On a long-ago camping trip, we arrived late and scrambled to find bedding and situate everyone in rather close quarters. As young kids do, my small son placed his sleeping pad, bag and pillow in the center and reclined happily. When his older long-limbed brothers tried to adjust him, he gazed up in complete innocence and responded, “Why? I’m fine.”
Since then, “I’m fine.” became shorthand in our family for any situation where someone lacks an awareness for others. It works for all kinds of scenarios, especially in church settings and when dealing with mental health. Just because “I’m fine,” doesn’t mean I should ignore others who are stumbling in the dark, trying to get comfortable, searching for rest and ultimately peace.
A few years ago, a perfect storm* blew into my life and tossed me into the waves. I didn’t weather it well; I didn’t show tremendous fortitude. Rather, I cried every day for a year and had terrible thoughts (especially at night when I lay awake ruminating until the small hours). The only thing I did well was take care of my family. And for that I’m grateful and amazed and aware of all the prayers sent my way.
One phrase that irked me in those days was, “You’ll be grateful for this trial someday.” I can think of a whole lot of trials that might lend themselves to gratitude, but this was ugly and wrong and what tiny speck of good could come out of bitter darkness?
But as the pain started to recede, I caught glimpses of jewels in the deep, truths I’d gained. I learned we never know anyone’s full story, we can never judge others pain. We are all such complicated creatures. If you’re hurting, I don’t need to know every detail, I will ache with you, mourn with you, listen to you, love you and pray for you. Oh, I know I’m being frustratingly vague* when I talk about what happened to me, but that’s the point, we don’t need to know the particulars of every situation. If a mother asks us to pray for her son, does it matter if he’s fighting cancer or struggling with depression? Do we need to judge or assign blame? Of course not. (but in a horrifying side note, I do have a friend whose fifteen year old daughter died of cancer and people told her all the things she did wrong from treatments to foods to living too near a power line).
There’s something beautiful in feeling vulnerable, in knowing you can be broken. It’s made me more careful with myself and patient with others. Still, even with my increased capacity for compassion, I didn’t feel exactly grateful for what happened to me until a perfect storm entered my son’s life and he started suffering panic attacks this past year.
I wrapped my arms around him and told him he’d be OK. We called a doctor; we called a therapist. We took long walks and talked and talked and talked. I told him he was normal; I told him he’d get better.
At home, we talked about mental health openly– how we all have ups and downs and when to seek help. As we discussed coping skills, my husband revealed his penchant for games like solitaire and 2048 as his way of controlling stress. “Sometimes my mind gets on a loop of worries and those things break the pattern.” Working out hard, really hard, also cleanses his mind. With that knowledge, I’m not as resentful of the times he plays Angry Birds while I’m cleaning the kitchen or his need to attend CrossFit six days a week.
These open discussions were and are invaluable to my younger kids. In the same way that we need to teach our children how to take care of their bodies, we need to teach them how to care for their minds. Have you seen this TED talk? Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid. He compares telling someone with depression to “just shake it off” the same as telling someone with a broken leg “just shake it off.”
My son already feels grateful for his brush with mental health, he’s been able to counsel friends and offer help. I believe he’ll be a better husband and father because he understands the fragility of human emotions.
Now, here’s where my sympathy lags: when someone has mental health issues; when they hurt their family and loved ones with their behavior; and still refuse to get help. I’m especially annoyed when they look down on others for taking medication– as if remedies represent weakness. Pharmaceuticals are like a lifejacket- you still have to swim to the shore, but the medication keeps your head above water.
As Saints, we should extend extra compassion towards missionaries sent home for mental health issues. We’ve all heard derogatory whispers about an elder or sister coming home early. It’s our job to shut down rumors, to offer help and make everyone feel loved in our neighborhood, community, ward, etc.
I’ve been broken. I’ve been ugly and hurt and scarred. And I’m grateful.
How can we extend love to those suffering from mental health issues?
How do you teach your children emotional first aid? (links welcome!)
What are your favorite coping techniques?