Thursday, January 26, 2012

On physical/mental illness and George Albert Smith.

George Albert Smith.
I recently read an article on George Albert Smith, the 8th president of the LDS church, that pointed me to a longer article on George Albert Smith, the 8th president of the LDS church. The longer article was written by Mary Jane Woodger, a woman that I know. She was my Teaching of the Living Prophets professor when I was a sophomore at BYU and is more conservative than me, and much more not-a-feminist than me, but is also devoted, sincere, and kind. All in all: I like her.

I was eager to read her article for a few reasons, the strongest being that mental illness is an issue that is near to me. I have seen close family members and friends struggle with this. I have seen myself struggle with this. When I read it (beginning on about page 120), I learned that George Albert Smith was bedridden for long periods of time, including year periods of time. There were also expansive periods when he (as an apostle) was not only incapable of performing his services in the church, but was incapable of attending church services altgoether. During such periods he would occasionally try to do his perceived duty, but any attempt would bring his illness on even stronger. This eager, willing man would be filled with anxiety and nervousness to the point of shaking and near collapse. He would then be taken home in shame and loneliness, where he would wait out the latest episode, or receive a Priesthood blessing to seemingly no avail. At one point, and at a doctor's order, he traveled to California from Utah in an effort to heal. He would stay there for a long time, and his family would visit on occasion. On one such visit, they all went for a swim in the grand Pacific Ocean. Later he went by himself, with disastrous consequences. He was not a strong swimmer. He was not strong--physically or mentally. Thus, it was probably not the best idea for him to venture out unattended. He almost drowned, but was spotted by someone on shore, and rescued. During his long bouts of depression he felt inadequate and troubled, like he was letting God and the church down, as well as his friends and family. Despite all of the things he tried, he was unable to bring himself out of his depression. It eventually did get better (and he eventually became the prophet), but he waded through the murkiness of an overly anxious life for many, many years.

These stories are absent from the manual that we will study every Sunday for this entire year. I wish that they were present. Can you imagine if they were? What if there was a lesson entirely devoted to this prophet's mental anguish? What could that do for those who similarly suffer? What self love might increase? What guilt and unnecessary anxiety would decrease? Would such individuals not see (even a small glimpse) of the truth that they are still loved by God and are still worthy of inspiration and direction? What could it do for those who live with and love those who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses? What greater measure of compassion and understanding might be brought about?

I have been thinking extra hard about these things, because at this moment, one of my relatives is struggling with mental illness in very deep ways (even more than normal ways), while another relative, sharing the exact same relation, is struggling with physical illness in very deep ways. Both need help. Both are in pain, but it is a different kind of pain. And each is responded to differently. This disparity has caused me to reflect on both the parallels and inconsistencies between mental and physical illness. Mental illness is not as easy to understand. It is more quiet, more private. It is much easier for people to have compassion for those who are outwardly ill. In my church (the LDS church), it is common for individuals to bring meals to families after births, deaths, and illnesses. This has been true in the case of the second relative. I want to emphasize that I am happy that this is the case: I am happy that this relative is receiving external support from those who love her. But, I wonder: What about people who have conditions of the brain? Do they receive the support that they need? It is also a sickness, but one that we still don't know very much about. One that seems so different. The first relative is not receiving meals or visitors willing to help her clean her home. Maybe she doesn't need those things, but she may need something else, like a listening ear or simply love, that thing that all of us need and that none of us receives enough. She probably needs those closest to her not to give up on her, or be frustrated with her when she can't be as calm or as good at decision making as before. We do not become frustrated or angry with those who are afflicted by physical maladies. Why would we do so here? Is it any more her fault?

I asked the first relative why she thought there were these differences. She answered that the other is in danger of dying. While I admit that that is true, I also submit that depression is death. Depression makes life feel like death so that the person wants to die. When someone is depressed, it is hard to get help. It is hard to believe that help is possible. It is hard to have even that small hope. It is even harder to have the big hope, that sadness can give way to happiness. The only way that I can explain it is to recall my Oregon days. Boston, Massachusetts does not work, because there when it rains, it rains all day, pours all day. But Oregon (at least in Cottage Grove, Oregon), when it is raining it rains for a comparatively little while, before becoming sunny again: fully sunny. Even though I knew this, it was difficult when I was walking home from school in the gray, cold downpour to believe that it would ever be bright again. The sky looked as if it could never be sunny again with that bright clear blue that I loved. But it happened. Every time. And the reverse was also true: When it was sunny, it was hard to believe that it could ever be rainy. Depression feels like that: when you are happy, you are happy, but when you are sad, it seems like you will always be sad.

I have not been bedridden for years like George Albert Smith, but I have been for days, and have sometimes wanted to be for more than days: weeks, months, etc. The first time I realized I had depression I was 18. I was living away from home for the first time and I was more homesick than I ever thought possible. I cried every day. Multiple times a day. My mom pled with me to seek help, giving me lecture after lecture about how we don't judge people who are coughing for taking cough syrup. She tried to convince me that it was the same thing, even though it felt so different. She said it was the responsible thing, to get help. For that entire year, I refused, though I continued to struggle. I thought many things, none of which were true. The first of these untruths was that it was a matter of faith. "If I just had enough faith I would be healed!" The second untruth took the form of a feeling: I felt weak because I could not take care of the problem by myself when I wanted to so desperately. I didn't think God loved me anymore, and I didn't feel worth. Likely because of these first two things, I couldn't feel love and I couldn't love. I still remember my best friend hugging me for a long time, mourning with one who mourned, and me as the original mourner feeling nothing. She couldn't break her way in, and I could not accept her love. The one thing I could do was school. I could still go to class, I could still do my homework, I could still get my usual B+'s and A-'s, but that was all. Someone else close to me could not do school during her own time of great struggle, but could do work. 

The next most terrible time was in Boston, after the worst heartbreak I have ever experienced. When my heart broke, it felt as if the rest of me broke too, my mind as well as my body. I could not sleep without pills, and I didn't eat fruits or vegetables for two weeks. I was vegan at the time, so I am not even sure what I lived on. I can only assume that it was mostly candy. Three dear women took me into their apartment for days. They had me sleep on their couch. They gave me tea and nutritious meals. One serenaded me on the violin. Another friend flew me to her North Carolina city, and then called me every day for a long time afterward to make sure I was (reasonably) okay. It was only after their boosts of love and care that I was able to start making good choices by myself again. I started exercising daily. I picked up books after a long setting down. Scripture books and poetry books. I read every day for two hours. I returned to fruits and vegetables. I went on walks and listened to Noah and the Whale and Fanfarlo on repeat. I stopped listening to Bright Eyes and my usual sad music for awhile. I started going to a Jewish therapist. And with all of those things together, I stayed alive. One and a half years after that, I am doing much better, though I still have bad days, bad hours, and bad minutes. Occasionally dark thoughts still creep into my mind. I do my best to shut them out. I do my best to do the things that help me be happy, but I remember that when I am overly sad, it is not my fault. It does not demonstrate a lack of faith or a human failing. It only demonstrates a human being with a human brain and heart, who sometimes gets depressed as part of possessing that human brain and heart. I don't question God's love for me in the ways I did ten years ago. I don't wonder if my worthiness or ability to receive inspiration is dependent on my happiness.

I get frustrated with the impatience of people who don't understand depression, and who carelessly affirm, "You can just choose to be happy!" (I should probably try to increase my patience for them.) Choosing happiness has never been that simple for me, and is not that simple for others like me. There is no happiness switch. While I do not believe that depressed or anxious people can simply "choose to be happy," I do believe that there are things that they (we) can do to work to be happy. Even still, it is often not possible to engage in these tasks until first receiving the requisite love and support necessary, as my time in Boston so clearly taught me. With that said, please let us be a little kinder to those with physical and mental illnesses. Please let us remember George Albert Smith, that he a prophet, a man chosen by God, also suffered in these ways. I think we will see a growth of love and understanding capable of healing heart and mind wounds, and it assuredly will help us keep our covenants to strengthen feeble knees and lift up the hands which hang so sorrowfully down.

28 comments:

Lisa H. said...

Funny you should post this because Marci taught our RS lesson a few weeks ago and devoted her whole lesson to George Albert Smith's mental illness. It made me appreciate him as a person so much more and made everything he accomplished that much more remarkable. I wish we would talk about it more!

Savanna said...

Rachel. I love this. Thank you for your advocacy. I have loved someone who suffered greatly because of mental illness. It made a lot of ward members very uncomfortable, but it also brought out the best in some of them who performed great acts of love. The first time I ever heard about President G.A. Smith's illness was last week and I wish I had heard about it earlier. Perhaps he was chosen by God to be a prophet in part to bring hope to those similarly suffering, but we on the whole have not made ourselves ready to learn from his experience because it makes us uncomfortable.

ashmae said...

Rachel, thank you for writing this. I'm so glad for your honesty and clear voice. You should submit this to some blogs, like the exponent. I wish we lived in the same neighborhood.

Rachel. said...

Lisa: That a. warms my heart, b. makes me love Marci even more, and c. confirms why Cambridge 1st Ward is as Joanna Brooks once told me, "Everybody's favorite ward."

Savanna: Thank you for your kind words. I really do think it is something that more people should know about for the reasons that you said. It can help make it comfortable and open, and when things that are closed are open, only then can people get the requisite help.

Ash Mae: I wish I lived on your street too. Maybe you could teach me how to paint. :) I will try to submit it to other blogs, but I don't even really know how to go about that...

Jenni said...

I'm sure your words could help lots of people. I don't get depressed too often, but I did during my first traumatic marriage and this morning I woke up feeling like I was dead inside. These are the trials of life, different from the obvious physical ones, but definitely real. For whatever reason, the Brigham Young manual didn't discuss polygamy and the George Albert Smith manual doesn't discuss mental illness -- but we can and should discuss these things. I hope you will continue to see the light around you and not have to suffer too much despair. I love you, Rachel!

Kathryn said...

Wow Rachel, you have such a beautiful way with words. A way that allows those of us who aren't good with words be able to say, 'That is exactly how I feel and that is exactly what I have been trying to say.' I too wish we lived in the 'same neighbourhood'! Thank you for giving some of us a voice. Miss you xx

meg said...

I can appreciate the kind of person that George Albert Smith was SO much more after reading this article - can you link to the original article you read?

Rachel. said...

Jenni: I felt that way after grandpa passed. Every day for a long time. You have been with granny. You have been her care and her arms and her legs. It is no wonder that you feel that way right now, but I believe that it will get better. I am grateful to you, and grateful to have seen you so recently in such a marvelous celebration.

Kath: I miss you too, already. Thank you for your kindness and your friendship, as always.

Meg: Both articles are already linked in my post at the beginning. Just click on the words/phrase "article" and "longer article" in the first paragraph. And with the longer article, detailing his illness, the relevant part really does start around page 120. You were also obviously that friend that comforted me (though when I was 19) that I couldn't feel comfort from. I'm so glad that I can again. Thank you for loving me the whole time, even when it must have been difficult.

Johnny 5 said...

I got this link from my friend Tod. I also read the G.A. Smith article. It was a good read and an important part of his history. By the way, did you take the name of your blog from Neil Gaiman's short story, October in the Chair? If not, the story's a good one.

Rachel. said...

Johnny: If it is the Tod I think it is, he is a good man. And yes, definitely named after Gaiman's story. That book is one of my favorites.

AB said...

Rachel, this is so wonderful. I have myself struggled with my own version of these problems. I appreciate you talking about them so openly. One thing that is harder about helping people with mental illness rather than physical illness is that a lot of times they can be hard to be around. The helper is more likely to get emotionally hurt too, whereas with physical illness this is not so. Perhaps this is a cop out; it can be easier to take a meal than really listen. Yet I know there are some people I see with mental problems I cannot help without sinking in myself. At the same time, my closest friends and family would help me in these situations and I would do that for them. You have to have a relationship outside of the illness, I believe.

Anonymous said...

My sweet Rachel,

I KNEW we had some bond I was not aware of. What a poignant and moving piece;I am not the same. Thank you for your willingness to share something so fragile and powerful at the same time. I'm speechless. And I love you so much! Giselle

Ashley A. said...

This is amazing. Thank you so much for writing this. I just want to share this and that article about George Albert Smith with everyone now, including many close family members who suffer in this way. I so wish it would have been included in the manual. I teach Gospel Doctrine right now and I am sometimes disappointed with the things that are omitted. I try not to gloss over difficult things and give people a chance to talk about them and ask questions. We don't have to fear these questions, in my opinion. My own faith has been strengthened many times by studying and talking about things that bothered me or that I just don't understand with others. I want this to happen in my ward's Sunday school.

Anyway, I wish I could have been a better support to you during that hard time in your life when I first met the wonderful, beautiful Rachel. I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend. Thank you for being such a good friend to me. I wish we lived in the same town, too! :)

Kate said...

This is beautiful Rachel. As Lisa mentioned, Marci taught us about George Albert Smith and it was surely the first time I was able to really see a prophet as a real person. And I too wish this was talked about in the manual since it would do great things for people to realize that this is such a real illness for even the very best of us. It is reassuring for those who suffer as well as those who love someone who suffers. Thank you.

Cumorah said...

After reading this post, I was contemplating asking the RS Pres to let me teach on this in RS, but decided you said it best here...so I sent a link to this post to my entire RS.

Lindsey L said...

I came across your article from your sister Cumorah. I am in her ward.

Thank you so much for writing this. I have suffered from Bipolar Disorder my entire adult life. I feel like mental illness is still such a taboo and misunderstood issue in our society and I admire your candid thoughts on the subject.

This was a wonderful article that has lifted me up today as I have been struggling with some dark thoughts of my own lately.

Thank you.

Hans and Michelle said...

Thanks for this.

Rachel. said...

Giselle: I love you too.

Ashley: Please, Please share. I also cannot tell you how glad I am that you teach the harder things in your lessons. So valuable, and so often neglected. Lastly, you were a good friend then. More than you know. I still remember the exact day you asked me to be your roommate and what a prayer answering moment that was for me.

Cumo: I am both honored and humbled. As well as glad. Moments before I posted it, I prayed a little prayer on my knees that people who could benefit by it would see it, so I would like as many people to see it as possible.

Kate, Lindsey, Hans/Michelle: You are welcome. More than welcome.

5 kids and a mommy said...

Rachel, You are such a beautiful person and a beautiful writer also. I have suffered from depression for a very long time. AFter each baby, it got even worse. I a so grateful that you posted you thoughts and feelings. It gave me a voice to how I feel. You are spot on. I reflect back to a time you called my cell and left a message with the desire to come to Cameron Park. I am forever sad that I didn't get the call in time. I LOVE YOU TONS!!! Also, I am grateful to learn about George Albert Smith. It gives me hope. I am passing your thoughts onto my mother. She too, has suffered at times.... but also has saved me. I would like to join your friends with the desire to live on your street!

Anonymous said...

Rachel, "5 kids and a mommy" is me, Shaunna. I'm computer challenged and failed to figure out how to sign my name.

k . e . said...

Here I am sitting at home while my husband is at church, because I couldn't bring myself to go today. He is studying George Albert Smith and I am reading this. Somehow I feel like this is was I needed more, and I am grateful to you for posting it. Thank you Rachel.

Rachel. said...

Shaunna, you and your family are favorite. From my mission and after. I wish that I could have seen you that day too. I want to go North again, but for a better reason than brought me there last time. Writing this piece has been amazing for several reasons, but the strongest has been learning how many more people I loved struggle with these same issues than I knew. While I wouldn't want anyone to feel depressed type feelings, there is something nice about it being in the open, and no longer feeling so alone.

K.E. I made it to church yesterday, but barely. And could only manage to stay for exactly one hour and five minutes before I had to stand up during sunday school, walk out, and bike home. I just couldn't do it. Which maybe means I am not doing as good as I thought.

annie (the annilygreen one) said...

oh rachel....my heart is breaking. while you were sleeping all day in darkness, i was staying up all night, feeling the same. i wish we could have helped each other. and thank you, thank you for writing this. depression has been my lifelong enemy, and i wish it was talked about differently at church, for sure.

Rachel Hunt said...

Annie, I didn't know. I wish I knew. I wish we both knew. That would have been so nice. And again, that is one of the things about depression that feels the most terrible, how it feels so secret and so lonely. I am coming to see that it needs to be talked about, and maybe by people who know it/live it, so they can speak compassionately and kindly. I also like imagining depression saying, "Annie is my lifelong enemy," because you are winning.

Christine said...

Many years ago, while in a YW presidency, our Beehive teacher told the girls something like: We are so lucky to have the gospel because we don't have to rely on anti-depressants. We have the scriptures and prayer for those problems.
I had recently been diagnosed with depression (after several years of misery) and was finally on medication. I was so annoyed with her irresponsible comments (she was a fairly young married girl), but I bit my tongue. I cannot tell you how much I regret, to this day, not having said something. I still feel terrible for any girl in that class who may have gone on to blame herself and a lack of faith for depression or other mental health issues.

Lesshalynn said...

I love this. I come back to it often.

gk risser said...

I'm so grateful for the internet. I came to this post by a link through a friend of a friend. It's a new era of the church now that people with testimonies can speak and share things that are shied away from in the somber buttoned down confines of the classroom. Thank you for posting this. I'm forwarding it to several friends and loved ones. Now they have a true hero in the somewhat modern leadership of the church. An, if he did it, I can do it, role model. I just don't understand why people who claim to believe that the church is true and divine are afraid to tell true stories about real life. I don't care about the Prophets working hard at their penmanship or milking cows. I am from Los Angeles. I want to hear about their struggles as a father and with the weight of their responsibilities. I want to hear about things I can relate to and actually use in my life. The number of people I know in the church who suffer deeply from depression and inferiority complexes, some biologically and others because of the faulty constructs of their culture,is staggering. It's reality. It's always existed throughout the history of the church and all humankind. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We say we believe that we were born into a fallen world as part of a plan and with a Savior provided for our short comings but a lot of people put up a front of perfectionism and impose it on others because they are afraid of their own humanity. It's wrong. So let's continue to work to get rid of the taboo and stigma. Again, thank you for giving people something they can actually hold on to.

gk risser said...
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