If I understand her correctly, theologian Deborah Creamer suggests that because all people live with limitations, the difference between people with and without disabilities is only a matter of degree. All humans are united by our limits. Some disability scholars say that we should eliminate the word “disability” from our vocabularies because what we call “disabilities” are merely examples of human variation with which we all live.
These ideas can be interesting and helpful, but they can seem speculative when talking about specific disabilities. For example, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can make life and relationships very difficult both for the people who have these conditions and for the people who love them. They do not feel like mere "difference" or "human variation." Author, academic, and publisher, Melissa Miles McCarter, recently asked herself, “Mental Illness and Identity: Would I Shed My Bipolar Disorder Skin?” Miles McCarter wonders, “Without medication I deteriorate and become dysfunctional or am thrust into a deep depression followed by manic psychosis. However, if I had never had these challenges, even the bouts with severe mental illness, would I still be the same person — and would I want to be?”
Responding to her own question, she says that she realizes that everyone has crosses they must bear. In the process of reckoning with those challenges we “find ourselves . . . and grow while putting the pieces of our lives back together.”
Though she has some regrets that have arisen from times when her bipolar disorder brought unhappiness and setbacks, she says that living with other people’s stigma toward mental illness is most difficult, “Maybe even more than wanting to shed myself of the disorder, I want to strip myself of the stigma. Perhaps more so than most any other disability, people with mental illnesses are stigmatized.”
There’s a deep and important lesson here for us who love God and love the church. Fellow church members and many people in our communities live with a variety of disabilities including serious mental illnesses. Some statistics suggest that about six percent of people in North America live with a chronic mental illness. How will we in the church respond? Will we walk with people along their journey, or will we wish they would walk off alone? Will we listen carefully, or will we offer quick advice because we are not comfortable listening to someone tell about a journey that is unfamiliar or frightening?
Miles McCarter wonders about the benefits that have come to her and others through her bipolar disorder. “Maybe there would be worthwhile things I would shed along with my bipolar disorder. It would mean shedding the courage I have developed in sharing my story. Going back to the idea that challenges in life build character, perhaps my public disclosure gives others the courage to accept their bipolar disorder as a condition — a state of being, rather than a disorder to be cured.”
Instead of turning away from people who live with mental illnesses, or trying to fix them, we, the body of Christ, need to walk with people in their mental illnesses, not just for the sake of the person with the illness and his or her loved ones, but also for the sake of the church itself.
How has your church grown in fellowship and love because one or more of the members have felt safe disclosing their mental health challenges and fellow church members have journeyed with them in the course of those challenges?