Mental Health and Ministry: Confessions of a Decently and Disordered Pastor

I have been afraid to post this particular blog entry for years, but recent events both nationally (like Robin Williams suicide) and in my own ministry have compelled me to step up and speak and hope my transparency might be helpful for someone else who is struggling.

Here is a story I’ve never told anyone:

Four years ago, I stood with my then-boyfriend outside of Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. I had recently joined a small Thursday night bible study there and had even attended worship on a few Sunday mornings. Eventually, this would become the congregation that saw me through seminary and my ordination process. They would become a special part of my Christian family. But on this Sunday morning, standing outside the fellowship hall, I was still new. I had been invited to attend a Rally Day brunch before the worship service and my boyfriend, who had surprised me with a visit after having moved away, agreed to come along.

Twenty yards from the front door, my world turned upside down. I barely felt it coming before suddenly I was having a full-fledged panic attack. The edges of my vision grew dim, my breath came in short, tight bursts, I felt certain my heart would stop at any moment and I would die, and—most humiliating for me—I was sobbing uncontrollably. My boyfriend instinctively wrapped me tightly in his arms and slowly but surely the panic passed. I don’t remember what happened next. The stark memory of that panic eclipses everything else, but I suspect that we went home.

I actually had a lot of anxiety around joining a new church when I moved to Austin, TX. That’s why it took me over two years to attend anywhere regularly. But this one episode stands apart in memory. In that moment, mere feet away from a building and community that now feel like home, I felt some of the worst anxiety I have ever known. Church, which for my entire life to that point had been my anchor and sure foundation, suddenly felt—without the slightest exaggeration—deadly. I have carried the trauma of that memory with me ever since.

I have Social Anxiety Disorder, which means that—despite being naturally extroverted—many social situations cause me extreme and occasionally even debilitating anxiety. This is not your typical, elementary-level shyness. This is irrational, sometimes uncontrollable panicked responses to something as simple as making as asking a salesperson for help or making a phone call—even to someone I’m close to. It is also having a nearly constant (though sometimes worse than others) destructive, delusional internal narrative: a voice undercutting me and distorting the way I perceive myself and my relationships. That I know it’s delusional only mildly softens its effects. The distortion still has exhaustingly destructive power.

I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder when I was about 16, and at its worst (during college), it kept me from venturing out of my apartment almost entirely for nearly 3 weeks. At the same time that I was told about my Social Anxiety, I was also diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and [re-diagnosed] with ADD. This unholy combo on their worst days and weeks have made hours of my day disappear with needless compulsions and devoured entire sleepless nights with obsessive thinking. I convinced my parents to let me see a therapist as a teen (with the absolutely essential advocacy of my youth pastor) for depression. My therapist told me my depressive symptoms were actually the result of untreated anxiety. Slowly but surely, I began the process of learning to manage these realities and take care of myself.

Not every night and day of my life is given over to the worst of these symptoms. Far from it. In fact, it’s been years since I’ve had a panic attack. I’m lucky. Even in my worst moments and days and months, I’ve been surrounded by multiple deeply supportive communities. I have almost always had ready access to mental health support. I’ve been able to afford medicines when I’ve opted to use them, and I’ve been able to find success both socially and professionally even when circumnavigating the barriers of my disorders. Perhaps most significantly, I’ve had multiple years of regular interaction with a dedicated, patient, and insightful therapist who knew when to push and when to hold on. These are things that should be a human right for everyone that needs them, but the continued stigma around mental health means that I have had them purely as a benefit of my privilege.

Even so—even with all this support and resource-access—the realities of my mental health and anxieties follow me around like a second shadow. In fact, it mostly feels like a persistent mesquito that eternally buzzes in my ear. I have become an expert at swatting it away with one hand while living my life with the other, but it always comes back. My anxiety always gets worse in periods of transition and higher stress, and that knowledge had me dreading the long weeks and months of getting settled in Chicago even while I’ve been beyond excited about this new opportunity.

There was a time when I was afraid that my anxiety—particularly my Social Anxiety Disorder—would keep me from being able to be a minister at all. How could I do my job when sometimes picking up the phone or going to visit a parishioner could induce sincere panic? I had—like most people, I think—an image of what it means to be a pastor and that image left no room for struggle, particularly when it comes to mental health. But last summer I worked for 10 weeks in a high intensity ministry context. And somehow (I like to think that it was by the grace of God), I managed my anxieties, did my job very well, and had an incredible experience. Even then, I don’t think I handled this aspect of my life as a pastor as well as I would have liked.

It wasn’t until this past year that it really hit home for me that being a pastor isn’t about being perfect or perfectly strong—it’s about being human. And struggling with mental health is a part of being human for many, many people—including Robin Williams and including me. Robin Williams’ death has been a reminder to me about the disparity between what we think mental health issues look like and their reality. In reality, people with anxiety or depression or mental illness or disorders look like our neighbor, our friend, our parent or child, our favorite comedian, and even our pastor.

The crappy thing about the stigma around mental health is that it creates barriers between people that further the isolation that our disorders or illnesses already foster. If there’s one thing that makes me truly believe that we live in a fallen world, it’s that on some level we all feel isolated and alone, and it hurts but we can never fully overcome it. I believe it’s the work of faith to a seek world where all of that broken isolation is overcome, and I believe it is my work as a pastor to tear down any barriers that further our separation rather than drawing us into the perichoretic, relational existence we were made for.

To that end, I am finally learning that, as a pastor and as a person, I don’t feel called to be perfect or untroubled or to pretend that I am. I don’t feel called to be strong all the time (which is impossible), but I can let others in and trust them to be strong for me and offer them the same. I think my own experiences with mental health gift me with an awareness as a pastor that anyone can be struggling and need help, love, and grace. Every tiny mesquito wave of anxiety reminds me to consider others who are struggling, even if that struggle is invisible to me or the world.

I don’t feel called never to struggle, but to struggle well, to be vulnerable and open in my living, and to love gracefully—both others and my own beautifully imperfect, disordered self.

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2 thoughts on “Mental Health and Ministry: Confessions of a Decently and Disordered Pastor

  1. Thank you. I was a “forced retirement” due to my bipolar2, anxiety disorder,ADD et.al diagnosis. Now if I could get my fellow pastors educated enough to stop being afraid they might “catch it”…..

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