May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So reposting “Chatty Cathy” from June 2020.
In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the seeds of God’s Word are scattered in all directions, blown where the Spirit may blow them, hopefully falling where they can take root and bear fruit and do good.
It’s a parable about the power, the promise, and the peril of words.
I am good with words. I make my living with words. I use words to proclaim the gospel and words to teach the faith. As a passable pastor, I use words to soothe fevered spirits. As a would-be-prophet, I use words to speak the truth. I am not a theologian and don’t want to be. I am a storyteller. You will never hear me analyze a Greek word from the pulpit. All my words will be in English. And I promise you will not have to look any of them up in the dictionary.
I love the sound of words. I am fond of alliteration and internal rhyme. I am partial to the active voice. I try to be passive as little as possible. I believe in sentences that are not too long and phrases with an unusual turn of phrase. I love the rhythm of words, sometimes syncopated, sometimes legato. I love the natural pauses, the silence between words. I am unorthodox in my punctuation and quite fond of ellipses and dashes. I confuse commas and semicolons. But I do try to restrain myself when it comes to exclamation points.
I once had a coffee mug that said “Linger over language”. I am not exactly sure what that means but I love the sound of it. I should have been born in a coffee house so addicted am I to the stuff. And conversing over coffee is my major sport. I have no athletic skills to speak of. But I am gifted — gifted with the gift of gab.
A gift I got from my mother.
My manic-depressive mother could talk on the telephone from dawn ‘til dusk. My mother could and would talk to anybody about anything. And I do mean anybody and I do mean anything. Standing in line at the grocery store my mother would go on and on about how we were doing at school. Taking care of business at the bank, my mother would complain about her mother-in-law. Even sitting in the dentist chair my mother would manage to mumble some embarrassing anecdote. It was endearing, amusing and mortifying all at the same time. And I swore that when I grew up I would never mortify my children the way my mom had mortified me.
Unfortunately, along with the gift of gab, I also inherited my mother’s bipolar brain.
And the bipolar brain is often blissfully unaware of itself. Combine a touch of mania, two double shot lattes and what do you get? You get one crazy and highly disconnected and sometimes disturbing conversation. It’s called “pressured speech”.
I thought I was immune. I was wrong.
Six years ago at Bittersweet, a little café on King Street (now closed), I joined my daughter and her friends for coffee. It is really quite wonderful when your adult children still want to hang out with you. I was ecstatic to see Colleen and her girlfriends whom I had known since they were in middle school. And blessing upon blessing, I had presided at their weddings. Wow! So much to talk about!
So I did. I talked and talked. I felt totally tuned in to what was going on around me. I felt powerful connections to these young women’s lives. I was delighted by all they had to say and was quick to share all my amazing insights. Flying from one topic to another, I thought I was dazzling. After stopping off at Ten Thousand Villages and spending too much money, I went home happy as a clam.
But my daughter was mortified. Later she told me how embarrassed she was. She told me I wasn’t listening. She told me that I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on. She said I rudely interrupted and talked over her friends. My daughter was mortified. And I was mortified, her mom who swore that this would never happen.
So I had to find words, healing words to make things better. So the two of us went out to dinner and we had a conversation. I apologized to Colleen and told her how sorry I was for any embarrassment I had caused. But more than that I wanted her to understand the fallout of being bipolar.
When your leg breaks, you get a cast and crutches. When your ears can’t hear, you get a hearing aid. When your blood pressure is too high, you get red in the face and take some pills. And everybody understands and no one is embarrassed.
But when your brain is broken, sadly this is not so. When your brain is broken, you don’t limp or bleed or have bruises. When your brain is broken, it comes out in your behavior, it comes out in your thoughts, it comes out in your moods. Sometimes you’re a Chatty Cathy, talking a blue streak and spouting nonsense. Brilliant nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.
So instead let us “speak the truth in love”. This little phrase, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is one of my favorite snippets of scripture. And it applies in mental health matters both big and small.
“Speaking the truth in love” can be as simple as asking my daughter to tap me on the shoulder anytime she thinks my gift of gab is getting out of hand. But when it comes to the big things, speaking the truth can tie your tongue into knots.
Mental health is incredibly crucial and incredibly complicated. On this topic, we could all use a little education and a little enlightenment.
About 20% of all us, at any one time, are dealing with some kind of mental health issue. And about 50% of all us, during our lifetimes, will have something go haywire with our brains. More than cancer and heart disease combined.
The God’s honest truth is that the stuff that goes wrong with our brains is just as normal as the stuff that goes wrong with our lungs. The stuff that goes wrong above our shoulders is just as normal as the stuff that goes wrong below our shoulders.
And now in pandemic times, these numbers have increased. A third of the population, a third of all of us, are wrestling with a mental health challenge. Some of us are isolated and alone. Some of us are living on top of one another. The stress of finances and work and relationships and children and school and lack of school may seem insurmountable. It is not at all surprising that more of us are anxious, depressed, and manic.
It may be harder to notice when this happens on FaceTime or in a Zoom meeting or on the telephone. Apart, we have to have to lean in and listen more intently and intentionally to understand the meaning behind the words. The mood, the behavior, the thoughts, that may give us pause and cause worry about someone we care about.
And if we are concerned for someone’s mental health, we need to dig a little deeper and find the words to help them heal. Spoken in love, of course, we need to find words that can be understood, to plant seeds at the right time and in the right place, where our words can be best heard, bear fruit and yield good.
Compassionate and kind, direct and honest, some of our words will be uncomfortable, as well. Pretending not to notice what worries us – does not help. Your knees might be shaking, but that’s okay. Tell the truth, so that the one you care about can truly get the help they need.
So, where do you find that? In a pandemic, this has become increasingly challenging. But critical resources in our community are still available — just delivered differently.
To get professional assistance from a distance, check out the Alexandria City Community Service Board, the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services, or the NAMI Covid-19 Resource and Information Guide. Also coming soon, sign up for online Mental Health First Aid Training. (Yes! that is a real thing.)
As a mental health evangelist and avid consumer, I cannot begin to tell you how beneficial therapy has been for me – and will continue to be!
And if I can be of service to you in any way, I am here for you — by way of a conversation, a book or podcast recommendation, or professional mental health provider referral. Please, reach out. I am more than happy to help.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog