art by: Jerome Lawrence shadow voices: finding hope in mental illness
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Debbie Miller

Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller

Debbie Miller is a musician who assists in the music ministry of her church, Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, Ohio, and works in data processing for a market research firm. Debbie grew up the child of Nazarene missionary parents, who worked in and until their retirement in 1996. She was schooled in a variety of settings: public, boarding and home-school.

Debbie enjoyed the culture and people, but African mission environments tended toward black and white thinking. Native Africans worshipped ancestors and authority figures had a huge influence. Debbie felt the missionary approach discouraged local persons from reckoning with their own culture, though some settings now take this more into account. Divisions included apartheid, Afrikaans vs. English vs. mixed races, vs. black Africans. Women were also pitted against children in the top-down approach. This was difficult to deal with and “messed with my mind,” says Debbie.

Her illness first reared its head around age 11. Typical missionary cycles consisted of four years abroad and one year in the US. During a year in which Debbie’s family was living on her grandparents’ farm in Indiana , Debbie became very depressed. She recalls not wanting to live, but feeling unable to talk about those feelings. “Every part of me existed to please others. We were expected to be well behaved. My propensity toward compulsions became full-blown. My mother and an aunt talked to me about baptism. I agreed to the ritual, only from a feeling of obligation. It was not what I wanted to do at all.”

After being baptized, Debbie “knew” she had to be perfect. One night about six months after being baptized, Debbie woke her mother to say, “Mom, I’m a sinner. I’m going to hell.” Mom had inklings of Debbie’s excessive rumination and attempted to give reassurance. Debbie felt she had sinned by eating two eggs instead of one, or felt compelled to give her testimony, because her mother wanted her to. Deb would calculate that if “20 people testify each week, and there are 60 people in the church, it had to be my turn every three weeks.” That was a compulsion.

Across the years, Debbie had trouble doing school work. Emotional disconnectedness made it difficult to comprehend what was read. When unable to complete homework, Debbie felt intrinsically bad. As the age of 18 approached, she knew she would leave her family in southern Africa to attend college a continent away. Symptoms again left her minimally functional. “My parents allowed me to stay home from school at times, an amazing gift in contrast with the strictness I typically experienced.” In 1980 she returned to a Nazarene College in Kankakee, Illinois , a chance to be away from home on a small campus. In college Debbie majored in music, though she first also studied medical technology out of a need for a “real career.”

The biggest crisis of functioning came at 21, the summer before her senior year. Debbie had played piano since the age of seven, first to please her mother and then as her own ritual. She had won annual competitions to perform as soloist with the college orchestra. Before her senior recital, she stopped practicing. Knowing that her body was “a temple of the Holy Spirit”, Debbie began withholding food, forcing herself to run and praying through the night 'til she “felt right”. At a restaurant where she worked, she felt compelled to yell out “Hallelujah! I’m saved” though she usually didn’t follow through.

Family friends were able to provide special care while her parents were oversees. A former boyfriend’s family invited her to a Methodist camp. “It was good for me, a change of scenery; around folks who allowed me to live outside the rules of the camp, skipping meetings, etc. I acted on compulsions to blurt out Christian phrases. An evangelist realized my behavior was outside the normal realm. A small, lengthy prayer service was held for me late that night with significant spiritual happening. The friends put me to bed in their cabin where I felt safe, like a babe cared for during pain. That was a turning point.”

Debbie’s younger brother, Dan, helped her cope when she couldn’t get through each day. Her mind felt “stuck” and she became “locked” in situations. For instance, she repeatedly put food away after a meal, feeling that the sequence of mustard before ketchup was “wrong” and vice versa. Dan stood by her side saying “everything’s in the fridge now. The order they were put away doesn’t matter. Let’s go for a walk.”

Debbie returned to college and the piano practice room. Until this point, she thought piano was “frivolous” and not of God. She experienced a vision in which half the room was light, the other half dark, and the piano was standing in the light. Debbie knew light was of God and experienced the occurrence as a sign that “the piano is of God” and that she was free to whole-heartedly pursue her love for the instrument.”Debbie was able to settle down in preparation for the recital, which took all the effort she could muster.

Debbie auditioned for and completed graduate school at the University of Illinois, after which she taught Suzuki piano in the Westminster Choir College preparatory division. With time she felt the interaction with parents and other adults was too intense, and migrated into data processing for marketing research. This gave her steady employment with benefits and eventually brought her to Cincinnati.

Debbie met a counselor - one who’d been a missionary herself - and was the first to tell Debbie she had “obsessive compulsive disorder”. Debbie was relieved to have a name for her condition. She became serious about taking medications, and began regular work with a psychotherapist which she continues till this day. Though never hospitalized as an in-patient, she has voluntarily participated in a day-program for anxiety. Debbie has learned to manage stress in part by guarding her schedule. To the same end, she regularly participates in chiropractic, massage therapy and acupuncture.

Debbie has had difficulty being comfortable in any particular church, relative to theology and/or music. After the events of September 11th, she felt it was time to find a church home. When she opened the phone book looking for something she hadn’t tried before, Debbie noticed a listing for Mennonites, with whom her only association was wearing bonnets. She called Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship and left a message for pastor Ann Nofziger. She soon felt like she “could connect with both theology and music.”

Debbie has battled suicidal feelings for several decades. She recalls a late evening three weeks after a psychiatrist took her off a medication, when she packed a bag with which to take her life. This bag included household poisons, cleaners and knives. Debbie decided to go to bed till she could call someone the following morning. Awakening in the early hours, she called an employee assistance program and talked with a counselor till she could return to bed and later could call her psychiatrist. Debbie arranged to spend several nights at a friend’s house where she threw out unnecessary pills and left the knives with her friend.

Debbie feels a need to keep a lot of time for herself, for her own well-being. “Working full time and church activities are enough. I keep a scrapbook for my self, expressing anger, joy and other emotions. One page holds a crisis plan I’ve shown to others. I also scrapbook with friends from church.” She plays with her cat, makes music at the piano, and watches TV.

At church, Debbie values the sharing time which she finds is more genuine than a “typical testimony time”. “Sharing feels like a big support group. Church is like a big family.”

Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship

"I think it is great for people to simply be available... I think people in congregations sell themselves short of how much of an impact they are able to have."
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