Dear friends at *** church,
This letter is not from one of our congregation members, but it may help you to understand and support the people sitting near you in the pew or people who don’t come to church often or at all. Before you dismiss this as, “We don’t have a problem like this in ***,” we would like you to know that at least one in four of our congregational families are affected by mental illness by someone very, very close to them.
Thank you for reading and thinking and praying.
An Open Letter to My Church Family
I am writing this letter to you as a plea for understanding, not only for me, but also for others who suffer with similar illnesses. You are my family in the Lord. I love you, and I know you want to be supportive to me. While I cannot speak for every mentally ill person, many of the statements I make are true for others. A few may be unique to me.
I believe mental illness is today’s leprosy. Even in the church, it is shrouded in silence and isolation. Admitting to having a mental illness is a kind of emotional suicide. “Don’t talk about it,” I have been advised by those closest to me. Deep inside, I know they are right. I did speak out when I was first diagnosed, and I bear the stigma that accompanies mental illness because I did. Being quiet now won’t erase that, but maybe if I do speak out, someone will understand. Maybe that someone will be you.
The most important thing to me is that you accept my mental illness for what it is: an illness. It hurts when some of you treat my illness as a character flaw or sin condition. It is just as painful when you pretend nothing is wrong with me and that, if I would just ignore my illness, it would somehow all go away.
Please don’t hold out false hope to me. If I had cancer or diabetes, you wouldn’t guarantee me God’s healing. Don’t promise that to me now. I am very aware of God’s healing power, but I know God may or may not choose to heal me. As with any illness, he may choose to allow me to experience it instead. I know God loves me. I believe his promises are for me, including the one that says, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). I don’t understand why mental illness is part of my life, but I believe my life is in God’s hands. Whatever God chooses for me, I want to bring him glory. I am learning to walk daily, holding to his hand, just as you do, only I probably have to cling a little tighter.
One thing I really need from you is your prayer support, but all the warnings I have been given about keeping quiet about my illness make it hard for me to ask. I don’t want to dwell on my symptoms, but there are times when I feel overwhelmed by them and I wish I could tell you so without feeling guilty. You may wonder what to pray for people like me. Pray that my symptoms won’t lead me into sin. Pray for my relationships with my family and friends because those close to me suffer with me. Pray that God will help me to be a consistent Christian, despite my illness. Pray that Jesus will be seen in me. Of course, pray for my healing, but also pray that God will help me to accept my illness if healing is not his will for me. Your prayers are the best support you can give me. You and I may never know the depths to which I might have sunk without them.
Being able to serve the Lord is important to me. I owe him a debt of love I never can repay. Before you knew I had this illness, I had many opportunities to serve. I am still the same person with the same talents. Have you lost confidence in me just because you know I have an illness? I am still a capable person. Please don’t declare me unfit to serve. Instead, I need your support, a mighty outpouring of prayer, that God will make me equal to any calling he gives me.
As with any illness, I may have to limit myself at times in order to protect my health and to ensure doing my best for the Lord. Please allow me to set my own limits with the help of God, my family, and my doctor. If I see my symptoms are interfering with my service to the Lord or that my health is being adversely affected, I will resign. Pray that God will give me discernment in this area of my life.
While I appreciate your understanding, I don’t want you to think you must tiptoe around me. I want your empathy, not your pity. When some of you watch me so carefully for signs of the illness, I know you mean well and only want to help me, but it makes me feel like I’m under a magnifying glass.
Also, everything is not a symptom of the illness; nor can everything be blamed on it. I am responsible for the choices I make, just as you are. One of the most painful things for me is when someone tries to “help” me control my emotions in front of others. All that does is add embarrassment to my emotional overload. Telling me to “calm down” or “relax” is pointless. If I could, don’t you think I would? I don’t doubt your motives are pure in trying to help me, but my self-esteem is shattered by that kind of help. The best thing you can do if you really feel I need help in a certain situation is to tell me privately.
The one positive aspect of my illness is the creativity that often accompanies it. At times I get overly excited about ideas I have. One of my greatest frustrations is having my ideas discounted just because of my illness. I would love to be able to present my ideas as matter-of-factly orally as I do in writing, but sometimes I find that difficult. If you can look past my emotions, you will find many of my ideas are good ones. Examine them for their own merit, and then decide whether they are worthy of consideration.
Finally, no letter about my illness would be complete without my giving glory to God for all he has brought me through. Looking back, I can see God’s love was reaching out to me even when I experienced the darkest moments of my life. God restored me, giving me more balanced mental health. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I am not afraid. Because God is with me, I have hope for the future in the midst of the uncertainty of my illness. My emotions cannot always be trusted, but my God can. I trust my life to him.