A friend reached out shortly after I began writing about my struggles with mental health. I have no regrets about sharing my story openly. Friends and family responded with more encouragement than I could have ever hoped for. It gave me the chance to take something of which I was ashamed and allowed me to shine a bright light on it. That act robbed the shame of so much power.
It also left me feeling incredibly vulnerable. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many encouraging words people offer, the part of you that’s always looking to bring you down a notch can explain away every kind thing that’s said. That part will always find new ways to beat you down.
Then I started receiving private messages from old friends, and they came through with a consistent and reassuring message:
I had no idea that this is what you were experiencing, but it’s something that I’ve also experienced, and I’m so thankful that you’re writing about it.
I will never forget those texts and direct messages. They really were what gave me the desire to continue writing.
One of these friends shared his own story, and it was incredibly moving. He was open and honest about so much that he’d experienced. In our back-and-forth’s he touched on a subject that hit home in the strongest way. Acceptable brokenness, or the type of brokenness that people know how to respond to. In the days after I’d disclosed my diagnosis to my closest friends, the same people who up to that point had insight and encouragement to proffer on near every struggle that I had ever related went almost silent. Every ounce of their non-response saying “What am I supposed to do with that?”
I grew into my pastoral own at the height of the machismo minister movement. Tough guy pastors who proclaimed a version of the gospel drench in testosterone. In that world, there was only one form of brokenness that was acceptable, the type that reinforced secretly admirable forms of sin, though almost never for for that purpose. In that world, men were more easily able to confess that they struggled with anger (I am strong), lust (I am sexual), and career-related problems (I am a provider).
I once heard a tough guy pastor share the story of the time he visited the home of a man who had reached his breaking point, and how disappointed he was at the sight of this creature curled up in the fetal position and lying on the floor. The message came through loud and clear. Don’t be like that man. Don’t be pathetic.
I was twenty-four when I heard that story, and in any incredibly dark place. Those days were overshadowed by a constant indwelling sense of hopelessness and doom, marked by lack of sleep and constant panic attacks. When I think back on that period my mind overlays remembered images with an apocalyptic filter of sepia and dark edges. It’s like my brain has to show me just how bleak things were, in the remote chance that I somehow managed to forget.
That was a time in my life when I could have, and should have, sought psychiatric treatment. The story about the man curled up in the fetal position reminded me that it would never be okay to succumb to the level of brokenness I was experiencing. An unacceptable brokenness. Therefore, I must push down what I was feeling with all my strength, put my best face forward, and fight my way out of it. Shame is remarkably powerful.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to learn that, almost without exception, the tough ones are usually just hurt ones. That those who never express anything are generally too busy carrying the weight of everything. That the ones who are only able to confess an acceptable form of brokenness, are like the Great and Powerful Oz. They’d like you to keep your eyes on the great and powerful aspects of their fallen nature, but will do whatever it takes to keep you from looking behind the curtain.
If I may encourage you, hear me when I say this; you owe it to no one, especially those who have yet succumbed to their own need for healing, to continue playing the tough guy routine at the expense of your own mental health and well-being. You are not required to walk the path of the stoic, imagining that by ignoring your deepest cuts that they will somehow magically close themselves.
In fact, in keeping with the title of this blog, I offer the following: You’re never going to embark on the best part of your life, your uncharted chapter, if you haven’t acknowledged exactly where you are in your story. Even if where you are is so much worse than you’ve ever actually begun to let on.
We spend our lives pretending we’re just riding out a happy ever after, when we’re sitting in the darkest part of the saga. If this is the bleakest moment in your personal narrative, acknowledge it! If you’re Luke being fried by the emperor, Gandalf falling into the depths with the Balrog, George Bailey after Potter gets a hold of the deposit, then that’s where you are in your story. Period.
And these are the parts in the story where the plot takes an amazing turn. It’s only when things are seen for how broken they actually are, that the process of restoration and healing can begin. That’s where we find the strength to fight the good fight, where we allow other’s to see our struggle, and step in to help overcome the obstacles we’re facing, where we lean on power greater than ourselves. This is where we come to terms with reality and tackle it with every tool at our disposal.
This is the part of the movie where the main character is just about to lose everything, where they’re broken and bloodied and curled up in the fetal position, all hope lost. Then the friend sitting next to you, the one who’s already seen it, leans over and says, “Watch what happens. This is the best part.”