I experience life. I'm learning how with a fantastic counselor, good food, good people, and lots of prayer. I'm discovering the science behind the mind and physical aspect of mental illness while also learning to be proactive in what I read, what I eat, what I watch, how I think, and what I give my attention.

All of this matters. All of it.

So I implore my brothers and sisters, the other parts of this beautiful Body of Christ, to remember that while mental illness can certainly be exacerbated and even initiated by human error and sin, it's not always so. It's as complex as anything else in this world and that's why it requires such incredible faith. If it didn't, why would we need Jesus? If we understood it entirely, if we had the knowledge to make sense of and fix every situation, who would God be to us? If we could heal every disease and control all the actions of all the people on earth, why would we ever go to our knees in prayer? Why would we need Him?

Don't look at mental illness as a character flaw. Look at it as part of the wonderful, terrible, frightening, exhilarating landscape of life that requires a God who is big enough to carry us through. And be thankful - oh, friends, rejoice - that we have Him.


Christy said...

Thank you so much for your vulnerability and sharing this! It's not something I can personally relate to, but it is relevant to me. Scott has OCD and I admit I'm not always the most patient with him. He tells me that I am, but I know that I'm not as patient as I could and should be. I get annoyed and frustrated, because I'm so different, and I think if i just say to him, "Listen! This isn't a big deal. Stop freaking out!" that he'll just magically not worry about things anymore. I know that's not realistic though. Thank you for painting this picture for me and reminding me of the reality of mental illness. And PS - I think you're very brave for being so self-aware. Sometimes self-awareness is scary and it's easier to not think about it! :) You're awesome!

Wendi Nunnery said...

Thank you for your sweet comments, Christy! It is definitely tough because, believe me, no one wants to just STOP THINKING about stuff than the people who suffer with OCD. You are an amazing wife and mother and you have a big heart! Scott's right: it does help to have such wonderful partners.