Last Sunday we were meant to hold a town hall meeting about nailing down our core values, which we would then translate into guiding principles and a purpose statement in order to focus our mission and ministries for the next couple of years. In preparation for this, I had been thinking it through for a month or so, but had been too busy with other responsibilities (and maybe some irresponsibilities?) to do the actual piecing together of the program for the town hall until the very last minute.
My plan had been to finish the sermon on the Friday preceding, then to spend the afternoon hammering out details for presentation. By the time I was done writing the sermon, though, I was spent. I mean, wiped. Utterly kaputt.
Then on Saturday, there were family obligations, so that didn’t work out well, either, during the day. At midnight, I woke up with an anxiety dream – it had to do with criticism about how I preside over the Eucharist. Weird dream, I know. But I think the specifics aren’t as important as the fact that I was dealing with anxiety, and that kept me from sleeping.
A friend of mine from back home noticed that I was online at 12:30 a.m., and we were doing kind of a counseling session related to his PTSD. Finished that up after about 30 minutes or so, and I remained restless. By 2:15 I had decided that I’d better go in and finish off the presentation, figuring it would probably take me all night, anyway. I was right.
I worked from 2:30 until about 7:30, and I felt pretty good about the presentation. Tired, but pretty good. We had worship service at 9:30; I reminded people to come to the town hall; and suddenly I realized that, of the 60+ people that had been in worship, only about 20 had stayed for the meeting. I also noticed a couple of pretty important faces who weren’t present. And I shut down. I told people, “Thanks for coming, but we don’t have critical mass for this meeting. You’re free to go home.” Bam. Then I kind of retreated into my shell.
Fast forward to Monday.
I was with fellow rostered leaders at the synod’s Fall Theological Conference, and I had absolutely zero desire to be there. No interest in engaging or playing any of the ice-breaking games, or even sitting with other people at dinner. Just wanted to sit in my cave of misery and sulk.
Dinner time came, and I went to a table by myself. One of my colleagues, whom I knew from seminary, came and sat next to me. He’s an EXTREME extrovert, which was really the last thing I felt like dealing with at the moment, but he sat down next to me and said, “I need to say this to you in love,” and then he began to tell me about his dad.
His dad was also a pastor. Many years before, his dad was sitting in a church council meeting and was feeling low. In the middle of the meeting, he started packing up his stuff and said to the council, “We’re done here today.” Everyone was kind of baffled, but he just said, “That’s it. You can go home now.” He had just shut down.
Long story short: My colleague’s dad was suffering from acute Depression. It was affecting his ministry, his relationships at church, his life at home. His family asked him to get some help. Soon he was placed on medication, and his life and ministry became manageable once again.
When my colleague told me that story about his dad, I said to him, “Dude. I just did that same thing to a room full of people on Sunday” and told him the story about The Town Hall Meeting That Wasn’t. He pushed me to call for help that very same day, and I did. Thanks to his intervention, I’ve met with my primary care physician and am on medication, which we’ll be monitoring for the next several months. I’m also working on setting up an appointment with a psychotherapist here in town for next week or the one after that.
I’ve been in psychotherapy on and off for a number of years. It became the air I breathe in some ways. Working with my therapist it came out that I have PTSD stemming from a number of rather dramatic losses of close family members when I was a child. This somatized for me when I was about 7 and I developed an irregular heartbeat. That physical part seems to have worked itself out, but PTSD doesn’t just go away. All of this may also play into my diagnosis with dysthimic disorder (formerly known as melancholy – there’s a reason I like Kierkegaard and Tom Waits, after all!).
Why am I telling you about all of this? First, I’ve had several people contact me privately to let me know they’re praying and sending positive thoughts. I appreciate that. Some have shared that they have experienced similar things. I really appreciate that sharing. Everybody was working to be respectful of my privacy, and I’m also grateful for that.
But that leads to the other reason I’m sharing: We are the church. There is a tendency in the church for people to hide their problems, as though the low spots in our lives were either some sort of punishment for sinful behavior, or probably more commonly, a sign of faulty faith – something to be ashamed of. Mental illness, though, is a disease and no more shameful than type 1 diabetes or high cholesterol or breast cancer. It’s just a thing that happens, and there’s no use pretending it doesn’t. We need to talk about this stuff if we are really to be a Christian community whose members bear one another’s burdens.
I want to be as forthcoming and transparent with all of you about this as I can be, in hopes that we might be able to share our burdens together, to be together authentically, and not have our real lives hidden behind a veneer of “I’m just fine, thanks.” I guess I hope that if I model that kind of transparency with all of you, the taboos might fall and we can be vulnerable together. (For the record, my medication has some potential side effects that I might not be comfortable sharing and that you might rather not have me share. I’m cool with that. There has to be some mystery, right?)
Anyway, I hope this can pave the way for helpful conversations. As I keep saying, if we have things that we can’t talk about it, those things won’t likely be transformed. Transformation is at the center of our whole gospel narrative. God turns sorrow to joy, weeping to gladness, death into life. Let’s talk.
EDIT: The other thing is, I need to be healthy in order to be there for other people. If I’m a hot mess, I can’t do anybody much good. So suddenly all kinds of health are becoming a priority for me, so that I might do what I’m called to do. If you’re reading this and feel guilty about “pulling Eeyore’s tail” as one person once put it – drop that guilt like a hot potato. I’m working on health for me AND for you. We understand each other here? I hope so!