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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Good Labels/Bad Labels - part two

As part of this time of reflecting I have had cause to look back upon my own, personal, journey. What I choose to share here is a window into my life. It is not the whole story but it does highlight some of the difficulties in living with, and defining, mental illness.

Mental illness. The term itself conjures all sorts of images, many of them negative. I use the term because my predominant struggles are with damaged emotions and thoughts and "mental" illness seems to fit as good as any. I work with men with mental illness and witness, first-hand, the biases and misunderstandings prevalent in Australian society. What I have been blessed to discover is that underneath the labels and history there are special men who simply want to live their lives as best as they are able.

In 2004, upon leaving seminary and embarking upon a role as an associate pastor in a church in Sydney, I was diagnosed with depression. Thanks to organisations such as Beyond Blue awareness and understanding of depression is becoming a lot healthier in Australian society. Visiting a GP and coming to terms with depression, then, wasn't as difficult as I had imagined and I received generally positive support.

As 2004 went on mild depression developed into chronic depression and in October 2004 I was put on the maximum dose of anti-depressants. This dosage means that, when I need a new prescription, the doctor has to phone through to an administering body for permission to prescribe this dosage. I found myself in a new category of society. My journey was really only just beginning.

As 2004 came to a close my ability to function as a pastor steadily became worse. I came to realise that mild depression is something that people are willing to work with but chronic depression, especially as it becomes debilitating, is not so well received by society and, sadly, even by churches. I was no longer as effective in ministry and the church was paying my wages. My pastor's response to my declining productivity was to meet with me once a week to methodically work through my diary for the past week. Suffice to say this simply put more pressure upon me and only served to increase the sense of guilt and failure.

In 2005 I was referred to a psychiatrist in Sydney who wasn't sure at first in what category to place me. As we worked together he found that a mood stabiliser was very effective in moderating my condition and he diagnosed mild bi-polar. This "label" caused a significant shift in my self-esteem as I began to fear that the condition would deteriorate. As I began to research bi-polar spectrum disorder I came to the conclusion that I didn't fit this "box". I returned to psychiatrist with my self discovery and he agreed that I didn't have bi-polar!

The psychiatrist concluded that I had bouts of depression, obsessive tendencies and anxiety. This was very general but at least it was honest. As a result of realising the vagueness of psychological categories I set upon my own research. As I read books and trawled the internet I eventually came across Borderline Personality Disorder. For the first time I was able to read about a condition that fitted my life. I shared the information with my wife and it was a breath of fresh air into our lives.

Does this label help to lift the burden from my life. Not at all. This is something I will come to in a moment. What the label did was to give us something to work on. It gave me something concrete to take to my therapist. We live in a society where there is "well" and "not well". We have failed to fully appreciate that there is a whole spectrum in between these two poles.

As well as health and healing there is such a thing as "managing" or "learning to live with" a condition. Does this approach display a lack of faith and trust in God. I suppose for some people it would but I have come to learn the immensity of God's grace. I am preaching now and believe that my preaching is more real and far more powerful as I have come to recognise my potential but also my need of God's presence in my life.

The label doesn't change very much on the surface but it gives some direction for healing and it helps me to see how much more I need God in my life. I am tired of hearing about the "happy" life, the "better" life, the "good" life. These concepts only foster guilt and resentment. I prefer to think of the life that I live and I am striving for an idealised goal. I am living life the best that I can and seeking to honour God in the process.


Sally said...

Prayers for peace and a continued journey towards recovery- I suffer from mild depression so cannot imagine what you have been through.
Thank you for bravely sharing this.

Colin A. Lamm said...

I also thank you for stepping out and sharing some of yourself with us. One of the greatest fears that I have struggled with on my own journey, over the past year-and-a-half to two years is the 'labelling' of my sickness. I have gone from being diagnosed as suffering from complex migranes, to having epilepsy, to acute depression, to somatoform disorder, to now a yet undefinable neurological disorder. Each label has come with its own load of "prejudices, biases and misunderstandings".

There are a number of people who look at managing victoriously (within the big picture) under God's grace as being a cop out. Too many 'christians' still suspect brothers and sisters of a plethora of sins who suffer from certain diseases and disorders. I guess if I were completely honest I was one of them before I became ill myself (perhaps in this case there is something to the whole "judge not lest you be judged" teaching).

Jenelle said...

I appreciate your brave transparency so much. It is blaringly needed, particularly concerning mental illness and following Jesus, because so few people are willing to speak of these two things in tandem. A blanket of shame has covered far too many, for far too long. May God instead cover you with a thick quilt of his peace as you navigate your days next to him.

Les said...

Thanks for these comments and prayers. I really appreciate it.