Compassionate Love Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2016 Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministry
Like everyone else, people who struggle with mental illness are not immune to character flaws. Each human being is stubborn, lazy, and selfish at times, some more than others. Stigma automatically assumes symptoms* of mental illness are personality issues, and controllable choices.
When we have a mental illness, we have limited choices. For example, a woman with debilitating anxiety may function normally for days, months, even years. Then something triggers her illness. Perhaps her medications stopped working well for her. Maybe an event, traumatic memory, all three of these factors, or something else set it off. Her anxiety is not nervousness or worry; she struggles to cope. Her work suffers, and she takes many sick days.
No one sees the blunt courage it takes for her to walk out of her door, let alone go to work. Supports rarely praise her for doing her best. Instead, people begin to question her loyalty and willingness to try harder. One may say she is lazy, another might assume she does not deserve any favors. Many seem to downgrade her illness to foolishness.
When we have a mental illness, we have to learn to avoid pitfalls. Consider a man with bipolar disorder whose medication has kept him stable for years. One day he begins to feel manic. Chances are, he is familiar with his disease and recognizes red flags. He tells his wife, calls his doctor, and sees his therapist immediately, garnering all the help he can get. His mood is a dangerous blend of emotions and twisted logic.
His needs require him to stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks. He had planned a ski trip with some old college buddies. His wife called to tell them to explain his absence. Later, making plans, they hesitated to count on him. When they gathered, they treated him differently. After all, he could just go-off on them, right?
When we have a mental illness, we cannot do all we wish. A driven visionary has to fight against major depression’s stress limits and a powerful “I can’t.” She takes one step at a time, yet several times a year and often daily, her energy shuts down. She uses coping skills taught in therapy, and regularly overcomes by a landslide. However, from the outside, it looks as if she has had little success.
Slow progress is progress. It takes heart to do the best one can in any given day. The healthiest of mind and body do not always accomplish that. I suggest that the woman who struggles to care whether she lives or dies because a severe episode of depression has convinced her she is a burden to her family, shows more strength of character by sitting up in bed than the most powerful among us on a normal day.
Yet in our schools, churches, and governments, we applaud outward strength. It is easy (one might say lazy), to value appearance over substance. Is the person with mental illness character-flawed? Let’s reword the question. Is a person’s mental illness or symptoms due to a flawed character?
Character is a matter of the heart. Willingness, effort, perseverance, unselfishness, concern for others, humility, and doing the next right thing, are all products of good character. People who I know with mental illness, myself included, are almost always leaning in this direction. Most do what they can to help others in similar situations.
Suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mystifying symptoms of mental illness are also part of our existence. Suffering produces character if we allow it. Why assume then, that if you struggle in this way, it is automatic proof you are weak or selfish? You, not your disease, determines who you are.
Next in this series, this blog will address taking personal responsibility for any harm we may cause while experiencing episodes of mental illness.
Today’s Helpful Word
Romans 5: 1b- 4 (NIV)
“…We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
-Saint Paul who suffered multiple beatings and imprisonments
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NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.
*Mental Illness and the Family: Recognizing Warning Signs and How to Cope http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/recognizing-warning-signs