The truth is, there are times when spectator sports are almost unbearable for me.
There. I said it. Maybe not the juicy revelation you were hoping for, but there it is: a squirmy and uncomfortable part of my life that I’ve always experienced and only recently acknowledged frankly. It has almost nothing to do with the sports themselves. I don’t hate sports. (Well, “hate” is a strong word.) It’s the environment in which most spectator sports occur.
Picture it. Everything that is difficult about human interaction gets crammed into a small gymnasium together. First, pack a few hundred people into my personal bubble, shoulder to shoulder in tight, uncomfortable rows, where it's impossible to move in any direction without climbing over someone else's appendages. Then add constant noise, screeching whistles, repetitive shouting, bodies jostling, balls bouncing, people jumping around in front of me, swinging their hands near my face, radiating aggression, screaming at volunteers and criticizing children (and I’m the one who has issues?)…
There are times I’m taking it out on my husband before we’ve even found our seats, snapping his head off or shutting him out while I’m irrationally seething inside. Other times, I’m on the verge of stress tears by the second period of a game. It doesn't take long to feel overwhelmed. I go into sensory overload and shut down, sitting rigid and tense, willing myself to stay inside my own skin long enough to get out of this building.
And there's always that one kid—you know the one. A different kid every time, but always that one kid, single-mindedly bent on my destruction, relentlessly bouncing a basketball against the wall or kicking the bleachers directly behind me, drilling a constant deluge of vexation into the base of my spine. So there I sit, teeth clenched, gazing meditatively into the bright lights of a Daktronics scoreboard and wondering what Jesus would do.
Because I don't want to be the rude one. I don't want to be unloving toward my neighbors. I really do want to forgive them, for they know not that they're killing me here.
“Did you see that shot?”
“We gotta get some defense here!”
“Is that ref blind?”
“That's a penalty!”
“What's the coach’s problem?”
“This is why mommy drinks!”
By now, there are times I'm seriously resenting the people around me, who apparently don't deal with this internal wrestling match. I'm the one with “issues,” but look at the rest of them. Why can't they all just sit down and be civil? No. Apparently, this doesn't bother anyone but me. It feels like everybody else in the world can do whatever they want and not have to care, and here I am, drowning in the middle of the crowd and trying not to be a party pooper.
My husband and I got home from the first 4th/5th grade basketball game of the season at about 11:00 this morning, and I’m still physically decompressing at 2:00 in the afternoon. I’m exhausted and subdued; my body is aching as if I went through a boxing match. It sounds like I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.
And yet... I'm better now. This is an example of a down day; this isn't every day. Actually, these days are remarkably rare now, compared to a few years ago, or even this same time last year. In therapy terms, I've been "stabilized" since early 2011. (I certainly experience far less anxiety and depression now that I'm not desperately hungover every morning, clinging to a functioning facade while forcing myself through the motions of life.) But I still have those days.
Sometimes, we talk about recovery as if there's some default setting for normal that we naturally return to, but some of us never experienced normal and haven't seen it yet. As far as benchmarks for progress go, I'll be seven years sober next month, and I still have no idea how to do some parts of this whole human thing. And that's way more common than we think.
Meanwhile, I've been doing a lot of research and reading about mental health ministry this past year. Several conversations have focused on the unique role of the Church, and our calling as Christians to love and equip one another through the hard stuff. Studies find 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. And practically everyone else knows one of these 1 in 4. So mental health is a community matter... and churches are at the heart of community, "so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God" (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Check out the 1:4 connection—that chapter/verse reference (1:4) and that mental illness statistic (1 in 4). I didn't do that on purpose. Take that as you will.
The point is, almost everyone has been affected by challenges to mental health (if not our own, then someone else's), whether or not we know a condition exists or if it is being treated. And knowing this… that's a really liberating step out of the darkness.
It's one thing to sit in the crowd alone, feeling completely disjointed and surreal. It's a little different to be consistently aware that there are more people affected than not. When it comes to the human condition, normalcy is the real statistical abnormality around here. After all, we're basing our measure of "normal" on the behavior of a depraved world run by imbalanced personality types.
So we each live inside our own version of normal, colliding with the context of other surrounding normals, all wrestling for control over the group perspective. Our sensitivities to other people's difficulties are skewed by the blindness of our own. We cling to insulating denial, insisting everyone else is the one with the problem and somebody else needs to do something about "them." As if it's not enough for people to suffer with mental illness, we add to the suffering because we're afraid of people who are mentally ill. Where's the line between sinner and sufferer if we're all spiritually sick?
Mental health is a community matter. As such, it's a fickle beast, both independent and interdependent in nature. Individual conditions are complicated enough, and then we collectively experience the compounding effects of disorders overlapping disorders. When my personal issues meet your personal issues, we breed community issues, exacerbated by a chaotic mix of crowd symptoms claiming righteousness and retaliating against exposure.
After all, when the first question out of the mouth of the world is "Are you okay?"—not "Is something wrong?" or "Are you hurting?"—then we’re subtly informed that what we’re supposed to be is okay, and obviously, we are not. And if someone notices we’re not okay at the moment, then what will the rest of “them” think? What will happen to our chances at life if “they” know about us? Will we be trusted with responsibilities if we secretly doubt and despair? Will we be given new opportunities if we’ve cracked under pressure in the past? Will anyone be willing to see the beauty beneath the scars?
We don't know any different until we see something different. And that's why we come together to share our experience, strength, and hope: to show each other what it looks like when God changes lives.
In my recent conversations on the topic of mental health in my community, the recurring theme that seems to resonate most deeply is the idea of normalizing the conversation around these issues. In order to deal with our problems, we must look at our problems. We must collectively step out of the darkness and into the light. And why shouldn't we? Whole communities are affected. These are not unusual things we're dealing with. (Remember… 1:4).
But to acknowledge that these are not unusual issues forces us to undo a subversive belief that we are untouched. Self-awareness requires us to recognize that stubborn ignorance is a deeper violation of grace.
This doesn't mean we end up with answers to all of the questions. It means we start learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. “But what are we supposed to say when someone is hurting?” I don't know… what if you don’t say anything at all? Speak up when God gives you the words. Be quiet when He is quiet. Be willing to be with people. “But that's hard.” Yeah. It is. And it's so worth it.
There are miracles in the mess. Healing doesn't always look the way we thought it would. The Lord does unexpected things. I continue to be amazed by the places where rest can be found. Whether we're the one suffering or the one comforting, we can each be both, ministering our Father’s heart-wrenching affections in the midst of this beautiful cacophony of human bitterness and joy.
We used to each live on our own private islands of isolation, heaping our problems up around us as a protective barrier. Inside our fortresses, we could launch emotional attacks at unsuspecting loved ones and sneer at a world that didn't understand. Anyone who didn't bend to the rules got kicked off the island. It was a treacherous minefield for those who dared care about us, and many paid the price. By the time God stripped us down and brought us together, we were each facing off against our nemesis pride, at the end of long personal battlefields littered with collateral damage.
Today, in the middle of a fourth/fifth grade basketball game, in a school gymnasium on a Saturday morning, we caught each other's eye. He was distracted and irritable, full of unfocused criticisms; I was wordless and wincing, on the verge of tears because someone's kid wouldn't stop kicking the bleachers. It’s like that sometimes. Two weary warriors, separated by sin and suffering.
But life is different now. In a past life, we would've pulled away, feeling bewildered and betrayed by complex emotions and “unmet needs,” furiously self-pitying over a world full of people not doing anything right. Today, though, we saw each other. Hearts moved. My husband reached for my hand. I scooted over and put my head on his shoulder.
"I'm having a hard time here," he said matter of factly.
"Yeah, me too," I replied. "The noise and everything... it's really getting to me."
We remarked on the strange acoustics in the gym. We both have sensory issues, and something was creating a piercing echo that made a woman's clapping to his left reverberate painfully for us both. In non-technical terms, we acknowledged this was causing physical agitation, which was producing emotional distress, and we were both hanging on to composure by a thread.
"I thought it was just me," he said.
"Nope," I said. "It's me, too."
In the past, we didn't know we could vocalize these things. We’re better now. Just a moment together. Just a touch, a share, a relief. Two in the crowd. He doesn't really know what it feels like to be me. I don't really know what it feels like to be him. By the grace of God, we're becoming noticeably more sympathetic to the difficulties of being human.
Together, we found a quiet spot for our souls. I looked around at the faces of the people around us and wondered how many of them were struggling just to be here, too. I thought, One in four... and didn't feel so alienated after all.