Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Stories and Self-Harm -- a few reflections from Wild Goose 2016

Leigh and I went to the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC again this year. I didn't think I'd get a chance to speak like I did last year, but at the last minute my friend Sarah got a mental health panel put together. The theme of this year's Wild Goose was 'Story,' and so I've been thinking a lot lately about telling stories of mental illness and mental health struggles. Last night I went to hear Monica Coleman speak at Busboys & Poets about her new book, Bipolar Faith -- which is fantastic, and I highly recommend -- and I was reminded again of just how powerful and courageous an act it is to share these stories, which are so often silenced, stigmatized, or shamed.

So I thought I would share some of what I shared at Wild Goose this year about stories as an act of resistance in the face of mental health struggles:

Mental illness is an experience of fragmentation and alienation. It shatters our narratives and forces us into the hardest task of our lives -- to somehow reintegrate all these broken bits into some kind of whole. To try to make some sense of it, out loud or on paper or on canvas, to try somehow to forge communication and connection out of silence stigma, is the sort of counter-hegemonic, counter-intuitive act that the word 'gospel' is meant to describe.

In particular, at Wild Goose this year, I reflected on the power that stories have in the face of one of the most stigmatized and difficult to explain aspects of my experience with mental illness: self-harm.

It's a very difficult experience to explain because it's exactly a sort of breakdown of any ability to communicate an internal reality. It's not just self-punishment, nor is it suicide-attempt lite. It's an act of communication, albeit a desperate one. An effort to express the inexpressible. It's what happened when I ran out of words, when there just seemed to be no way for me to make my outsides match my insides -- my insides that already felt cut up, fragmented, jagged.

The cuts and burns said -- when I didn't trust that words could -- "This is how it is for me. This is what I feel like. No matter what mask I put on, this is the real me."

And so to find words. To find words -- to choose the pen instead of the razor -- this is a victory. An act of resistance. Good news to be shouted from the mountaintop. An announcement to be carried by the swift feet of messengers.

One evening, five years ago, wracked with pain, I picked up a marker instead of a blade. And what I meant to write on my arm was the language of shame. Of self-accusation. I meant to write: "I thought you were over this."

And instead, by some grace beyond my ability, I wrote:

"My grace is sufficient for you."

Grace. Gospel. Victory.

And that is my prayer for all of us. That we find the grace -- not always amazing. Not always transformative. Not always abundant.

Sometimes just sufficient. Sometimes just enough.

So we can live. And find words. And tell our stories.


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