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“Do we care about mental illness?” (Theology & Vulnerability II)

“Do we care about mental illness?”

The title of E. Lawrence’s June blog post at WIT: Women in Theology caught my attention.  There, E. argued that there are formidable barriers to serious theological conversation about mental illness in the Catholic academy. The post identified two in particular.  First, she explained the stigmatization of mental illness due to its association with U.S. bourgeois culture and its comfort-seeking, self-indulgent, and self-medicating practices.  Next, she highlighted the apprehension many theologians have concerning psychological notions of the human person.

Although I know relatively little about theological treatments of mental illness, I felt compelled to comment when I finished reading the post. I rarely participate in online discussion in this way, but it seemed to me that the point I wanted to raise was pertinent, perhaps even important.  So I logged in, clicked the comment box, and constructed a sentence or two.  And then I stopped.  After an extended pause, I deleted those sentences.  I read E.’s post again.  Eyeing the comment box once more, I resigned, closed the browser, and folded my laptop screen.

In that almost-comment I had intended to suggest another barrier to theological conversation about mental illness: the mental illness experienced by theologians, themselves.  While E. had rightly acknowledged that many in academic theology experience mental illness, she had not identified this as a barrier.  It seemed to be an obvious one to me.  It seemed obvious because I have a mental illness.

E. explained that “mental illness” is, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.  Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.”  It was almost a year ago now that I received a diagnosis of anxiety from my psychologist.  The event of getting an official diagnosis was really a non-event for me, in large part because I was too preoccupied with managing the actual experience of the illness.  Anxiety, which had taken hold of my life years before, seemed increasingly to take over my life altogether.

How might a theologian’s personal experience of mental illness inhibit theological conversation about topic?  My struggle to offer a comment in this virtual discussion was case in point.  I wanted to suggest that some theologians don’t talk about mental illness because such an undertaking would necessitate coming to terms with his/her own mental illness—something that is difficult for many.  At the time I had begun to wonder whether my career aspirations in academic theology magnified this difficulty for me.  In a profession that is so overtly associated with a sharp, strong intellect—a strong mind—it is frightening to admit to myself and to others that my mind is sick.

I couldn’t bring myself to identify this barrier in response to E.’s post because I was simply so uncomfortable with how much of an obstacle mental illness has been for own identity as an aspiring theologian.  It has taken me many months—and a whole lot of therapy—to come to terms with the fact that I’m a human being who struggles with a mental illness.  I’m an aspiring academic whose mind is weak in this particular way.  I struggled a great deal to integrate this illness into my personal, professional, and spiritual identity.  I still do and must continue to do so,  for even as this illness is far less paralyzing than it used be, I know I will probably always be a person with anxiety.  A “cure” for me comes not by way of irradiating this dimension of my mind, but by accepting it as a component of who I am and learning to live with it in healthier ways.

Earlier this week I recalled how my early encounters with academic theology led me to view it as a space for vulnerability and courage.  It was a place where people risked exploring and interrogating what matters to them most.  I admitted that overtime I had come to doubt whether this was really true, and consequently I had put up guards in the classroom and academy.  I wanted to come across as a capable, strong theological mind rather than the human being that I am. I am a human being who, like everyone, is weak sometimes.  When my anxiety escalated this year, my illness demanded that I accept myself as, well, myself.  I could no longer maintain the pretense of an unshakable mind.

The difficult work of intensive counseling and the immeasurable support of family and friends has transformed my everyday life over the course of this year.  This process has been—and remains—exhausting.  But it has also brought many blessings.  One has been the opportunity to begin again in theology.  I have reached the conviction that I want to live into my theological vocation with my weaknesses—not in spite of them.  For, as Tillich reminded me last week, until I bring all of who I am to theology, it’s not quite theology:  How can we reflect upon that which is the Ground of Who We Are if we do not bring all of Who We Are to the task?

Anxious as I may be, I am garnering  the “courage to be” me in academic theology.  I’m beginning, again.

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6 Comments

  1. Kate Ward says:

    Thank you for your vulnerability and courage, Jessica. Theology has so much to gain from your willingness to share your gifts.

  2. Your honesty and openness are remarkable gifts. Thank you, for this beautifully and powerfully written post.

  3. Jane Redmont says:

    Thank you, Jessica, for this courageous essay. It will give courage to others. You are doing sacred work.

  4. magsblackie says:

    I am not a theologian and I am grateful that I do not suffer from a mental illness but I am an academic. And I think the process you describe of putting on the cloak of capability is something that afflicts us all, and almost scuppered my own academic career. The only way to take on this world is to find a way to do it on your own terms. Otherwise what you produce will be far less meaningful.

  5. Sarah B says:

    This is why the academic study of theology is so tricky: like all of academia, the field tends to value strong, sharp intellect, and abhor untidy, subjective, irrational humanity. But leaving one’s humanity at the door when studying theology has unique consequences; it limits our understanding of the God who – whether we like it our not — decided God’s self was best communicated through an actual human being. And it not only limits our understanding (that would be just an intellectual loss) but also inhibits, and maybe prevents, our receiving the great, great mercy of this God who has cherished and even inhabited, our little, finite, bodies.
    I love this endeavor of yours place theology and vulnerability in the same sphere, and applaud both the strength of your mind and the courage and warmth of your spirit.

  6. […] the theological academy is a potential hazard to mental health.  Some of the responders to my last post testified to the mental burdens that can accompany life in the academy, regardless of whether one […]

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