On Mental Illness, Revisited.

RobinThe world lost a great man yesterday, to an illness that is great in its scope and power. I am acquainted with that illness and some of the frightening thoughts that come, though I am less acquainted with what makes some persons suffering from those thoughts act on them so completely.

My very first Exponent post was on the differences between mental and physical illness. I feel impressed to share it again, here, with a few additions and thoughts. Near the end of the original piece, I mentioned mostly being better and feeling better, but that there were still moments. There were and are. I am very bravely and very vulnerably going to be honest about them here, because I believe in the power of honesty, and in the power of bringing dark things to light.

In the not too distant past, I spent whole months crying myself asleep until 2:00 am, wanting to die, and wondering if there was a baby in my belly, if I would feel less empty. Then, when there was a baby in my belly, I spent months knowing that the answer was no: I wouldn’t.

I was rescued from the first set of months by a woman in my ward who started an early morning exercise group. I am not naturally a morning person, and it took everything inside of me to wake up, hop on my bike, and go. But I did, and it helped. I was rescued from the second set of months by myself and my desire for my baby to live. I knew that by hurting myself, I would hurt her, and that by helping myself, I would help her.

So when I learned the news of Robin William’s passing last night, I was as surprised as I was sad (he is so funny! so passionate! so wise! so bangarang!), but realized that I maybe shouldn’t be. St. Exupery’s The Little Prince names how mysterious it is, the land of tears, and “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” speaks of a quiet heart that hides sorrow the eye can’t see.

Depression is part of the human condition for many, including many Mo Fems, and it has been a dark summer for several of us. Let’s be soft to one another. Let’s sit with one another in our sorrows. And, if needed, let’s help one another get help.

Now, my old post:

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.


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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20 Responses

  1. Libby says:

    Amen. Yes, let’s please be gentle with one another, and sensitive to each other’s hidden sorrows.

  2. naomi says:

    I think it was Maclaren who said “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle”. Couldn’t agree more with him or you, Rachel.

  3. Holly says:

    Thank you, Rachel.

    Choosing happiness has never been that simple for me, and is not that simple for others like me. There is no happiness switch.

    Yes. There is likewise no belief switch. If you find yourself unable to persuade yourself that Joseph Smith really was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, or that God required the atonement in order for us to live with him because without it we are simply too unredeemed to endure his presence, there’s nothing you can do to just make yourself belief–though many people spend years trying as hard as they can.

    That lack of a switch that can make you think and feel as everyone else in your community does is often a source of deep depression and despair. So one thing we can do to stop exacerbating the pain of people who are suffering is to stop telling them that the gospel itself can heal them. In many, many cases, it can’t. In many, many cases, it’s what made them ill in the first place.

  4. Will says:

    If only people knew how much they are really loved. It definitely is an illness.

    • Amelia says:

      But people who are mentally ill often *do* know how much they are really loved. And it doesn’t necessarily make a difference. I appreciate this sentiment, but I know from my own experience that depression perseveres in spite of knowing I am loved. Yes, there are moments when it helps. Especially when that love is manifest as quiet acceptance and service, rather than expectation and bewilderment (far too common responses to depression). But the knowledge that I am loved was never enough to defeat depression.

      • Emily U says:

        I second this, Amelia.

        Not related to depression, but I’ve also been told that if I really understood how much God loves his daughters I would be satisfied with their current situation in the Church. I’ve never doubted God’s love, but I remain unsatisfied with the situation of women in the Church.

      • Jess R says:

        And sometimes knowing how loved I am when I’m in a depressive episode makes me feel worse – I feel guilty for not being happy when there are so many who want me to be. It feels ungrateful to be depressed, which makes me feel bad that I can’t suck it up and deal, which makes me thing I’m a terrible person…and it just feeds the spiral of negative thoughts. That’s how depression works. It is involuntarily putting a negative spin on everything, involuntary being the key term.

  5. Em says:

    I’ve often wished there were some physical signal to other people about depression — like how people used to wear mourning so you’d know at a glance to be gentle and sensitive. In an ideal world we’d all be gentle all the time of course. Sometimes when I’m depressed I want to think I’m passing, if you want to call it that, that nobody can see. Yet at the same time, what a difference it makes when someone does see! I remember once when I was struggling terribly a sister in my ward came to my house with a marinated chicken and directions on how to cook it (very simple). We had delicious homemade healthy food. I don’t know how she saw, but she did, and I was so grateful.

    I do wish the presidents of the church manuals had more about their real struggles. I think the scriptures have enough models of ideal people who we mostly see their good and heroic actions. Without tearing down prophets or other church leaders, I think seeing some humanity would go a long way toward reassuring us all that the journey toward Christ is not just for almost perfect people.

  6. Liz says:

    I love this, and especially your call to sit with one another, to be soft to one another. At my grandmother’s funeral recently, so many family members got together and sat and mourned. It didn’t matter that we all have incredibly different belief systems or political views or that we all cringe at each other’s Facebook posts for lots of different reasons – we sat together, we hugged, and we mourned. I wish I knew how to create that kind of atmosphere in the MoFem community, too, because I think we’re all mourning this summer, too.

    • Lisa Noel says:

      Liz, thank you for this beautiful comment. I think of my extended family and friends, and hope that we all, too can be accepting and come together, that it doesn’t matter
      “that we all have incredibly different belief systems or political views or that we all cringe at each other’s Facebook posts for lots of different reasons ”
      we need to love and support each other. The Facebook cringe makes me chuckle — I know we all do that.

  7. Heather says:

    Lovely lovely. I am no stranger to that dark land and am so grateful when people write and talk about it. In the wake of Robin Williams passing, this was a perfect opportunity to address it Rachel. I remember being brought to tears of gratitude when Jeff Holland gave his beautiful talk on it. No more silence.

    • Rachel says:

      “No more silence.” Exactly. I truly feel like silence (and secrecy) is the main tool that Satan uses to keep people from getting help. When we talk about things, people know that they aren’t alone.

  8. Thank you Rachel. It is sad that we so often treat mental illnesses as if they were not illnesses.

  9. Emily U says:

    Rachel, I remember this post very well. It’s even more meaningful to me now than when I first read it. Thank you for re-posting it.

    • Rachel says:

      I am glad that this meant something to you, EmilyU, both when I first wrote it, and now. So much love to you.

  10. Joanna says:

    Thank you for writing this. I just wish some of the commenters could refrain from turning it into a MoFem issue…

    • Amelia says:

      I appreciate this sentiment–mental illness, after all, affects people without regard to their status as Mormon, feminist, or some combination of the two. That said, this is specifically a forum for Mormon women, especially those interested in and concerned about Mormon feminist issues. And speaking from my own experience, the questions and struggles we confront regarding Mormon women are often entangled so tightly with depression and other forms of mental illness, that it’s entirely understandable why our readers and writers make the connection. I know for myself some of my very darkest times had everything to do with a toxic cocktail of depression and religion and feminism and my struggles with all of them.

      So yes. Depression is broader and more widely experienced than the Mormon feminist community. But it is a very powerful thread that runs through that Mormon feminist community. I don’t think there’s any reason to ask readers here to not comment on this from their own experience, including their experience with Mormon feminism.

    • Holly says:

      I just wish some of the commenters could refrain from turning it into a MoFem issue…


      For many of us, it’s not that we turn it into a MoFem issue. It’s that even when we experienced depression, it was for us often related to gender and the church.

      How is people discussing that a problem for you?

  1. August 12, 2014

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