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The Journey: the UCC Mental Health Network Blog

Welcome to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (UCC MHN) blog, The Journey. Our weekly posts will explore mental health and addiction through the lens of our Christian faith. We will write about how our personal experiences affect our lives and how our spirituality supports our journey. Everyone who is living with a mental health or addiction disorder, or has a loved one who is affected by a mental health challenge or addiction, is on a journey. Together we can connect with each other and share some ways to travel the path of hope and wholeness.

Taking the Armor Off by David Finnegan-Hosey

written by David Finnegan-Hosey

“Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them.” -- 1 Samuel 17:38–39  

Like a record groove worn deep by thousands of plays, the story of David and Goliath is worn deeply into our popular consciousness. The story – which appears in the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday – is depicted in art, referenced in pop culture, and often serves as a metaphor for the “little guy” standing up against the “big guy.”

But as I re-encounter the text this week, pondering it from the perspective of a person with mental health struggles, my attention is caught by the two verses above, an encounter not between David and Goliath but rather between David and Saul.

Saul – the king and experienced warrior – tries to send David into battle with Saul’s armor and sword. David, responding to the guidance of a man he looks up to as mentor and leader, goes along with this at first, but eventually rejects Saul’s attempt to protect him. He can’t move in Saul’s unfamiliar armor.

These verses have me thinking about the armor we wear, and the armor that we end up passing down from generation to generation. In particular, as I think about my own story of first denying and then finally seeking help for my mental illness, I’m thinking about the forms of armor I wore – armor which I thought could protect me but which really restricted my movement, my freedom, my ability to be the most whole and healthy version of myself.

When I give talks about my journey with mental illness – I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011, after a series of hospitalizations following my first year of seminary – people often ask me how I was able to reach out for help when others seem unable to. It is a difficult question to answer – like many questions, the most truthful answer I can offer is, “I don’t know.” What I do know is there are a series of things that can help more people reach out and find help: challenging stigma by breaking the silence around mental illness; advocating for more just access to care; providing a nonjudgmental presence for those struggling. 

But all of these efforts can be so easily undermined by a culture of “armoring up.” Men, in particular, are often taught that asking for help is weakness and showing weakness is “unmanly.” As a consequence of these toxic messages about masculinity, men often suffer in silence – which helps explain why, in the U.S., 7 out of 10 people who die by suicide are men.

What would it look like for our congregations to be safe places for vulnerability – places where it was ok to take the armor off? And what would it look like to model what David shows Saul – that the armor that we pass on to younger generations, trying to protect them, often restricts their movement and growth into wholeness?

As someone with a mental illness, I know that mental health struggles can make everyday tasks seem like an unbeatable Goliath. The temptation is to put on the heaviest armor I can find. But paradoxically, the path to victory might just lie in taking the armor off; in stepping into what feels like dangerous vulnerability and finding there a truer version of ourselves.

Loving God, we confess that we often wear armor made of shame and remembered pain. We wear this armor to protect ourselves from hurt; but we find it also prevents us from truly opening ourselves to You and to others. Show us, O God of compassion, how to let go. Reveal to us Your way of vulnerability and of caring. Help us to recognize Your presence as a place of safety where we can take off our armor and truly experience your grace. Amen.
David Finnegan-Hosey is the author of Christ on the Psych Ward and currently serves as a chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University. He holds an M.Div from Wesley Theological Seminary and a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. He is certified by Mental Health First Aid USA to provide initial help to people experiencing depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use disorders. In 2011, David was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of psychiatric hospitalizations. He now speaks and writes about the intersections among mental illness, mental health, and faith. You can read more of his writing on his blog, Foolish Hosey. David lives in Washington, DC with his wife Leigh and their dog Penny Lane. 

The Worst Thing and the Best Thing by Bob Griggs

Written by Bob Griggs

This is my first post on our United Church of Christ Mental Health Network blog.  I am honored to be part of the group writing for this blog.  I believe that my own experience with mental illness and recovery– my diagnosis is major depression and anxiety disorder – will allow me to make a contribution to our ongoing dialogue around mental health issues.   I also want to write because I know that being public about living with mental illness helps to push back the stigma that inhibits understanding and recovery.

The first time I was hospitalized for my depression, I met an elderly woman, another patient, who taught me two essential lessons about mental illness and recovery.   As we visited, she shared with me some mixed nuts from a Styrofoam bowl on the table next to her.   She told me that the nuts had come in a glass jar, but the hospital had confiscated it.

We talked for a while getting to know each other.  Her life had been difficult for some time, until it reached a point where it was impossible for her to get out of bed.  This was fine with her, and she hoped to stay in bed until she died.  But her social worker became alarmed when she stopped answering the phone, came to her apartment for which he had a key, and after talking with her, began the process that resulted in her being admitted to the hospital.

I told her about the mental pain, intrusive thoughts and self-harm  , which had resulted in my admission.  We talked some more, finished off the nuts, and were about done when she told me, “I took pleasure for granted.  That was my big mistake.  Take your eye off pleasure, and you will lose it.”

I have done my best to take her words to heart.  For me the recovery of simple pleasures – the taste of my favorite food, the smell of clean sheets, waking up without pain – was the first step in recovery from mental illness.  Simple pleasures, something real to look forward to, helped birth hope that the future can be better than the past.  With hope recovery can continue to move forward.

We spent some time in conversation every day that we were in the hospital together.  In one of our conversations, she told me something else that has helped guide my recovery, “Bob, my meltdown was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me.”  For us both on a locked unit, it was pretty clear why our meltdowns were the worst thing. 

But the best thing – how can that be?  For years I could not agree with her.  But now it has been over thirteen years since my last hospitalization.   Though there have been setbacks along the way – the return of depression symptoms and of hard-to-manage anxiety – I can say now that I agree with her.  What I have learned in therapy and from other people living with mental illness, the changes that I have made in how I pursue my profession and live my life, the continuing hope that fuels my recovery – in so many ways my life is better than it’s ever been.

For me recovery from mental illness is a lifelong process, which can lead to a life which is more fulfilling than what one has ever known before.  I’ll be writing about this in future blogs.  Again I am grateful to have this opportunity, to share my experience to share the worst and the best thing that has ever happened to me.

More to come.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.   He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness.  He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies.