On Physical/Mental Illness and George Albert Smith
I recently read an article on George Albert Smith, the 8th president of the LDS church, that pointed me to a longer article on George Albert Smith, the 8th president of the LDS church. The longer article was written by Mary Jane Woodger, a woman that I know. She was my Teaching of the Living Prophets professor when I was a sophomore at BYU and is more conservative than me, and much more not-a-feminist than me, but is also devoted, sincere, and kind. All in all: I like her.
I was eager to read her article for a few reasons, the strongest being that mental illness is an issue that is near to me. I have seen close family members and friends struggle with this. I have seen myself struggle with this. When I read it (beginning on about page 120), I learned that George Albert Smith was bedridden for long periods of time, including year periods of time. There were also expansive periods when he (as an apostle) was not only incapable of performing his services in the church, but was incapable of attending church services altgoether. During such periods he would occasionally try to do his perceived duty, but any attempt would bring his illness on even stronger. This eager, willing man would be filled with anxiety and nervousness to the point of shaking and near collapse. He would then be taken home in shame and loneliness, where he would wait out the latest episode, or receive a Priesthood blessing to seemingly no avail. At one point, and at a doctor’s order, he traveled to California from Utah in an effort to heal. He would stay there for a long time, and his family would visit on occasion.
On one such visit, they all went for a swim in the grand Pacific Ocean. Later he went by himself, with disastrous consequences. He was not a strong swimmer. He was not strong–physically or mentally. Thus, it was probably not the best idea for him to venture out unattended. He almost drowned, but was spotted by someone on shore, and rescued. During his long bouts of depression he felt inadequate and troubled, like he was letting God and the church down, as well as his friends and family. Despite all of the things he tried, he was unable to bring himself out of his depression. It eventually did get better (and he eventually became the prophet), but he waded through the murkiness of an overly anxious life for many, many years.
These stories are absent from the manual that we will study every Sunday for this entire year. I wish that they were present. Can you imagine if they were? What if there was a lesson entirely devoted to this prophet’s mental anguish? What could that do for those who similarly suffer? What self love might increase? What guilt and unnecessary anxiety would decrease? Would such individuals not see (even a small glimpse) of the truth that they are still loved by God and are still worthy of inspiration and direction? What could it do for those who live with and love those who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses? What greater measure of compassion and understanding might be brought about?
I have been thinking extra hard about these things, because at this moment, one of my relatives is struggling with mental illness in very deep ways (even more than normal ways), while another relative, sharing the exact same relation, is struggling with physical illness in very deep ways. Both need help. Both are in pain, but it is a different kind of pain. And each is responded to differently. This disparity has caused me to reflect on both the parallels and inconsistencies between mental and physical illness. Mental illness is not as easy to understand. It is more quiet, more private. It is much easier for people to have compassion for those who are outwardly ill. In my church (the LDS church), it is common for individuals to bring meals to families after births, deaths, and illnesses. This has been true in the case of the second relative. I want to emphasize that I am happy that this is the case: I am happy that this relative is receiving external support from those who love her.
But, I wonder: What about people who have conditions of the brain? Do they receive the support that they need? It is also a sickness, but one that we still don’t know very much about. One that seems so different. The first relative is not receiving meals or visitors willing to help her clean her home. Maybe she doesn’t need those things, but she may need something else, like a listening ear or simply love, that thing that all of us need and that none of us receives enough. She probably needs those closest to her not to give up on her, or be frustrated with her when she can’t be as calm or as good at decision making as before. We do not become frustrated or angry with those who are afflicted by physical maladies. Why would we do so here? Is it any more her fault?
I asked the first relative why she thought there were these differences. She answered that the other is in danger of dying. While I admit that that is true, I also submit that depression is death. Depression makes life feel like death so that the person wants to die. When someone is depressed, it is hard to get help. It is hard to believe that help is possible. It is hard to have even that small hope. It is even harder to have the big hope, that sadness can give way to happiness. The only way that I can explain it is to recall my Oregon days. Boston, Massachusetts does not work, because there when it rains, it rains all day, pours all day. But Oregon (at least in Cottage Grove, Oregon), when it is raining it rains for a comparatively little while, before becoming sunny again: fully sunny. Even though I knew this, it was difficult when I was walking home from school in the gray, cold downpour to believe that it would ever be bright again. The sky looked as if it could never be sunny again with that bright clear blue that I loved. But it happened. Every time. And the reverse was also true: When it was sunny, it was hard to believe that it could ever be rainy. Depression feels like that: when you are happy, you are happy, but when you are sad, it seems like you will always be sad.
I have not been bedridden for years like George Albert Smith, but I have been for days, and have sometimes wanted to be for more than days: weeks, months, etc. The first time I realized I had depression I was 18. I was living away from home for the first time and I was more homesick than I ever thought possible. I cried every day. Multiple times a day. My mom pled with me to seek help, giving me lecture after lecture about how we don’t judge people who are coughing for taking cough syrup. She tried to convince me that it was the same thing, even though it felt so different. She said it was the responsible thing, to get help.
For that entire year, I refused, though I continued to struggle. I thought many things, none of which were true. The first of these untruths was that it was a matter of faith. “If I just had enough faith I would be healed!” The second untruth took the form of a feeling: I felt weak because I could not take care of the problem by myself when I wanted to so desperately. I didn’t think God loved me anymore, and I didn’t feel worth. Likely because of these first two things, I couldn’t feel love and I couldn’t love. I still remember my best friend hugging me for a long time, mourning with one who mourned, and me as the original mourner feeling nothing. She couldn’t break her way in, and I could not accept her love. The one thing I could do was school. I could still go to class, I could still do my homework, I could still get my usual B+’s and A-’s, but that was all. Someone else close to me could not do school during her own time of great struggle, but could do work.
The next most terrible time was in Boston, after the worst heartbreak I have ever experienced. When my heart broke, it felt as if the rest of me broke too, my mind as well as my body. I could not sleep without pills, and I didn’t eat fruits or vegetables for two weeks. I was vegan at the time, so I am not even sure what I lived on. I can only assume that it was mostly candy. Three dear women took me into their apartment for days. They had me sleep on their couch. They gave me tea and nutritious meals. One serenaded me on the violin. Another friend flew me to her North Carolina city, and then called me every day for a long time afterward to make sure I was (reasonably) okay. It was only after their boosts of love and care that I was able to start making good choices by myself again. I started exercising daily. I picked up books after a long setting down. Scripture books and poetry books. I read every day for two hours. I returned to fruits and vegetables. I went on walks and listened to Noah and the Whale and Fanfarlo on repeat. I stopped listening to Bright Eyes and my usual sad music for awhile. I started going to a Jewish therapist. And with all of those things together, I stayed alive.
One and a half years after that, I am doing much better, though I still have bad days, bad hours, and bad minutes. Occasionally dark thoughts still creep into my mind. I do my best to shut them out. I do my best to do the things that help me be happy, but I remember that when I am overly sad, it is not my fault. It does not demonstrate a lack of faith or a human failing. It only demonstrates a human being with a human brain and heart, who sometimes gets depressed as part of possessing that human brain and heart. I don’t question God’s love for me in the ways I did ten years ago. I don’t wonder if my worthiness or ability to receive inspiration is dependent on my happiness.
I get frustrated with the impatience of people who don’t understand depression, and who carelessly affirm, “You can just choose to be happy!” (I should probably try to increase my patience for them.) Choosing happiness has never been that simple for me, and is not that simple for others like me. There is no happiness switch. While I do not believe that depressed or anxious people can simply “choose to be happy,” I do believe that there are things that they (we) can do to work to be happy. Even still, it is often not possible to engage in these tasks until first receiving the requisite love and support necessary, as my time in Boston so clearly taught me. With that said, please let us be a little kinder to those with physical and mental illnesses. Please let us remember George Albert Smith, that he a prophet, a man chosen by God, also suffered in these ways. I think we will see a growth of love and understanding capable of healing heart and mind wounds, and it assuredly will help us keep our covenants to strengthen feeble knees and lift up the hands which hang so sorrowfully down.