I know better than to blame anyone for being ill. Whether the illness is physical or mental, no one who is ailing needs the added burden of being shamed for it. When my dad’s back pain forced him to lie down after supper, that wasn’t malingering or laziness. When a friend’s depression descends like a heavy weight on her shoulders, it’s not her fault.
So I was surprised when Tony Roberts sent me his guest post: “Escaping the Self-Centeredness of Mental Illness.” I’ve previously shared his story as a pastor dealing with bipolar disorder and interviewed him for mental health awareness month, so I respect his lived experience and perspective. But his provocative title immediately made me wonder, Is it okay to call mental illness “self-centered,” or does that add an unfair burden to those who are already laboring?
As you’ll see from Tony’s article, he’s quick to clarify that he’s not blaming people who are mentally ill, but focusing instead on the way mental illness can consume the mind and turn it in on itself. From his own experience he shares one of his worst episodes and one way of escape that he’s found helpful.
So check out his guest post below, and for more information, please see Tony’s Delight in Disorder Ministries. His new book is now available for preorder: When Despair Meets Delight: Stories to Cultivate Hope for Those Battling Mental Illness (Way with Words Publishing, September 2020). Thank you for sharing, Tony, and all the best with your new book and in the ongoing journey of mental health.
Escaping the Self-Centeredness of Mental Illness
by Tony Roberts
Mental illness can be one of the most self-centered ailments there is.
By this I do not mean that people who battle mental illness are necessarily self-centered. No, I mean the illness itself consumes our minds in such a way that we become unable to see beyond the realm of our own emotional pain. This is not our fault. We are not to blame, at least not for the way our minds work. Contrary to what many believe, our aim is not to draw attention to ourselves. This may be the result, but it is not our desire.
My Worst Episode
One of the worst episodes I’ve had happened on December 1, 2016. I was blindsided from the rear and, in spite of little physical damage, I went into shock. I was taken to a nearby hospital. As they tried to transfer me onto a gurney, I became convinced I was paralyzed. They became increasingly frustrated with me and the more they did, the more I came to believe the hospital staff was plotting against me.
It was a vicious cycle. I had the presence of mind to know what I needed was the medicine they were denying me, and they were restricted from giving me my medication because so many people go to hospitals for drugs who don’t need it. I continued to get worse—abrasive, even verbally abusive—until I was admitted to the medical-behavioral unit.
For the next 24 hours, I was the most selfish person I had ever seen. I needed an iPod charge, so I convinced a nurse to let me use her charger. I coaxed a church member to bring me earbuds and expressed dissatisfaction when they weren’t the ones I wanted. I refused to consent to an MRI until staff agreed to pipe in my music, and only my music. I was awful. I wasn’t myself.
Fortunately, my sister was advocating for me from 500 miles away, assuring the staff that I would get better once I slept and my medication kicked in. It did, and I was tremendously grateful. And more than a bit embarrassed. Ashamed even.
If you have a loved one with a brain disorder such as bipolar, please don’t take it personally when they put their needs before yours. It’s true they may just be being selfish. They may not ever appreciate what you do for them. In many cases, however, it is the illness, not the identity that is expressing itself.
Keep pressing forward. Certainly take care of yourself and don’t set yourself up for abuse, but don’t give up either. I have been so blessed in my life to have friends, faith family members, and loved ones, who were there for me even when I failed to appreciate them. Even when I demanded more in spite of all they gave.
So, how does one with a mental illness move beyond the single self-mindedness our brains focus on?
The Practice of Intercessory Prayer
One thing I have started doing when I begin to feel weighed down by my own worries is to develop a discipline of intercessory prayer. This is simply praying for others—not just naming people I know, but engaging in a prayer relationship where I ask for their deepest needs. I write these down in a journal and read them aloud when I pray. Then I check back in to see how these prayers have impacted their lives.
One example happened around 3 am when I felt miserable about the state of my existence. I sent a message to a woman from my Hope for Troubled Minds group, and this was our exchange:
Hey Adrienne, I’m devoting time this week to pray for our community members. How can I best pray for you?
Hey Tony, that is incredibly thoughtful. I am almost at a loss for words. I help care for my Gran who’s 94, and she is bed ridden. I have to pick her up three times a day, and this morning I am in terrible pain. I pulled a muscle last night in my shoulder blade. She is also getting dementia and hallucinating a lot. I battle to deal with it, and it scares me. Lockdown is getting to me. Thank you so much for your compassion.
Adrienne, I will certainly pray for you as you care for your Gran. May you find relief from your pain as well as guidance and protection in dealing with her dementia.
One week later:
Hey Adrienne, I have been praying for you as you care for your Gran. How are things going?
My injury is fine, depression is lifting, and my patience with Gran has improved greatly. Thank you so much, Tony.
This is wonderful, Adrienne. Praise God for answered prayer! Do you have any prayer requests this week?
The Healing Power of Prayer
Now while God answers all prayers, the answers are not always what we want or when we want them. My point here is to highlight not just how prayer changed physical circumstances, but spiritual orientation. Adrienne and I were feeling very much alone in our suffering. God intervened through prayer and brought us together. This hope gave us a measure of healing that impacted our whole selves.
The Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
The function of prayer is not to influence God,
but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
When we pray for the healing of others, we escape the prison of our own minds such that healing happens to us as well.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: How do you respond to the title of this guest post, “Escaping the Self-Centeredness of Mental Illness”? What has the article clarified for you, and what questions would you still have?
Tony Roberts served two decades in pastoral ministry and now is the Chief Shepherd of Delight in Disorder Ministries. As a minister who battles bipolar disorder, he offers real and relevant counsel for those impacted by brain illnesses, including loved ones. He also advises faith leaders on how to involve and include persons with mental illness into the life of the church.
Tony is the author of Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission and When Despair Meets Delight: Stories to Cultivate Hope for Those Battling Mental Illness. Autographed copies may be purchased at the When Despair Meets Delight website.
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