My family has endured its fair share of broken bones, ranging from arms and wrists to elbows and fingers. One of the worst breaks occurred at a beautiful park while my son played happily atop a playground. We heard his scream and knew that something bad had happened. He had fallen and had braced himself with his arm. The impact and the stress from that fall had snapped every bone in his arm cleanly. His arm was distorted, and he was clearly in severe pain.
I think our bones are amazing because they are built to endure and absorb stress and when we put our bones under controlled stress our bones grow stronger. This protects them from either fracturing or deteriorating through osteoarthritis. When we over-stress our bones, however, or experience acute, intense stress, like my son, our bones will break.
Mental health is no different than our bone health. God created both of them and they have similar needs. On one hand, exposure to stress is necessary to strengthen our emotional and spiritual fortitude but on the other hand, exposure to chronic stress and trauma will break us.
I, personally, am a broken person. Just last week I had an episode of dissociation that took me days to recover from. I felt disconnected from myself, like a floating head, and when I looked out at the world it felt like I was moving in slow motion. This is a product of a childhood lived within a state of chronic stress and repetitive traumas that continued into adulthood. Dissociation is how I cope with these emotions of shame, fear, anger and even joy. This isn’t something I do intentionally, it is something that I do subconsciously. It is evidence of a psychological injury, a fractured mind.
In ancient China, they had a symbol to represent the dualities of life; we call it Yin and Yang. One side is representative of order and the other side represents chaos. Or, as I like to visualize it, one side represents what is known and the other side represents what is unknown.
When we live in a culture that is not our own, we are surrounded by the unknown. This is a bigger deal than we might think because, as we face an unknown experience, our entire body preps itself for every eventuality. When we don’t know what to expect, we have to expect everything.
Enduring this type of chronic stress affects us all. There is no one who escapes unscathed and these effects ooze out of us whether we acknowledge them or not. In fact, if the stressors and their effects go unacknowledged and unarticulated, its energy will be forced to express itself in ways we can’t control. Many of them will be physically expressed in disease and ill health but also in psychological or mental illness as well. Chronic fatigue, auto immune diseases, hormone imbalances, cancers, asthma can all be a product of chronic stress as it suppresses our immune systems. Depression, post trauma stress, anxiety, addictive behaviors and abuse can also be expressions of chronic stress and the psychological wounds it creates.
A fall from the playground can snap a bone completely and chronic stress and trauma can splinter the mind.
I’ve had a recurring memory of late, one that involves a van, a dirt road, darkness and a woman’s attempt to take her own life. It doesn’t take imagination to know why or how death can become the only relief in a woman’s life. When the stress is so intense, the weight of trauma so heartbreaking and hope is missing, death becomes the only respite from the pain. It took me years to realize that the chronic stress in my life was causing chronic pain and I was devastated to learn that I had childhood PTSD. I understand what draws people to self-destruction. I know the feeling, the longing and the desire to end the fight for mental health and healing. I also know hope.
I believe that in our weakness, God is strong, but I’ve had to change my understanding of what that means. I thought it was a call to push myself beyond what I could endure. I thought I had to stay overseas and pursue the most difficult contexts, leading myself to the brink of mental collapse. I believed that this brought God glory.
I see now that God does not want me to be destroyed. He does not want me to live beyond what I was designed to endure. He is not longing for me to be broken, or to be hurt, or to suffer. He longs to bring me healing. He wants to put my pieces back together, not tear them apart. He wants me to experience heaven, even while I remain on earth.
My brain is broken and I cannot undo what has been done, but I can seek God. I know that he is healing me. I can feel it in the peacefulness that stirs in me when my head feels like it’s wrapped in cotton or I am too scared to breathe. I have accepted the wounds that are inflicted on my psyche, my body and my soul. I honor God by embracing my limitations.
Do you believe God cares about your mental health? Do you push yourself beyond what is good for you? How does chronic stress manifest itself in your life?
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