Fighting the Darkness

This past year for me has been pretty rough. I’ve been working full time, going to school full time, and doing CR as well for the past 2 years. Last September I found myself checking into an intensive outpatient treatment program because my mental health had deteriorated to the point that I could no longer manage it, and I needed help. I was attending 3-hour group counseling sessions 3 times a week. I had to take a break from work on short-term leave for a month. I became so overwhelmed that I had to decrease my responsibilities in CR. I had to step down from small group leadership. I remember I was so ashamed and so full of guilt that I did not tell anyone what I was doing, or that I was attending an intensive outpatient treatment program. I did not even tell my family, talk to my husband about it, nor did I openly admit my struggles to my CR accountability team.  I was afraid that if people knew what I was going through, that I would be kicked out of my CR leadership position. That I would be replaced as mental health champion. I was afraid of how people would look at me, what they would think of me, and how they would treat me. If I told them, I was afraid that I would be rejected, ridiculed, laughed at, whispered about, and pushed aside.

The reason I felt this way? Because of how I’ve been treated in the past. Because of how I’ve seen other people treated. We read in the news about how people with mental health issues engage in violent acts, how they can’t lead. We see memes and jokes about people being insane, how crazy people need to be institutionalized, and that people with mental illnesses need to be locked up in a mental institution. I still find myself in conversations with people who argue that depression and anxiety are acts of sin against God and who believe that medications for mental health issues are ways of playing God.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have really great days. A year ago in June I gave my testimony for the first time on my birthday, with my mother and father in attendance, where I picked up my one-year coin for choosing to stay here after my suicide attempt. That was a really great day. I was also asked to assist Nate on the Mental Health Team. That was also a really great day. It is these really great days that I try to hold onto. You see, I’m still struggling. I’m still grieving the loss of my Mom. I’m still struggling to find a combination of medications that work for me. I still have suicidal thoughts pretty much every day. (As a disclaimer, I am safe and not at risk for harm to myself. I have a safety plan in place and I do use it.)

 

Speaking from my point of view, let me tell you what has worked for me in the midst of my mental health struggle. I have a person in my life who has accepted me unconditionally, who has been there and seen me deeply struggle. This person cannot fix me. This person cannot wave a magic wand and make it better, and I know and understand this. The best thing that this person has done is given me empathy. This person has given me an ear to listen, has encouraged me, and supported me through my mental health journey. The times which have been my darkest times, I was never asked why I felt like I did. I was never told that I shouldn’t feel that way. I was never made to feel as if I was unloved, unworthy, and incapable of recovery. I was never told to just pray more or read the Bible more. Instead, this person responded with patience, with kindness, and just allowed me to be open and honest, to feel without judgment or condemnation. It’s amazing how much just being allowed to talk and write has helped me get through the darkness and through the pain. This is the epitome of empathy. This is what it looks like to be an accountability partner and/or sponsor. This is what helps someone with a mental health issue.

You see, we don’t have to know how to fix them, or be experts on their mental health issue, or know exactly what to do. All we must do is to love them unconditionally, to not judge, to listen with an open heart. This is what it means to be a mental health champion.

 

Thank you for being awesome. You know who you are.

 

April Brantley, CR Mental Health Team X-Factor

 

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Ignorance is dead.

My mental health struggles began when I was 10. They did not get diagnosed until I was 20. I don’t blame anyone for this time span. It is no one’s fault. But it hurt me.

At the time my issues started mental health was never spoken of except in the context of someone who was locked up in an institution. As I got older and my condition got worse I do remember my parents asking me if I wanted to talk to someone, but at that point, to me that just meant they thought I was crazy. They didn’t think that! But that is how I felt so my pushback was swift and direct. Seeing someone was not an option for me. I was unaware of what was going on, I was ignorant toward the seriousness of my situation. Ignorance is not in fact bliss.

Often times the word ignorant is seen as dumb but that is not what it means. Ignorant just means unaware or lacking knowledge. I didn’t know how bad I was. No one did.

Now I do know, but for years though I didn’t share. I felt like I couldn’t share. Or if I did share I was met with the damaging statements that made me feel worse about my situation. I heard things like “You just need to change your attitude.”, “Why don’t you ask God to heal you?”, “Whatever that sin is in your life you need to repent of it. God is never going to help you until you get your act together.” Again ignorance was holding me back. This time it was the ignorance of others.

I no longer am willing to let ignorance hold me back. One of the beautiful things about knowing that I struggle is that I now have the opportunity to share my knowledge of the struggle. Unfortunately I can’t help everyone.

So here is your opportunity.

You have the chance to be brave. I say brave because that are people who will still judge out of ignorance. There are people who will fight you tooth and nail to say that you need to be silent.

Ignorance was an excuse when I was young. There is too much information for that to be acceptable anymore. The thing is, information is only as good as its delivery system. If a message is not delivered then it is no message at all. To have the strength to share our message we need to remember what our motivation is to share.

Think of ten year old me, and all of the ten year olds’ that are like me in the world. I was not an anomaly. There are kids all over that are in the same situation that I was in. I would ask that you would be willing to be brave for them. Like I said, the ten year span from onset to diagnosis hurt me. No child needs to suffer that same fate. Early intervention saves lives and prevents suffering.

50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. And each one of those youth are watching. They are watching to see if we care. They are silently screaming for help and hoping that you will still hear them. I watched, I screamed. Hindsight shows me that. This is not something that has changed.

Today May 10th is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. I would encourage you to reach out, open up, & be brave. They are waiting for you. They may not show it but they are.

I am including a link to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) web site. The link contains facts about adolescent mental health and some warning signs to watch for. I would encourage checking that out and visiting http://www.nami.org for valuable resources. Ignorance is dead.

https://www.nami.org/getattachment/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

Nate Stewart

National Director of Mental Health for Celebrate Recovery

Be Still and Know that I am God

In my mental health struggles, I have often wondered if mental health was biblical, if it was ever mentioned in the Bible. I have often wondered if it was a sin to feel as I felt. I felt isolated, as if I was the only one who struggled with a mental health issue, and I felt guilty and ashamed for struggling. Although the Bible does not specifically mention depression or other mental health issues, the Bible talks about being brokenhearted, downcast, in despair, miserable, and in mourning. Throughout my journey I have found examples that speak about mental health issues. I’d like to share an example of mental health and hope in the Bible, one of my favorite stories to which I relate.

1 Kings 19 tells the story of Elijah, a prophet, who was afflicted with depression. Elijah was discouraged, weary, and afraid after running away from the threats of Jezabel after his victories in Baal. He dropped to his knees and pleaded with God to take his life:

“I have had enough Lord, he said. Take my life, I am not better than my ancestors.” 1 Kings 19:4

Elijah had just come from a huge battle, and he was exhausted, burnt out, and afraid for his life. He ran away. When he arrived at Judah, he left his servant there, his support. When we struggle with depression, we often isolate ourselves and desire to be alone. Elijah did that. He then went a day’s journey into the wilderness, alone, and asked God to take his life. Elijah was suicidal. Elijah waited for the answer…yet, God did not answer him. Elijah’s prayer went unanswered. Feeling defeated, worn, exhausted, and full of fear, he laid down and fell asleep. Elijah had given up.

Suddenly, an angel the Lord had sent woke Elijah, who told him to get up and eat. There, provided for him, was bread and water. He obeyed by eating and drinking, and then laid back down. The angel came back to him a second time and woke him, requesting that he eat and drink again, but this time, foreshadowed that Elijah was going to be on a long journey which would be too much for him in his current state without the sustenance of the food and drink. Again, Elijah obeyed and ate, which granted him the strength to travel on the long journey.

In his struggle of hopelessness and despair, Elijah felt alone, much as we often do when we are struggling. Yet, God did not condemn Elijah. God did not disown Elijah for being honest with him. God did not become angry with Elijah. Instead, God sent help, His strength. He sent His strength through an angel. You see, God sends us help through others, whether it be the people who ask if we are okay, members of the church, random strangers whom we encounter, unknowingly sent by God to help us. In our own struggles, God is sending us help through others. In Elijah’s time of need, God sent what Elijah needed. God sent His strength to Elijah through food and water, through an angel. God foresaw the journey that Elijah was about to take, and he helped him. God is helping us, too. Not only did God send food and water, God also allowed Elijah to rest. God could have commanded him to rise up and begin the journey after the first time the angel woke him up, yet God chose not to. God knew he was not ready to move forward yet…God still had some work to do in him first. To me, that’s beautiful.

I recall a point in time in my own story which found me on the floor in my home, crying out to God, pleading with him to take my life. With tears streaming down my face and my body wracked with sobs, I cried out in anger, frustration, fear, guilt, and shame. You see, I felt very much the same as Elijah felt. I had battled against the thoughts in my head, I had come back from depression before, yet this time I felt weary, tired, abandoned, and I felt as if I could not fight anymore. I sat there after I cried out to God, yet…He did not answer me. He did not answer that heart-felt plea of a desperate heart, and I didn’t understand why. As I went out to my car, to finish what I had set out to do to end my life, I received a text, which turned into multiple texts, which turned into multiple phone calls. God was sending me an angel. That was His answer. That God-sent friend reached out to me, leading to a 3-hour phone call that saved my life that day. God gave me the strength to endure the long, strenuous journey ahead through someone He sent to me.

God knows what we need. When God allowed Elijah to rest, He was allowing Elijah to “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes being still is allowing ourselves to rest. Often, we expect ourselves to progress through our mental health journey so quickly as if we are on a sprint, and we choose to get up and move forward when it’s not time yet. Other times we refuse to get up and move forward when God is telling us that we are ready. Just as Elijah’s journey was a long journey, our mental health recovery journey is a long journey too. God is trying to prepare us for that journey, that marathon. It’s one day at a time, not one race at a time. Let us be still and know that He is God. Let us trust that He knows exactly what we need in our time of need. Let us know that He does not condemn us for our struggles. Let us have faith that our God is and always will be the protector of our souls. Let us remember that God is sending us help through others, whether that be through the church, mental health professionals, doctors, family, and friends, or anything else God chooses to send.

 

Let us be still and trust that He can help us in our mental health recovery.

 

April Brantley, CR Mental Health Team X-Factor

 

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Be the change

“The mental health system failed our son.” This was the phrase that stuck out to me while I watching a news segment on television. The Father was talking about his 19 year old son who took his life while waiting for an appointment to see a mental health specialist.

I wish that this was the only time I have heard of this sort of thing happening. I have had parents sitting across from me in my office asking how a doctor could let their child, obviously in crisis, to walk out of a hospital. I have seen this same sort of thing in the case of adults as well. This is not an issue reserved for youth.

The mental health care system in this country is grossly underfunded and incredibly overwhelmed. There are thousands of good mental health practitioners across the country; however there are millions of people who need their services. In the city I live, the average wait time is about 3 months to see a practitioner. That can go as high as 6 months depending on the type of help you are looking for. I have heard stories of people intentionally harming themselves because they feel they can’t wait that long so they do something drastic just to be admitted to a hospital. This is a crisis.

Please understand me. I am not posting this to condemn the mental health care system. I am not a clinical practitioner & I do not work in a mental health facility, and because of this feel underqualified to offer solutions to the problems from a systemic approach. I have my ideas of course but I have no intention of telling these people how to do their jobs. Instead I am going to speak to what I do know.

I can be a part of the solution. You can be a part of the solution as well.

Arguably one of the primary factors in effective mental health care is the removal from isolation for the person in need. Being surrounded by a community of people who are willing to include the individual is vital to a person’s mental health. While we can’t necessarily fix the problem we can serve those who are impacted by it.

As someone who struggles with multiple diagnoses I can tell you first hand that what I need the most is not someone who can fix me. I need someone who will care about me. Yes medical treatment and professional care is a key component as well, but if I don’t feel as though I have a purpose then I have no reason to seek out that treatment. My mindset changes from “This is going to be hard but I can do it.” to “Why bother?”

That is where we come in. We can be that community.

One of the things I have heard over the last couple of years since starting the Mental Health Initiative in Celebrate Recovery is that people don’t feel qualified to help, that there should be training before we approach someone who has a mental health issue. I disagree with that idea. If we wait until someone who is a trained professional to reach out to someone in our Celebrate Recovery’s, Churches, communities, then we are leaving people alone to be loved by a system that is not able to handle the demand.

Remember that what I am talking about is not treatment! If you are not trained then you shouldn’t be treating. At the same time we don’t need to be a professional to show someone we care. Think of it this way…If someone came up to you and started to talk about their high blood pressure or their diabetes would you stop and say “We shouldn’t talk about that kind of stuff. I’m not a doctor.” Both of those things require a professional diagnosis. Both of those things can be deadly if not managed correctly. Yet there is no stigma associated with those topics because society has chosen to allow that kind of conversation to be acceptable. As it should be.

The Celebrate Recovery Mental Health Initiative has a lot of pieces and differing levels of involvement. 95% of the participation is going to be CR participants showing that CR is a safe place to talk about and search for support for their mental health issues. Letting people know that while they are waiting for those appointments that there are people who will listen, people who will offer support, people who are willing to treat their brothers and sisters as equals, people who will let them know that they have value, people who will let them know they have a purpose. We very well may be the reason that someone goes from the “Why bother?” thought process to the “This will be hard but I can do it.” process.

We have an opportunity to help remove the stigma of mental health in our churches. This can and will save lives.

The month of May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. There are going to be people who reach out to our groups for hope. The question is, are we going to be ready for that? Are we going to be ready to show that it is ok to struggle with our mental health? Not to have answers. Not to have a fix. Are we ready to show the love of Christ?

Nate Stewart

National Director of Mental Health for Celebrate Recovery.

 

Learning to Trust Again

Most days, if you were to see me without really knowing me, then most likely you wouldn’t be able to tell that I’m struggling with a mental health issue. By looking at me you wouldn’t be able to tell that I’ve attempted suicide 3 times. You wouldn’t tell that on most days, I struggle to like myself. You wouldn’t tell that for me, I fight day in and day out with the horrible thoughts in my head, thoughts which tell me I’m not good enough, that I’m not worthy, that I’m not loved. You see, I am lied to constantly by my own thoughts, my own brain and on most days, I do okay with discerning the truth from the lies. However, I do have days in which the lies overwhelm me and take me by surprise, throwing me into a dark state of depression. In fact, I am having a day like that today. It’s days like today that I find it difficult to trust myself.

I recently found out that I struggle with symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, and Dissociative Identity. When my therapist and I discovered this, I was in complete shock. I could not believe that for the longest time I have been struggling with these issues. I began to have thoughts of doubt. Pair this with major depression and before long, I wasn’t really sure how I was feeling anymore. I knew I had a problem, I knew that I was struggling, I just didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t want to hear that I was struggling with a personality disorder because didn’t that mean that there was something wrong with me? My personality? I began to question my thoughts. My behaviors. Am I supposed to be feeling this way? Is this really me thinking this or is it my alter? Am I being too much? Is this impulsive behavior? What is considered normal? I began to question my every thought, my every motive, my behavior, and even my feelings. If I couldn’t trust myself, then who could I trust?

Having a mental health issue creates such destruction and chaos within the depths of my mind, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Often thoughts race in my mind, thoughts filled with self-doubt, hatred, self-loathing, harsh criticism, and things I would never say to a child, close friend, or anyone else for that matter. When I feel, I either feel everything too intensely or almost not at all. I struggle to find an in-between. I struggle to discern whether my thoughts are true. Can I believe what I am thinking? How about my feelings? Can I trust my feelings enough to act upon them? With my impulsivity, can I trust my judgment and intuition? I find myself questioning myself over and over and over again, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety, depression, and major mood swings. However, if I am going to recover and learn to manage my mental health issues, I have to be able to have a relationship with myself. I have to be able to trust myself, to know that I am able to trust my feelings, my thoughts, my emotions, and behaviors, and that I am capable of managing this. I had to realize that I am capable of trusting myself to discern between the truth and the lies.

Do I trust myself now? I’m still working on it. It’s a work in progress. Every day I try to do something outside of my comfort zone, and I choose to celebrate the small successes. I am learning that not every thought is a lie. I am learning how to question those thoughts and compare them to the truth of what Jesus Christ has promised. I am learning that I am just as capable of being an effective mental health champion after discovering these struggles as I was before these struggles were ever known. Nothing has changed other than the fact that I now am aware of what I am struggling with, and where I need to go from here. I am still the same, trustworthy person. A diagnosis has not changed that. I am going to make mistakes. I am going to stumble, fail, and sometimes take 2 steps forward and 7 steps back. What matters is that I’m not giving up, even when I so desperately want to. What matters is that God trusts me. He trusts me to trust in Him. He gave me the free will to be able to turn over to Him because He trusts me enough to do just that. He trusts me with the spiritual gift that He has given me. He trusts me to shine His light onto the world. The real reason that I know that I can trust myself is because I’m not walking this journey alone.

 

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

 

April Brantley, CR Mental Health Team X-Factor

How do I open up?

Our right to privacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Like any of our other rights as Americans we, as a culture, hold very tightly to that right. If we feel that our rights have been violated then we feel as if we personally have been violated; taken advantage of.

So the idea of unlawful wire taps, someone reading our mail (even if it is the junk mail we were going to throw away anyways), someone going through our homes, our financial records, or any other of the millions of ways that someone could put their nose were it doesn’t belong is enough to make our blood boil. We want our privacy and no one should feel they have the right to take that from us. I agree with all of this and I can say that the idea of someone going through my personal information bugs me as well.

It is because of this concept of privacy and our tendency to want to hold things back, that I think are the motivating factors in the comments from people who are amazed (Their word, not mine.) by the transparency that I exhibit when it comes to my mental health issues. Why would I want to share that kind of information with the world? Why would I put something like this online, in the mystical clouds where data never dies?

The answer for this is simple. Some things are meant to be shared. If I keep all of my experiences to myself and never let them out into the light then those experiences become wasted. I have had people tell me that something I was willing to share publicly literally saved their life. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!? Some of my worst moments in life are now being used to help others experience tremendous freedom.

But…I certainly didn’t start out this way. And I would never tell someone to just start telling everyone everything. I do know that being willing to be open and vulnerable carries a great risk. Not everyone is safe. It is because of this there are many things in my life that I don’t share with the masses. I share them with a very select few. It is my opinion that everyone should have those select few in their lives who really get to know us at a deeper level than everyone else.

So with those things in mind…in that being vulnerable offers tremendous reward and being vulnerable brings with it significant risk, how do we start to open up without hurting ourselves in the process?

This is just a partial list to get started but here are a few things to consider:

  1. Remember the benefits to you. No this is not all about you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t receive some of the blessings. One of the biggest side effects of sharing is the healing that you will receive by getting out from under the shame associated with our negative experiences. I have heard several times in my Celebrate Recovery meetings people sharing the phrase, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” And it is true. Once something is brought into the light it immediately loses some of the hold it has on us. It doesn’t magically make all of the harsh feelings go away but it definitely lessens the effect it has on our lives.
  2. Start small. Test the waters with a person you know you can trust. Share some of what you have dealt with/are dealing with. This can be both for the times when you need to get something off your chest and for the times when you think your experiences may benefit someone else. The smaller the share the smaller the risk. When you see how the person responds then you can begin to build trust.
  3. Do this because you want to. Don’t start sharing things with people because you are feeling guilty for keeping things to yourself. Guilt is a condemning emotion and it does not come from God. Share because you have seen healing in your life and you want to pass that on. Share because you need healing in your life and you know this is a great way to progress in that. Don’t share simply because I am telling you to. Don’t give me that kind of control over you. Share because you want to.
  4. Share in a safe place. As you begin to open up it may be difficult to find a place that you feel is safe. So start in a controlled environment. Talk to a therapist or counselor. With the exception of some mandatory reporting situations, they can’t tell anyone anyways, it’s confidential. And ask them to help you get used to being vulnerable in a safe way. Ask them to help you with understanding when the correct time and place is for sharing personal things.
  5. Don’t compare yourself to others. When people open up it can feel really uncomfortable. It goes against all those things I talked about in the beginning. Don’t feel bad if it feels uncomfortable. Don’t say to yourself, “Why can’t I be like them? They have no problem opening up.” I didn’t start out talking to thousands of people when I began doing this, I talked to one person.
  6. Pray about it!! God is the one who uses our stories for His glory. My words make a difference in people’s lives when God uses the words. Not because of anything I am doing. I can’t fix anyone. God is the one who works according to His good purpose. I just invite Him into the conversation.
  7. Remember that sometimes we get it wrong. This is ok. Sometimes we come away from a conversation thinking, “Why did I do that? I should have never opened my mouth.” I have had many people tell me that they never want to open up again because of how people reacted. While those times can feel painful, they are opportunities to learn and to grow. This is part of the process. Trust that God is working it out. Don’t give up on sharing your story because of a bad experience.

What are your experiences? Have you opened up and had it go well?  Go poorly? What did you learn from the process? What did I leave off the list that you wish I hadn’t? Share your thoughts; I would love it if you opened up with me. (See what I did there? Don’t worry, I promise not to judge.)

Not ready to comment on a blog post but want to share? Shoot me an email: mncrnate@gmail.com

 

Nate Stewart

National Director of Mental Health for Celebrate Recovery

 

Mental Health Mythbusters Edition: Continued…

Two weeks ago I introduced the mythbusters series on mental health. If we are going to continue to break the stigma that surrounds mental health, that means we need to get educated. We need to become aware of the different thoughts, ideas, and beliefs which are commonly held, but hold absolutely no truth to them. So here are more myths. Let’s change the way we view mental health.

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Myth: If only people would just choose to think more positively, they would be happier and less depressed.

This is a huge misconception, one that is particularly hurtful and invalidating to hear. Trust me, I’ve heard this quite often, and I STILL get told this. “Just think positive.” Um…okay. I’m positive that I don’t feel better. HAHA!!! Seriously though, our brains cannot control the universe. We can just think one thing and then it magically happens. Our thoughts are products of a lifetime of environmental, biological, social, and spiritual changes. Think about it this way. Think of a time which you got hurt, had surgery, or something else which was physically painful. If in the middle of your excruciating pain I told you to think positive and not to think about the pain, do you think that you would have magically stopped hurting? That you would be in less pain? Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. I’m not saying that we should not be intentional in our treatment of mental health, or that thinking positive doesn’t affect mental health. I’m just saying that “think positive” is not the most effective way to treat depression. There’s much more to it than that. Chemically, the brain produces four primary chemicals which influences the affect of happiness in the brain. If the brain cannot physically produce these chemicals, then the treatment would then need to be neurological, not cognitive. So please, stop saying “be more positive” when we are down. Please.

 

Myth: I have to have a diagnosis to start taking care of and being concerned for my mental health.

If we have a car, do we wait until the car runs out of gas to put more gas in it? Do we wait until the engine seizes up to replace the oil? No, of course not. (Well I would hope not anyway.) If we have something of value, we take care of it. We perform maintenance on our car to keep it in the best possible running condition. Without proper maintenance and upkeep, the car will not perform as effectively as it could. The same goes for ourselves. Without the proper mental health wellness checkups and maintenance such as self-care, we may find that we will not function as effectively as we have the potential to. Regarding a diagnosis, that “label” is just a way for the mental health practitioner to discover the best avenues of treatment. Let’s call it Mental Health Maintenance. It’s necessary. It’s required.

 

Myth: The only way I can help out with the mental health initiative is if I am a Mental Health Champion.

FALSE! In fact, just because you don’t have the label does not mean you are not capable of making a difference in breaking the stigma of mental health. You do not have to be a leader or an expert in mental health to contribute to the mission of this initiative. I have my own term for it: Mental Health Missionaries. As a mental health missionary, you can empathize with others. You can help create a safe place within your local CR to talk about mental health. You can share your own stories. You can challenge other myths that come up in the battle against stigma. You can become an accountability partner of someone who is struggling. You can utilize the mental health agreement in your own recovery journey. You can reach out and get your own mental health wellness check. One small step at a time, one story at a time, one small action at a time. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE BY JUST BEING YOURSELF.

 

April Brantley, CR Mental Health Team X-Factor