Friday, March 25, 2016

Removing the Stigma of Mental Illness

I read a few articles today about an episode in the life of Heidi Cruz, wife of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-My Dreams). It seems a police officer found her sitting on a section of grass next to an expressway one night in 2005. And because Donald Trump gives the meaning to the phrase "Trump classy," this has become a campaign issue.

This is upsetting to me, because I've had my own mental health episode on a random piece of lawn. Mine was six months into the worst two years of my life, my time as a full-time missionary.

The missionary screening process includes questions designed to identify those with mental health issues. It makes sense that a minimum level of health is necessary to undertake rigorous service, but a large amount of talk about "every young man should serve" made me feel that I needed to lie my way through the mental health questions.

What would have happened if I'd been honest? Would I have been allowed to serve? I don't know. My life would be different now, that's for sure, in both good and bad ways. The good: I would have avoided a lot of mental health baggage I picked up on my mission that I am still learning to remove from my life. Maybe talking about these things sooner would have enabled me to start making that progress sooner. The bad: I would have the stigma of having not served. My choices of possible wife would have greatly diminished. I don't know if those leaving the list would have included my actual wife or not. Anyway, I said to myself, "If depressed people aren't supposed to serve, then it will be a bigger indication of my commitment that I'm willing to do it, anyway."

When I made the decision to serve a mission, I saw it as a choice between being a missionary or marrying the girl I had wanted to marry since I was six years old. But that didn't make it any more agreeable when she became incredibly distant, almost immediately. (I was still in the MTC when I got my first letter from her that made me wonder what was going on. She was living less than a mile away at the time.) So over the first six months of my mission, I had the agonizingly-slow loss of my girlfriend to a guy that I had known all along she was leaving me for, even when she didn't know it herself. Coupled with that, my first companion misunderstood something I said, took it as a slight of his intelligence, and threatened to beat me up. My second companion ignored my input, repeating the things I said like I wasn't there. My third companion would sit up at night talking on the telephone with people from his former areas. One night the phone rang so much it woke me up. When I answered it, a girl asked for him, but when I went to find him, he wasn't there. He came back several hours later. Because he was afraid I would mention this in one of the weekly letters to the mission president, he stole my outgoing mail and read the letters with his friends, making fun of me. (I learned this later from one of the friends with whom he'd read them.) And on top of all of this, I was in an area where people had naked contempt for our attempts to share with them something that we thought would make their lives better.

Suffice it to say, the first six months of my mission were terrible. I wrote letters to my girlfriend, but she was distancing herself. I wrote letters home, but my parents expressed concern that my less-than-favorable portrayal of mission life would scare my younger brother off of wanting to go.

One preparation day, my companion and I were with another set of missionaries. Someone suggested we ride bikes to a marshy area to look for crayfish. On the ride there, the other missionaries suddenly changed course and when I attempted to follow them, they lost me. I found my way to the marsh, but with no way of knowing where they were inside it.

I sat down on the grass on the side of the house next to the marsh. I was alone, which is completely against mission rules. Even though I hadn't made the choice to be alone, that didn't mean I wasn't alone, right? The same could be said of the entire mission experience: I didn't decide to have a brain unqualified for missionary work, but that didn't mean that if I stayed home I wouldn't be a young man who wasn't serving a mission. It was a Monday afternoon, so I thought the occupants were at work. I wish there was a dignified term for what I did, but there's no words for it that don't make me sound like a baby or an idiot. With my face in my hands and my head down, I was eventually surprised by a voice behind me that said, "Uh, do you need some help?"

That was probably the most embarrassing moment in my life.

I refused their help. I apologized and said I would leave. I got back on my bike and rode to another spot outside the marsh and tried to calm down, figuring eventually I had to be presentable when (or if) the other missionaries returned.

I think I've already told you about the next month: that companion got transferred, I got another one who brought different challenges, we went on a P-day bike ride and he got badly injured, comically early in the ride. With my letters to the mission president no longer being intercepted, he eventually received one pleading for help. He called and said we needed to meet that afternoon. I thought I had finally come through the storm. My spirits lifted. We stopped on the way to the meeting to eat lunch at Arby's in celebration of things getting better. And then my mission president spent two hours telling me that I was wasting his time with letters like that. "We all wish we'd been sent to South America," he said. "I have 200 missionaries who need my attention, and I had to drive out here this afternoon." He also blamed me for my companion's injury because mountain bike riding was against the rules, he said, although no other missionary in our mission had ever heard that rule before.

And that was when I quit. Not for real, because I'm too much of a coward for that, but I stopped trying to do absolutely everything I could. If it was there, I did it. If it wasn't there, I didn't go looking for it.

But it was sitting on a stranger's lawn on a Monday afternoon that I had a moment that helps me relate to Heidi Cruz, that makes me feel that when Donald Trump or his surrogates attack Heidi Cruz, they are attacking me. When I think about that experience, I still feel embarrassed, and I feel so bad for the guy whose lawn I was on. How awkward was that conversation for him? "Hey, there's some kid broken down on the side of my house. I guess I have to go see what that's about."

I've heard people talk about the need to support Trump in a general election against Hillary Clinton. I won't be doing that. And, frankly, neither should you. If everyone who hates both Trump and Clinton supported Gary Johnson, Johnson would win in a landslide.

I don't feel my sharing this story actually removes any of the stigma. It just assumes more of it. Now you know in a little more detail just how terrible of a person I am. But I'm fine with that. I'm not trying to impress anybody anymore. I'm an unattractive, unsuccessful man with a broken brain. I don't like it, but I don't hide from it anymore. That's who I am.

No comments: