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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Mental Health: The Not-So-Golden Silence

I saw her stand up to give her testimony. Everything in me was screaming. "No! Don't do it!" But she did. In exquisite detail she told about a horrible trauma she had survived and how she still suffered from night terrors. Then she said how she was taking medication to help. This was taboo for many at the women's meeting and I felt the air being sucked out of the room.

I could tell she wasn't actually present as she talked and thankfully seemed unaware of the chilling stone faces around her. I surveyed the faces which were a landscape of stone with several looks of pure terror and an occasional glimpse of compassion.

Finally she said, "I am trusting God to help me." I could feel the room sigh in relief. She put her religiously acceptable mask back on and sat down. The moderator of the women's group quickly moved to the next item on the program while I checked my mask to ensure the episode hadn't loosened the clasps that kept me safe. I was good. I could make it another twenty years. It was also a warning about what I should never do publicly. One I took very seriously.

My psyche was really good at putting up warning signs. I had survived and become a respected leader because I knew the rules about mental health. Expressing mental health concerns was the fastest route to isolation on the planet. Its impact on careers in church circles fueled my determination to make it to retirement. I finished well, collapsed into the very depth of mental illness, took two years to heal, and then I broke every rule.

I hope, when this woman told her story, her friends came to her side and supported her as mine have. They wouldn't have had answers. She clearly needed professional help and appeared to have accessed it in some form; but she desperately needed the body of Christ to care.

On another day she cried and fled the sanctuary. I found her in a restroom stall and convinced her to come out. She felt like a spiritual failure because she needed antidepressants. I hugged her and said, "Me too." It was my best attempt at being brave in the judgmental world in which we lived. I justified my use of medication on the basis that it was a genetic problem. I had no understanding of the trauma I had experienced. I sympathized with her pain because many voices from the pulpits made me feel like a spiritual failure also. We never talked again.

It is good for me to remember how determined I was to hide my own pain and how uncomfortable this woman's pain made me. The stone faces and silence she faced that first day had many back-stories. Regrettably, I was one of those silent faces—with carefully disguised terror underneath. To my credit, I didn't remain there the next time she imploded publicly, but my silence on the first day was deafening because it said so much about my own fear.

I fully understand the level of psychological care that brought me to this place of openness about my severe mental illness (the depth of which will be explained in my upcoming book). I have had many reactions to the public telling of my story. Honestly, it has been more positive than my brokenness would have ever allowed me to believe could be possible, but I think we could all do better. This is my Top Ten list of what has been helpful and not so helpful during the past few months. Some will probably surprise you. I hope it helps us break the not-so-golden silence.

1. Stone-Faced Silence

I get it. Silence has many faces that were discussed above but it is honestly the least effective in building relationships and caring for each other. It left me lost in my own conclusions, most of which I sincerely hope were incorrect. There are better answers. Silence is not golden. The following are ways to break the damaging silence.

2. Compassion

This is all anyone really wants. We (meaning every human being on the planet) just need to know that someone (anyone) cares. It is hard to know what to say or do when someone says, “I was sexually abused as a child and suffered severe mental health issues.” I get it. It is at the very least, awkward. Those who have been brave enough to respond with some form of, “I am sorry this happened to you,” or “I care,” or “What can I do to help?” are a treasure to me. I think the best way to find compassion is to think, “What would I do if the person had written and shared a diagnosis of cancer or someone in the family died? What would my response be?” Figure that out and do likewise.

(Let me add a caveat here. All of us have had experiences with someone whose pain and needs were so deep that if we tried to help, we were consumed by the extent of the needs. It was simply beyond our resources. That is exactly right. There are cases when it is beyond our resources, but many simply need to know someone cares. If the result is, shall we say, ‘being needed way too much,’ then your job is to set boundaries with love and compassion and help them to access the help they need. These individuals need the help and boundaries that therapy provides, but you will never know how to help unless you care.)

3. Curiosity

This often comes in the form of, "Do you mind if I ask?" Well, no I don't. Maybe everyone doesn't feel this way and it also depends on the degree of healing, so it is good to ask, but I am a born teacher and I love questions. My journey has given me great understanding that I am always ready to explain.

4. Spiritual Encouragement vs. Advice

Please do not assume mental illness equals spiritual illness. I have been working on how to explain this and actually got an epiphany in church this morning. At this point, I will simply say that in the midst of the most intense parts of my mental illness, I trusted God to heal me—and I trusted the therapist who was sent to help me. My faith and understanding of biblical principles were never the problem. Never. I have had to learn to accept feelings and emotions as God-given ways to inform and experience life. Much damage was caused by my suppression of emotions. When a child is abused and then told not to cry, the damage is beyond imagination. Expression of the emotions such as sadness and anger does not indicate a spiritual problem. It indicates emotional wellness in our human form. Jesus was our example.

5. Active Networking

One very cool part of my journey is connecting with all those who are, in their own ways, seeking to help the church and world better understand mental health. My story is from both a client and professional perspective. I am redeeming my story through professional avenues because that is who I am. My story informs me, but it doesn’t define me. When someone understands this and begins to network with me, it is extremely healing and exciting! I spent my life preparing for this. I have not gone backwards; I have moved forward.

6. Requests for Help

Most rewarding to me on my journey of bravely telling my story are those who have contacted me to share their story and ask for assistance and permission in accessing the help they need. I never want anyone to ever feel the fear and loneliness I experienced while seeking help. Never. I deeply appreciate every person who communicates with me. I respect his or her privacy with the vigilance of a survivor. To reach out is the bravest thing anyone ever does. I know.

7. Feedback

I was the student who searched for feedback on my papers and was disappointed when there was none. I wanted to know what made sense and what didn’t. I wanted to do better the next time. I can accept any constructive criticism as long as it doesn’t attack me on a personal level. The analytics on my website inform me about what is resonating. My most ‘clicked’ blog was ‘I Went to Therapy.’ I am sure there was a lot of curiosity as I began to tell my story, but the responses behind the scenes told me it was more than curiosity. Receiving feedback tells me that you are listening to what I am trying to communicate—you aren’t just reading because it is a train wreck you can’t look away from. (If you know my laugh—insert it here.)

8. Avoidant Friendliness

I couldn’t figure out how to explain this. I think it is a way of caring without addressing the elephant in the room. It happens most often in face-to-face encounters. It is asking, “How are you Janyne?” with a kind of timidity that almost says, “Please don’t tell me.” Honestly, it makes me laugh. I accept both requests. I tell you I am fine and do not mention my last therapy appointment. You tried to care. I am good with that.

9. "Please be Janyne!"

I understand everyone wants me to be OK. I lived my life helping everyone else be OK. I brought laughter to the room to help you feel better. I cared about you when you appeared at my office door completely overcome. I taught you, I worked with you, I enjoyed family events with you, and you desperately need to know that I am OK. I am—well most of the time. I post lots of ‘pure Janyne’ stuff on Facebook and blogs to let you know I am OK, but I also express the pain of my journey. I cannot help anyone if I am just ‘Happy Janyne’ all the time, but I really am healed and healing.

10. Comfortable Conversations

One of the best parts of being retired is that if someone wants to Facetime, text, message, talk on the phone, or have coffee/lunch, I have time to do that. Those who have done this understand I am still Janyne. I may not always have this amount of time, but I do right now. This time is reserved for those who have known me. I do not know what the future holds, but right now I am focused on those who have known me over my lifetime. Mental illness doesn’t make me someone else. I am still Janyne—I just have a story and a mission. I am who I always have been—just so much healthier! Yes, I have moments. Don’t we all? Our greatest fear is of our very own humanness—both its weakness and potential. To sit and have comfortable conversations about our stories and the things that truly matter is the greatest gift I can give and be given.

There it is. Silence in the face of mental illness is not golden. This is about me, but it isn’t. It is about every person that knows they are not OK and are terrified that someone else may figure it out. It is about every person who ever experienced trauma and was brave enough to tell his or her story. It is about you feeling awkward or frightened as you listen to them. There are tools in this list. Add them to your toolbox for breaking the silence that compounds the pain of those who have already experienced too much of it. Pick up the tools and go be Jesus to someone! We can change our world one broken hurting person at a time—sometimes that person is inside us. If that is the case, there is hope! I am the living proof.

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