The helplessness and hope in my mental illness

photo by Naomi, morgueFile.com
photo by Naomi, morgueFile.com

A few days ago, I was reading an essay by Jack Miles on his experiences as a Jesuit and how the spiritual initiation seemed design to return the novices to preadolescence in regards to their sexuality.

As I thought about his argument, I was struck by how infantilizing certain aspects of Christianity are. We are to have “child-like” faith, admit that we are completely helpless to save ourselves, and depend entirely on Christ. All this is possibly the most objectionable aspect of my faith.

Who wants to be reduced to a child-like anything? After all the wrestling and grappling and tearing apart of our childish ways as we move through adolescence, no one wants to return.

I equate helplessness with either infants or the old and dying. There’s nothing exciting about losing bladder control or muscle tone or memories. Many fear this dependency upon the goodness of others. (Is it because we know all too well the depravities hidden in the crevices of our hearts: the ones that the evil act upon, the ones that the decent will not confess even to themselves.)

The dependency of old age.

The helplessness of infancy.

Both mimic the degradation of acute mental illness. At my worst, I cry, inconsolable as an infant denied her bottle, or I scream, outraged at the loss of control over my emotions. Sometimes, I take a kitchen towel and snap it on the counter edge. Snap, snap, snap! I whip that granite counter into submission.

The granite, unremarkably, never moves. It wouldn’t matter if I banged the towel or a crowbar or, as on one memorable occasion, a bagged loaf of bread.

This was the time period, several years ago now, when I was crying over Prince Caspian, and sitting on the sofa, staring into space, and certain that I would never, ever write another word again. Overwrought, I grabbed the bag and slammed it against the counter.

It exploded.

Bread scattered across the kitchen, under the cabinets, in the sink, across the counter. For a few minutes, I doubled over, giggling hysterically, like a toddler who is delighted to discover that Lego blocks break apart if thrown against the wall.

I morphed into a responsible adult and picked up the now-inedible bread. But I overlooked one piece, and later my husband asked why a stale hunk of bread hid in the corner. At my sheepish explanation, he raised his eyebrows and continued eating his spaghetti. What was there to say?

I’d never write another word ever, ever again, I thought, except maybe a grocery list. We need bread.

How was I supposed to know that a plastic bag of bread might explode?

A level-headed adult would’ve known.

But in that moment, I was a child, trying to deal with an emotion and an energy that demanded release. The only grown up aspect about me was my weapon of choice. I chose something that couldn’t be hurt—bread and plastic do not feel pain—and cannot hurt something, or someone, else, even when it’s flying across a kitchen at whatever speed bread flies.

I was helpless.

I was dependent on others’ best judgments.

I was desperate.

Desperation can be enraging, but it also is humiliating. Not in the embarrassing way, but in the realization that I cannot do anything for myself. Nothing. Not achievements. Not appearances. Not good works.

I need help.

In those moments, I am besieged by doubts, but paradoxically, I’m overcome with certainty. If there’s a way out, if there’s a God, if he’s really listening, then the help is God-shaped.

I’m a child again, waking up from a nightmare and shuddering in the dark. My mama and daddy are in the next room. I can’t see them, and in the confusion of the sleep-wake state, I doubt their reality but scream anyway. “Mama! Daddy!”

That shivering, sweating helpless feeling. I feel that at my worst moments, as I’m sure many of you do as well. I detest that feeling. Every ounce of competency disappears; every trace of maturity is gone; all my adolescent wrestling was for nothing. I’m a child. An infant.

But it narrows down my universe until it’s only the feeling, me, and God.

The feeling scares me.

I scare myself.

I strain toward God, even when he feels far away.

My medications are a blessing, of course. I wouldn’t be stable without them. But stability can lure me into complacency. There’s no urgent need for God. He is stuffed into a box like an outgrown play toy that would be embarrassing for my cool friends to see in my bedroom.

Really, though, I need him whether I feel the need or not. My feelings aren’t accurate—the bread bag explosion proves that—and my need is there. Being reduced to child-like helplessness is sad. But it’s also a reminder of birth and death, not just mine, but Christ’s.

The Son of God humbled himself, taking on the helpless body of an infant.

The Son humbled himself again in death. Rejected, bleeding, hanging from wood, helpless and dependent upon the mercy of merciless killers. Dying, and yet triumphant in his death. Without death, there could be no resurrection.

In that death and resurrection, I find my God-shaped help. I’m a child again, shivering in the dark, not knowing where anyone else is, until I feel his hand reaching for me. And I am safe, even when I am most helpless.

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14 thoughts on “The helplessness and hope in my mental illness

  1. Like most parents, sometimes even Our Lord seems a wee bit contradictive. When Shakespeare raised the question, “To be or not to be,” maybe he was onto something far more divinely influenced than we give the Bard credit for.

    And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3

    And then remember —

    “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” — 1Corinthians 13:11

    We are to come to God as children in our faith and, yet, we are to live as the adults we are (or should be) in all other instances.

    “But in that moment, I was a child, trying to deal with an emotion and an energy that demanded release. The only grown up aspect about me was my weapon of choice. I chose something that couldn’t be hurt—bread and plastic do not feel pain—and cannot hurt something, or someone, else…”

    We must learn to be kind both to our child and to our adult tendencies. If we can extend grace to ourselves, it makes extending grace to others so much easier. Don’t you think?

    He loves you, Laura, and so does this creative colleague and reader. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Robin. Learning to extend grace to myself has been a long and difficult process. And you’re right, it does seem like Scripture wants us to be simultaneously child like in our faith and yet mature in it as well; some (who might be proud of themselves) may have more difficulty with the child aspect, and others (who wish to be spiritually lazy and not work at anything difficult) with the growing-to-maturity aspect.

      And thank you for such a kind reminder of God’s love. I was unsure how people would respond to this post and whether I seemed a little too “crazy” for their comfort. 🙂

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  2. “I’d never write another word ever, ever again, I thought, except maybe a grocery list. We need bread.”

    That line is a light of beauty within the pain you express throughout the post, Laura. It reminds me that even in our Lord’s death there is beauty in his sacrifice.

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  3. Thank you for this courageous post. Just wanted to say – you’re not the only one who is sometimes reduced by your own head. For me, I find it best to say I’m not well today and for that to be ok. So grateful for a loving husband!

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  4. Laura, I love your last paragraph. Humility enables us to accept love. Pride keeps us from accepting help, love, and God into our hearts and our lives.

    On a lighter note, thank you so much for your bread story. It reminded me of the time I empathically threw a melamine plate into the sink, thinking its pieces would remain there. No! Melamine breaks explosively and into many, many small, sharp shards. I found small shards of melamine plate all over the place as I cleaned up. I was appropriately chagrined that my rage resulted in such a mess.

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    1. Oh, thank goodness, I’m not the only one who’s thrown things and had to clean them up! I think plate shards might be worse to clean up, though with the mouse-issue we had at the time, the bread might not have been a smart thing to have lying around on the kitchen floor. You never know what a little mouse might sniff out and decide to eat!

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  5. Asking for help from God and others is so necessary. You would think it would be easy, but its not. Sometimes it’s easier to coast along and hope that things will change on their own. I am learning however, that God really does want us to do our part and sometimes that includes being childlike and asking for help. Thank you again for sharing your experiences. I think I am going to be saying that a lot. 🙂

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    1. I was reading this morning in James, “If any of you asks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Thank God that he never hears our questions and thinks, “Man, what a dumb question!” He patiently answers our cries for help and wisdom.

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