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Been There, Done That


Several years ago, while living in a community in Tennessee and serving as the full time minister of one of the local churches, I encountered several people in the community suffering from mental conditions ranging from schizophrenia, to OCD, to generalized anxiety. Burned into my brain is a thought that was mentioned during a Bible study. One of the participants asked if anyone thought that mental illness is what the Bible described as demon possession. At that point in my life, I knew almost nothing about mental illness. But demon possession? Give me a break.

The well-intentioned person who asked the question was married to Jeff who lived under the stigma of mental illness. His life was limited. The disease along with side effects of his medication left him disabled. Social Security disability was his only income. A lot of the time he was non-compliant, refusing to take his medication. Usually he looked wild, hair unkempt, clothes disheveled. He showed little emotion—I never heard him laugh. People, for the most part, seemed not to know what to do with him, how to be with him, communicate and befriend him. That included me. I was in the dark as much as anyone else.

At one point he needed surgery to repair a problem with his bowels. After the surgery he was left with his son to recuperate. His son lived in a small house, cluttered and dirty. I checked in on Jeff, finding him stretched out on a recliner, moaning, holding his belly. Across the room his son held a fist full of cards, playing poker with his friends, barely noticing that I’d come in. The room was thick with cigarette smoke and looked like the last place anyone should be recovering from a major surgery. In short, Jeff wasn’t being cared for, and was easily ignored because he didn’t know how to get help for himself.

My wife and I decided to take him home with us. Our boys doubled-up in one of the rooms, leaving Jeff a place to rest.  When it was time for bed I started to worry. The stigma of mental illness colored my thinking. I made sure our boys locked their bedroom doors when going to bed. I turned the lock on our bedroom door as well. After all, who could predict what a person with a serious mental illness might do, right? Maybe he’d pull himself into the kitchen, grab a knife and kill us all for no reason. Such was my complete ignorance, fed by cultural portrayals both in cinema and news reports.

The next day I took him to the hospital in hopes that they’d care for him. They refused to admit him. Jeff was easy to turn away, after all who was going to advocate for him?

In a spiritual sense we did nothing to help Jeff recover from his mental illness. In time he disappeared somewhere into the community, just an afterthought. And that was the best we knew to do. Jeff was a victim of mental health stigma. And there was no excuse for the collective ignorance of the congregation. I would be surprised if anyone in the community thought it would be possible for Jeff to recover and get a life of his choosing. With no support he remained on a social level below the surface, alone, desperate, afraid, and worst of all—unloved in any practical way. We let him down.

I spent several years in Bible college and don’t recall the subject of mental illness being discussed–ever. Before I stepped away from full-time ministry, I had preached over 1,000 sermons, never taking on the subject of mental illness. I’m 51 years old and never heard a sermon aimed at support for people living with bipolar or anxiety disorders, major depression, eating disorders, or any of the other mental illnesses. Years ago I had a bias toward mental illness and medication stemming from grandfathers struggle with manic depression and the archaic medications he was prescribed. Mental illness was part of a shadowy world, like the bedroom he spent most of his time in.

If I could turn back the clock my relationship with Jeff would be completely different. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with depression, PTSD, and finally bipolar disorder type 1. Now I see what Jeff must have seen, how abandoned he must have felt, how isolated he was in a world full of people who looked through him not at him.

Coming to grips with my symptoms and getting a diagnosis (and several additional opinions) rendered me a peer in relation to Jeff. After my long battle and recovery I would now be in a position to say to Jeff, “been there, done that.” That’s a tired cliché but is music to the ears of someone who is in pain, especially anyone stigmatized and feeling hopeless.

I don’t know what’s happened to Jeff since the time we moved nearly 15 years ago. I don’t want others to experience the emotional and mental anguish he must have felt. And there’s no reason anyone should feel abandoned, especially in the church; with an intentional, church sponsored ministry or individual effort, our friends and neighbors can be invited out of the shadows and into the light where they belong.

Loneliness, a sense of burden, an elevated feeling of guilt and shame, fear, isolation, all contribute to the risk of suicide. I wonder if Jeff ever just wanted to check out. It’s is a common refrain for those of us tortured by unrelenting symptoms. Yet, personal contact can have a restorative effect. That’s why suicide hotlines are so effective.Motivated by the life of Jesus, following him, we can offer more than a hotline; we can throw out a lifeline of peer relationship. When I was a kid in church we used to sing, “rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful Jesus will save.”  Rescuing the perishing takes on new meaning in consideration of the fact that those under emotional distress are most at risk for suicide. In fact 50% percent of people living with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once. Ten percent are successful carry out the act.

Living with the disorder, I never forget those figures.

And I’ll never forget Jeff.

Been there, done that.

Ben Overby

BKO

 

 


From a Christian perspective, and from the point of view of someone with a mental illness (bipolar disorder), I’m disappointed by the number of Christians who actually believe that with a little more Bible study and prayer, mental illness can be healed. I’ve heard it dozens of times.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the equivalent of Jesus responding to lepers by giving them a piece of the Isaiah scroll and telling them to read it in order to be healed. Jesus didn’t hand out copies of the Psalms or Exodus in order to heal the blind, paralyzed, deaf and dying. Instant healing required a miracle not a devotional moment.

To suggest reading the Bible is enough indicates many don’t take mental illness seriously as a disease. Until attitudes change, people suffering with mental illness will continue to hide behind a plastic exterior or avoid church altogether.

(See Amy Simpson–Troubled Minds, and research available at lifeway.com; & baylor university, among others)

Ben Overby

http://bkoconsultants.com

Is Anyone Normal?


A lot of the stigma that accompanies mental illness derives from what culture describes as normal. Someone once remarked that if everyone is a Christian almost no one is. If a term like abnormal is watered down to the point that it describes almost everyone, it describes no one.

Did you know that there are 300 diagnosable mental illnesses described by the DSM IV? Are any of us normal? Jordan Smoller, author of The Other Side of Normal, describes the difference between normal and abnormal as the difference between night and day.

We all know the difference but Smoller asks where we draw the line between the two. He writes, “When exactly does day become night? We might decide to draw the line at sunset—a specific moment in time we’ve constructed to separate the two. But that’s somewhat arbitrary.” The terms day and night aren’t preloaded with stigma so debating the point at which one begins and the other ends is harmless.

But as Smoller points out, the line between normal and abnormal is also arbitrary. It is a judgment call and to confuse matters even more, it changes from culture to culture. I don’t believe the terms normal and abnormal mean anything as a description of mental health. I recommend that you banish the words from your vocabulary in the context of supporting the healing of people suffering from emotional or mental challenges. The terms unnecessarily fuel stigma.

Ben Overby


Recently Kim and I were driving into Atlanta from Nashville. Thousands of cars had been zooming orderly on I-75 until one had a blowout. The driver stopped in the middle lane, was hit by another car, and in an instant, several cars scattered across the highway. It took only a fraction of a second to go from order to disorder. Traffic came to a complete stop. We couldn’t see what was going on. We had no idea when traffic would return to normal.

Mental illness is no different. A crash can happen because of brain chemicals, stress, or dysregulation stemming from an injury or genetics. When that happens, thoughts and feelings stop their regular function. In order to bring about order, an intervention is often required, such as medication, counseling, the support of a loved one, much prayer and dependence on God’s grace. At some point the path is cleared, order is restored, the traffic flows.

Keep that in mind when thinking about a mental disorder. It isn’t something exotic or mysterious. Sometimes the person living with the disease is cruising, at other times spinning out of control and crashing.  Cruising and crashing are states of being—there are lots of states that occur in between.

Part of what we do is support individuals in learning to recognize otherwise unnoticed triggers. The traffic disorder was triggered by the blowout of a tire. The driver had to make a snap decision—cross several lanes of busy traffic in order to get to the shoulder or stop in the middle of the road. The decision to stop in the center of the interstate proved tragic. We can support individuals as they learn to not only recognize the triggers but effectively develop a plan of action before a blowout occurs. And episode of disorder can be avoided by careful, thought out preparation.

When the words are out-of-order the makes no sense sentence.  Let me try that again. When the words are out-of-order the sentence makes no sense. To communicate words must be ordered in a particular way.

Again, there’s no mystery here. To support an individual, we just need to know the meaning the person ascribes to their life, what they’re trying to say with their existence, what vision they have for their life. If words are out of order—if treatment is avoided, or the person is isolating, or fear is disrupting their attempt to get the life they want, then we simply support whatever it takes to restore order, to get the words where they are supposed to be so that the person becomes what he or she intends to become.

Ben Overby

Purpose


We were made to rule over creation. That’s how the whole human story begins. God told Adam and Eve to multiply, to fill the earth, and to rule over it.

Our purpose is clearly defined. Understanding purpose is a big deal. Without knowing why we are here we will drift, pursue goals that might very well be contrary to our purpose, or our lives might feel pointless and passionless.

We have been given a mission and when we accept that demanding responsibility we will realize the importance of depending on God, obeying him with full attention and vigor.

We will become salt and light.  That is, our lives will influence those around us so that God is tasted and illuminated. That was the original  intention and it is where we are headed when heaven and earth become one.  As Jesus said,  we will reign (rule) with him forever.

Sandwiched between the past and the future is the present. Our call is to live out of our intended past while pulling into the present the future glory.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.

Ben Overby

 

God In the Hard Places


Something I’ve always struggled with is relating to God intimately. Thinking ABOUT God, meditating on a text, trying to pray through the voice of a Psalm–DOING those things is simple enough. This is not how I want to relate to the people in my life, the people I’m most intimate with. I don’t want to merely think ABOUT my wife, our family, friends. Thinking about it is an after-effect.

It has been said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. I don’t begin to understand it. God is here as I write this and he is there as you read this. But I struggle to do better than simply think ABOUT him.

Jesus promised that he wouldn’t leave us alone, that he’d live in us, and we’d live in him, and he’d live in the Father. That’s the language of a tight nit relationship. How could the creative power of the whole universe be so close yet so far? For instance, God doesn’t talk to me. I’ve never heard a single word. But what’s fascinating is what he does behind the scenes that leaves me convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is right here, paying attention to my moaning and groaning, my attempts at worship, my stumbling attempts to give him my full attention and total obedience.

To be behind the scene is to be behind the curtain. Without a physical presence, the invisibility sometimes feels like the curtain. At the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain in the temple ripped in two. It’s been my experience that the closest thing I get to the curtain being ripped also comes at the cost of suffering.

I deeply appreciate the way Peterson brings out the sense of scripture in Matt. 5 where it is written, “Your blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

Here’s an experiment. Grab all your prize possessions, grab a few friends and family members, grab that diploma, the deed to your house, bank statement, and all the assorted valuables or symbols of those valued possessions.

Once you’ve got all that together, take everyone over to the edge of a cliff and latch on to a rope, then get a hold on everyone and everything you brought.

Jump.

When you get to the end of your rope what’s left? Where’d all the stuff go? You’re left hanging by one hand, with nothing, and you’re slipping.

Nothing you valued is any help to you when you are at the end of your rope. It is a rude awakening. Stripped of all the excess, there is less of you; more room is made for God. So you cry out to him for salvation, begging him to do something. No more time for thinking about or meditating upon. Relationship transcends that. In those dramatic uncertain moments God is there making things happen that would not have happened otherwise.

Words become less important when the curtain is torn. In the wake of an overt movement by God we can relish the nearness. We stand in awe.

I hate the end of the rope. I’ve been there so often that I should change my address to, “Dude dangling at the end of the rope.” But it forces me to come to terms with what is most important. God saves me and turns my mess into something he can use in his kingdom. But he takes his time and I get impatient, trying to nudge him with prayers and supplications. He acts when he’s ready to act, and as it turns out, it is always at the perfect time.

More is sure to come. I see it in the face of some of the desperate people I work with, or the poverty-stricken, lonely people packaged away in nursing homes, and prisons filled with despair. When I see all of that I see a slash in the curtain.I know that he is where misery gathers. Maybe the way to more intimacy is meet him where he is–the hard places.

Ben Overby

Beyond Recovery


“Does my strength come from the mountains?” That is part of Psalms 121, a song that would be on the lips of Israelites as they approached Jerusalem.

The mountains could give the children of Israel a false sense of security. Maybe they thought they could run and hide in the mountains if an enemy were to attack. Maybe the mountains would provide  shelter in the event of a storm. They were a massive, unmovable part of the landscape unaltered by the wind, not shrinking under the heat of the sun, an obstacle for travelers. Something that substantial could be depended on for strength.

The rhetorical question is, does my strength comes from the mountains? The resounding answer is No. The writer goes on to say God is the source of strength. He made heaven and earth and the mountains.

It’s easy to substitute all sorts of things for the source of our strength. Bank account, physical health, zip code, education, the church we attend, our children’s accomplishments, plastic surgeon, our wits, our ability to manipulate with words, our personal power, and this list could be extended indefinitely.

But where does our strength come from? What do we use for “cover?” Our strength comes from God who made heaven and earth, provides work, health, a zip code to live in, intelligence, churches, our children, doctors, our ability to think quickly, language, and our vigor.
Giant mountains are tiny heaps of rock in the shadow of almighty God. As the song says, He will not let us stumble….He guards us now, He guards us always.
Who and what we trust in is critical to joy and peace. We trust our own mountains to our peril.
Ben Overby
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