Our team recently joined a collective of people including local investors to open a gas station convenience store to create jobs for young people in our community here in North/West Africa. The station is located on one of the busiest intersections next to one of the oldest, most dangerous neighbourhoods in our city.
They pass by each day. One by one. They are the ones who linger. Staring, often at the floor. Sometimes they have five cents for a bag of cold water. Sometimes they ask for water for free. Occasionally they are intoxicated. Rarely, but sometimes, they are agitated and almost violent.
“‘Il est un fou,’” (He is a crazy person) some will say as they see these individuals at the station.”
These are the faces of those who suffer with mental illness here. They are the ones whose illnesses cannot be hidden. Either they have no family to care for and protect them or their family has given up trying to hide them. Perhaps their families are the “kind” ones who, instead of chaining them to trees or locking them in some back room, allow them the freedom to roam the streets. I do not know their individual stories and I cannot completely understand their suffering because my context is so vastly different from theirs, but as someone who has struggled for my than half of my life with mental illness I do feel a strange bond with them because of our shared pain.
Stigma surrounds mental illness everywhere in the world. People fear what they do not understand and mental illness, because of its abstract nature, is not easy to understand. In North America we have moved past the days of asylums and locking people up, but those who suffer with mental illnesses still remain locked inside prisons of stigma that keep many from being able to hold regular jobs and engage in many day-to-day activities. Here in Africa those with mental illnesses are often still demonized and locked up in their homes.
One day after I described my own struggles with anxiety to a friend, she told me: “Sometimes I am afraid to leave my home. I can’t go to weddings or parties anymore. But when I try to explain it to people they just look at me like I’m crazy. They will never understand. Sometimes I wonder if I had been born in the West if people would understand what is wrong with me.”
“She has a demon.”
“He just went mad.”
This is the depth of most people’s understanding of mental illness here.
I believe firmly that there is a definite spiritual component to mental illness. I believe Satan has been allowed freedom to terrorize people because of the fall and mental illness is one of his most brutal schemes. But I also believe that demonizing mental illness, and not recognizing the physical nature of it, only feeds fear and increases stigma. We are spiritual, physical and emotional beings. We must understand suffering and illness in light of all the aspects of our lives that it affects. Those with mental illness need support and protection because we often cannot care for ourselves. Our minds and bodies have weaknesses in the same way that someone with cancer or MS has weaknesses. But what we do not need is to be treated as mindless, demon- possessed or dead. We are alive. We have minds. We have bodies. We have value and purpose.
It is not always easy not to fear the shabby men with the distant stares that enter our store. But when I look at them, it’s like looking in a mirror where I see my own pain reflected back. All the times people withdrew, ignored or pushed me away because my despair or anxiety made them uncomfortable. So I try to remember what it means to be human. For myself and for them. I ask to see. And a strange thing happens. Compassion. Sharing of pain. The truest form of human unity. The truest form of religion.
Stresses and Strengths of Communal Living
Living with mental illness has unique challenges in every culture and society. I have experienced the challenges of two extremes.
My first episode of major depression was triggered by my transition to life in North America after spending my whole life living in West Africa. The switch to such an individualistic culture was devastating for me. I could not figure out how to navigate through my feelings of loneliness and I plunged deeper and deeper into isolation. This isolation was what led me to my first suicide attempt. What frightens me most is how easy it would have been to succeed. I lived completely alone. I hardly went out, even to visit my family. There was nothing stopping me from doing myself serious harm and it could have been days before anyone even noticed I was gone.
One would assume, then, that moving back to a communal culture would be the solution. It is not. For someone with anxiety and depression, communal culture can be equally as triggering. It is too easy to take on the burdens of everyone around you. Where there are many people there is much more conflict and tension. There is hardly anywhere to be alone. There is rarely respite from sensory overload. This environment is a recipe for disaster for someone with social anxiety. On multiple occasions these high stress levels have led me to anxiety attacks that leave me exhausted and are swiftly followed by depressive episodes that keep me in bed for days.
For me, it seems, there is no ideal solution. And perhaps that is just the reality of mental illness. There is nowhere on earth where it is “‘easy”’ to live with mental illness. I am amazed, however, at the human ability to adapt. To figure out how to make it work in whatever situation one is in. To survive. To live.
One may look at those who enter our store and wonder what kind of life they lead. But they live. They carry on. They have purpose, if even to just meet their basic human needs. They persist. They fight. And they survive. I sometimes wonder, if that is not worship, what is?
The context I live in now is very challenging. But I see the beauty in the safe guards God has placed around me. It is almost impossible for me to find space to do myself harm without someone noticing. It is rare that I am isolated (at least physically even if I feel that way emotionally). And for me, even though there are days I long for space, it has saved my life.
Called to be Human
I do not know what I believe about calling anymore. I used to think it meant something about some great vocation or ministry. But lately I am wondering if God did not “call” me to live here because he knew it would save my life. He knew I needed to learn to be human. That I need to be pushed into a place where I live with compassion. That that human connection, the reflection of my pain, the shared humanity of it, is the religion that reminds me I am alive. It is the religion that saves my life every day.
After all, that is the God I claim to worship, isn’t it. The Compassionate One. The one who came to be a human in order to save our lives?