Asking for help when you need it
BRENDAN McMANUS :: On going against your feelings
I had a close friend who was suffering from serious depression, but he wouldn’t accept help. Even when his psychological issues began to mount, when they became more than he could bear, he turned down all offers of professional assistance. Sadly, he ended up taking his own life.
It so often happens with people who suffer from poor mental health that their condition becomes a trap. They don’t feel well enough to get help, so they don’t get help. The real tragedy is of course that nowadays all these mental health issues are treatable and manageable, but what often gets in the way is the sufferer’s resistance, their reluctance to admit ‘weakness’ or vulnerability, and their increasingly futile efforts to keep control, to maintain the facade, while everything plunges downhill.
It is a particularly difficult issue to solve – not being in great shape but not feeling able to take positive steps. The ‘bug’ in the background is often powerful negative feelings, or not having the energy or motivation to fix things. Naturally we tend to isolate ourselves, to keep it all inside and not be seen as ‘weak’ or vulnerable. It’s a vicious cycle, though: the hardest time to ask for help is when we are in difficulty and need help the most. And that is a great pity, as asking for help and getting professional assistance greatly assists healing and reduces the time one spends in suffering. It can be a source of great relief to know that one is in expert hands and is at last getting on top of personal issues.
And yet people who need this kind of help often declare their distrust of ‘experts’ or professionals. They highlight exceptional instances of where therapy didn’t work or people weren’t handled well. But this can often be an excuse for not making the effort and for letting oneself be led more by fear than by any rational process. The professionals are there; the vast majority of them are efficient and well qualified; and they can bring enormous relief. As I often say metaphorically, “people drown in a pool full of lifeguards”. They fail to make any attempt to reach out when the help is right there.
The problem with inaction and avoidance in these cases is that it masquerades as a positive value whereas it is a real obstacle to progress and to dealing with the issue. I don’t at all mean to deny that reaching out and asking for help poses a considerable challenge to people in this condition, and it may call for real courage. It can be extraordinarily difficult to sit in a health professional’s waiting room and prepare oneself to bare one’s soul and admit the need for help. It requires one to trust in people, in processes, and in the prospect of a different future.
Ignatius Loyola has a useful rule of thumb for this understandable human resistance to change and to admitting vulnerability. Simply put, it is to clearly identify the negativity and resistance as factors that are preventing progress – a huge step in itself – and then to deliberately act against the tendency to keep things to oneself, to isolate and to keep up a pretence. Rather, Ignatius boldly suggests that a person should do the exact opposite: they should throw themselves into pursuing solutions, into approaching qualified professionals (no room for quacks here), and they should not be put off by minor problems or inevitable obstacles (e.g. a therapist doesn’t work out and one has to get another).
For some people, especially those in severe difficulties, this can seem almost impossible. This is where real prayer comes in: God wants to heal us and will give us the strength, but often we have to let go of a lot of control and pour everything we have into prayer that leads to action. This is often called ‘handing it over’ or ‘abandoning oneself’, and it links directly to Jesus’ experience on the cross. The bitter words wrung from the depths of his soul, “Why have you forsaken me”, resonate with all of us. But real prayer of this kind – an expression of human struggle and pain – is a starting place, not an end. Jesus’s story, as we well know, swings around to the resurrection shortly after his darkest moment.
There is also the personal payoff in reaching out, in nailing one’s demons and breaking old unhelpful habits and ways of thinking. There is the rare satisfaction of taking one faltering step down the road towards healing and living in trust instead of fear – no small thing! St Ignatius has a name for this: spiritual consolation, or being oriented to the light. It is not at all about having good feelings; it is a deep-seated sense of rightness and a growing inner peace. People may, however, feel that this isn’t enough. We have been conditioned by media and advertising to expect instantaneous healing, blissful feelings and cost-free transformation. But that’s not realistic. Most of us have to walk the way of the Cross. There can be intense pain along the way, but eventually it leads to the light.
One other feature I noticed in my suffering friend was that his personal crisis seemed to be linked to a somewhat warped sense of God as punishing or remote. This too needs to be addressed. We need to purify our images of God. We need to shed the habit of projecting our negative life experiences onto God. For this there must be a great deal of letting go and re-experiencing the God of life and compassion. The parable of the Prodigal Son or Daughter seems impossible or unrealistic. How could the parent welcome back their errant offspring with open arms and bring them back into the heart of the home as if nothing had happened? It’s so hard to believe in unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness when one has no experience of these. Yet the parable provides one of the truest images of a merciful Father. It is the child who has to make the journey home into a wonderful embrace.