When Mental Illness is Impossible to Hide

I was encouraged to see people sharing about their own mental health challenges yesterday. It took vulnerability. The conversation, I believe, is good. And one that I hope continues.

Which is why I want to talk about the mental health issues that are difficult to hide- the ones that impact many of our community members at The Dale. The reality is that some diagnoses diminish ones capacity to keep it hidden and struggle in silence. If you talk to people who no one else can see or believe that everyone is out to get you AND spend close to all of your time outside because that’s where you live, it becomes difficult to keep your challenges a secret. And that is just one example of what I mean.

I have a friend who has schizophrenia. He is acutely self-aware and not scared to talk about it. He travels all over the city and is easily spotted shovelling out gutters (he likes to help) and handing out slips of paper that describe his issues. I am often astounded by his generosity and ability to pray. I watch people retract from him, who cross the street to avoid making eye contact. I understand the impulse to react this way. It also pains me. I am witness to the ways in which his health improves the more he interacts with people who listen to and love him, no matter what.

My hope and prayer is that as society becomes more accepting of the reality of mental health issues, it will also enfold those who have been pushed to the margins. We all have a story. We share a common humanity. Let’s keep the conversation going.

The Felt Impact of my Mother

It was my mother Elaine’s birthday on Sunday. I find myself reflecting on the impact she has on me and let’s say it is not small. She is one of the most gracious women I know AND I get to call her mom. This gift is not lost on me.

My mom describes the way she came to God as a movement toward light. I was pretty little (around five years old) when it began. I still remember her taking me to church for the first time and how I somehow felt like it was to be a second home. All these years later I can say that feeling proved accurate. In nurturing her own faith, my mom nurtured mine.

Growing up, our home was always warm and inviting. I think people felt like they could put their feet up and get comfortable. My mom had this way of combining antique finds, homemade things and sentimental pieces. I recognize that I try to do the same. It was in this kind of setting that my friends would find the courage to talk about hard life stuff with my mom. She has always been a good listener.

Creativity was encouraged by my mom. We had access to a trunk overflowing with art supplies. In an effort to let me “have my own voice”, I was allowed to choose my outfits from a very young age (I picked some doozies). Though I’m certain this wasn’t easy, as a single parent she managed to purchase an upright piano and pay for lessons so that I could learn to play. She showed up to all of the school concerts and plays I was in all while supporting my brother in his areas of interest too.

Over the years my mom has endured significant loss: she lost both of her parents and her marriage in a short period of time. In 2002 she had brain surgery that stole her ability to live independently, walk, stand, and eat food through her mouth. A fine artist, the surgery took away the use of her hands, though she has “one good finger” (as she describes it) with which she can use an iPad. Just weeks after being finally moved to a hospital close to my brother and our families, mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Somehow through all of this her response to the suffering has been patient endurance. I know she has allowed herself to weep. I also know she intentionally chooses joy.

My mom, among many other things, has helped me learn how to linger over a meal, enjoy conversation, make popcorn on the stove, value tithing, drive a standard car, really appreciate colour, listen to the CBC, sort out my brain by writing a list, persevere even when things are hard, and lean on God.

In an article that Tim Challies wrote about my mom, he said: “A short time ago my mother visited Elaine and asked how she deals with all that she has suffered. Elaine looked at her quizzically and said, ‘But I don’t feel like I have suffered.’ She acknowledges that she has endured great challenges and great physical pain, but she cannot and will not see herself as essentially a sufferer.” Now if that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is.

I love you mom. Happy birthday.





Community Work, One Moment at a Time

He’s usually loud, oftentimes shouting expletive heavy disjointed thoughts. It’s common for people to recoil, maybe out of equal parts fear and annoyance. We sometimes need to draw significant boundaries for him at The Dale (to varying degrees of success). All of this is why seeing him clear-headed and wanting to be helpful at a drop-in this week was so encouraging.

My heart is big for this person. I actually feel very parental towards him, and I don’t think I’m imagining that he’s content to feel like my kid. Sometimes our conversations are silly- he does make me laugh. Other times we talk about the significant pain he carries around: of being abandoned, abused and alone. The most difficult times are when he’s practically spinning like a top, telling stories that don’t make sense, but are spotted with the very real pain I just described.

Yesterday he set up the tables and chairs for our Wednesday Drop-In. He brought out mugs and made sure there was ketchup and syrup to accompany scrambled eggs and pancakes. He created individual servings of sliced oranges in little plastic bowls. He asked everyone in the room if he could get them a coffee, even someone who most days considers this person an enemy. The two of them ended up having a smoke break together.

Later in the day I was needing to describe our work to a person at the Charities Directorate in Ottawa. He wanted me to clarify how we define being a community. I kept thinking about the morning: how my friend wears his brokenness so close to the surface that he can’t hide it, that he keeps trying to work out the pain with people who won’t shun him, that on good days he knows he is safe to fully participate, and that he wants to take care of us just as we take care of him.

This friend left before the drop-in was done. Before exiting he said, “Cate needs to come so we can draw pictures together again. You know, I want good things for her. For you too. Tell her I helped today”. Well, I told her. And now I’m telling all of you, because this is the kind of moment that The Dale is all about.