The folly of rejecting weakness

There have been many approaches to positively reframe the way people view mental illness. One way, which I notice to be growing in popularity, is to distinguish mental illness from weakness: needing help doesn’t make you weak, needing to take psychiatric meds doesn’t make you weak, nor does needing a therapist, and so on. For instance, I learned from this Washington Post article about the power of “coming out” with mental illness that #sicknotweak has become a popular hashtag on Twitter.

But I find efforts to completely dissociate mental illness from weakness rather unsettling. While this approach may succeed in destigmatizing mental illness, doesn’t it do so at the expense of adding to the stigma surrounding weakness?

(I typically  hate the practice of pedantically and uncharitably picking apart the well-intentioned, so I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t fall in that category.)

My first thought is that our implicit rejection of weakness can inadvertently marginalize those who do not have the chance to be “cured”of their particular brand of weakness (for example, permanent physical disability, intellectual disability, and degenerative diseases).

I suppose the knee-jerk response is, once again, to affirm that those conditions aren’t weaknesses. But it often takes a long time for many people to accept or believe that for themselves. I wish we could go a step further and place no pressure on anyone to feel or identify as strong when they in fact feel weak.

With mental illness becoming a part of my life to be reckoned with, there are many periods during which I do feel weak. After all, when all this first started unfolding during my college days, all I could see was personal weakness after personal weakness after personal weakness. I recently came to the conclusion that there perhaps can be great relief in a radically different approach, that is, instead of being told that you’re not weak, to be reminded that it’s okay to be weak. Only then would sufferers, family, friends, and caregivers, have common ground from which to begin the work of acceptance and change.

It’s not that weakness is something to be bragged about. But it’s not abnormal. It comes in many variations and forms, and no one is without one. We may try to distinguish between excusable weakness and inexcusable weakness — the former are those beyond our control, and the latter within our control — but is that really possible?

Yes, it’s not my fault that I have my diagnosis, but it’s never just about having a condition. Any given condition is also wrapped up in how we react to it, how we cope with it, and what we do with it — facets that are more or less within our control.

I admit that they way I reacted and failed to tackle my condition head-on during the first few years reflected personal weakness. I compare myself to the saints and see that I lack their admirable virtue of bearing pain, suffering, and anguish with grace. It’s only with this acknowledgment of personal weakness that I could begin to work on changing that. If I think that my illness renders me too weak to live well, then there’s nothing I can do about it. If I think that it’s my personal weakness that prevents me from living well with my illness, then I can eventually muster up the willpower to train my mental, emotional, and spiritual muscle such that I can still thrive under that pressure.

Perhaps in the sports arena weakness is something to be hidden, lest it be exploited by one’s opponent. But in our general foray from the start to the end of our earthly lives, the rules are different. Here, it is a given that we are all weak. We succumb under our weaknesses not when others can see them, but when we believe there is no transcending them. When we believe that they rob us dignity. That we are somehow less valuable because of our infirmities. Or that our lives aren’t worth living if we have to find a different way of living it.

What are we to do with our weaknesses, then? Besides denying and concealing it, society doesn’t really teach us many other options. The invitation to acknowledge and soak in them is not at all intuitive. But I’ve learned through a messy few years of trial and error to resist the temptation to run away from where it most hurts, or where we are most ashamed. To not be afraid to be broken down in those uncertain encounters so we can be rebuilt.

Ink; “If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits.” –St. Vincent de Paul

Weakness and strength can coexist. In fact, isn’t it only in weakness that we can find strength? Admitting weakness is strong. Struggling through weakness is strong. Overcoming weakness is strong. Finding a way to live with weakness is strong. Pouring yourself out for others in spite of weakness is so incredibly strong.

And if you’re a fellow Christian, consider if we have any reason to deny weakness.  Do we not look at the crucifix to see Christ embodying weakness? Publicly hanging from a torture device, bloodied from head to toe, with bones out of joint, there we see the depth of His human weakness meet the pinnacle of His divine strength. Divine strength says not my will but Yours, and it also says into Your hands I commend my spirit. What appeared to be shameful weakness turned out to be the hard work of amazing, redemptive love.

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Source unknown

Weakness and suffering cease to be senseless torment when offered up to God. We’re asked not to bury them, and instead place them into the loving hands of God. There, like the five loaves and two fishes, they will be immeasurably multiplied as gifts for His kingdom. This means they also cease to be sources of shame. We’ve heard the timeless refrain:

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

–St. Paul the Apostle (2 Cor 12:8-10)

Let’s not reject weakness, but instead allow it to spur us to be stronger: in tenacity, resilience, faith, compassion, and love.

There’s a bit of Ozzy in all of us

A couple of exciting things have happened in the last few weeks. First, the realization that my antidepressants are working and that my condition is stabilizing. Second, the fine folks of WordPress plucking me out of cyber obscurity by featuring one of my posts on ‘Freshly Pressed’. Stop the presses — The Huffington Post just picked it up too! And last but not least, the surprise discovery that I have a hidden talent in…doodling.

The following images are of my first “collection”, The Misfit Animals. Meet Ozzy the Ostracized Ostrich, Annie the Antisocial Anteater, Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat, and Camille the Capricious Camel.

Ozzie Print
Ozzy the Ostracized Ostrich
Malcolm Print
Malcolm the Maladjusted Meerkat
Annie Print
Annie the Antisocial Anteater
Camille Print
Camille the Capricious Camel

The impetus behind the series? Just this simple observation: we can be so preoccupied by certain traits or circumstances we forget that the individual is far more complex than that.

I see this in myself when I am deep in depression, and in any mortal who struggles with insecurities. At work, I see it in students who can’t get past the “shame” of having been diagnosed with a learning disability.

The same tunnel-vision effect applies in the way we view others. I see this in the way people react to those who are “different” because of physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. And last but not least, I also see this in the way we are quick to condemn and dehumanize criminal offenders based on their crime or pathological condition (I will write more on this soon).

When we fail to see people (be it ourselves or others) all their complexity, instead reducing individuals to specific traits or behaviors, we will fail to recognize their beauty, value, and humanity.

(‘The Misfit Animals’ can now be purchased as art prints and a plethora of other products at my new Society6 store. For those who, like me, often fear being “boring”, Nikki the Nondescript Narwhal will soon be joining the family.)

Print Collage
The Misfit Animals by Thingamadoodle

Why I’m happy to talk about my depression / Blog for Mental Health 2014

I’m grateful for everyone who has commended my “courage” to open up about depression. But to be honest, there was nothing courageous about it. Truth is, I didn’t realize there was a stigma against depression,  so it was in blissful ignorance that I began to write and speak about my experiences.

alice-door-in-treeIn a way, it was also exciting. It’s like I’d been granted access into a secret portal, allowing me to explore the depths of a terrifying but fascinating limbo, and I have now emerged to tell the rest of the world about it! I’m now privy to the thought processes of people struggling with depression, how the experience is a lot more complex than a WebMD article suggests… You could say it’s somehow akin to the excitement of returning from an expedition to an exotic new world. Well, an expedition that involved being held captive by ghost pirates or the Chimera. And while I was still in depression, I talked about it because it seemed like the best way to be understood.

As I became increasingly aware of other sufferers’ fear of opening up or seeking help, I began to wonder if something was wrong with me. Did my outspokenness, both while in and out of depression, stem from an excessive need for attention? That is, after all, one of the common accusations heaped on those who do talk about their struggles. Coming across this quote by William Styron (most famously known for writing ‘Sophie’s Choice’) assured me that people can have legitimate reasons for being perfectly fine with talking about their mental struggles:

“You feel shame only when you’ve done something that you’re derelict about. I had enough awareness to know that this was not my fault. I felt laid low. I felt demoralized, and helpless. But I didn’t feel shame. I was pretty enlightened, if I may use that word, from the very beginning. I never made it a secret. I probably bored people by overemphasizing the fact that I was suffering a very severe mental seizure.”

–William Styron (1925-2006)

I write about these depressive episodes also because it helps me to process it all. A crippling cycle of depression would be a waste of time if one didn’t learn and grow from it. And as the positive feedback poured in and as more and more people I know opened up about their secret struggles, I decided I’ll also write for others. I was blessed with a gung-ho naiveté that not all mental health sufferers have, so I’ll exploit it for good.

blogformentalhealth2014I’ll end this post by expressing how excited I am to join a wonderful community of bloggers in the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. Launched by A Canvas of the Minds two years ago, it’s been growing and rallying sufferers past and present to encourage others who are struggling, and educate the public so as to replace “myths, misconceptions, and fears” with ” truth, understanding, and acceptance.” So with that…

I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.

I encourage present sufferers to open up about your struggles. You don’t have to take it to the Internet, but the people who love you want to understand and will stand by you. If you’re in school, don’t be afraid to ask for help academically as well. If you’re not yet sure you’re going through a mental illness, seek a professional and get a diagnosis. There’s no shame in going for counseling and taking meds. Just as we go to the hospital for a broken arm or appendicitis, our minds deserve the same attention.

Thank you, everyone for your continued support! The conversations I’ve been able to have and new friendships formed as a result of writing here have been an enormous blessing in 2013. Here’s to all the growth that 2014 will bring!

Love, Karen.