One question I've answered twice in the past week is, "Should I be ashamed of this?"
The first time I heard that question was at a Christian recovery group that I've been attending for about six months. It's a group for everyone and everything, designed to help people overcome any "hurt, habit, or hang-up." Alcoholics welcome. Drug addicts welcome. Overeaters welcome. Depressed and in need of support? Welcome. Trying to move beyond a painful past? Welcome. You get the idea.
I'm pretty good at walking up to the new people and introducing myself and getting to know them a bit. I had the new woman's full history in about 10 minutes and listened to her describe the current struggle she's going through. After a moment of silence, she turned to me and said, "I have to ask this, and I don't want to offend anybody, but we're supposed to be honest, right?" I confirmed her with a nod. She looked around at the farm fields surrounding the church and said, "Should I be ashamed to be here?"
How could I be offended by a question I've asked myself? There we were, in front of a church where people were mulling around getting ready for the next day's church picnic, and we were about to walk through a door next to a giant banner bearing the recovery group's name and logo. You can only be so anonymous in a situation like that.
I heard the question for the second time last night, after a friend stopped by to let my husband and I know she had just received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, an illness I myself suffer from. Her parents had all but shunned her, her sons refused to discuss the matter, and her counselor had instructed her not to tell people at work. The message was clear: "BE AFRAID. BE VERY, VERY AFRAID."
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003, after many years of crippling depression and mania that left me sleepless for weeks on end. When I received my diagnosis, I was thrilled because it meant I wasn't just a lazy person or a bad Christian. There was a name for my problem, and I was happy to know there was treatment for it.
That, of course, didn't change the fact that I had to explain it to my family and deal with the often not-so-sympathetic reactions of other churchgoers. My mother wanted me to "pull myself up by the bootstraps" and many of the Christians I talked to implied that I wasn't sick at all - I just needed to read the Bible more and pray harder.
So, yeah, I understand shame. But that was a long time ago.
I'm not ashamed of having inherited high blood pressure. I'm not ashamed of being diabetic. I'm not ashamed of having fair skin that burns and blisters when I'm in the sun too long. And I'm no longer ashamed of a brain that has chemical problems. I don't understand every detail of mental illness, but I understand enough to know that I have a true medical condition.
Not everyone gets that, nor does everyone want to. Everyone has free will and they can believe or disbelieve anything they want to. Ignorance is a choice, and they're entitled to it.
I also know that there is no condemnation in Christ for believers. God gets it, and that's who truly matters. Mental illness and emotional problems used to make me feel distant from God before I came to terms with them and educated myself. Looking back, I see how God has used my darkest times to help me grow, and to help others.
Don't be ashamed. God has you where you are for a reason. If others look down on you or just don't understand your pain, try to educate them, but don't run yourself ragged. Some people will never open their hearts and minds, but smile...because yours are open wide, and God can do a million things with pliable people who have a willing spirit.