Thursday, July 21, 2011

Finding a way back to gratitude (the chaplain's role in the face of mental illness)

"I needed to focus on what I still had, and to be grateful for that."

Those were some of the inspiring words I heard today from a survivor of profound mental illness at a session on mental illness my students (and other summer chaplaincy students) went to in Westchester. The speaker had been a highly successful young woman with a strong faith in God and a strong connection to her faith tradition when she was struck in her senior year in high school by the onset of a major depression that lasted for years and led to multiple suicide attempts. Not suprisingly, she became angry at God.

She credits her recovery largely to an excellent, partnering relationship with a therapist and to medications that addressed her despression and psychosis. But, for this person of faith, finding the way to a place of recovery also meant healing her relationship with God, and finding a way to once again see God as a partner, rather than battling with God. "I put my life in God's hands and asked Him to help me," she said.

This was not just a matter of finding trust in God, or reenvisioning who God is -- it was also a matter of profoundly reenvisioning her understanding of herself and her capabilities. That is, like so many people who suffer an illness or injury, she had to learn to accept a new understanding of what's possible for her -- one that no longer included being a high-performing student at a top university. And, most importantly, she reframed her world view to find gratitude for what she now had.

Gratitude is a profoundly spiritual category. By raising up the importance of gratitude in her life, this women gave me a picture of what role a spiritual caregiver could play in her recovery. The spiritual caregiver is not the one to cure or help control an illness. But, working alongside medical personnel, the spiritual caregiver can assist a person in an accompanying spiritual reframing -- one that can lead them to a much more satisfying and complete life when their mental illness is controlled.

I intentionally say 'controlled' and not 'cured.' As another speaker today said, mental illness is similar to diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure or asthma -- it can't be cured, only controlled. Under stress, the sufferer may experience a loss of that control -- higher blood pressure or a renewed episode of depression.

Stress, the speaker said, is one of the two main categories of the true causes of mental illness; the other is genetics. It's never that a person is 'evil' or 'weak' (although almost all people with mental illness will sometimes blame themselves that way).

She also had an elegant definition of what qualifies a series of symptoms as mental illness and not just a tough time -- if there is either 1) extreme emotional pain, or 2) disability (like being unable to work). Many people have only one of these, like the high functioning person at work who returns home to be emotionally unavailable to his or her family amid alcohol use or some other addictive behavior.

I was so glad to have the chance to learn with these two experts today, both of whom suffer from mental illness themselves, and to see a stronger vision of where the place for the spiritual caregiver might be amid this suffering. I wish them both further strength!


By the way, the first speaker I spoke of never said she was grateful for her illness itself. In fact, she seemed uninterested in even trying to understand why it happened to her. For her, her illness is something that is just a part of her life. Her gratitude is something that is rooted in the here and now -- in focusing on what she has, and on the kind of relationship she wants to have with God.

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