Category Archives: Mental health issues

One Year Later…

On Thursday, I was preparing for my first appointment at the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) and gathering together the papers that demonstrate that I’ve been living as a man, openly and publicly in every aspect of my life, for some time. I came across a letter I’d asked my then boss to write for me, containing the date on which I came out at work and so began my ‘official’ real-life experience. My appointment happened to be one year on exactly from that day, which is quite a coincidence. Following this, my first experience of the GIC and the suggestion of a friend on Facebook, I’ve decided to reflect a bit on what this year has brought along and where I’m at.

Prior to coming out to my colleagues, I’d told a few people but otherwise kept things secret. Knowing that transgender people have been hounded out of jobs and faced discrimination, I was very nervous about how people would react to me. On the whole, I needn’t have been. The vast, vast majority have either been overtly supportive, or just quietly got on with using the right name and correct pronouns without saying anything specific about it all. I’ve had to deal with a couple of idiots outside of my department and some guys being jerks when it comes to my using the gents’ loos, but that has been very rare, thankfully. It’s been a similar story with church and the rest of my life down here in Milton Keynes.

Being able to be completely open about who I am has been an incredibly liberating experience, which has freed me from having to pretend all the time and repress part of myself. I think I’ve grown in confidence and am much more settled as a result. I’ve now got a whole new wardrobe and very few of my ‘female clothes’ have survived the cull. When I’ve got the money, I’ll get a new suit, which is really the last big purchase; the rest of my stuff is either from the blokes’ sections of stores, or as near as damned it. This outward change, together with my new hairdo (short and spiky) has helped me to feel more settled as Karl and again boosted my confidence.

In terms of everyday life, little has changed, though there are specific issues which were previously uncomplicated but now take thought:

  • Toilets: which to use and when. When it’s safe to do so, I use male toilets, but that’s not always practical. For example, in busy public places like the shopping centre and the cinema, I worry I’m more likely to encounter a member of the public with ‘Daily Mail views’, and get a hard time. This is more of a fear in places where alcohol feeds in, and not all pubs have an easily accessible disabled toilet. Wetherspoons pubs are particularly bad for this, so I have to find strategies when I go there. Generally there is the back-up option of a disabled toilet elsewhere, but I’m always worried I’m stopping someone with a disability from using it, and so it gets complicated.
  • Changing rooms. These are even more awkward, due to the lack of privacy and need for nudity. I don’t want to use the female facilities, can’t yet use the male ones, and some disabled changing rooms are rubbish. I’m yet to find a gym where this isn’t a problem.
  • Clothes shopping: trans-friendly stores. My early experiences of trying to buy men’s clothes were complicated by not knowing my sizes, and also by not passing, which meant store staff often didn’t know how to deal with me. One shop (BHS) accused me of shoplifting because I tried on a men’s shirt. Another (H&M) wouldn’t let me use the male changing rooms or take men’s clothes into female changing rooms. I do wonder if I should’ve just changed in the middle of that store to make the point, but I didn’t dare! (Probably for the best!). Now I’ve learnt that stores like House of Fraser are very good and let me use the right changing rooms without hassle, but as I know my sizes, I can usually get away with trying things at home with the reasonable hope of them fitting.
  • Dealing with the NHS. In the absence of being able to get my paws on testosterone, I’ve been taking female contraceptives to stop my menstruation. My GP practice have been fine with this, but I am amused by always getting the lecture on safe sex, as if Tractorgirl could be the source of a sort of virgin birth part two! People just don’t get LGBT relationships sometimes… Moreover, one has to be the expert most of the time – my GP had never met a trans person till I walked in – and one of the nice things about going to the GIC was being able to be the patient for once!
  • Being allowed to leave the country. To get a new passport with the correct gender marker, I’ve needed a letter from my GP. Not a problem, but another little thing that makes transgender life more …. hard work/time-consuming/bureaucratic. There are also places such as Canada where travel can be complicated for someone like me who is yet to begin treatment, which is a bugger when planning a honeymoon!
  • Telephones. As my voice still sounds female, I sometimes have trouble getting people to believe I am who I say I am over the phone. For example, one time at work someone was convinced they’d got the wrong number, even when a colleague grabbed the phone and told them otherwise! More recently, I had a phone call from a recruitment consultant who refused to believe I was me, and asked what name to call me despite having my CV in front of him with ‘Karl’ looming up at him! Clearly his firm need better diversity training.
  • Inane questions. Most of the time, when people ask me about what being transgender/transsexual means and is like, they’re genuinely interested and do so sensitively. As I reckon it’s best they hear what it’s all about from me rather than the Daily (Hate) Mail, I’m happy to chat and share my experiences. However, questions about my genitals are not acceptable – would you quiz anyone else on what they’ve got in their trousers? No. Well, mind your own business when you’re talking to me then! It is odd how one’s body can be viewed as public property as the NHS is the gatekeeper of gender reassignment…
  • Transgender media coverage. Some of the rubbish written about trans people of all shades can be quite hard to deal with, especially when it filters through to the popular imagination (see above). For example, in the week I came out, there was a big fuss being whipped up by the Sun about a trans man giving birth, and I remember hearing some vicious negative comments at work. Hopefully having to deal with a real live trans man has helped dispel some of that nonsense and prejudice, but it made me feel scared. I imagine this is even worse for trans women, who in the early stages of their transitions are usually more visible than I’ve been – chatting to others suggests they do get more flack, not helped by the press portrayl of us.
  • Correcting people on pronouns. Trans men at this pre-hormones stage often get mistaken for women and have to spend time correcting people. 95% of stuff shouted at me in the street has been homophobic, not transphobic, and I understand this is other people’s experience too. I suppose it’s a product of the much wider range of gender expression which is usually considered acceptable for women that people look at me and assume I’m a woman, and sometimes think I must be a lesbian. However, for me, it’s a pain in the backside, and means I spend a lot of time telling people off for making assumptions. Getting my chest binder has given me more confidence to do so.
  • Waiting lists. Going forward, I need to go through a second assessment at the GIC, this time with two shrinks, before I can start hormones. At least this time I have a date for my grilling. The uncertainty of the waiting and not knowing has been tough on both of us, especially with the move to GP commissing and worries about funding. It has felt at times like living in limbo.

That’s just a few of my niggles! It’s important to stress though that this has been an incredibly positive year on the whole, despite the above. Looking to the future, I can begin to see the end point, at which I’ll be able to live as a normal bloke, post second-puberty, chest operation and hysterectomy. I do worry whether Tractorgirl will still find me attractive when all is said and done, which is miles scarier than anything a surgeon could do, but we’re taking it day by day (cliche time – sorry!) and getting there. I take comfort from the fact we wouldn’t be getting hitched if she wasn’t, like me, willing to give it a bloody good go! I think we’ve also grown closer through this and having to deal with our feelings when they’ve risen to the surface, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

So. that’s year one in the life of a transsexual man. I’ve run out of things to type now, so I’ll stop!

Forgiveness and Families

Recently,  I came across this article on the Guardian website.  It’s an interview with Danu Morrigan, whose mother was a narcissist, which means she needed the whole world to revolve around her would viciously put down other people, mainly her children, while appearing all ‘sweetness and light’ to the outside world. In the end, the only way Danu could cope was to cut contact with her mother completely. Reading some of the comments, it seems that respondents were divided between those who had experienced similar situations and taken similar action, and those who couldn’t understand why one would want to break contact with parents.  My own parents weren’t narcissists, but did have various issues that made my own childhood somewhat difficult, and this article got me thinking…  How should one react to people within one’s own family who behave abusively? It’s notable that most people would tell someone with an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive partner to run for the hills for their own safety, but many don’t take the same view about family. After all, blood is thicker than water, right? I don’t claim to have definitive answers, but I wanted to reflect on my own experiences.

My earliest memories are not exactly happy. Both my brother and I have, I think, suffered from the fact that mum was too busy either cleaning or recovering from cleaning (this used to be a six days a week, every week, thing  – she had OCD) to play with us, and physical affection was non-existent. We were told we were being good if we were basically invisible. Now, I’m not pretending I was an angel and was never a precocious brat, but the way things were was pretty horrible. My dad was very short-tempered and mum was so panicked about ‘mess’ that I felt I was always walking on eggshells.

Going into adolesence, things got worse, for the most part because my brother, who is autistic, got ill and my mother struggled to cope, my gender dysphoria was getting far worse as I went through puberty, and I struggled at school as I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had caring responsibilities that I was scared to mention to other adults in case the dreaded social services swooped in, so I didn’t go out much. Add to that the fact that I was doing well academically and I got a pretty hard time from some of the other kids.  Thus, both home and school life were troubled and tense. Things got to the point that at fifteen I was suicidal; if I did something well I was told not to be big-headed (not that I was – I was pathologically shy!) and if I did something wrong I’d be reminded for days on end . Leaving home at 18 was a complete relief.

One of the things about being in an emotionally violent environment is that often the things that happened would have been in isolation pretty trivial, but the point is that it was like a dripping tap, a constant addition of more and more till it was overflowing. I deliberately haven’t gone into specific incidents, as much as anything because it can be hard to convey to others what it was like and be taken seriously, but I can certainly understand what Danu was getting at with the story about the handbag. Like many others who’ve come from such environments, I made bad choices when it came to relationships, and my ex was emotionally, physically and sexually violent. Getting out of that relationship was one of the hardest and best things I’ve done. A few months after that, I had a breakdown, and from there have gradually been able to rebuild my life. God has done some pretty amazing healing.

Thanks to some amazing friends, a fantastic and incredibly patient minister, some great counselling and the love of my partner, I’ve been able to start on a journey of forgiveness, and have learnt that people who say ‘I love you’ do not all turn into abusers. It’s been tough, and though the scars have healed significantly, they still twinge sometimes. I wouldn’t wish the breakdown and depression on anyone, but they are (thank God) largely in the past now. It’s taken five years, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely.

Deciding to forgive (and it was a conscious decision) wasn’t easy. For a long time, I held onto the anger I felt, partly because I got it into my head that if I didn’t stay angry then it meant that what happened didn’t matter, and partly because I was convinced no-one liked the ‘real me’, but they might feel sorry for me. That’s not easy to admit, but for a long time it’s how things were. Letting go involved taking the risk, on myself – am I lovable for my own sake? I guess that I’ve gradually learnt that the answer is ‘yes’, and as much as anything else, getting to the point of being able to begin gender reassignment is a result of this journey of self-acceptance.

A key part of that journey has been learning to see my parents and my ex as human beings, if that makes sense. It’s easy to blame one’s parents and to forget that they had a huge amount of shit to deal with and had been through a lot of pain themselves. Reading the article helped to make a lot of sense about why my ex was like he was; his mother sounds like a classic narcissist, and I suppose growing up with leaves its scars as much as my experiences of a less bad situation did to me. She certainly scared the crap out of me while being deeply concerned that the rest of the world thought she was wonderful. I suppose it’s no wonder he was so messed up.

None of the above is to excuse what happened, but learning to see those people as human beings and not simply monsters, as well as accepting that I made mistakes and was a prat sometimes, has really helped me to let go of the anger. I reckon (though have no proof) that I’m not the only one to have had therapy, as while when I went back up north a few months ago some things were as crazy and dysfunctional as ever, so much has changed for the better.  I now have a reasonable relationship with my parents, though having clear boundaries is essential. I can see why someone might make the choice to cut off their parents; I thank God that I haven’t needed to do that, and have been able to focus more on the good stuff that happened in my childhood alongside the bad. Having said that, I want nothing to do with my ex ever again.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that one has to make  a judgment about how to maintain sanity and safety. I can have a relationship with my parents and with God’s help, try to focus on making the ‘now’ good rather than letting the past take over.  The barriers would be just too high with my ex, and I fear I’d be putting myself in danger. It’s not a case of blood being thicker than water, so much as reconciliation of a sort not always being possible…

Coming Out

There’s an article kicking around on the Guardian website at the moment about a book written by a palliative care nurse that lists the most common regrets people express on their death-bed. Apparently the regret people most frequently expressed to her when she counselled them in their last days was that they’d wished they’d had the courage to be true to themselves, rather than living according to the expectations of others. This is something I imagine most people have felt at some point in time – a regret that they’d tried so hard to be what they thought others expected or wanted, maybe struggling to be ‘normal’. Sometimes, however, we reach a crisis point, and putting on a façade or continuing to try to fit into others’ ‘boxes’ no longer works.

Over the past four years or so, since I had a bit of a breakdown, I’ve been doing a huge amount of coming to terms with who I really am, instead of what I thought I ought to be. This process has at times been incredibly painful, but also immensely positive. I feel I’ve gone from being unable to process or talk about difficult things in my past for fear of rejection and the consequences of opening the Pandora’s box, to being a fairly confident (which if you’d met me then is huge progress!) and basically happy person. This journey has brought me to a place where I need to acknowledge something fundamental about my identity that will mean making huge changes to my life, some of which bring sadness and uncertainty because of how they might impact people close to me, but which I hope will ultimately mean I am freer to be myself than is currently possible….

I’m transgender.

Transgender (often shortened to trans) is an umbrella term for various things, but in my case what it means is that I have always experienced a profound mismatch between my brain and my body, in that emotionally and psychologically I am very definitely male, even though my body is female. I’ve been aware of this for a long time, though it’s only recently I’ve acquired the vocabulary to be able to express my feelings, and the confidence to admit to myself, and so to others, what has been going on beneath the surface.

My earliest memory of realising I was ‘different’ dates back to when I was four and had started reception class. It was the first time I’d realised how differently boys and girls are treated. Suddenly I had to wear a skirt and was expected to be interested in ‘girl’s stuff’ and to want to spend time with the other girls, all of which felt completely wrong. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being treated like one of the boys, which is what I felt I was, and while I don’t remember much from that time, I do clearly remember the disorientation and confusion I felt about what was happening.

That feeling didn’t go away as I got older, despite being allowed (though not without a few battles with my mother) to be a complete tomboy until I hit secondary school, when the gender distinctions if anything got even sharper, and being as boyish as I was resulted in bullying. I did have pretty short hair, and was ‘read’ as male on occasion, so it was very hard dealing with being called a boy in a skirt, as much as anything else because that’s how I actually felt and was scared others would find out.  I suppose it’s the stage of life when children start to become sexually aware, and in a hetero-normative setting, that means clear boundaries between the sexes. Anyway, as time went on, having to put on a show for the world and ‘act girly’ felt increasingly oppressive, compounded by hitting puberty and my body beginning to develop in ways that were quite contrary to what I wanted to be happening. The result of all this was deep unhappiness and discomfort, which I dealt with by attempting to ignore my feelings as much as possible and trying to fit in with what I thought I ought to be. Bear in mind that Section 28 was still law then, and I had no outlet to be able to discuss being attracted to women, let alone desperately wanting to be a man on the outside, as well as the inside.

As I said earlier, over the past few years, I’ve learnt to be honest with myself about who I really am, and a big part of that journey has been embracing my gender identity. Just being able to acknowledge the body-brain mismatch has already been a liberating and healing experience, but in order to be really happy in my own skin, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to embark on a process of gender reassignment; that is, I wish to ‘transition’ from being outwardly female to being outwardly male, so that body matches brain. This is not a decision I’ve come to lightly, and not without thinking long and hard about its implications and talking it through with my partner and closest friends. If there was an alternative, like therapy, that would allow me to be happy and whole, I’d jump at it, but there isn’t.

This means I’m going to undertake the NHS process to change my body; it’s a prolonged process that will last a number of years and eventually (it can be over eighteen months from seeing a GP to getting an initial appointment at a Gender Clinic) result in it being impossible to tell if you stopped me in the street for a chat that I wasn’t born with a male body. The NHS should pay for the testosterone shots I’ll need to take for life (and which, to pre-empt some comments, cost less to buy than the prescription charge, so the NHS makes a profit!) but I know I’m almost certainly going to need to pay for the surgery to remove my breasts, which could cost over £5000. Thus, it’ll be a while before there are any physical changes.

In the short term, however, I have to begin what’s called the ‘real-life experience’; that is, I have to begin living, as far as is possible, as a man. As such, my name has changed informally and soon will officially (by Deed Poll) and I’d appreciate it if people could refer to me using male pronouns (he, his, him, etc.). I know this will take time to get used to and there will be mistakes at first; I’m not going to jump down people’s throats if they accidentally slip up. However, if folks could try their best, then I’d be grateful. Doing this is a condition of further treatment, so it’s a hurdle I have to clear and not an optional thing.

Well, there you go! No doubt reading this sparks various questions, and given most people so far have asked me the same sorts of things, here’s a brief FAQ about transgender issues, followed by some useful links:

  • The best analogy I can think of for what it feels like to be trans goes something like this: imagine for the sake of argument that there’s a language called ‘male’ and another called ‘female’, within which there are different dialects and accents, but which are pretty distinct, at least to someone who struggles with languages. I’ve had to pick up the odd phrase of ‘female’ in order to be able to survive, but try as I might, I’ll never be fluent, or able to manage more than a few sentences even, whereas ‘male’ is my natural language and I can chat away in it quite happily given the chance. Anyone who’s ever found themselves in a foreign country not knowing much of the language may have experienced some of the inability to express themselves and resulting vulnerability that brings; it’s like that for me all the time. However, being stuck with a female body means I’ve never had much chance to practice my ‘male’ and so have a lot to learn about the grammar and syntax of the language, how it works, and much vocabulary to absorb. Transition is that learning process.
  • Being trans is most definitely not a choice. Various scientific studies have shown that hormone levels present during foetal development, and the foetus’ sensitivity to said hormones, can create a situation where the brain develops in one direction and the body in another, resulting in the mismatch trans folks experience on a daily basis. Moreover, as I’ve already explained, the process of correcting this is costly, painful and scary, for others as well as for me, and that’s without the stigma attached to not fitting in with social conventions surrounding gender. Yes, transition is a choice, but it’s a choice between a lifetime of being miserable or being whole. It’s as stark as that.
  • The process will not fundamentally change who I am. I will still be the same person, with the same personality, same abilities and faults, same likes and dislikes, same values, same faith. It’s a gender reassignment, not a full-blown personality transplant!
  • Some people have asked me why I want to bother, as I hardly strike them as the lager-swilling, football-mad skinhead type. Others have suggested that transition and the desire to ‘pass’ (to be perceived as male) only serve to reinforce an unhelpful gender binary. It’s true that people who do not feel they fit into either ‘box’, gender-queer people, suffer discrimination and sometimes struggle to deal with social constructs around gender. For what it’s worth, I think gender is a spectrum and can be fluid, something I occasionally experience too. However, I don’t see that the process I’m going to undertake makes this worse, as I’m not trying to conform to a particular stereotype; the point is that I’m figuring out what it means for me, a unique individual with a particular history, to be male and perceived as such. It’s about being fully myself, not conforming to someone else’s idea of what I should be.
  • For my Christian friends: I don’t know where God is in all of this, but I do know I’m loved and known completely by the same God who became human in Jesus Christ. That’s enough for now!
  • Language like ‘tranny’ or ‘gender-bender’ is really offensive. Please don’t use this about or to me.

 

Here are the links I promised:

Leaflet (which has been made into an official NHS document) on what being transgender is all about, an explanation of its probable cause and some definitions:

http://www.gires.org.uk/assets/gdev/gender-dysphoria.pdf

Guardian blog written by a trans woman (someone changing from outwardly male to female) that has many parallels with my own story and articulates the challenges of transition really well:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/transgender-journey

Stonewall Scotland’s very helpful leaflet about supporting trans people in the workplace:

http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/changing_for_the_better.pdf

Website of the Gender Identity Research and Education Service, which works closely with the NHS:

http://www.gires.org.uk/

Website of the Gender Trust, which contains useful information around terminology:

http://gendertrust.org.uk/glossary

Young Carers and their Mums

I watched a very moving documentary last night on BBC3 (another from their ‘Adult Season‘) about young carers and the challenges they face. Tulisa Contostavlos, who is apparently part of some pop group or other (I’m showing my permature middle-aged-ness here!) was a carer for her mum who has mental health difficulties. She talks about her experiences and visits a handful of the estimated eighty-thousand young carers in the UK, seeing how they cope with the demands on them and juggling school, friends and future plans.

A lot of the themes of this programme resonated deeply with my own experience. My mum used to have pretty severe OCD to do with cleaning – it was never diagnosed, but she wouldn’t to this day think her behaviour was odd in any way. When we (my younger brother and I) were young, she used to spend six days out of seven cleaning the house, week-in and week-out. Making mess, however minor, was the worst thing one could ever do. It got to the point when I was a teenager were we were told to go to bed at 9pm because she needed to rest but couldn’t go to sleep if she thought the sofa was messy or the bathroom sink hadn’t been wiped after people had cleaned their teeth. She only ever left the house to go to the Post Office or corner shop, and I was never allowed friends around in case they made a mess.

Added to this, when I was around eleven years old (I can’t remember exactly), my brother developed a bowel problem that resulted in frequent painful rushing to the loo. The combination of a clean-freak and a messy illness that took ages to diagnose and get properly treated was a recipe for disaster. Home life was constantly tense, and as my father took refuge in work, I was left basically to be the adult, dealing with my brother and mum crying on my shoulder. It was very lonely and bloody hard work.

As well as practical support and maybe respite care for young carers, one thing shown in the programme was the benefit of having other young people facing similar issues that they could hang out with and talk to.

Both Tulisa and another lass, Hannah, talked about feeling isolated and of their own resulting mental health difficulties. I was first depressed when I was about twelve, and part of the reason I’m sure was feeling that I had no-one I could talk to. My parents didn’t seem to realise the odd-ness of mum’s behaviour, and the family dynamics were such that I felt treated as somehow inferior to my brother.  Teachers would have to have gone to Social Services, and I didn’t want to cause trouble. The lack of being able to go out or feeling able to explain this to my friends led to more bullying. I would have been so grateful for someone I could trust just to listen, rather than having to bottle it up.

I love my mum more than I could express, but I doubt she (or my father for that matter) would be able, looking back, to see the situation as I saw it. It has taken quite a bit of counselling to deal with it all. Knowing that she’ll always be the way she is to some extent has helped me let go of unrealistic expectations of her that were making it hard for me to forgive. These days, we have a decent relationship, even if she never listens!

The positive relationships the young people had with their mums were very encouraging, and remarkable given the burdens they had to shoulder. It shows how, as my own mum said recently in a different context, love can conquer all.

Durham Mystery Plays, Fascism and general life stuff

The other day, TractorGirl and I went to see the Durham Mystery Plays, a series of modern attempts to carry on the tradition from the 15th Century of using drama to re-inact stories from the Bible. The most famous series of these is probably the York Mystery Plays, though they have also been revived in Chester. Most of the cast were sixth-formers who did a really great job.

The first play, ‘The Fall of Lucifer’ was at the Gala theatre and based on Britain’s Got Talent; the second was at the Cathedral, ‘The Fall of Creation’ and was an operatic piece with lots of schoolchildren running about, and the remainder, four based on the Old Testament and four on the New, were down at the Sands, a sort of park about five minute’s stroll from said Cathedral.

I think the best and most thought-provoking was ‘God’s Day Off’, imagining what God found when he couldn’t resist taking a look at the Creation on the seventh day. It shows God not being too impressed with the consequences of giving human beings free will and perhaps regretting his decision. It got me thinking about the vulnerability of God and the risk of creation. Probably the most fun play was ‘Noah and the Fludd’, where they made a ‘nark’ to save them and God was a feisty North East women. I don’t think the play in the Cathedral really worked; it wasn’t possible to hear what was  being said most of the time and it all felt a bit silly. I do wonder what the young people re-telling the Abraham and Isaac story made of it…

The day after that, we went on an anti-fascist demonstration with United Against Fascism. I’ll upload photos when I get around to it. The English Defence League came to protest in Newcastle and even on match days I’ve never seen as many police. According to UAF, we outnumbered them; the Police seemed to suggest the numbers were about even. Either way, I think it was really important to stand up against fascism in whatever forms it takes these days. The scary thing though was listening to a bunch of young lads on the train home talking about it all as if it was all great fun. Quite how young some of the lads being groomed are is frightening, as is the level of violence that was casually talked about. One wonders if they really have idea of what they’re getting mixed up in and the consequence for those affected by them.

On a lighter note, my search for a job continues. I have a phone interview to arrange at some point and also an assessment for what they (the uni disability people) think is dyspraxia, which will make my life a lot easier when it comes to psychometric testing. On top of that, I am trying to refresh my memory of my PhD thesis ready for Tuesday’s viva. Apart from a wobble yesterday, I think all of that is going well. But, now for once the sun is out, so I’m going to enjoy working outdoors for a while. TTFN 🙂

Christianity and Mental Health

A friend of mine recently sent me an article to read about ‘Salvation, Human Flourishing and Mental Health’ which I found very thought-provoking.

It says there are three basic Christian responses to mental illness:

  • Mental illness is irrelevant to salvation, which leaves room for sensitive pastoral responses but risks making salvation something other-worldly, irrelevant to the here and now.
  • Mental illness is antithetical to salvation, which ensures suffering is not idealised but can lead to the identification of mental illness with spiritual weakness.
  • Mental illness as instrumental to salvation, which may help suffers make more sense of their experiences but risks idealising suffering.

The paper argues for a nuanced version of the third approach, with mental illness having the potential to be redemptive or transforming. Drawing on the experience of Henri Nouwen, mental illness needs to be experienced for what it is, what it has to teach, what its purpose is. Both Nouwen and Carl Jung maintain that “the experiences involved in mental illness are not a good in of themselves, but (once we realise that they should be used rather than simply escaped from) they can be ‘transformed’ into redemptive experiences”.

In response to the criticism that focusing on an individual response undermines the primacy of God’s grace, it is argued that there is a false dichotomy between grace and works, objective and subjective. Peter Goldie argues that emotions need to be understood within the overall narrative of a person’s life rather than being treated in isolation, and the paper posits that this approach could apply to mental illness. Instead, therefore, of seeking to ‘cut out’ the broken bits of ourselves, that would involve losing good aspects too, we should seek the transformation, rather than escape from, negative experiences.

There’s a lot I found helpful in this approach. The aim of therapy is, I think, to achieve some sort of more integrated self (though the language of achievement may not be helpful, now I think about it), and this involves acknowledging the painful experiences and the validity of anger, pain, sorrow, hurt, guilt. It then, having named the beast, can seek to undermine its continuing hold on the person.

Easier said than done (as I am all too aware with my current attempts to work through some deeply painful aspects of my past) and a process rather than an instant event. This does mean, I think, that good can be seen to come from the past (I think my experiences have made me more sensitive and able to walk alongside others) but without idealising the experiences. Good can come out of shit without pretending it was anything other than shit. This takes us back to the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate transformation of the sin, suffering and bitterness (and inward-looking human nature, for that matter) of the world. I must confess, Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross as a Trinitarian event makes more sense to me in this context than a ‘traditional’ view, but I need to think about that more.

Tied in with this is how we understand what might constitute appropriate self-love. When I was really down a couple of years ago after the end of a violent relationship and was beginning to come to terms with the reality of that, I came across this post from a university chaplain. Don’t know what to make of all that now, but it seems to me that grace and ‘works’ here don’t have to be pictured as opposites, and that not being completely ‘sorted’ might not be the end of the world (tell it to the ordination process folks!).