Faith and my mental health journey
May 16, 2023 / By Rev. Tom LeBeau, pastor at Kidville Memorial and Mayville UMCs
I’ve written this in recognition of May, Mental Health Awareness Month. Someone I trust, my spiritual director, told me I have a sacred wound. He encouraged me to write about it. It is a major depressive disorder. Shame, pride and fear of being judged for lacking faith have stopped me from writing about it until now. Despite working in the mental health field for 15 years prior to becoming an ordained minister I have been reluctant to surrender, to accept that I have a mental illness. You see, mental illness stigma says that accepting my illness means I am crazy. Mental wellness says that I am to accept my diagnosis and access all the care I need and deserve. Stigma dies hard!
The stigma around mental illness set in during my childhood in the 1950s. As a kid, I imagined being “crazy” meant being locked in a room, restrained in a straitjacket, and given shots that made you like a zombie. Our dad’s sister had to live in such a place (though those methods were rarely used). She was developmentally disabled and may have also been schizophrenic. A conversation about her was always in hushed tones. Our paternal grandmother also suffered from mental illness. She’d been hospitalized numerous times for what they then called “nervous breakdowns.” Our mother carried an emotional trauma, too: she found my uncle’s body after his suicide. In all, there was plenty of emotional and mental pain in the family, including alcoholism on both sides of it. But the cultural norm was, “Hush! We don’t talk about those things.”
I broke the silence but still felt shame for needing to talk to a pastoral counselor. I felt that If I were “normal,” I wouldn’t need counseling. For years I didn’t see that stigma undermined my mental health and self-esteem. It delayed my reaching out for help during my last depressive episode.
At its onset, my wife expressed concern, “Tom, you’re just not yourself.” I minimized how I felt. Stigma was working through pride, the flip side of shame. I was a former psychiatric nurse and substance abuse counselor. “I know how to care for myself,” I thought. I didn’t.
There were contributing factors to the depression. In 2015, my son died of a drug-induced heart attack after a year and a half of being clean and sober. He showed remarkable spiritual growth. I was crushed when he died. I shared some of my pain with my wife, but I didn’t want to burden her. She’d lost him, too. Nor was I going to unload on parishioners. That would have been inappropriate. I went to Al-Anon meetings for support, but it wasn’t enough. A grief support group wasn’t readily available. I felt I had to be strong. After all, I was a man of faith. So, I kept most of the pain inside hoping it would eventually subside. At that time, I was also undergoing extensive dental and jawbone reconstruction. I minimized how unpleasant it felt because I knew the outcome would be a blessing. Still, it was repeated oral trauma for three years.
In May of 2016, I had my left knee replaced for a second time. I wore out the first artificial joint in nine years. I’d always been an active person, but now my physical activities were going to be very limited. I was thankful just to walk, but it was painful. So, I took up kayaking, which didn’t require much leg motion. I continued some modified strength training, too. But I had to give up race walking and skating. I loved them both. It was another loss.
In July 2016, I was appointed to a new parish after a good eight-year pastorate. Before long, I struggled with the new appointment, unable to spur growth in the church. I felt it was all up to me. I tried to put on a positive face. I prayed for guidance and strength and got a mentor, but my mood was sinking. I didn’t connect the dots, that the traumas and losses were adding up. I expected myself to tough it out. The subconscious message was, “Pastors can’t show they’re hurting.”
While kayaking one day, hoping that the exercise endorphins would help me feel better, I realized that I had lost enjoyment of pleasurable things. I knew this was anhedonia. Nearly everything had become an unpleasant chore, even eating. I knew this was anorexia. I lacked motivation and was increasingly lethargic. I started to avoid people. I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach, like a hole into which I was being sucked. All these were classic symptoms of depression.
In my kayak, I caught myself thinking, “I can make it (drowning myself) look like an accident.” I’d had a fleeting suicidal thought. Instead of having compassion for myself, I was disgusted by the thought. Self-loathing and thoughts of suicide are also symptoms of clinical depression. It probably didn’t help that I grew up in Catholicism when suicide was considered a mortal sin. I was sure God was mad as hell at me. My thinking was becoming distorted.
I reasoned, “God must be letting me experience a ‘dark night of the soul’ to teach me the importance of piety.” I redoubled my efforts at prayer and Bible reading. It didn’t help. God seemed completely absent. I couldn’t focus.
I have since learned that you don’t normally lose the ability to focus nor do you lose your sense of humor during a spiritual “dark night.” Both were gone. This wasn’t a “dark night.” It was clinical depression.
My wife pressed me to see a therapist. I finally agreed. He encouraged me to seek medication assistance, too. I’d been on an antidepressant for eight years, then was medication free for 10. I was desperate enough to try it again.
Unfortunately, the medication I restarted did not help. In fact, thoughts of suicide increased along with sudden severe anxiety and insomnia. Frightened and exhausted, I agreed to hospitalization. I felt I had failed. I thought, “Only crazy people need to be in a mental ward.” That ole’ stigma was still kicking and screaming! Truthfully, it would have been crazy not to go to the hospital. By then, I feared for my own safety.
On my hospital bed I grunted, “Dammit, God, I can’t even pray.” The very next thought that went through my head was, “You just did, colorfully too!” It was God’s still, small voice speaking to me with humor! I laughed and cried for the first time in weeks. God was there and wasn’t mad at me! I’d been angry at myself for being mentally “weak.”
The nurse manager on my unit shared that he’d been hospitalized for depression, too. He quipped, “We’re not immune just because we have training in mental health care. You’ll come out of this stronger.” I was offered shock therapy (ECT). I knew how effective it could be. I assisted with it as a nurse. It is gentle, unlike a popular misconception. There are no burns or scars, no violent jolts. The patient is unconscious.
I responded well to ECT and new medication and was released after 10 days of hospitalization. ECT sessions were tapered off over a few months in outpatient care. Since then, medication, a good therapist, and social support have helped me move forward.
I am truly blessed to have a loving wife who has seen me through my worst times. The expectations of being a pastor (or those I put on myself) can be isolating, despite being around people a lot. Being a pastor can be lonely at times, but I’ve learned that loneliness can also be self-inflicted.
As for my late son, I still wonder why he chose to relapse after doing so well in recovery. But I know he had an illness, too. I believe he is at peace in God’s loving care, God who loves him even more than I do. His sacred wound was chemical dependence, mine is depression. He helped many people in recovery during his times of sobriety. Surrender was his key to recovery. It is mine, too. Don’t suffer needlessly. Help is available through your Employee Assistance Program, your medical care provider or 988, the new mental health hotline.
I have a mental illness, a chemical brain disorder. It means I have to care for myself appropriately. But by God’s grace, it won’t define me. I am a bright, caring husband, father, grandfather, nurse, pastor, and novice spiritual director. Most of all, I am a beloved child of God.
Many of us have sacred wounds that force us to our knees, even when we think we cannot pray. Spiritual writer Father Henri Nouwen said these are the very things that can make us wounded healers. I hope my words help someone to heal. May you be well in body, mind, and spirit. You are a beloved child of God!