Mental Illness, Discipleship, and Mourning with Those that Mourn

img_9464Breanne loves hiking and biking and traveling, and never expected to share the dark secrets of her struggle with mental illness with the world. But after nearly two years of promptings, she finally gave a talk in sacrament meeting in her ward about it. So many people requested a copy that she realized it might also be helpful to others outside of her ward. The text below is adapted from that talk.

When I was growing up, King Benjamin’s exhortation to “consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God,” who are “blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual,” confused me. I did everything I could to keep the commandments of God, but I didn’t feel happy or blessed. My state of unhappiness seemed like a permanent condition, with only fleeting moments of happiness. I didn’t know then that my family’s long history of genetic depression had also afflicted me. I didn’t even know that my family had a long history of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. It was simply not talked about back then. 

We don’t even talk about mental illness much now. But today, I’d like to change that, even if just for a minute.

I’d like to share a bit of my experience. For those of you who are suffering, I share this to let you know that you are not alone. God knows you and He knows your pain. He understands your sorrow and suffers with you. And for those of you who have not experienced the darkness and anguish that often comes hand in hand with mental illness, I hope that you can gain a deeper understanding of others’ suffering and an increased ability to minister, and to mourn with those that mourn as the Savior did.

My Personal Experience

Those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses all have unique experiences, specific to their own life circumstances. But although my experience might be different than others, I hope that describing what it was like for me will help those of you who don’t know much about suffering with mental illnesses. 

Although the depression was like a cloud of darkness as I was growing up, the thing that got me to finally seek professional help during college was my anxiety disorder. I am a very rational person, so the panic attacks were the worst for me. I never knew what would trigger one, but when they occurred it felt like the whole world was crashing down on me, like I was drowning in a deep ocean with no way out. During the time of my life when the panic attacks were most intense, it wasn’t uncommon for them to occur several times a week. 

The chemical imbalance in my brain also caused nearly constant crying. I’d cry the entire bike ride to work and would sometimes have to excuse myself to cry in the bathroom during my shift. Then I’d cry all the way to my next job, hoping that the cars were driving by too quickly to notice the tears streaming behind me as I biked along. The tears weren’t because I was sad about anything in particular. There was no reason for the weeping. It was due to a chemical imbalance in my brain. But the overwhelming fear and sorrow and crying weren’t solved by positive thinking or good music or meditation or even chocolate. 

I remember one night that was particularly terrible. The anxiety attacks were wracking my body and my spirit and I couldn’t suffer alone anymore. I biked over to my sister’s house, who lived just a few blocks away from me, and knocked on her door. When she opened the door to me sobbing, I explained, “I just need someone to tell me that everything’s going to be ok.” 

Sleep was also an issue. I slept for a reasonable amount of time each night, but my body craved sleep like there was no tomorrow. I fell asleep everywhere and without warning, quite possibly because my body was exhausted because of the chemical imbalance in my brain. But when I fell asleep the sleep was heavy and not restorative, and I’d wake up a few minutes later feeling disoriented and concerned. When I did dream the nightmares were intense and horrifying. It felt like the very jaws of hell were gaping wide after me. I remember feeling extremely guilty as I realized that if someone would ask me what I wanted most in the world, I wouldn’t say God or eternal life or anything like that. My biggest desire in life was for more sleep, restful sleep, restorative sleep.

Feeling the Spirit was nearly impossible. I couldn’t trust my own feelings, so knowing what was the Spirit and what was the remnant of a panic attack was nearly impossible to distinguish. The Spirit speaks with a still, small voice, and doesn’t compete well with the roaring fire of anxiety or the overwhelming darkness of depression. 

Even positive things like compassion and charity were twisted by the illness. The darkness in my soul felt like it stretched as wide as the universe. I felt intense sorrow and suffering for experiences that others had, even people I did not know, and suffered for them as if their experiences were my own. How could I ever feel happy when so many in the world were suffering?

Through it all I continued to pray, to fast, to study the scriptures. I attended church, held callings, and participated in service projects. I volunteered in the community and attended the temple often. But nothing brought healing. God didn’t send the miracle that I was asking for. And I didn’t find relief until I sought out medical help.

For Those Who Suffer

What do we do when the miracles don’t come, when prayers don’t bring relief, when mental illness or the death of a loved one or infertility or chronic pain or dementia or disabilities or any of a thousand other afflictions aren’t fixed by fasting and prayer? When we hear so many stories of miracles in others’ lives but wonder why they aren’t happening in our own? 

The first thing to know is that we’re in good company. Although the scriptures are replete with stories of miraculous healing, of pain and suffering but then ultimately relief, there are also stories of those were completely faithful but who were not healed and who were not saved. We hold up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego as exemplars of great faith and trust in God, willing to die for what they believed in–but the daughters of Onitah, contemporaries of Abraham, were not saved and were offered up as a sacrifice to false gods because they refused to worship those false gods, even as Abraham was miraculously saved from a similar fate. 

There was no angel that swooped down and saved Abinadi from the fire, even though Samuel the Lamanite was protected from the arrows that the Nephites shot at him. Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews outlines examples of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and many others who by faith were healed and were saved and were able to accomplish amazing things; but then he states: “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance…and others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented…And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.”

Paul himself, in the second epistle to the Corinthians, speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that was not taken away even though he “besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from [him].” But in recounting this, Paul states that the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”

I don’t share these examples to predict a life of doom and gloom for some, or even to make anyone lose hope of a miraculous healing or outcome. Rather, I share these examples to let you know that just because healing doesn’t come doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy enough or faithful enough or loved enough. No matter what you do, you cannot make God love you less. God’s love is infinite and expansive and fills the immensity of space. No matter what we have done, we are not powerful enough to change God or His love for us. God loves us so much that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” As Paul said in his epistle to the Romans: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

When we are hurting and angry and suffering and weeping, we can remember that Christ’s grace is sufficient because he has felt our pain and our anguish and he suffers with us. Alma tells us that when Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, not only was he suffering to bring us redemption from our sins, but he also “[took] upon him[self our] infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”

God loves you. He knows your pain. He knows your anguish. He sees your suffering even as the dark night of your soul seems to extend into eternity. Even if you cannot feel His love now, He does not leave you to suffer alone.

Mourning with Those that Mourn

And for the rest of us, whose family members or friends or neighbors are suffering from a deep and penetrating darkness of the soul, what can we do to help? How can we follow the example of Jesus and fulfill our call as His disciples to minister? One thing I absolutely love about the community of LDS-Christians is that when someone is in trouble, people instantly rush to help. When babies are born or someone has surgery, members of wards and branches all across the world instantly volunteer to bring their friends and neighbors dinner. We give rides and feed the missionaries and fix leaky faucets, and we pull weeds and rake leaves like there’s no tomorrow.

But with the service-oriented, problem-solving, can-do attitude that does so much good around the world can also come an expectation that all problems can be solved and all hurt can be healed. Sometimes we insensitively push others toward emotional self-reliance when what they really need is a shoulder to cry on, even long after you think they should be healed. In our efforts to fix things, I think we can sometimes forget that ministering sometimes requires a long commitment and doesn’t always have a happy ending.  I will always be inspired by my former boss, who once shared with me that she spent two hours every Sunday visiting with a bedridden woman in her Christian church congregation. She visited her every Sunday for two years until the woman died. My boss was busy; she had a family with three young children, and since she and her husband belonged to different Christian denominations she often spent Sundays juggling church services at two different churches. But she was willing to take time to sit with the suffering woman, to give her comfort even if she couldn’t give relief.

Jesus provided us with a perfect example of sitting with the suffering. When Lazarus died, Jesus went to Mary and Martha. We all know the end of this story–Christ raises Lazarus from the dead–so it doesn’t feel suspenseful to us when we read it. There is no doubt in our minds about the outcome. But Martha and Mary had never seen anyone raised from the dead before. And although Martha testifies that she knows that Lazarus will be resurrected at the last day, she thinks that she won’t see him again in this life.

Jesus had the power to heal. He had the power to raise Lazarus from the grave. But when he saw Mary weeping, when He saw the sorrow that the two sisters felt, He wept. Most of the time when I read this, I generally think Jesus spent a few seconds, max a few minutes weeping before he wipes away his tears and leads Martha and Mary to the grave to perform the miracle. The verse is only two words, after all. But even that much seems remarkably compassionate. Just get on with the miracle already! No need to wipe away tears if the suffering is about to be healed.

But recently I’ve been thinking about just how long Jesus might have wept with them. What if he sat with Mary and Martha for several hours, weeping with them and listening to them tell him their memories of Lazarus? What if he wept with them, and prayed for them, and comforted them because even though he knew that Lazarus was about to be raised from the dead, Mary and Martha would have future trials and would need to know that Jesus cared for them, that he suffered when they suffered? 

We don’t know how long Jesus wept with Mary and Martha. But we do have another example in scripture when God weeps because of the suffering of His children. As Enoch was teaching and preaching and gathering people into a city of Zion, filled with righteousness, he had a vision. God shows him all the inhabitants of the earth. He sees Zion being taken up into heaven, but he also sees the residue of the people on the earth consumed by wickedness. And then, shockingly, he looks over and sees God weeping. God, who created the world and the universe and is full of holiness, weeping. And he asks God why. Why, when he is all powerful and holy and from all eternity to all eternity, he who is merciful and kind forever, why is he weeping?

And then God tells Enoch that not only is he weeping, but the whole heavens will weep over the people on the earth because of their wickedness. “Wherefore should not the heavens weep,” he asks Enoch, “seeing that these shall suffer?” God immediately tells Enoch that Jesus Christ will suffer and die for them, to redeem those who would repent. But when Enoch understands the extent of their suffering, he also begins to weep. 

Brothers and sisters, my exhortation to you is to follow the example of the Savior by learning to mourn with those that mourn. Though we are exhorted to let our light shine before men, sometimes it is helpful to turn that light down and sit with others in their darkness. It is not up to us to heal every wound or to fix every sorrow. But we can sit with those who are suffering. We can weep with those who are weeping. We can open our hearts to the grief that others feel without making them feel guilty or selfish for feeling that grief. And in this way we can learn to love as the Savior did.

And for those of you who are suffering, whose darkness seems likely to swallow you whole, there will be a day when God shall wipe away all tears from your eyes. To those who labor and are heavy laden, Christ offers rest. In him we can find the peace which passeth all understanding. Even and especially when the miracles don’t come.

Comments

  1. So right that you share this, we need to know that there is ill health of both the mind and the body, accept that this is part of the human condition and that sometimes those might be related. Both need professional treatment. I urge all to seek it out without hesitation. We all deserve healing balm for both body and soul. All will be hurt by life and need the deep healing of our common humanity.
    I hope you will have access to the healing that you, and all of us, so richly deserve.

  2. This is a beautiful post. Especially this: “Brothers and sisters, my exhortation to you is to follow the example of the Savior by learning to mourn with those that mourn. Though we are exhorted to let our light shine before men, sometimes it is helpful to turn that light down and sit with others in their darkness.”
    Thank you.

  3. Dear Guest,
    I understand your pain. For over 20 years my wife was afflicted with panic attacks and agoraphobia. Because of the agoraphobia, she could not go to church and so was considered unfaithful by members of the ward. There was very little understanding extended to her so she struggled through it with my help.
    Finally, she began to fight it off. Was it due to the medication or due to her own determination with my help. She did get better and found a happier life.
    Ward members, reach out to your brothers and sisters, they may be silently crying for that loving person to extend that sympathetic shoulder to them.
    Just because an individual is not regularly at church, there may be an underlying reason and a sympathetic ear may be all that is needed.

  4. Lovely talk. May I take a moment to share my own experience and those of friends with mental illness and how it affected their church membership.
    An immediate family member suffered from a severe mental illness for which there remains no drug treatment. He regularly had sex with strangers, including prostitutes. His life goal when in his twenties was to be a mission president like the one he served under. Twice excommunicated. Used as the object lesson on sin in an Ensign piece by the general authority who interviewed him prior to his rebaptism. General authority got the facts all wrong because he only saw sin and did not ask questions sufficient to find the truth.
    Several friends struggle with bipolar disorder. In several cases no one was diagnosed until after they were divorced, sometimes following their fifth divorce. In one case her thirteenth divorce. Several were excommunicated for adultery committed during times of madness. The women were excommunicated. Only one man was. Others, guilty of the same actions, were spared the public shame. Excommunication followed by rebaptism solved nothing. Drugs for those whose illnesses have treatments have helped. But they still marry people they have only known a few days or a month. Sometimes in the temple. President Munson conducted one of the sealings.
    One committed suicide because he could feel the symptoms returning and could not face another round of disappearing for weeks and having sex with strangers. He served twice as my elders quorum president. Several of the most ill have been temple workers and one a Relief Society president. Her former husband and children have a restraining order against her.
    I have noticed that in the church we are gaining a greater appreciation of mental illness because of conference talks by Elder Holland and books like Jane Clayson’s on depression. But we do not wish to confront the reality that the drugs available only work for some people and can lose effectiveness over time. We do not wish to hear about the self-medicating people do with drugs and alcohol and nicotine because their illnesses are not treatable. And in our majority Republican church in America, we do not want to admit it was Ronald Reagan who tossed the mentally ill onto the streets when he closed the mental hospitals. Just opened the doors and pushed them out into the streets when he was governor of California. One study in San Francisco about 20 years ago found that half the city’s homeless were these former mental hospital patients.
    I regularly hear from ward members whose lives remain untouched by this about how they are blessed but they earned what they got while others did not. I mourn for my dead dream of Zion. And I no longer wish to attend worship services with these people. Why would I wish to hear priesthood holders pontificate about how wonderful the restoration of Christ’s ancient priesthood has been. President Packet got it right. We have succeeded in disseminating the authority of the priesthood widely. We have failed in receiving its power.

  5. This OP really touches me. It helps me hold on as a caregiver/friend to my daughter-in-law who suffers from six disorders, bipolar and borderline personality disorder being the two most pervasive. She and my son have four children and their marriage and family life is very, very chaotic. Stabilization through counseling and medications doesn’t last long because when she feels better she stops taking her meds and/or going to counseling. We’ve spent thousands of hours helping (though I sometimes seek my own counseling to determine if we’re really enabling), as well as thousands of our own retirement dollars for every known treatment there is for 8 years.

    My counselor says we have caregiver burnout. Sometimes I think of it as ministering meltdown.

    We see no improvement and instead see more frequent and longer-lasting seasons of lying, verbal abuse, emotional blackmail, and screaming sessions full of the vilest of language, then plunges into despair that is just short of a catatonic state where little ones are not tended to nor watched over. She’s very defiantly resistant to treatment, which is common. We are called in the middle of the days and nights to come do all the myriad things she and the kids need over and over and over……

    My son has hung in there thus far but is a shell of the man he used to be. His thousand yard stares alert us to when he’s becoming suicidal. He has a good counselor and takes an anti-depressant, for which we’re grateful, but we can see he’s very slowly sliding away. He stays for the kids. He knows if they separate no one will know what’s happening when the kids are with her alone. I stay because I WANT to help and hope for a better day….for my son, my grandchildren, my covenants. But mostly because I’m afraid not to stay.

    But I feel broken.

    This is so, so much worse than words could ever prepare us for. We are in over our heads with no relief in sight.

    Janet, I went to mental hospitals when I studied psychology in college before the Reagan years—they were hideous, hideous dens of raw hell. Locking people up in them seemed barbaric and I kept wondering, where are these poor souls’ families??? Now I understand….. One by one everyone burns out and leaves. Serving and ministering becomes so toxic we’re down to the psychiatrists, my son, my husband and I. All other family and friends and wonderful ward members have left for self-preservation.

    I don’t know what the future holds for this woman I love and weep with and for. I’ve dealt with all kinds of afflictions in myself and others, but severe mental illness is beyond my experience and ability to cope after so long with no long-term improvements thus far, nor any in sight. My daughter-in-law’s suffering is much worse as you can imagine.

    The older children already act out. Their futures look full of dysfunction. Grace seems to be more a memory these days. My heart goes out to all who suffer mental illnesses and for those who live with them, and those who strive to help. I just wish the Savior would come already.

  6. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, Breanne, for extending the communion of sorrow to us. I think your post is especially relevant this week, with Sunday schools everywhere teaching 2 Nephi 2 and the faulty “prosperity gospel” gloss it often gets. I so wish your post had been required reading before that lesson.

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