It’s time to take off our super-hero capes
It was a tough day. That morning, I was asked to step in and help a woman, Bertha, in crisis. I didn’t know all the details and frankly, I didn’t need to. Handling a crisis isn’t about solving the situation; it’s about helping the person calm themselves down so they are in control of themselves again.
It was now evening and the role had changed. Having successfully resolved the crisis, the goal now was to help Bertha process her experiences from that morning and create an action plan to get her moving forward on the road to mental health.
“I scared myself this morning,” Bertha shared with me. “I don’t ever want to feel like that again. I feel like I should be able to handle this, you know?”
There are a few statements that bring whatever plans I have to a full screeching stop, and Bertha hit on perhaps the biggest one: “I should be able to handle this.”
Life is chaos, and chaos destabilizes everyone.
Let’s take a step back and acknowledge that life gets too big for everyone at some point in our lives, regardless of the presence of a mental illness. Everyone hits a crisis point, a point at which they look around at themselves and their lives and wonder how they got to that point. Life is chaos, and chaos destabilizes everyone.
Now add in the distorting effects of a mental illness and all expectations of “handling this” go out the window entirely. These distorting effects go beyond the emotional; our environment is often more chaotic. We may have an addiction or live with an alcoholic or addict; we may be in an abusive relationship or modeling our relationships after examples set by ill parents. We are more likely to have a child who requires special attention. Add to these distorting factors the normal stresses of an ill parent, finances, or career, and it becomes unreasonable to expect to be able to handle it all.
Worse, mental illness distorts our perception of circumstances. We look at each piece and minimize its true magnitude. I know people who live with most of the circumstances listed above (just one example: caring for a grandchild while in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic or addicted spouse and also acting as the primary caretaker for a parent. This same person insists that none of it is a big deal.
Mental illness distorts our perception of circumstances.
For the sake of argument, let’s agree that it may be reasonable to expect someone to handle one of the above situations (I still disagree with that argument, but let’s move along). However, expecting someone to handle two or even more of those is not a recipe for success. They have too much going on, too many people pulling at them, and expecting them to handle it all with grace, and compassion is, at best, unreasonable.
There is something about the struggle of living with anxiety or depression that seems to drive us even harder to insist “I got this; it’s OK.” We don’t think of ourselves as strapping on our superhero cloak when dealing with life, and yet that’s often what we are doing. Our superhero cloak is merely made of cloth and is not imbued with elements that give us the superhero ability of handling more life than others do.
Has this message gotten through yet? You should not be able to handle everything you are living with. Collapsing is normal. Fighting as hard as you are and struggling to succeed as you wish is not a sign of incompetence or weakness; it is a testament to your strength and your will.
Our superhero cloak is merely made of cloth and is not imbued with elements that give us the superhero ability of handling more life than others do.
If you need help seeing this, I’m asking you to take out a sheet of paper and write down everything you have going on. Avoid sugarcoating the situation; this is the opportunity for an honest appraisal. Write it all down, including every little expectation, responsibility, or stressor you live with, such as going to the grocery store and doing laundry and your diagnosis (or expected diagnosis, if you don’t have a formal one).
Now put your best friend’s name at the top of it and imagine that this is their life. What would you say to them? Should they be able to handle this? If your answer is “no” for them, then it’s also “no” for you. You are not more superhuman than they are; there is no “yes, but for me” that changes anything.
Fighting as hard as you are and struggling to succeed as you wish is not a sign of incompetence or weakness; it is a testament to your strength and your will.
So, my dear Bertha, I don’t expect you to be able to handle this. In fact, with what I know of your situation now, I’m in awe that it took you as long as it did to go into crisis. You’ve “handled it” amazingly, and some days we are simply unable to go on as we have been, or to handle what we could yesterday or will be able to tomorrow. You are not a disappointment; you are not letting anyone down. You are amazing, and it’s OK to not be OK.
Father, I ask you grant comfort to all those who are reading this message. Help them understand that we are only humans, and imperfect humans at that. Help us see the truth of our situation and reach out for the help we need, whatever form that aid looks like. I ask that you guide them to the answers and the help needed so that they may be a shining reminder of your grace, love, and mercy. Amen.