Here is a piece I was asked to write for Our Brother Legion a local Triad ministry that seeks to serve people living with mental illnesses by educating both clergy and his/her congregation.
“Hemingway has his classic moment in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt. All he can say is, ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’ That’s how depression hits. You wake up one morning, afraid that you’re gonna live (Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel). Gradually, I found the way from my bedroom to the couch in my living room to be my only day’s exercise. Gradually, I slept less. I bathed less. I ate less. I talked less. I became a near-catatonic lump on my couch. The throw pillows were more animated. Then one day, suddenly—by depressive standards—it occurred to me “something” was wrong. My having managed to metaphorically macrame myself to the upholstery was evidence enough. Thankfully, I had a cat. She too was as animated as a throw pillow. I would stroke her brindle coat as she lay beside me. At the end of the day my wife would come home. I received the usual lecture about my having done nothing that day. I protested reminding her that I had taken care of the cat. She stared back puzzled then said, “What?” I said, “I took care of the cat.” She protested, “We don’t have a cat.” I replied, “Yes we do.” I grabbed her hand and pulled her along to the living room to point to the cat that I was certain was curled up, plain as day, on our couch. The cat was missing. I began whistling for her. I then called for her, but stopped in that moment aware of why my wife was puzzled. I didn’t know the cat’s name. Then as suddenly as depression moves I “saw” that I had hallucinated. There was no cat. I then knew I was sick. No more “I’m having a bad day.” I couldn’t even manage the depressive’s battle cry of “No really, I’m fine.” The gradual had become sudden. I plopped down on that couch four years ago as I went from being a minister to little more than a stain on the upholstery. I offer the previous as a home address of sorts. While it recounts a very real event in my life, it also names a location/position that people living with mental illnesses often find themselves.
First, I want to recognize those people who are sitting on couches experiencing the gradual and suddenness of mental illness. I see you because “[to] not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” (Andrei Lankov) I remind you that you have not always been on that couch. And, I assure you that you will not always be on that couch.
Next, I see those who are concerned for a person who is on a couch. I cannot begin to imagine how his/her health has taxed and tasked you. I feel confident that if you’ve read this far then you are curious about how you might get that loved one off the couch. I can only speak from my limited experience. The hard answer I must share is that there are no panaceas in addressing a mental illness. This is not meant to be discouraging, only informative. Treatment may involve a number of interventions. For me it took medication, therapy, hospitalization, electroconvulsive therapy, a leave of absence from my ministry, and career counseling. But what can a concerned person do for a loved one suffering with a mental illness. Especially when that person is “stuck” on a “couch” and not improving. Here are some thoughts that helped my wife and I:
- “He has to hit ‘rock bottom’” is misleading. There often is no bottom. I can speak to the depth to which my depression dropped me, but I never hit a bottom. I always felt like I was falling.
- “She has to want help.” If I knew back when I petted an imaginary cat that my depression would take years of medication trials, counseling, hospital stays, and electroconvulsive therapy to get better I likely would have opted for more couch time.
- A person suffering with a mental illness is like a person choking. You can see that something is wrong, but they are unable ask for help. You’d likely give them the Heimlich maneuver without their spoken consent. The same applies for persons living with a mental illness.
- Think about depression like any other disease. Mental illness is not an attitude that needs changing. You wouldn’t tell a diabetic to think more intently about having normal blood sugar.
- Take them to get professional care. Do not argue with them. Instead, take him/her to a physician, a psychiatrist if possible, and/or to the Emergency Room. Demand medical attention and share the details of his/her symptoms and medical history.
- Recognize that you will be just one part of his/her care team. There will be doctors, nurses, therapists, chaplains, etc. It is not all on your shoulders.
- I could say more, but for brevity’s sake I’ll stop here. What are your thoughts?
Methodist Chris is an alum of both NCSU and Duke. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and has been a pastor for over 14 years, serving an appointments in England and in the Triad (NC). He is the Pastor-in-Residence with the Wesley-Luther Fellowship of UNC Greensboro. He is a husband to Summer and a father to Sophie. He is a cigar-arsonist, creative, subversive, who lives with clinical depression. You can follow his work at A Jew and a Gentile: An Interfaith Blog @ (charlesandchris.net), on Twitter @ajewandagentile, and on Facebook. Chris is an occasional contributor to Our Brother Legion.