Thursday, April 2, 2020

More Than a Weirdo

I’ve been thinking about my mental health a lot lately. I always think about it a good bit. At least I do since the spring of 2005 when I realized it wasn’t something to take for granted.

This latest iteration of self-reflection comes from an effort at my new church to start some sort of spiritually based mental health program. They put out a call for interested parties. I’m interested. Or I was before social distancing shut down that sort of thing. And I will be when the church building reopens after all of this is over.

Notably, mental health programming was one of the reasons I left the old church for the new one.

My community had two teens at the local high school that died by suicide in a period of nine months. And the little church, my old church, sensed a need for some response. I’m always thinking I’m being called to something. People are still called to things these days, aren’t they? It could have been that I was called to help a mental health ministry start in the wake of these tragedies.

So I talked to the little church, my old church, and explained my own mental health struggles which were known but never really discussed. We’re all white people. We don’t usually talk about uncomfortable things. But we did talk then and when all had been shared, psych ward experience and all, that little church, my old church, said, “wow, you don’t even seem like a weirdo. No offense, but you know what I mean.”

I laughed. Ha, ha. 

“Thank you for the compliment of saying I’m not a weirdo in spite of my major flaw of having succumbed to psychosis in the past,” I said. 

Not really, but I did laugh. And I didn’t say, how dare you or that’s really offensive. I just did what we do and took the discomfort so the little church, my old church, could feel comfortable.

Woman in a silly hat with eyes crossed looking at a snow covered branch.
Is this someone you'd call weird?

It didn’t end there because soon the little church announced its mental health program. It was not Mental Health First Aid Training or a study on the impact of biblical language on mental illness stigma. Those things “attract a certain sort of person,” I was told. 

No, the little church chose a palatable program. You Are Not Alone or You Matter or Insert Meaningless Platitude it was called. The little church stood up and announced that this was a program for everyone. “This is not for weirdos,” they said. Everyone gets a little sad sometimes, they said. We’re not going to do anything to welcome those weirdos to our little church, they said.

Perhaps I was being called. But not to mental health programming at that little church.
Large church tower photographed from ground level with clear blue sky background.
I'm not exaggerating when I call it "the big church."

I didn’t leave then, not physically. But I was already reading the sermons from the big church, my new church. And this weirdo had a sneaking suspicion she’d be more welcome there.

When all my little church commitments were fulfilled, I switched to the big church. My husband and I had an exit interview of sorts with the little church pastor. We’d had a run of major disappointments with the little church faith community, so I didn’t get into all of the weirdo business. I left knowing I’d ultimately done them a favor. I’d kept most of my weirdness to myself.

And that’s what you have to do to succeed in my community. You keep your differences hidden. You’re permitted occasional sadness, battles with socially acceptable diseases, maybe even divorce. But non-binary gender identity, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, LGBTQIA+, disability requiring accommodation, mental illness that can’t be categorized as anxiety or depression, belief in climate change... these are things you’d better keep to yourself. Don’t be a social justice warrior. That’s not a term of endearment around here.

This is the world I decided to write about in my new book, More Than a Bad Teacher: my majority white, homogenous exurban home. It’s a place that’s working hard to squeeze out weirdos, but it just might be creating more of us.

In the coming weeks, I plan to write more of my personal stories that informed the fictional narrative in Bad Teacher. I hope that someone reading might recognize their hometown and realize that accepting difference could make it so much better. And then we can work together to get there.