Monday, March 20, 2017

Cultivating a Community of Understanding and Acceptance of Mental Disorders

I share both a testimonial of Cory Anderson and my sermon from this past Sunday.

From Cory Anderson:
Everyone feels the blues from time to time. But clinical depression is something quite different, and I’m one of the 350 million people worldwide who suffer from it. 

For me, it started in high school, but really took off in college, when I left the structure of home. By my early 20’s, I was thinking about suicide. I checked into a motel room with a can of HEET, gasoline additive, and spent 3 days deciding whether to drink it or not. I’m grateful I wasn’t discovered, because I decided on my own that I wanted to live.
Based on my beliefs, I decided that if I ended my life, I would just get another chance to deal with the same issue next time around. It was the last time I considered suicide an option.

I soon began a career in television, with a continuing cycle of withdrawal into depression, followed by a flurry of activity. Because on any given day, I might be in the field or working at home, I was able mostly to cover my disappearances.

It helped that like many depressives, I was a high achiever, making award-winning programs and meeting my deadlines.

Eventually I went to Los Angeles for a job at ABC. By this time I was self-medicating with marijuana. It had worked very well for me until then—quieting the relentless voice in my head and freeing me up to work. But now I felt trapped in a bad work situation and was smoking much more and enjoying it not at all. I tried to stop many times and could not. I told my psychiatrist and he called another patient who was working an addiction recovery program and handed me the phone.

After one last binge, I met him the next day and began working a
recovery program for myself. It was here that I first gained a real relationship with God. My best efforts to stop using a drug that was clearly harming me failed totally. But I surrendered it to my higher power and never used again.

After several years of busy career success in the continuing depressive cycle, I started having increasing periods of unemployment. Since I defined my worth by my career, I was finding it harder to pull out of depressions. I went a month without answering my phone and spent most of my time curled up in my bed eating saltines. My family and friends back here in Chicago had no idea if I was alive or dead. They called the police, who came to my door. They could only confirm I was alive. I wasn’t breaking any laws.

Then my college roommate and best friend got on a plane and flew out to LA. We took a road trip and talked through my situation. He invited me to come back to the Chicago area and move in with him. That began a process of opening up about my depression. I stopped trying to hide it.
For years, I sought ways to stop the destructive cycle I was in. Meditation, the est training, individual and group therapy, all kinds of self-help books and groups, medication.

Now I’m on a medication that helps keep me from going far down the tunnel of isolation. Meditation, exercise, to-do lists and regular sleep habits all help minimize my current depression.

Since I left LA, I haven’t worked full time in the career I loved. I’ve frankly been under-employed in a variety of jobs. But now I show up every day—no matter what. And I’ve done some very satisfying video and photography work on the side. It’s not everything I’d wish for, but I can say that through it all—I’M STILL HERE.

Working my recovery, I was part of a spiritual community. Now I’ve found one at Unity. Here, too, I’m free to define God, my higher power, as I understand it. Unity has given me great opportunities. My men’s group is a safe place to share anything. I’ve helped plan several of our annual men’s retreats. I donate photographs to our auctions. I sang in the choir. I’m singing in the Spring Music Festival.

After one of Alan’s mental health-related sermons and an inspiring talk by Janet Holden, I joined MyHat—the Mental Health Awareness Team. That led to working with the Oak Park chapter of NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness). I produced a documentary on their recovery work and several performance videos of their blues group. I’m now working on a video on teen addiction with several Oak Park groups.
MyHat is about breaking down the stigma of mental illness. We’ve either been there ourselves, or are close to someone who’s been there. But then, that applies to most people, doesn’t it? At any rate, I have to confess I have a problem with one of the few requirements of the group. It involves the wearing of hats. I guess it’s time to jump in. (Put on Cubs hat) Ask me about my hat. 

I will forever remember that moment when the seeds were sowed for our mental health ministry at Unity Temple. It was a hot summer day in 2011. Janet Holden, a long time member of our congregation, entered the pulpit and said, “I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t get out from underneath the kitchen table.” She described how she suffered repeated experiences of profound dread since her childhood, that a therapist had on several occasions suggested she consider medication. As she said, “I absolutely refused. If I went on medication, I would have to admit I was crazy and while I was confused and anxious, I was not crazy. The view from under the table convinced me that maybe I was.” She went on to share how she manages her mental illness and that mental disorders are so much more prevalent than most people realize. The National Association for Mental Illness says that one quarter of all adults will suffer from a mental disorder. In her sermon, Janet challenged our community to become more sensitive and therefore more welcoming to people who struggle with mental illness as well as those who have loved ones.

It was one of the most impactful and important sermons I have ever heard. Maybe it was because I was primed, I mean if Janet hadn’t spoken that day, my heart had already been touched by the sharing of two mothers in that very service. Bonnie Jordan and Anne White shared about their experiences of dealing with mental illness in beloved members of their family, including a child. I was already moved to tears that day, getting a glimpse what it was like to care for someone who suffers from a brain disorder and not be able to make everything okay, but instead learning how to provide loving support along an erratic journey, knowing one’s heart will be broken over and over again. 

It wasn’t long before three members of the congregation shared how people they love, particularly their children, have struggled with mental illness. 

My friends, it has been one of the great privileges in my ministry to encourage and support those who created our Mental Health Awareness Team. Also affectionally known as MyHAT. When we held that first retreat to determine the mission and vision of MyHAT, it was such a rich experience. I remember both the living room and the dining room of Joan Greene’s lovely home as well as the faces around the table. There is something about honest sharing about human suffering that when you have a face and personality and a story to associate with one another, a deep appreciation welled up within me for the gentle souls who spoke so eloquently, including Joan Vanderbeck who wrote a poem for that day: It is entitled Judged and Found Wanting by Ourselves

How do we maintain dignity and relevance with serious illness?
None of us wants to be irrelevant. . .but with some illnesses we choose to be invisible.
Perhaps we suffer so deeply that no one who is packing for a trip, or returning from the grocery store, will hear us anyway.
What can we do, when pain obscures rational thought, when profound fatigue makes us numb?
We hang on. We screech inside. If we have to, if we can, we pretend. We may smile. We may say a few words, perhaps ask about the other.
We feel shame.
If only we were stronger, changed our diet, walked a mile a day, were more intuitive, shared with others, found the right doctor, investigated the symptoms more closely, more carefully. . . If only. . .If only. . .
And we compare. . .we used to contribute, we used to be vital.
What now?

This month we are exploring what it means to be a community of risk. Our Unitarian Universalist heritage is rife with examples of people taking risks on behalf of their convictions and values, including addressing the stigma of being different. This morning, I want to lift up how we live into the call of being a community of risk as we cultivate greater understanding and acceptance of how we human beings struggle with various forms of mental illness and how this is an especially significant time to hold each other tenderly. And for those who struggle with some kind of mental disorder, it is a great risk to come out whether to a small group or, like Cory today, to the whole congregation. But these risks, which began with Janet six years ago, are so incredibly important and it behooves us to actively cultivate an embracing community, and all the more important to do so in this era. I take my hat off to all of you who have been so real for the sake of moving us all to greater mental health.

As the American Psychiatric Association notes, Mental health is the foundation for thinking, communication, learning, resilience and self-esteem. Mental health is also the key to relationships, personal and emotional well-being and contributing to community or society. 

There is so much stigma around mental illness—it is natural for those who struggle with a mental disorder to not want to admit to oneself that one needs help, let alone sharing one’s own personal challenges with others. But in the light of compassion and love, living with a mental disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. Mental disorders are mental conditions like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable. The scientific understanding of how the human brain works continues to expand and ever more effective treatments are available to help people successfully manage mental health conditions. 

This past year, my own experience has given me a greater appreciation for what it means to live with limitations to one’s own mental and physical abilities. In early June, the day after my 48th birthday, I nearly fainted behind the wheel of my car. In the Emergency Room my heart rate was at 38 and the halter monitor I left the hospital with revealed that my resting heart rate was 30 beats per minute. I felt awful and my mental functioning was impaired such that I couldn’t concentrate on a book for more than 15 minutes. In September, as I recuperated from the  I was so much more emotionally available to you, to my staff, to my family. I was in a position to minister effectively when the election caused so many of us distress. But I’ve got to be honest. These first months of the Trump era are wearing many of us down. Those of us with medical conditions or mental disorders naturally find our challenges pronounced. I personally get hooked by my reactivity to what all is going on. The first draft of this sermon began as a screed about what’s transpired over the last couple weeks. Fortunately I recognized that I’ve already expressed all that recently—and this is a time to for us to attend, to really attend to our mental health and to attend to our community so that we cultivate the understanding and awareness to hold one another gently. It is a time to cultivate more patience with those we love.

For many of us, it’s important to admit, life right now is especially challenging. We need the space to show up and be real, to be able to grieve, and to provide that space for one another. 

Our mental health is in part dependent on a healthy society, and our greater community has been getting sicker the past several years. Each week we read the names of those who have been killed in the city of Chicago. Did you hear, last month three children were killed in a single week in Chicago, one of them, a 2 year old on the westside? Did you hear, many of the youngest gang members have taken to calling themselves “savages” and the number of homicides in Chicago surpasses the number of the larger cities of Los Angeles and New York--combined

My friends, I’ve been pushed to ask: What do you do when the state of your community, the state of your nation, and the state of your mental health are all in a precarious position? 

Find authentic community. Play. Pray, engage in mindfulness meditation, notice the beauty and blessings around you. Find your spiritual ground, keep connected to a few close companions, and then Show up where you can, when you can. Share kindness. Stand with others for the values you cherish. Honor your limitations. Ask for help. Listen prayerfully. Seek the words you do not yet have. Open your heart to possibility, and know your silence will not protect you. Become more honest, be real, acknowledge the hard stuff, and in sharing truthfully find meaning, find purpose, find joy. 

I find refuge when I am in the company of people who are open with their own challenges, just like Cory today, like Janet, Bonnie, Anne, and Joan in the past. 

Because of my own medical condition and the impact it has had on my own mental health, I am in a therapeutic relationship. There is a prevalent myth that if you are not fully independent then there must be something wrong with you. Actually, if you think you are fully independent and don’t have any demands or supports around you, if you don’t recognize just how interdependent we are, then, for me, that is more cause for concern. 

One member here who struggles with mental illness said that they never feel whole, she asked me, where is the holy in all this human imperfection? I think the holy is in our honesty, the acknowledgment and sharing of both our pain and our joy, and I believe the holy is in the yearning for wholeness, both when in the darkness where we feel totally alone and in the moments of connection with another human being. Now wholeness does not mean perfection. Wholeness doesn’t mean we become free from pain or fear or uncertainty. Wholeness means we come to an acceptance of who we are and a small circle of others know who we really are because we have been able to be real.

This morning the Unity Temple singers so beautifully asked, Would You Harbor Me? Would I harbor You? It depends on whether we know deep down what we sang earlier: There’s a river flowing in my soul. When we recognize that we harbor the divine within our very souls, then we learn we can harbor others who are truly vulnerable, but as Joan Vanderbeck says, we must not take the posture of rescue. No we take the posture of companionship, we all are capable of companioning one another. Can we not look at each and every soul in their simple humanity and sing, how can anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than beautiful. How can anyone ever tell you you are less than whole. How can anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle. How deeply your connected to my soul. 

Blessed be. Amen.

As we develop a community of understanding and acceptance, we create an environment where all of us can risk being more real with who we are and where we yearn for wholeness and mental health.