art by: Jerome Lawrence shadow voices: finding hope in mental illness
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Ruth Detweiler

Ruth Detweiler
Ruth Detweiler

Growing up I know now I had my first signs of depression. I wondered how people could be happy. I always had a low gray cloud hanging over me. I could function, but within everything was gray; I never genuinely experienced joy. I thought this was just life.

My mother had depression, other siblings have had too; I came from a serious family, not expressive and jubilant. We were diligent and frugal, living in Ohio on a farm with five brothers. Looking back, I can see that not having any sisters made me a more lonely person. I became a tomboy. Mom was not someone to sit and talk to. Everything was work oriented. I didn’t get much emotional reassurance that I’m cared for, even though it was a great life on the farm. Not much attention was paid to talking about issues and feelings and life. I wasn’t neglected, I just didn’t feel much affirmation; eventually I had to leave those expectations go.

In the last five years I’ve felt free to and speak on my own journey. By opening up, I have learned of people who have been freed to talk; it frees up other folks to realize they are not alone.

People feel cut off; they are already alone in their experience, feeling very marginalized, uncared for, unnoticed and isolated. And then there is stigma separating them from others. In congregations, people who are in the margins are not coming regularly for various reasons. They tend to be forgotten.

Others fear doing or saying the wrong thing [in relation to someone with a mental illness]. But I often say, it is better to do something rather than nothing. How best to relate to others? Write notes, say “I wonder how you are doing,” make a phone call.

People fear getting involved with those with mental illness. Mental illnesses do seem very mysterious when they are not out in the open. I do want to be sympathetic, but it is not a very good long term excuse. It is less complicated than you might think; we can help people to understand.

The best way to bring awareness is to hear stories of persons. Churches should find ways and opportunities to be exposed to persons with illness, and to be open to ongoing relationships. It does take more effort and time. Ministers do get burned out. For example, a man in our church had both heart disease and bipolar illness. It is easier to understand his open heart surgery; for that he can get treatment and get better; but for bipolar, it takes a much longer recuperation. The very chronic nature of major mental illness is draining.

If we are going to use the “recovery” word in talking about people and their illnesses, don’t use it in the same sense as for other illness. Mental illnesses have ups and downs and roller coasters. For instance, I know a gentleman who had been doing well for three years, and now his mania has started coming through again.

I do thank God for the wonderful medications we have today. Ongoing maintenance is needed for persons in recovery. It takes time and effort to understand it.

It was only five years ago that I first told my story at church; before that it was mentioned only in private conversation. So we have come a long way in a short time. Families are why we don’t “come out.” You know, “I don’t want anyone to know, it is my fault, and they’ll blame my family. I must be a weak or unworthy person.” In my own situation, at first the church hinted that if only I was more obedient, more prayerful, I could conquer my depression. The church has unfortunately added to the mental health problem. I had to come to realize God loves me as I am. I didn’t do this, it’s an illness. It was wonderfully freeing to know that I couldn’t just pull myself up like they wanted you to; you can’t do it. It’s not something you can do under clinical depression.

Four years ago I had back surgery. As I compared it to my experiences with depression, back surgery was “fun”—people came and brought food; talked with me, got cards, etc. That is where we are at in the church.

Ruth Detwiler, Akron, Pa., is founder of No Longer Alone ministries, a community mental health support network and has been a recipient of the “Go On and Live” award from the Points of Light Foundation, Washington, D.C. She has served as vice-president on the Board for Philhaven Behavioral Healthcare in Mt. Gretna, Pa. and has received many other awards in her advocacy work regarding mental illness. Ruth feels that in both society and the church, strides are being made toward more understanding, breaking down the barriers. It continues to be very, very slow; progress is made when major “known” persons come forward, such as Jane Pauley. Movies like “A Beautiful Mind” have been helpful, rather than “Cuckoo’s Nest” which was damaging, and added to the stigma. In churches, it depends on an individual’s response; sometimes church papers have been willing to print stories, which are helpful. But Ruth expresses concern for how the mental health and illness agenda is not being addressed in church structures.

No Longer Alone Ministries

There’s a sea of dandelions, beautiful dandelions. What a beauty! Somewhere we were taught that dandelions are ugly, they’re weeds. Where did we get this stigma about the dandelions? And it just struck me how a lot of life can have stigma attached to it, just like mental illness.
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