Since my depression had become severe, I had not been in church a lot.  Before I was hospitalized, I had a problem with all crowds, but especially with people I knew and cared about.

  • I was easily distracted, and couldn’t follow the pastor’s message;
  • I tended to get angry toward the people that I felt were distracting me or detracting from the service;
  • I saw (or imagined) ulterior motives in what people said or did, and distrusted them more and more;
  • I assumed that everyone in church was as big a hypocrite as I felt I was.

After my stay in the mental health unit of the local hospital, my anxieties were actually multiplied!  After all, I had been diagnosed as “mentally ill,” and

  • “Everybody knows” that mental illness is a spiritual problem, resulting from sin in one’s life—and depression just represents a lack of faith in God;
  • “Everybody knows” that seeking secular help for a “spiritual problem” is definitely NOT appropriate for a church leader;
  • “Everybody knows” that mental illness is a disqualifying position—it kept Thomas Eagleton off the Democratic ticket in 1972, and certainly ought to keep Bob Bowker out of ministry in 2012.

I started back to church slowly:  a Senior Saints Bible study; an evening service where I slipped in late and left early; and then, after I went public with my condition, I taught an adult Sunday School class.  I am sure that no two people share exactly the same experiences, but here are my observations.  Please remember, I’m not thinking completely straight, so be kind in your reactions.

1.  People were far more welcoming and understanding than I expected.  Many people touched my arm or the back of my hand in a gesture of encouragement.  What a pleasant surprise—my stay on the psych ward was not a stigma to these caring people!

2.  Several people were eager to share their own stories of their struggles with—and sometimes victories over—depression.  I learned that many are suffering along with me today.

3.  A few people seemed uncomfortable around me.  Some were unnaturally friendly, and one or two, it seemed to me, went out of their way to ignore me.  I’m sorry I made them feel uneasy, but I can’t help it that I am sick, and I don’t regret going public with it.  They will have to sort out their feelings about it all, even as I work to sort out my own.

4.  I’m sure some wondered how I could teach Sunday School, but couldn’t sit through the morning service.  The answer involves the safety that comes from structure.  When I am teaching, I can control the topic, the pace, the direction of any discussion, and even who I call on (if I choose take any questions or comments at all).  The classroom has always been a “safe” place for me—just like the hospital was safe, and areas of my home have been made safe, so that I can avoid those things that might inflame my fragile mental and emotional state.  Having a ministry in a safe setting was good therapy for me.  On the other hand, sitting in a service where my safety is gone, someone else is in control, and every aspect from the songs to the prayers to the message are designed to impress my soul and elicit a response—well, right now that is a recipe for anxiety and the fear that I may cry for no obvious reason, or perhaps even speak out inappropriately.  My teeth chatter and I get chest pains, and I don’t need that right now.

–Question:  was it hypocritical of me to teach the Bible when I don’t have my mental and emotional state under full control?  No.  I have seldom been as real and authentic in my approach to the Scriptures or my students as I was on Sunday.

5.  I will end my observations with a request:  if my mental illness and I visit your church, please don’t ask me how I’m doing.  I don’t know how I’m doing.  My mental state changes from day to day—from moment to moment.  I don’t know how to answer you, and I’m not sure you want an answer; after all, “How are you doing?” has become a routine and rhetorical greeting.  On the other hand, those who truly made me feel welcome were those who just smiled and said, “It’s good to see you.”

Considering where I was not long ago, I could honestly answer, “Thank you.  It’s good to be seen.”

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