I didn’t have to click links to suicide notes; I didn’t need to read any lurid details about potential divorce, ongoing addiction, particular method, or personal pain. From the headlines alone, I saw into two people living in places where I’ve been before.
Maybe it was just poor timing after that. The other night, while channel surfing with my husband and stepson, we passed by a popular music entertainment channel, and I saw Stevie Ryan’s face on our television screen. My heart went still for a moment. Stevie Ryan took her life last July. And MTV's still replaying her appearance on Ridiculousness, as if Stevie’s doing just fine and dandy.
I mean, she sure looked great on the screen: vibrant and quick-witted and full of personality. To the untrained eye, the charisma looks natural and unforced. To me, the brittleness in her eyes is unmistakable.
Stevie Ryan was 33 when she died; I’m 33 right now. I know her too, now, in a way many people never did.
At some point this week, I came across a blog post by Pastor Chris Owens, called, “So I Have Mental Illness…” That's probably not the kind of title that calls for rejoicing, but I rejoiced.
On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publicly put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.” … I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me. It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.
Our fear of exposure goes back to the Garden, when Adam and Eve first hid from God to cover their shame. Since then, our collective human heart has issued a unanimous, yearning cry, sometimes silent and sometimes self-destructive: to know and be known.
"For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them?” (I Corinthians 2:11)
"The word of the Lord came to me, saying: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…’” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)
How do we know what's going on inside a person? We're not God. We can't see into the minds or hearts of other people... but we can ask, can't we? Maybe we tell ourselves we can't talk to people about "serious" or "personal" stuff like this, but that's a lie. In another post, called “The Lies of Suicide,” Pastor Chris Owens writes,
It could be said that suicide prevention revolves around the choices we all make. We either lovingly choose to make life-giving and saving connections, or we choose death. That is true for the one contemplating suicide and everyone else around him or her… Listen to your gut, and remember that accidental overstepping is better than careful sidestepping, especially if someone’s life is on the line.
Well… what if we’re not wrong, and it is something? What if we don’t say something, and we never have a chance to talk to that person again?
Knowing us inside and out, the Lord isn’t content to let us hide. He is One Who comes looking for us, calling, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). When we don’t want to be seen, when we don’t want to be exposed, He calls for us to step out into the light and let ourselves be loved. And maybe, just maybe, He asks us to come looking for one another, calling, “Where are you?”
So I am thankful for people like Pastor Chris Owens. I am thankful for people who are courageous about their weakness, learning to drop the fig leaves and stand bare before the Father. It’s people like this who’ve shown me I can do the same, and that there is purpose in the pain. The voices of people speaking into issues of mental health are the voices of people who've challenged me to de-stigmatize the topic in my own life—to speak over my own shame, my own fears, my own reluctance to be misunderstood by my brothers and sisters in the church. Knowing how the words of others have mattered to me, I can trust to offer words of my own, in faith that God will use these broken pieces to make something beautiful.
So, the November before I stepped into vocational ministry, after talking with my counselor about “leading from vulnerability” and with my husband about “where to start,” I began a blog. It was a big leap of faith for me. And it seemed to go nowhere. Between November and August, the blog garnered a handful of comments and a few shares on Facebook. Mostly, I heard crickets. But writing has always been my means of processing through thoughts and learning, so I blogged anyway.
Then, in August of 2017, I was brought on staff with my local Wesleyan church. My first week, I went to a satellite conference with my colleagues to participate in the Willow Creak Leadership Summit. The night before attending day one, I got into a serious misunderstanding with another person over my motives for writing. I was up until midnight filtering the accusations through prayer, trying to make sense of the mess, reviewing my whole understanding of God's calling on my life and wondering if my "stupid blog" was going to be viewed as a hindrance to my ministry.
When the church van stopped, I got out into a parking lot. As the group started inside, I was approached by a volunteer leader I’d never met before this day. She introduced herself, then said, “When I found out you were joining the staff, I looked you up on Facebook. I don’t even know how, but I stumbled onto your blog. And I just wanted to tell you… I’ve been in the church for 20 years, and that was the first time I felt like, Thank God, I’m not alone.”
My heart exploded in my chest. I’m not the hugging type, but I stopped right there and hugged that dear woman in the parking lot and said, “Oh, you have no idea how much I needed to hear that right now.”
To know and be known. That’s the longing of the human condition, at the precise moments when we’re busiest trying to be unseen.
Since then, God has brought me several more reinforcements and reminders, usually right around the times I start to doubt my motives for writing or begin to wonder if anyone's still reading.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." (II Corinthians 1:3-4)
But we’re not immune. Last year, our local school district surveyed 1,349 middle school and high school students. Of the students surveyed, 25% reported “being frequently depressed and/or having attempted suicide.” A full 25%… one quarter… one in four. Nationally, the statistics are the same for adults. One in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetime.
“The gospel is by no means a sentimental view of life. In fact, the Bible has a far darker vision of reality than any secular critic… It tells us we are so deeply flawed and cruel we can’t save ourselves without God’s intervention.” (Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City)
What if, what if, what if… what if God’s people are His means of intervening in the lives of His people?
We don't like that word intervene. We don't like words that suggest personal responsibility, especially when it comes to standing back and watching other people make self-destructive choices. We don't want to get into anyone's business. We don't want to "judge." Mainly, we don't want to be seen ourselves.
But we can’t stop at the surface—of a person, or of a community—and expect to reach what lies beneath. Most of us are really, really good at making everything look all right on the outside. But when we stop doing that, the truly beautiful things start to happen between us. When walls come down, when broken pieces are exchanged, when truths are spoken, when open wounds experience healing balms of grace… God changes lives.
Things are different now than they were when I started my blog. When I started, I wrote about how I didn’t feel open to share in my church about my experiences with depression—and how that was a big reason why God was pressing me to do just that.
We're not getting together to talk about our issues. We're getting together to talk about hope. We don't spend a lot of time going into details about the pain, the suffering, the loneliness, the desperation, the panic or isolation or demoralization. We all know enough about that. Here, we spend a lot more time laughing and nodding and recognizing parts of ourselves that don't make sense, reaching together—instead—toward God's truth for our lives and the peace that passes all understanding.
The description of the group says it's for "people who've experienced struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction, or trauma." Just walking in the door is a confession. Once you're in the room, you're among people who already know.
Now and then, I start to think this stupid blog doesn’t do any good, and I don’t know why I even bother, and maybe I’m just forcing a pet issue of mine that the faith community really isn’t interested in engaging after all.
Then I remember that I never commented on any of the blog posts that grabbed me by the guts, either, but they changed my life and gave me the courage to start the conversation for my own confession and healing before God. And the people who don’t understand or don’t care aren’t the people this message is for, anyway.
I wish Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and Stevie Ryan and all the others could have seen something like this. But let’s show it to the ones who are left… starting with each other.