I pushed my loaded shopping cart into Lane 8 of my local grocery store and behind a woman with a maybe a half-dozen items. I leaned against the hand bar and salivated toward the candy. I skimmed the magazines to my right: Oprah, Good Housekeeping, and People. I turned to the left and read a few covers of other mags placed within the racks: Soap Opera Digest, Star, and US.
It was the latter cover that caught my attention. Britney Spears, her face somber, glancing over her right shoulder. Her eyes, lined in shadow and kohl, seem empty and…begging. I’m not a Britney fan, but my heart breaks for her and her family; for more reasons than one.
The headline reads: "Living with Mental Illness," and I think, "Yes. I understand. Myself and so many I know. Yes. We understand."
You see, for me, mental illness is where grace and real life have collided.
Defining Mental Illness
What is mental illness? Deborah Gray, MSW, MPA, defines mental illness as "an extreme impairment in one or all of the following: a person's moods, their reality-based understanding and response to every day events, or their ability to form meaningful connections with others and is not callused by physical illness, injury or developmental delay."
To be more specific, among the most common mental disorders or illnesses are:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Anxiety/Stress Disorder
- ED (Eating Disorders)
In reading this list, you may have begun to think of a number of people in your life, people with mental illness or mental disorders who have greatly effected and continue to affect your life.
Understanding Mental Illness
If you have a loved one with mental illness, one of the most important things you can do—and indeed, the first thing you must do—is to understand the dynamics of the disease so you can best deal with it. For example, there is a difference in situational depression and clinical depression. Situational depression might suggest that a person is sad over a loss… the loss of a family pet, a family member, or a job. A long nap, a good night's sleep or a relaxing weekend away and the world is brighter, even if just a little bit. Clinical depression, on the other hand, is long-term and, when the world just doesn't ever seem to turn right side up, the patient's thoughts could lead to suicide.
The elements of mental illness are real and should not be taken lightly. Nor should they be wrongly labeled. Some Christians erroneously believe that mental illness and demonic possession are synonymous and that if you pray hard enough or go to church enough or think enough positive thoughts, the illness will somehow miraculously disappear. While I certainly believe in miracles and know the healing hand of Jesus in my own life, I can also attest to the importance of understanding mental illness and the many ways of healing and/or living with it.
This aforementioned false perception (illness vs. possession) isn't uncommon. Even Jesus faced questions concerning it. When a blind man was pointed out, the disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus was quick to reply, "Neither…."
Georgia Shaffer (MA, PA Licensed Psychologist and Life Coach), says, "You’re right; unfortunately that perception isn’t uncommon. However, the latest brain research shows otherwise. For example, when PET scans of adults diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are compared with those without the disorder there are marked neurological differences. Some studies have shown that for those with ADHD certain areas of the brain (such as the frontal lobe) have less blood flood than the brains of those without this diagnosis. To say these people are demonically possessed only adds to their pain and hinders the ability to get effective treatment."
And what about "addictions"? Again, there are opposing views; those who say "addiction" should be dropped into the growing list of mental illnesses vs. others who say not. Then there are those who recognize and understand that oftentimes the mentally ill self-medicate by using drugs and/or alcohol, thereby exacerbating the problem. No matter how you view it, Christians are dealing with addicted family members and other loved ones in alarming numbers.
In her gut-wrenchingly honest book, Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children (Harvest House, 2007), Allison Bottke tells the story of her son and the addictions that nearly destroyed him, the relationship she had with her son, and the end results of spiritual growth (on both parts), personal maturity, and the consequences of enabling.
Having an adult child with a mental disorder/illness or addiction complicates the lives of everyone involved. As little children, we feel we can “control” whatever behaviors come our way. But once our children become adults, the tide of control can quickly change.
Bottke concurs: “Our biggest problem isn’t about our adult child’s inability to wake up when their alarm clock rings, or their inability to keep a schedule, or their inability to hold down a job or pay their bills. It’s not about their drug use or alcohol addictions. It’s not about the mess they’re making of their life. The main problem is about the part we’re playing in stepping in to soften the blow of the consequences that come from the choices they make. The main problem is us. Instead of praying to God to stop the pain, remove the difficulty, or change the life of our adult child, we must rise up and pray for something entirely different. We must pray for the courage to look deep in our own heart and soul—pray for the strength to begin a journey that quite possibly may change our own life—and pray for the wisdom to make new choices in our own life.”
Additionally, we must pray for a new kind of grace...
 Deborah Gray, MSW, MPA is a clinical social workers who specializes in attachment, trauma, neglect, and grief. She is the author of two books: Attaching in Adoption: Practical Tools for Today's Parents (2002) and Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience after Neglect and Trauma (2007) both published by Perspectives Press.
Eva Marie Everson’s book Reflections of Israel; A Personal Journey to God’s Holy Land (Thomas Nelson/Nelson Bibles) will release May, 2008. For more information about the book and Eva’s speaking topics, go to: www.EvaMarieEverson.com