The Mask of Mental Health

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My dear readers, this is a longer than normal post, but one I have had on my heart for several weeks now. Feel free to grab a glass of tea or a cup of coffee and head to your favorite spot. Settled? Great. Here we go…

As I have scanned Facebook over the past several weeks it seems that mental health issues have been a hot topic. There are many stories I have read that have caused me to cry and grieve. More than that, these articles have really proven that we as Americans do not understand mental health issues, nor do we have the type of support that we should in this great country. There is a serious need for mental health reform in this country. People also need to understand that mental health issues can be temporary, brought about by a life event, circumstance or set of circumstances. For others, there is a chemical imbalance or biological issue causing the mental health issues. That’s right; biology can play a part in mental health issues. There are some people of the mindset that all mental health issues are brought about by sin. Sadly, there are too many people who fall into this category, especially in our churches today. This in turn means that there are many people in our churches who need the help of a counselor/ therapist, but because of the stigma attached, they will not reach out and ask for help.

People dealing with mental health issues do not necessarily look like others think they would. The sad truth is that there are so many Americans walking around with an issue and those around them are clueless. When articles are posted about depression and anxiety, they often use pictures of people with looks of desperation on their faces or with people looking down and hands on their faces. Reality is that so many people have become expert actors in their day to day living and suffer in silence out of fear of being found out, fear of rejection and some even fear of having to face or deal with whatever it is that brought them to that place to begin with.

People struggling with mental health issues all look different. Some deal with the issues better than others. All of their stories may share a common thread, but there is no neat little box to fit them into. I am going to share the story of 2 different friends. Both friends dealt with the divorce of parents. Neither of them had an easy childhood and in many ways, both had grow up more quickly than their peers. One friend has spent most of her perfecting her “mask” and has kept the struggle with anxiety bottled up inside and most people who know her don’t know how severe her struggles are. The other friend spent a good portion of her life keeping everything inside, but due to a major panic attack she had no choice but to confront and deal with her past.

These are just the story of 2 ladies. If I were to attempt to write about the struggles of all the people I knew, it would fill several encyclopedias. As you read these 2 stories ask yourself if you can identify with either of them? Also pray that the Lord would begin speaking to you about what it is you need to see in your own life and what your next steps need to be.

Here is the story of my first friend. We’ll call her Lydia. I have permission to share parts of her story and have changed her name to protect her identity. If you were to look at Lydia’s Facebook page you would have no clue that she struggles on the level that she does. Most of her posts are positive and you see a loving wife, mother and friend. Occasionally you may see a set of negative posts, but nothing too extreme or anything that would make you stop and think that she is struggling. More than likely, you would write off those posts as a bad day and nothing more. She is actively involved at church and volunteers as she can at the school where her children attend. She works out and takes care of herself. Friends and family have labeled her as “strong,” even though that is one of the last words she would really use to describe herself. She holds a position that she loves more than most realize. She also has some pretty large aspirations outside of what she already does. On the surface Lydia comes across as completely “normal,” but yet, Lydia has perfected her “mask.” Really, there are days when she deserves an Oscar because she has fooled those around her.

You would never know that her parents’ divorce was nasty and that she has carried doubts about herself and her self-worth as a result of that divorce. There was then another set of life altering events that took place in late elementary/ early middle school. She wouldn’t discover until she was an adult how much that the second set of events was truly a turning point for her early on, or that she would continue to struggle with that event, including shame, guilt and flash backs as an adult. Lydia also successfully hid an eating disorder from those around her for almost 4 years and still struggles with body and self-image even at her current age. She has also successfully hid minor panic attacks because most of them take place in the middle of the night, so even her husband doesn’t know they are happening.

She has been encouraged to talk to a counselor by close friends, but is too afraid to do so because of the stigma that comes with entering counseling. The ironic thing about this is that she would be one of the first to encourage another friend to seek help if they were struggling. Part of it is absolutely pride and she will admit that. Part of it is she is afraid of what she might lose if she opened up and shared her story. Part of it is that dealing with the childhood issues would just be too hard. It seems easier to try and pretend those events didn’t happen and keep them locked in a filing cabinet in the back of her head. She figures that she has carried it this long and actually rehashing it with a therapist at this point is just too late.

Too many days Lydia feels alone and even though she has a close knit group of friends. Getting too real with them is just hard. Only bits and pieces of her deeper story have come out over the years. She longs to be free of anxiety and worry, yet fears that opening up too much would cause her to lose more than she ever imagined. She is terrified of being seen as a fake, a fraud or a hypocrite.

Because of everything she has been through and carrying the anxiety also bring about shame and guilt, because as a christian she doesn’t think that she should feel this way. This is another area where she has worn the mask well. Talking to her, you would think that her faith is rock solid. Reality is, she often wonders if the Lord has forgotten her and wonders if her prayers are really making it past the ceiling. She has the assurance of salvation and logically, she knows that the Lord has never once left her side. Her heart often leans in the other direction and questions her faith way more than she thinks it should. Lydia spends most of her time attempting to keep her shame and guilt under wraps. She prefers to wear a mask and keep the “real her” hidden.

Now, let me introduce to you my other friend Sheryl Griffin, who lives her life with total transparency. She is a wife and the mother of 2 children. She has been through a great deal in her life and openly shares her story and speaks into the lives of women throughout the southeast, New Mexico, Colorado and will be speaking in Texas before too long. Sheryl’s story is one where the Lord made beauty from ashes. It is a story of hope, redemption and freedom.

Sheryl is also an author. In her book “A Scarlet Cord of Hope” Sheryl talks openly about her childhood, starting with her parents’ divorce and the tug of war that raged within her, wanting to keep both parents happy. At different times in her life, she lived with both parents and feeling guilt and shame over fear of hurting the other parent. Sheryl also goes on to write about an abortion she had while in high school. Her co-dependency tendencies carried on past this relationship and into her first marriage. There were multiple issues related to her first husband. Due to his preferences, abuse, both physical and verbal and attempting to keep him happy Sheryl would go on to have 1 more abortion before giving birth to her daughter and then another after she divorced her ex-husband.

Throughout all of this, there were issues with the relationships with different members of her family. Her sense of fear, guilt and shame only grew the longer she was married to him. In time, certain relationships were reconciled while others were not. When things finally ended with her first husband, she wondered why her family never said anything or asked questions about the abuse they suspected. She states “Was I such a good actor to put on the perfect front? Or were they just accustomed to looking the other way?”

There were times when Sheryl did seek out counsel to deal with some issues, but things would not come to a head for her until after she married her husband Doug and had her second child. The story of how she met and married Doug is a sweet story and many times she refers to him as her “KISA,” her knight in shining armor.

In time, due to Doug’s job, they moved from CA to TN. Her mother and stepfather lived close by and over time that relationship became volatile. There was “a game” that had to be played to keep the peace. Sheryl talks about how she had to learn to trust Doug to take care of things the difficulty in coming to that point. There would be several events with her mother that would cause a great deal of stress. Add to this, there was a night when an issue with a neighbor would bring Sheryl’s past back to the forefront of her mind, “a reminder of past abuse, not having any contact from my ex-husband for eight months and allowing myself to fall back into unhealthy, non-confrontational patterns, worked together to allow my brain to begin to process what I been suppressing for so long.”

January 27, 2007 would be the night that Sheryl’s past would come back and hit her with such force that she thought she was dying. She woke up feeling nauseous, was having hot flashes and her heart was racing. She had Doug call 911. She would have several of these attacks on the way to the hospital. Once arriving at the hospital, she was given meds in attempt to get her heart rate back down and they didn’t give her much relief. She underwent many tests, with very few answers. Sheryl was told to follow up with her family doctor. It would be at this point appointment that she would discover that she had a major panic attack. At this time she was placed on an anti-depressant. She would go on to have several more attacks and several more trips to the emergency room. She would also go on to seek therapy. This would allow her to process her life events and finally start to deal with the guilt, the shame and loosen the “scarlet chord” from around her neck. This process was not easy, but Sheryl saw it as necessary and did what she needed to do in order to move forward.

I was able to do a short interview with Sheryl before starting this post and I wanted to share it with you:

Me: If you had not had the panic attack that one night, do you think you would have, at some point, sought out a therapist to talk with about the things in your past?
Sheryl: “I would like to believe I would have, however, I am honestly not sure. I had already sought counseling a few years earlier regarding my relationship with my mother, but in my mind I had my past under control. I did not realize the role my past, as well as, my first marriage and my relationship with my mom played in choices I made, thoughts I had, nor responses/reactions I had.

Me: Do you think you would have the writing/ speaking ministry that you have if you had not had the panic attack?
Sheryl: “Absolutely not. That initial panic attack led me to the diagnosis of PTSD and panic/anxiety, which opened the door to wanting to understand “why”. While I was fine with leading or sharing my testimony with small groups or one on one, I had no desire to speak publicly nor to ever write a book.”

Me: What would your advice be to those women who have things/ events in their past that are causing them to live with untreated anxiety or causing them to live in fear of attempting to follow dreams because of the baggage, shame or guilt that they are carrying.
Sheryl: “We all have a past. Some of us more than others and others more than us. Your story is important! Satan wants to keep us in bondage to guilt, shame, and fear. Anything that is hidden, done in secret, or has power/control over us is something Satan wants to keep hidden in the dark. Secrets, especially those that are surrounded by guilt, shame, or fear, affect every aspect of our life from relationships (marriage, parenting, and even friendships), self esteem, expectations, and even our faith. Not everyone is called to speak publicly or to write a book, but that doesn’t mean YOUR story can’t or wont help someone else. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in whatever it is makes a world of difference to someone. You could be the key to someone seeking help or gaining insight/tools to overcome whatever their struggle is.

Me: What has been the biggest lesson you have learned in your personal experience?
Sheryl: “I am not alone. I am forgiven. Forgiveness doesn’t come with an eraser so it is important to surround yourself with those who can encourage you. It is important to keep your relationship with God and His word a priority.”

Me: What is the biggest lesson the Lord has taught you on this journey?
Sheryl: “There is definitely more than one! My top 3 are:
1. To understand and accept His forgiveness, what it means to genuinely forgive others, and the importance of forgiving myself.
2. Not to be afraid to dig at the root of an issue so I can fully move forward. (*He is always with me!)
3. Boundaries are good. Boundaries are safe. Boundaries are healthy.

Me: Do you still struggle with moments of anxiety and fear? If so, how do you cope with them?
Sheryl: “Yes, however, not as much as before my diagnosis and EMDR therapy. I have gained valuable insight and tools (coping skills) into my anxieties and fears and I have learned certain triggers to stay away from or to prepare for. I have a very supportive husband and family and that helps immensely! My husband once reminded me during a fearful anxious season a few years ago, “You can’t unlearn what you have already learned”…in other words, all of the insights, tools, and experiences do not suddenly disappear even if it feels like it. There have also been seasons in my life that I have been triggered and knew I needed more than the tools I had and I unashamedly went back to my doctor/psychiatrist until I was successfully able to move forward.

Sheryl’s story is a great reminder that there “is always Hope.” Finally taking the steps to confront and process the past is the only way to let go of the shame, guilt and fear. Meds are a part of Sheryl’s life. Taking something for depression and anxiety is no different than taking something to control diabetes or high blood pressure. While faith is the one thing I would encourage everyone to hold onto the tightest, I will acknowledge that there are times when meds are absolutely necessary. Just as there is no shame in talking with a counselor/ therapist, there is no shame in taking meds when needed. If you are struggling, please seek out the necessary help. If you need a list of resources, please feel free to email me at the email address posted on the right side of my blog page.

If you are interested in reading Sheryl’s whole story, please click on the link below: http://www.amazon.com/Scarlet-Cord-Hope-Updated-Expanded/dp/069222758X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1427168307&sr=8-3&keywords=a+scarlet+cord+of+hope

Thank you my dear readers for hanging out with me this long and reading the whole post. I pray that you found encouragement and strength to face to whatever it is that you are dealing with right now.

Remember “There is always hope.”

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