A sister’s journey with faith and healing

by Mary Kay Irving, LCSW

Oh how much you matter in our journey towards health and wholeness when recovering from a mental illness.

I was only a teenager when my sister demonstrated what were likely some of her first struggles with mental illness. She had scratch marks all over her arm. She also had some excuse about being pawed by a friend’s cat. Years later, I learned she had been cutting on herself. Back then, her relationship with our mother seemed to grow more tumultuous by the year. As she and our mother grew in conflict, her faith became an ever growing source of comfort and support. She would desperately need that support repeatedly in the  years to come. The truth is, she did not always get the comfort and guidance one would hope for for their loved ones. She tried to seek help from her faith community, but often, well-meaning as they likely were, they did not have the knowledge or training to provide the kind of support that would be helpful.

My sister struggled deeply with severe depressions not uncommon to people diagnosed with what she would later learn to be bipolar disorder and to survivors of the various traumas in her life. Last night as I prepared to write this, my first blog on the matter, she shared with me in more detail just how deep and lonely her struggles were. Like many people who suffer from a mental illness do, she turned time and again to her spiritual leaders and community for support. During one particularly severe period of depression she again reached out for help. This time it was in a faith-based support group for survivors of sexual abuse. She was told that she just needed to “pray more” and “try harder” to get herself out of the depression. She was told that psychology and medication was “bunk.”  I can only imagine the darkness and dejection she must have experienced to hear such statements during her most vulnerable time. The true need was for compassion and direct guidance towards the medical and psychological intervention that could help her overcome her illness.

Things got worse for my sister: hospitalizations, further trauma and abuse, and just a few short years ago she made what seemed, from the calls I received, to be an attempt at suicide. She and I are both incredibly thankful for the compassion of a complete stranger who recognized the distress she was in caused by her overdose of medication. She was taken to a hospital and since then has been on a beautiful trajectory of healing.   She feels — and I agree — that she has been correctly diagnosed with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and bipolar disorder, and she has found the right medication and a doctor she trusts. She works with a skilled and compassionate faith-based therapist and no longer feels alone.

My sissy credits her faith and belief in God with saving her and keeping her going despite so many low points along her journey. She now shares her own journey with mental illness and healing to help others along their way. I believe we can all do more to educate ourselves so that armed with compassion, resources and knowledge, we can help ease the scary and lonely path of people struggling with a mental illness. There are many more resources than there used to be, so much more knowledge, many more successful treatments and life-saving medications.  Many are seeking guidance and support from you, their trusted leaders in faith, to be their light out of darkness. Please join us in our efforts to become better resources. Make the time for  training, watch our video resources for clergy and faith leaders and please share them with others. There is help and hope. We can all be a light on the journey towards healing for another sister or brother.

Mary Kay Irving, LCSW and ASIST Consulting Trainer

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.