It always happens. You tell someone about your experience, and they are compelled to share their related experience, or their cousin’s, or their neighbor Bob’s. Human nature, it’s how we bond, through shared stories and similar experiences. We’re always seeking commonality, ways to connect. (Unless we’re teenagers, then we vacillate between being smugly proud of how unique we are, and seeking commonality and connection.)
It happens to me probably more than most, because I’m WAY out on the end of the extroverted scale. I like to say if the thought is passing through my brain, it’s not only coming out of my mouth but also tattooed on my forehead. People know what’s happening to me, often as it’s happening. Introverted or reserved, I’m not.
When I began sharing nine years ago about my family’s journey raising nieces with severe mental illness resulting from trauma and abuse, often those conversations took place at my church, because our church involvement and church family are important to our family, and they were carrying us through the crisis and chaos at the time. (It was chaos, too. Three bio kids, two nieces, ages 2-14, issues ranging from suicide attempts to preschool, psych unit stays and multiplication problems.) That support and love from our friends, our small groups, and our pastors, saved us, held us, and made us strong enough to soldier through.
As I shared, I immediately began hearing other’s stories. Stories of mothers with depression, children with bipolar disorder, siblings with schizophrenia. Inevitably I would say something like “that sounds so hard, who knows about this and is helping you?”
Shockingly, heartbreakingly, too often the answer was “No one.”
They had told…..no one. They were ashamed. They were afraid of rejection, of judgment, of lectures, of “helpful” “Christian” sayings like “you just need to pray harder,” or “you need to give it to God”, or admonitions that medication or therapy was a sinful weakness.
It became clear to me that my experience, the support, love and connection I’d found in my church family, was the exception. Too many people living with mental illness, and too many of their family members, never received that support.
So with an amazing team of fellow advocates, I started Shattering Stigma with Stories, a conference for churches and for Christians to learn more about what it’s like to live mental illness, and learn how we can help.
The conference is different at every church that hosts it, because we focus on what’s important to that congregation – do they work with foster kids? Focus on addiction recovery? Or have they never really broken open the dialogue on mental health and mental illness?
The day is filled primarily with stories. Stories about eating disorders, about hearing voices, mania, depression, and what that feels like. What’s helped in their journey from their faith and from their fellow Christians, and what has hurt. We talk about suicide prevention, trauma, and what Scripture tells us about how God sees those with mental illness. (Spoiler alert: He loves them.)
It is powerful, and healing. Speakers are changed, after sharing their stories perhaps for the first time. The listeners are changed, empowered with better understanding and ways they can help.
Afterwards, I’ve had little old men chase me down in Costco, eager to tell me with tears in their eyes what a relief it was to hear mental illness spoken openly of in the church for the first time in their lives. We’ve had young married couples, excited to learn more about how to help family members, and ministry leaders realizing the power of connection available to them when they are transparent and open about their own mental health struggles.
No one gets better in the dark.
When we tell our stories, we get strong.
When we tell our stories, we show love.
When we hear the stories of others, we are light in their darkness.
When we tell stories with courage, and hear stories with love, we shatter the powerful ugly stigma that mental illness still carries in our churches and in our society.
When we stand together as Christians and we say that people with brains that work differently or are injured or ill are just as welcomed and loved and important and valued as every other jacked up Christian in the place (oh, we are ALL jacked up, don’t let anyone tell you an differently), then we are more truly human, the agents of love, healing and wholeness we were created to be.
No one gets better in the dark.
Tara Rolstad is a professional speaker, an advocate, author and comedian with an irrepressible habit of speaking truth to power, with humor. Her family calls it “just blurting things out.” She speaks about mental health and mental illness; performs stand-up comedy to raise awareness of mental illness; and co-authored the book “No, Really, We WANT You to Laugh: Mental Illness and Stand-Up Comedy: Transforming Lives”. She is also the founder and director of the conferences Shattering Stigma with Stories: Mental Health and the Church, and blogs at shatteringstigma.com.