Keep Awake, Insomniac!
Biblia Luna #15
Welcome to Issue #15 of Biblia Luna! In this weekly newsletter, I share a few things each week related to mental illness and faith.
Crazy Lectionary: Advent I
Happy New Year! The new church year begins on Sunday, November 27, the First Sunday of Advent. This four-week season is a preparation for the coming of Christ, which we will celebrate at Christmas.
The gospel assigned for the First Sunday of Advent is Matthew 24:36-44. In it, Jesus is talking about the coming of the Son of Man, on which day,
two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. 42 Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:40-44, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition)
I believe Jesus is trying to encourage his hearers to “keep awake” in order to be ready for his coming whenever that might be, so they might be able to recognize it when it comes. But there’s an edge here, an edge that reminds me of clinical anxiety, a constant sense of worry and stress. We all live with some level of anxiety every day – it’s what keeps us ready to respond to whatever comes our way. It’s normal to be stressed out when something stressful happens. But clinical anxiety is different. Similar to how depression is not just ordinary sadness, clinical anxiety is not just ordinary stress.
In the DSM-V, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is marked by “the presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive,” and which is difficult to control. Common symptoms include “Edginess or restlessness; tiring easily; more fatigued than usual; Impaired concentration or feeling as though the mind goes blank; irritability (which may or may not be observable to others); increased muscle aches or soreness; and difficulty sleeping (due to trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, restlessness at night, or unsatisfying sleep).” Other forms of anxiety disorder can also include symptoms like panic attacks.
I have sometimes thought that many forms of mental illness are similar to normal everyday emotions and quirks, but greatly exaggerated. Anxiety might be the most obvious of these – in a way, clinical anxiety is ordinary anxiety writ way, way too large.
And to someone with anxiety, the words of Jesus in this passage might sound absolutely terrifying. In fact, the entreaty to “keep awake” might be painfully ironic to someone who lives with insomnia. (I myself used to live with insomnia, tossing and turning with anxiety for hours in bed as frequently as twice a week, until I began to take my current antidepressant medication.)
I think this is a good reminder to preachers and other Christians that scripture intended to challenge and encourage us can actually be terrifying and hurtful to some of us. So it’s really important with passages like this that we place it in context, and offer some additional scripture to temper it. In this case, it might be something like we heard a few weeks ago: “Do not be terrified. Not a hair on your head will perish.” With care and compassion, it might be possible to help an anxious person to hear this and not be ripped apart inside. Scripture is certainly meant to touch us deeply, and sometimes in a way that causes discomfort, but not in a harmful way.
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I’ve been recording interviews on various podcasts recently. They’ve been lots of fun, and I often find that I feel a little better, a little bit more fulfilled, after recording. Most of them haven’t yet been released, and I’ll certainly announce them here when they are!
One of the podcasts I’ve been interviewed on is “The Write or Die Show.” The host, Randi, is a writer from Canada who struggles with mental health, and she spends each episode interviewing a different author who is willing to talk about their own mental health issues. When I discovered this podcast, I really wanted the opportunity to be on it, and I was tickled when Randi agreed! I have also been listening to various episodes from the back catalog over the past few weeks, and I find it to be a wonderful source to listen to people who “get it.” Not all the authors write about mental health like I do, but they all understand the issue, and there is some discussion about how writing itself can be therapeutic. I highly recommend it!
Last week, I was expecting to be interviewed at our synod’s annual Bishop’s Conference. But on account of an illness, the Bishop was unable to be there, and the structure of the conference was somewhat changed. I’m hoping to have an opportunity to speak to the leaders of our synod at a future date. (And I’m praying for health for Bishop deForest!)
“I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:9, Common English Bible