For a brief period in my life, I worked as an office temp. This was early in my career, when my husband and I moved from Chicago to Denver so he could finish his graduate degrees. Moving had meant quitting my job in publishing, and I was looking for another position in this, my chosen field. I had a professional wardrobe, I knew how to use a copy machine, and thanks to a college-age summer spent doing data entry, I had some pretty awesome typing skills. So while I was searching for a permanent job in publishing, I filled in the gap with temp work.
I moved from company to company. In some place I filled in for one day; in others I was part of the team for weeks. My longest stretch was a few months spent working for a revolutionary new company that had just launched something brand-new: satellite television. I didn’t really get how it worked, but they said it was going to be big.
I can now appreciate this stint as a unique time in my life, when I picked up some interesting experience and knowledge I wouldn’t otherwise have acquired. At the time, I was grateful for the paychecks that came my way. And I was happy that my temporary status kept me out of boring staff meetings I wouldn’t have wanted to attend. But for the most part, back then I just experienced this as a really lonely time.
Regardless of what company I worked for, or how long I worked for them, I was there but not really part of things. My job was critical to the company’s smooth functioning that day–otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered to bring me in–but I was mostly overlooked. Typically, people were courteous and even friendly, but for the most part they also looked past me and focused on interactions with their permanent colleagues. I was surrounded by people, filling a professional role everyone needed me to fill, yet as a person I was not important. I could have been a robot or a trained monkey, and no one would have known the difference.
Please know that I’m not feeling sorry for myself here. Any sensible temp expects exactly what I experienced. The reality is, everyone know I might be gone tomorrow. And frankly, if anyone would have been truly interested in me, taken the time to get to know me, and invited me out to lunch, I would have been thrown off balance. Socially speaking, I wasn’t there to be part of the team. I was OK with things as they were. But even though I expected it, this experience still produced a weird feeling–I was critically involved in the success of a company but not part of it.
I suspect this may be similar to the way some people with mental illness, and their loved ones, feel within our churches. They show up regularly, they look as if they’re part of things, maybe they have been part of the congregation for years and years. They may even serve in critical roles. But if they are keeping their struggles hidden because it’s clear to them that no one wants to know what’s going on in their lives, they are never really going to feel as if they belong.
Some have actually shared their pain or their ongoing battle with a loved one’s illness. And now people keep their distance. No one asks, “How are you doing?” because they’re afraid to hear the answer. Maybe they experience the biting dismissal of trite sayings or admonitions to “just have more faith” or “pray harder.” Maybe they’ve lost a cherished role in ministry because someone assumes they’re no longer trustworthy.
Occasionally I hear someone refer to “people with mental health” when they really mean “people who have mental health-related disease or disorders.” I find this expression both annoying and ironically funny because it’s meant to draw a distinction but it actually lumps us all into the same weird casserole. We all have mental health! And we all have ways in which our mental health is not what it could be. There will always be far more commonality than difference between a person like my mother, diagnosed with schizophrenia–arguably the most severe form of mental illness–and the most mentally healthy person on earth. We are all human. We are all imperfect. We are all living at subprime levels of health by every measure, including on a spectrum of mental health. No one can honestly claim consistently perfect brain function. The difference is a matter of disruption–someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia received that diagnosis because her mental health problems disrupted her life to a severe degree. Those of us without disorders also have mental health problems; those problems just aren’t disruptive enough to qualify for diagnosis.
So can we please acknowledge that we are all in this together? When it comes to mental health, we are all on the same team.
For our churches, an “in this together” approach would mean welcoming the stories that don’t have happy endings. It would mean loving the people who aren’t so good as the rest of us when it comes to hiding their dysfunction. It would mean letting people with mental illness serve. Letting people talk about their pain without trying to fix it. Acknowledging the rest of us have pain too. That we are all tempted to hide some need or source of pain that we’d rather people not see.
“In this together” begins with humility, with self-honesty, and with recognizing that all people matter. The thing is, there are no trained monkeys, robots, or temporary workers who can replace the people God has created, infused with purpose, and placed in our lives. And while our interactions may be temporary, our lives are eternal.
© 2018 Amy Simpson.