Posted in musings

walking by faith: because coping with mental illness is like striving for a virtuous life

When you live with a mental illness, you get a lot of practice at redirecting the pathways of your thoughts. Sometimes it’s as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath when the first hint of an unhelpful emotion or mantra wafts in; other times it takes repeated corrections, minute by minute, guiding your thoughts out of the road they want to travel and into a different pattern.

“He’s angry at me”, my mind says – and I have to force myself to look at the facts of the situation, remember he didn’t sleep well last night, so maybe it makes more sense that he is angry at something else or just tired and not showing positive emotions well.

“I can’t do anything right”, it says again, and I have to list off the things that have gone right in the past hour, no matter how small they are, and put the mistake in perspective: I fed the kids a healthy breakfast, I got a shower, I got everyone to speech therapy on time with activities prepared, and it’s not the end of the world if they only have socks on and their shoes are sitting at home…

“You’ll never be worth anything, they’d all be better off without you”, it repeats, and I have to turn the feelings inside out, repeat what I believe in the core of my being about the innate worth and dignity of the human person, remember the irrational and inexplicable unconditional love of a child, pray for the strength to run my race with endurance as did the saints who suffered and died for their faith, lift up my head like a superhero knocked down but not out once again.

The emotions are harder to deal with, being by nature less specific of a difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is covered in a gray mist, blocking out the color and the joy and the reason to try, and all you can do is make your way from one task to the next, drawing on reservoirs of strength you didn’t know you had, waiting for the sun to break through again. Sometimes guilt (or self-loathing, or whatever the word for it is) attacks like a fistful of knives in your brain, and you hold your breath through the mental pain and then, somehow, inhale again and lift your face to the fight once more. Sometimes everything you take in is edged with inexplicable sadness, the inverse of a silver lining, and you embrace the beauty anyway, despite the bittersweet twist in your heart.

And what I’ve been coming to realize, lately, is that this turning away from the easier path into downward mental spirals and unhelpful thought patterns, and this setting of my feet so carefully and unsteadily in new ways of thinking, is really very similar to the process of living a virtuous life. Here is my fear, dissuading me from some act of charity or justice or faithfulness – now I must turn my thoughts aside from that path, from the rationalizing of my cowardice, and take an action I very much do not have the emotional support to make. And in the act, I make it that much easier to choose courageously in the future. There is my anger, snapping out at the people I love, roughening my edges to sharp and jagged lines, giving me hurtful words to hurl – now I must close my mouth, count to ten, pray for peace and gentleness and self-control, try to look through another’s eyes, and eventually even try to speak in kindness and in calm. And in the act – in every time I try, even if I do not entirely succeed – I train my mind and will to not fall so automatically into the pathway of that vice. It’s rather a daunting thought, knowing that I have both sanity and virtue at stake here 😉 – but on the other hand, what practice I will have at it! And with God near at hand with His grace and strength, and the community of saints present to encourage and guide me, I have hope that my practice (in both arenas!) will not be in vain.

Posted in musings

on abortion and disability

I’ve noticed lately an uptick in the discussion on abortion among my online friends and on the radio; I’m pretty sure it is due to some recent state laws (or proposed laws) related to the topic, but I have been avoiding political topics like the plague recently for various reasons so I don’t know the details. So I am not planning, here, to go into legal details. I don’t know what is best from a pragmatic perspective, balancing the needs and rights of every person in a far-from-ideal world full of broken and sinful people and circumstances.

But a lot of the arguments I have seen remind me of the atrocities commemorated every March 1st on the Disability Day of Mourning. There are parents who believe that their children’s lives will be not worth living because of their disability, who think it would be better if they didn’t live at all then live with that suffering, and quite logically decide to kill them. There are reporters and juries and judges who believe that the burden of care and support placed upon these parents by their disabled victims somehow makes their crime less heinous and more deserving of leniency and compassion. None of these parents wanted a disabled child, after all. Their entire lives were overturned and their expectations and plans were dashed because of these children’s existence. And since the victims weren’t going to have great quality of life anyway, due to their disability, surely we can all identify with their parents and the hard decision they made stemming from their grief and anger and stress (again, all the fault of the victim). On the Disability Day of Mourning, the disabled community remembers these victims, speaking their names, attributing to their memory the individual worth and human value that they were denied in life.

And when I read what my friends have to say in defense of abortion – focusing on the pain and grief of the mother, on the brokenness of the situations that most commonly lead to abortion, on the emotional and physical caregiving demands placed by the fetus on an unwilling parent, on the potential for child abuse and poor quality of life for the unaborted child – it makes me think that if we (as a society) can say these things about the killing of the unborn, it won’t be long before we can say them about the disabled. Because yes, all those points are true and valid and need to be addressed, but they do not invalidate the humanity of the vulnerable and needy and young – of the child who did not ask to be conceived, or to be born with a disability, but who as a result of the brokenness of the world finds herself in need of care and support with no open and loving arms extended to her.

How do we love and support those who unexpectedly find themselves parenting a special needs child with no clue of how to handle things – or who find out they are pregnant and know they have no resources to raise a child? How do we protect children whose parents sink into abusive or neglectful behaviors because they are overwhelmed by the support and care necessitated by their child’s disability or believe their disabled child to be less valuable or deserving of love – or because they never wanted a child and are suddenly pregnant and have no love to give to the child of a rapist or abuser? Whatever the best answer is, I’m fairly sure it doesn’t involve killing those children, anymore than it would involve killing the adults who find themselves in parental positions they are inadequate to cope with. We need to reach out with hands gentled by our own knowledge of the brokenness of the world and of each human heart, and smooth the troubled path before the feet of these parents and their children: sometimes to guide, sometimes to lend a helping hand over obstacles in the way, sometimes to carry, and sometimes to chart a splitting of ways. And at the same time, we need to make sure that the amount of support a person needs – the extent of their dependence on caregivers – does not impact the value we ascribe to their life.

Otherwise, we end up attempting to erase a problem by erasing a person.