I could have used a community mental health center: A Testimony

A Testimony given in worship at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Sunday, June 3, 2018

by Callie Mabry

On a warm, muggy afternoon this past July, I sat at my dining room table with a glass of ice water, my laptop, and my cell phone. My laptop had a million tabs open searches for things like “trouble sleeping,” “feeling low energy and sad,” “difficulty concentrating,” and “should I go to therapy?”

A little over a year earlier –  in the Spring of 2016 – I had started feeling low energy and had trouble sleeping. Gradually, over the next year, I began to struggle with depression and anxiety.

Thankfully, while I was not suicidal, I was plagued by constant feelings of utter worthlessness and thoughts and anxiety about death. Everything seemed so pointless and hopeless. These feelings are really hard to describe if you have never experienced them. It felt like tiredness had settled behind my eyes and sadness had settled in the bottom of my stomach and neither would go away.

I lost interest in so many activities that usually brought me joy and energy. I had very little appetite. I would cry very easily and could not make decisions. I remember bursting into tears at Target one day because I just couldn’t decide what kind of dish soap to buy.

I felt guilty about my existence and started withdrawing from many friendships because I did not feel worthy of those relationships. This then spiraled into feeling more worthless as I felt lonelier and less supported. I looked on social media and all I saw were perfectly curated versions of people’s lives – graduations, weddings, travels, and new puppies. I didn’t see anyone posting artsy Instagram photos of themselves eating only Ritz crackers for dinner and crying themselves to sleep at 7:30pm. So I withdrew from social media too, which isolated me even further from my support system.

I felt extremely ashamed, because in so many ways, my life was going incredibly well. I had a job, an education, an apartment, food, friends, and family. So many of my needs in the hierarchy of basic needs were met, which is unfortunately not the reality for far too many people here in Chicago and around the world. I just could not find gratitude or energy to appreciate the good things, which made me feel even more guilt-ridden.

For a while, I thought I was just transitioning to a more independent and quieter life stage after college and living in intentional community for two years in Lutheran Volunteer Corps. Or I thought I was feeling the heaviness and sadness of hateful political rhetoric and the results of the 2016 election, like many people around the country.

I honestly kind of didn’t realize what was happening, because there was not one big event that I could point to as a cause. Rather, it was the combination of dozens of experiences, each of which might have been manageable on their own, but cumulatively became overwhelming.

The straw that really broke the camel’s back was discovering last July that I had a bed bug infestation in my room. I was already having trouble sleeping, so constantly thinking about the creepy crawlies all night and worrying about spreading the bugs to other places added an entirely new level of stress, anxiety, and insomnia that made getting through each day a herculean task.

On top of the embarrassment that I felt about having bed bugs, I also felt a lot of shame about reaching out for help with my mental health. Society tells me that I need to act very put-together, and it’s hard for me to admit when things aren’t going well. I usually fall into the role of helper, not the one needing help.

So, I found myself taking a sick day to deal with both the bed bugs and my mental health.  

I stationed myself at the dining room table with the contact information for the behavioural health clinic that is part of the behemoth medical group of my doctor’s office. I took a sip of water, and worked up the energy and courage to dial the number.

I waited on hold for several minutes before reaching a receptionist, who told me that I had to contact my insurance first. So, I called my insurance and waited and waited on hold. I noticed that all my houseplants were looking a little wilted in the hot summer weather, so I watered them. Still on hold. I refilled my water and sat in the kitchen. Still on hold. After what seemed like forever for someone who has no energy, I got the answers I needed from the insurance company. I called the clinic back and waited on hold, again. I had requested appointment times that weren’t in the middle of the work day because I felt ashamed to tell my coworkers why I would need to leave. When I was finally done being on hold, the first appointment available was a month and a half away.

After I hung up the phone, I vividly remember feeling lost in the system.

I could have used a community mental health center.

I also felt incredibly guilty and sad, because I had a lot of privilege in this situation. I was able to take a sick day to sort things out. I have insurance that allowed me to find a therapist in this neighborhood with evening hours. My mom is a doctor and all of my immediate family members are well-aware of the importance of mental health. I’m thankful that they noticed I wasn’t doing well and patiently encouraged me to seek treatment.

If I faced barriers to reaching out, in spite of having this support system, how in the world are people who face even more barriers and even greater mental health struggles supposed to get the help they need?

I want everyone in my neighborhood to be able to easily access quality mental health care.

That’s why I am feeling extremely energized to work with St. Luke’s and other organizations in our neighborhood on an initiative to expand community mental health services to Logan Square, Avondale, and Hermosa. You can learn more about this in a quick presentation after service.

Activism is always important, no matter the expected outcome, yet I’m especially excited because this effort actually seems achievable. Two other communities in our city have already successfully campaigned for community mental health centers.

Another reason this campaign fills me with hope is because we are working on it together as a church. Over the past two years, this community has been a strong source of support, even if people didn’t know I needed it. Worship is a centering place for me. I find it incredibly beautiful that we gather regularly to confess the ways that our lives and our world are messy and broken, and then remind one another that God loves us beyond imagination even, and especially, when we are struggling, and that Jesus time and time again brings healing and wholeness for people afflicted with illness and shamed by society.

I also believe that it is here in the church that we can continue to break down some of the stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s easier for me to tell this story now that I’m in a better place, but I am still walking this journey. Therapy and medication are helping me a lot, but I continue to have trouble sleeping, which makes some days more challenging than others.

As I’ve slowly begun to share my story, I’ve realized that many people in my life have their own stories to tell about mental health struggles. I’m grateful for the vulnerability of people who have shared their experiences, which have helped me not feel as isolated and alone, and that’s why I felt called to offer a testimony this morning. I’m excited to kick-off our mental health justice campaign today, so that we can make this church and this neighborhood places where people find healing and hope.

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