It was my own experience of being defined by my circumstances that has let me to believe that a secure sense of identity is foundational in addressing mental illness. As I understand them, mental conditions are influenced by multiple factors, none of which has an easy solution to overcome them, But I believe there is hope. There always is. This quote by N.T. Wright has reinforced my belief:

Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible.  –NT Wright

The pain of life forced on me a limited worldview, one that was hopeless and dark. But learning through experience that there is a better way available, I started to hope again. And hope is manifested in my desire to write again.

From my point of view, here are three things that have been helpful in establishing right identity in myself or those around me:

Medication: While my bout with depression didn’t require it, many cases do. The brain is an organ in our bodies. It is susceptible to disease, illness and failure just like any other organ. When it doesn’t function properly, symptoms appear that need immediate attention. Medical professionals take chest pains very seriously. Complain about them flippantly and you might end up in the ER unnecessarily. But for some reason, mental illness isn’t given this same kind of precedence. Telling someone to snap out of it is the worst, most offensive advice possible.

I have two nervous system issues that regularly disrupt my sleep. They are Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) and Nocturnal Epileptic Seizures. CSA is different from Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which is commonly alleviated by CPAP, or as I affectionately call it, The Birth Control Mask. At some point in my sleep, my brain fails to inform my lungs to breathe properly and I stop breathing altogether, leaving me without oxygen for up to two minutes. I wake violently with a sense of dying. It’s terrifying, but very difficult to treat. I have had two sleep studies, both times neither Central Sleep Apnea or Nocturnal Seizures were notably present, leaving the clinician little data to study. There are medications available to address these conditions, but since they are so difficult to diagnose, its hard to know how to prescribe a solution to the problem.

Over the years, these two illnesses have had a profound influence on my mental health, leading to excessive daytime drowsiness, low energy and high fatigue. Even if I wanted to take something to cure it, scientific knowledge in still incomplete and there are still lots of unanswered questions. So where does that leave me?

It leaves me to contend if my illness is my identity.

I was fortunate that I didn’t need medication to lift me out of depression, but I still have health issues that I can’t kick. Medication is helpful, but a couple of other things have also had a therapeutic effect.

Hopeful Believers. Mental illness is an isolating condition. Its hard to know what to do or how to respond to someone in need. This week at the coffee shop I frequent, I saw a young woman step inside the door to get out of the afternoon rain. She was speaking incoherently to herself, pacing back and forth and appeared unpredictable. I noticed in the faces of guests around the room the looks of fear, awkwardness and mild panic. The situation created unrest and there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief when she wandered back outside and down the street.

She was obviously mentally troubled. And it made we wonder how she got there. But more importantly, I wanted to know if is there anyone there for her? Is there anyone that believes in her worth and value and can show her what that means? She is not capable of making that transition on her own. She needs hopeful believers that see her identity over her illness, and can help guide her toward that better way.

Hope says that even if she doesn’t make a recovery, I will choose to see her as precious and not a bother.

My colleague that has successfully dealt with bipolar disorder through modern medication, also has a beautiful wife as one of his Hopeful Believers. I love this phrase that she told him:

“You didn’t choose bipolar, but I did.”

Is there a more powerful statement of calling someone away from their illness into new identity and intimacy?

Willing to hear: For me it was my sister and my lawyer that hopefully believed in me enough to speak to who I am at my core, and divert my eyes away from my painful circumstances. But I still had the option to listen to them or not. There is no silver bullet to slay the dragon of mental illness. There always remains that tricky thing called choice.

To be continued…

Identity and Illness