Recently I have been meditating on the difference between physical suffering and mental/ spiritual suffering. How one can be so visible and the other so invisible, and yet how the suffering in both can be excruciating.
Mental illness is one of the most horrific afflictions that one can have in today’s society. I recall growing up in Ireland, where there was such a stigma around it, that the person was blamed and almost condemned for their illness. When I fell ill myself, I felt that I had disgraced the family, that it was my fault and that nobody could find out at all costs! Keeping up appearances began very early! Initially when I took time off work, I was advised by family to tell people that I had a bad flu, lying didn’t do anything to improve my self-esteem nor did hiding from the neighbours in case they might see past it all help me to accept myself and be real!
Growing up in the Irish countryside, there was perhaps one thing worse than mental illness, homosexuality! Thus if you were to mix both together, well let’s just say that the results would not be pretty! I recall telling my mother about the mental breakdown I had, and about the confusion that I was experiencing in the area of my sexuality, she was horrified, devastated and shocked. I told her that in order to heal, that I needed to be real, that I could not pretend to people that I was working as a financial consultant in France (which she had told them) when the reality was that I was healing from a major meltdown and lacked the concentration to do only the simplest of work!
She could not bear the thought of the neighbours and extended family finding out, the disgrace that it would bring. Several times she threatened me with suicide if I told people, blaming me for causing her so much stress and anxiety. While she was acting out of shock, out of fear, out of cultural influences, the reality is that she pushed me to suicidal states again and again! My Dad, well he said nothing; the silence was equally painful, like I didn’t exist.
Life in France was similar, because I “looked ok”, I was given no special treatment, I lived every day with the most horrific images of the past, constant flashbacks, thoughts of death, depression, despair, anxiety, loneliness, isolation ….but again because I seemed ok on the outside, I was considered to be lazy, a troublemaker, a no-hoper when I could not cope.
On more than one occasion I was told that I would never amount to anything, that I was too weak, too broken, and that I should just give up. Regrettably, this often was from priests, those who stood in the position of Jesus. This only added to my load, living in a foreign country was hard, being rejected by my own family was also hard, losing my career and health compounded both of these things, but there was nothing worse than being ‘kicked while I was down’ by those supposed to help.
I believe that some people forget that the mentally ill have feelings, have thoughts, that they are people. Some think that they are so mad that they don’t know what they are talking about, that it’s all just in their imaginations. However, this only adds suffering to suffering and the lack of respect that many treat them with only locks them in the loop of depression and low self-esteem! Again, if their illness was physical, how different it would be?
Over the years I have noticed that many people who suffer from severe depression hide it so well. Time after time I meet women who are beautifully dressed, very good-looking and yet when they open their hearts it’s a different story. So often, they feel condemned, because their illness isn’t visible on the outside, it’s like it doesn’t exist, that they don’t deserve help, that they are being lazy. Of course this only compounds the problem. While nobody would shout at somebody in a wheelchair and criticize them for not being able to walk, this is exactly what happens to those who suffer from emotional problems! It literally is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind”. I think people believe that if we ignore it enough that it will go away!
Getting back to my own story, while recovering from a severe breakdown, I was constantly criticized by my mother for not working full time, one of my uncles told me that I should have been drown at birth and that if I continued to cause my family such problems, that he would have to ‘deal with me’. Physical violence was insinuated. My parents said nothing, by their silence they agreed with him, I knew it, they knew it , though they would probably never admit it.
I have spent the last 5 years recovering and it’s still a work in progress, each day sewing another bit of my life back together, getting my confidence back, my dignity with Jesus and Church family. I have not seen any member of my immediate family for this period, in fact I’ve had to cut contact to almost zero in order to continue my life. I’ve found it better to have no contact than to have negative contact, and this has been very hard. I do thank God for one uncle of mine who has been of enormous help over the years. Often I have pondered in my mind the love and help that I may have received if I had been recovering from a physical illness, a socially acceptable form of brokenness.
I have a lot to forgive my family, and people in the Church for, most of which they may never understand. They too are victims of their times, of the cultures in which they grew up in. I now meet and work with many people recovering from horrific life events almost every day. Again, most of them look perfectly normal when I first meet them. I am grateful to God, that I can relate to these people throught the suffering that I have been through in my own life. These people are my new family, my new brothers and sisters in Christ. In time I hope and pray that my own family will come around to accepting and respecting where life has taken me, that they will be able to put love before pride, honesty before appearances, and that they will one day let God heal and touch their pains and brokenness.
So today, as we go out and help the poor, let us bear in mind that it is not always those in material poverty that are the worst off, that there are many people poor in spirit, poor in mental and emotional health and that we can do so much to help them by just listening, just giving them our love and time. Let us ask God to have eyes to see past the surface, to see past the glamour, the nice clothes and see how our friends and loved ones really are.
As we treat these people with dignity, they may just regain a little bit of what they have lost. Love heals, and the most valuable thing that you, me or anybody can give to another, is not our money, but our time.
Blessings to all, keep me in your prayers