Being mentally ill requires a lot of patience. You have to be patient with your own mind, in the hope that it will eventually get better, and you have to be patient with those trying to treat you. Patience is one of the seven heavenly virtues and important to the Christian faith.
When we are ill, we are forced to be patient with ourselves. Suddenly we cannot do things we once could, we cannot think clearly, feel content, socialise, work; these things are hard for us. I may be eaten up inside with anxiety, may be torn apart by depression and be absolutely desperate for my pain to end but I must be patient, even though I do not like it, because there is very little I can do to reduce the time spent ill. I can take medication, I can go to therapy (if the NHS allows), I can follow regimes of exercise, diet and meditation, other things which may or may not help my illness, but there is still a great deal of patience required. No one can tell me that if I do XYZ I will be well again within…a week? a month? a year? There is no timescale with mental illness. I follow what I am told, do the things and take the tablets I am asked to – but essentially I am trusting on faith that these are reducing the time I spend unwell, I have no means of judging.
So, we are patient. I do not think that “patience” involves a passive, accepting sort of waiting all the time, because I certainly am not happy to be patient when I am ill, but I am forced into enduring and persevering through it. I would say that all of us, bar possibly those who suicide, are patient with our illnesses – even if that waiting makes us intensely frustrated. We can learn to be more accepting, perhaps even our experience of mental illness makes us learn to be more patient in other areas, but we are essentially already patient, simply because we have no choice in the matter. The Bible speaks of being patient in troubled times, for example in Romans 12:12 Paul tells us to:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Please notice that Paul does not say we have to be joyful in our afflictions – just patient. That image of the happy, smiling-even-in-pain patient is irritating, frankly. I have not experienced physical illness/disability, perhaps that is different (which I doubt) but certainly when I am depressed I do not have any desire or capacity to be content and joyful while I am suffering. I have seem some Christians become disconcerted when an ill person declares that they are frustrated, hurting, angry – at the world, at the doctors, at God – because they are ill. I think this is a mistake – and I do not think patience precludes feeling angry.
A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.
That quote is from Henri J.M. Nouwen. We are certainly waiting, waiting for ease, for release from our illnesses, for wellness and health to return. Are we willing? Well, we are forced to endure waiting, but few of us are willing to stay ill until something comes out of the situation. To me this suggests a person who is willing to stay depressed until they get something good out of it. This really isn’t my view – I do think I have gained some good things from my illness, but I would not be willing to return there again – even for some good things to come. Though, I am willing to stay ill until I am well – I have no choice in that – so I am indeed willing to wait until I recover.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that we need not think of ourselves as impatient with illness – because the illness forces us to wait patiently until the drugs/whatever start to work. Certainly depression makes me feel more patient – I am simply too depressed to be impatient with the slowness of treatment, unless I am experiencing agitated depression then I simply cannot rouse myself enough to feel impatient.
I think the virtue that Paul talks about is when we do not flee the situation. Now the only way I know to flee depression is suicide, so I would say that we are patient in that we do not give in (or subtly sabotage) to thoughts of suicide. We may self harm, we may do other destructive things, but we do not flee the situation in that permanent way, but endure until it finishes.
The Bible describes patience and endurance as something all Christians do – we are waiting patiently until the Lord comes again. Again, we have no choice in the matter – he will not come back at a time of our choosing, we have to wait for him to come. We are waiting for the new heaven and the new earth, and for the death of suffering. We do not have to like that waiting.
The second type of patience is of course, our patience with other people. I have known endless times of waiting, waiting for psychiatrists, waiting for nurses, waiting to be listened to, waiting to be helped. Everything seems to move so slowly in the psychiatric world that it can be very frustrating. For instance, I have been asking for the last six months to have a discussion with my psychiatrist about a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder which, I believe, was added to my files by mistake. She has now said in another six months we can discuss it. As you can imagine this is a bit frustrating! But I must be patient – again, I have no choice – and wait for her to get round to discussing it.
Sometimes we even have to be patient when we are really not well and are seeking help. I have had appointments where I am saying “I feel terrible, I am suicidal, HELP!” and very little has been done. Perhaps a small medication change. I am forced to be patient and hope that the little change will do something, and then be patient again when it does not. I have to be patient when starting a new medication, as they invariably seem to take weeks before anything happens.
I need to be patient with those who misunderstand mental illness or buy into stereotypes of it. I can be impatient with these, of course, and simply not talk to them, but if they are, for instance, my boss, or my mother, or something like that then I really have to be patient with them and try to change their minds.
The Bible talks about patience with others, not agreeing with them but waiting for them, trying to communicate, not exploding with anger at them because we become impatient. I must say I sometimes struggle with this (at least internally) and certainly when I am not well I am more likely to snap at people when I am impatient, and to my sorrow this is most likely to happen with people I am very close to. It is something I continue to work on, simply because I would like people to be patient with me, especially when I am ill, especially when I am being unreasonable. I am lucky enough that people have indeed been patient with me – I hope to offer the same service!
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
(1 Thessalonians 5:14)
So I would say that we, the mentally ill (and quite probably the physically ill too) are patient people. Indeed that is why we are called “patients” – we suffer, and we have to deal with that suffering, becoming patient “waiters” by force. We have to be patient with our own illnesses, and with other people. I do not think being patient means we are always passively accepting of our illnesses, but at its heart we do accept that we must suffer until we are well again, whether that knowledge comes from an idea of what we should feel, or whether we know that simply from experience. Let us be patient, and try to cope with waiting.
May the Lord lead your hearts into a full understanding and expression of the love of God and the patient endurance that comes from Christ.
(2 Thessalonians 3:5 NLT)