Who is the weak one? What does it mean to need help? When are you enough? When are you “normal?”
Whenever a group or congregation is talking about mental illness, there is a tendency to help the helpless. We want to do something to help, and we know the people who need help. We step out and begin to help them. The same is true of people with developmental disabilities, or homelessness. They are the orphan, the widow, the refugee, the powerless. We are the powerful who can make a difference. Someone needs help and we can help.
I have spent years of my life in counseling. The last time I saw my counselor was yesterday. For a long time I saw myself as the person who needed help. My counselor was the strong person who could help me. They had worked on their “stuff” enough to be able to help others like me. I have kept seeing my counselor, and I have kept growing and healing.
Along the way, I also started to see myself as weak. I was dependent on other people. I lost my belief that I could affect change.
Over the last year or so the language I use about my ability has changed. I am no longer weak. I am resilient, remarkably resilient.
It took a good look back at the circumstances of the last decade for me to understand what I had walked through and how hard it was. I realized that I had held the tension of a really hard space for a really long time. I realized that I had fought through hard times in our marriage, both of us losing jobs, starting businesses, and much more than I can put here. Over time, that constant tension had broken me.
Was I weak for breaking? No. That I held the weight for so long is a testament to emotional resiliency, and now having that weight lifted, I can feel myself bouncing back. I can feel my own resiliency.
When we are talk about mental health issues, it is easy to see a person’s deficiencies. We’re trying to solve the problem, make the person better. But when we focus on those deficiencies, sometimes we miss how remarkably strong that person is. We miss their strength.
We miss that the person dealing with depression is fighting every day to live like everyone else. They are fighting against their own body and mind from the moment they awake. We miss that the person with anxiety might be paralyzed in gatherings, trying as hard as they can just to make it to the event, regardless of whether or not they have a good time while they’re there. We miss the person dealing with grief, and how they are working hard to be okay, even when they spontaneously feel the weight of their pain, without warning. We miss that it takes a remarkable amount of strength and resilience to live normally with an abnormal diagnosis.
Calling Out Strength
We don’t have to. We can call out the strength in people, because having a mental illness, or any other “shortcoming” does not mean that a person is weak. It means they had to use huge reserves of strength just to get here. They are strong. They can bounce back. And sometimes, they just need to know that you see them as strong, because they are. They need to know you see them as resilient, because they continue to be.
Brandon Appelhans is the Executive Director of My Quiet Cave, a nonprofit located in Denver, Colorado, creating spaces of faith and mental health by helping educate faith leaders and lead faith based groups for people with mental illness and their families. For more information visit myquietcave.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.