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August 1, 2012

Katie Boone: Isolation, mental illness and a thriving community

During my last visit home I cut a watermelon with a butter knife because my brother is bipolar. He pulled a knife once on my parents so we don’t keep them in the house anymore. He is stable now, but the reality of his illness will never fade. We will always cut our watermelons with butter knives.

My brother and family have not lacked Christian support since his disease manifested. My father is a pastor so we are literally surrounded by it. But the overwhelming response has been, “I’m praying for you.”

And if I were honest I would reply, “That isn’t good enough.”

Mental illness wiles Christians. It raises tense questions about science, medicine and faith. It demands communities of faith to consider how they incorporate the mentally ill into their life.

Ask one person about mental illness and demons and evil enter the conversation. Another will tout the miracle of medicine. Neither seem to approach a theological logic as to why God would let this happen to your baby brother (in my instance). There are no answers, no cure and no neatly wrapped up testimony. The suffering is hard and real and long.

Hard issues like mental illness live in the shadows of our pews. And like most hard issues, its truth is never black and white. There is no right and wrong. We cannot fit mental illness and injustice into polite Sunday morning sermons. Therefore, “I’m praying for you,” becomes the balm for situations we don’t know how to handle.

Prayer isn’t the problem. Prayer is a miraculous utterance because it is real. God really does listen. Of God, Karl Barth wrote: “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action even upon his existence. That is what the word ‘answer’ means.”

God acts and God answers, but God does not always give the resolution we want. When reality becomes overwhelmingly complicated we tend to fall back on fortune-cookie theology. We advise one another to lean on Jesus, to trust God. Yet the words are not enough. Even if we know we should trust God the words ring hollow because we don’t know how to face something we cannot understand. Suffering paralyzes us, but in Matthew 25, Jesus warns us against inaction:

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

Often the church’s desire to act is not tepid; it's timid. But despite our good intentions when we shrink away from action we contribute to one of the fundamental challenges of mental illness: isolation. The mentally ill suffer alone in their head and the family is hedged in by shame and exhaustion. A community of faith must figure out how to overcome that isolation.

In their book, “Living Without Enemies,” Sam Wells and Marcia Owen argue that it is not enough to work for those in need. We cannot just offer prayers, money, and the occasional themed sermon. They suggest the most faithful action is to be with those who suffer. The gift of presence can undo isolation. In Matthew 25, Christ warns us against inaction in the face of suffering for the very reason that he is present with those who suffer.

My brother may not know if God loves him, but I look at him and see what it means to be brave. I see Christ’s courage on the cross when I see my brother fight against a manic depression that threatens to tow him under. “Being with” is an incarnational act with a quiet, subversive power. We may not feel like we are doing anything, but to the isolated it can be everything.

Katie Boone is a graduate of the University of Iowa and Duke Divinity School. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Seattle Pacific University.

7 Comments

Isolation/Mental Illness

My daughter was diagnosed at a very young age with severe Bipolar and other components that go along with it. Watching her suffer for 22 years and miss out on a normal life, has totally debilitated me. I could not have written anything better put than what you did. You captured the essence of this horrific illness, that too few understand. I worry every minute of the future and what will happen to her. Our interim minister has stepped up to the plate to help and support us, diving right into our situation. There aren't enough words to express my gratitude.Thank you for your article and I am sorry about your brother, as I am about my daughter.

"I am praying you."

I do so agree with Katie. Too often people say "I am praying for you" in matters relating to mental illness. As Katie says, "that's not enough." So very true.

As a person with bipolar

As a person with bipolar disorder, I think this is a very important message because you emphasize the importance of relationship. My experience of God is that he is with me during and episode and during times of wellness. He just sits with me. I am blessed to have people in my life who will be "with" me in times of illness and not try to pull me out of it. I recognize seeing me in a state of distress most be heartbreaking for people who love me, but it's all we can do. Please visit my blog sometime. letterstoasteadfasttree.wordpress.com Thanks! And blessings to you and yours.

Faithful Response to Mental Illness

I am a United Methodist minister and the mother of two wonderful boys. 9 years ago at the age of 8 the youngest was hospitalized for five days in a psychiatric facility for extreme anger and aggressive tendencies. He has been hospitalized 14 times since then, the last time was July 2011 when he was placed in a full-time psychiatric facility. He has been there since. I ended up having to give up custody of him to the state because I could not afford the $19,000 a MONTH that his treatment required. I have been unable to work full-time for most of those 9 years due to the inordinate amount of care managing his life took so my finances and credit are a shambles. And during this almost decade marathon, countless people have said they are praying for us, and I believe them, and I appreciate it. However, there were times when I wanted to simply scream because I wanted a tangible response to my and my son's pain. I wanted someone to walk with me, not remember me from afar. I understand that it was as much from their helplessness as their faith from which that comment arose, but hearing those words were rarely comforting, because I still had to go home alone to try and keep my son safe. Another sentiment that was not helpful was was along the lines of "Just leave it to God and trust that it will be ok." I have come to accept that I may one day get a call that my son has taken his own life; that is a real possibility that families who live with mental illness are aware of daily. Hearing someone say "Trust it is going to be ok" says to me that they do not understand the sheer fear and pain that can permeate a life infused with mental illness. Through this journey I have realized that often in our society our faith is based on the hope that things will be alright; I have also realized that if that is the reason we keep holding onto faith, then for me, it is not really faith; it is a desperation. My faith is growing into an assurance with has some deep peace and occasional joy because (at this point, right now) I can say that I will have faith even if things don't turn out alright. I and my son are children of the living God, and that will not change whether my son lives, dies, is healed or institutionalized forever. My son was 9 years old when he asked me for the first, and certainly not the last, time "Mama, if God loves me, why did he make me this way?" I continue to discover my own answer to that question, but the one that feels most true is..."Precious boy, God loves every detail about who you are and how you are created, and I don't think God sees any flaws in your mind or body. Your creation is just right in God's eyes. The difficulties come in that the rest of us in society do not always know how to relate in healthy and helpful ways to people with mental illness. If we could see and relate to you as God does, all of our lives would be more whole and less broken." I trust that God's goodness is not decided by my temporal experiences, and in that sense, "all will be well." Thanks for the article and for facilitating a place for me to continue to process our situation. It is on on-going journey. Grace and Peace.

Re: Faithful Response to Mental Illness

Martha, thank you for sharing. I can imagine how raw the story feels. My heart breaks for the places you have had to go and yet I am so very happy you have a faith of growing assurance. We had to turn my brother over to an institution for a time after he tried to run the car into a cement wall with my dad in it with him. It is was in that place that he began to get his meds straightened out to be in a much healthier place now. But I remember clearly what it was like visiting him there. He asked me and my parents the same question your son asked and I think your answer is a faithful one. Faith is a growing assurance and decision to trust in the face of brokenness, not blessing. I urge you not to give up the word hope to people who define it so thinly. Suffering and hope are entwined. You cannot have true hope (and faith) without suffering. Hope is not the desire for a life without suffering, but the decision to have faith in the wake of suffering. You cannot have resurrection without the pain of the cross. Your posture before God is one of true hope.

Broken

Thank you for your article as it helps me put things into perspective. I was deeply wounded when my church isolated me and put me in a situation of a leper because my husband was hospitalized with a very brief spell of mental instability, he has a right frontal lobe brain tumor and is so blessed to be a cancer survivor. I was shocked when the "security employee" of our church called me 4 days after my husband was hospitalized and told me I was to stay away from both my women and my couples church Bible study groups that meet weekly! This employee was so crass as to say I was not even eligible for the couples group that my husband and I had happily attended for 3 years. I was not eligible because I was not even with my husband right now! My response, "we have been married 24 years and because he is hospitalized you are telling me I cannot go to Bible study with my Chrisitan friends?" the church employee in charge of small grouos went to my ladies Bibile study group and told them not to contact me, not to come to my house, our family was in a crisis and they were taking care of our family. This disturbed many people who called the church and they were each told this church is taking care of this family. They were not. My husband was not a threat to anyone and was a respected and valued church member, but when the words mental health were mentioned our nn-denominational church apparently has a policy of complete isolation of the family. I was numb with grief and my church actively treated me as a leper! I was crushed. Several months have passed and my husband is perfectly fine. Doctors had had him on a medication that was not compatible with his brain tumor and the treatment was easy, get him off that medication. The church did not allow us to join back with our small groups. I honestly believe they were ashamed of their actions and did not want other church members to learn that they had not taken care of our family. We were treated meanly and isolated at a time that we needed our church the most. My eyes were opened and I realized that this huge non denominational church was not a church, it was a corporation and the bottom line was the church was all about the good numbers. The numbers that mattered were money, attendance, people saved, people baptized, anything for bragging rights to compete with the thriving Elevation Church. My God is much bigger than this church and I am now very happily worshipping and serving at a much smaller Methodist church. Even knowing our family was broken, this church embraced us and welcomed us with loving arms. I feel God's presence every time I am at this Methodist church, I realize I did not have this same feeling at my previous church and now realize God used this pain as a pruning experience to put me in line for His will for my family.

severe depression and severe anxiety

I have suffered a lot of years not knowing what was wrong just figured it was part of life the daily life is suffering life is very hard going up an abusive for our family I myself always feel so far away from everyone. finally I was influenced by my wife to get help therapist wondered how I even function in my daily life I was I was seen by a psychiatrist and perscribe medicine anti depressant I felt good for a short. couple weeks later I went into the hospital or I slit my wrist fighting mental things I cannot even see it has been anongoing battle my whole life in n out keep praying and searching for helpof hospitals several different medications I can say is mental illness will paralyze your life coping skills coping skills and coping skills exercise helps too not the total sure but it helps and get you outside my prayers go out to everyone who suffers from these
es

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