Back in the early ’90’s, I was a big fan of the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances where a social climber called Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) seeks out any opportunity to ingratiate herself with those she perceives as higher class than herself. She uses material goods (china, for example) to make herself seem to be of a higher class than she actually is. She behaves in the ways she thinks posh people do, and tries to be “one of them.” It is a very funny comedy show, but it also makes me think of the ways in which we all both keep up appearances and judge others based on their appearance.
I know that I try to be the “perfect” Christian, and I act in different ways around church people than I do with, say, people in the pub. It goes beyond making sure my language is appropriate, and I am both quieter and less likely to voice an opinion on anything, for fear of offending someone. It is a mask that I hold to my face, because I am frightened of being rejected by my church family, frightened of annoying someone, of making them think I am stupid, that I am not a “true” Christian. I suspect quite a few people have a “church face” that comes out on Sundays, and that lots of us pretend to be a perfect person when we are in church. I certainly perceive Christians to be much better people than I, because whenever I meet other Christians in real life they seem to have everything together, they seem confident and secure in their faith, they know where they are going and they know what God wants from them. I do not feel those things – although I also do not think that other Christians are as perfect as I perceive them.
Part of my “church face” is to hide, as best I can, any evidence of my mental illness. I wear long sleeves so that my scars are less obvious, I do not mention it if I am feeling down and I avoid church if I am feeling high. I am frightened of being rejected for my bipolar disorder, frightened of being seen as “mad”, “dangerous” or “faking it.” For that reason, I do not mention that I am on ESA, the sickness benefit. Not to church, nor to anyone else that I know in the town that I live. I am acutely aware of the prejudice and stigma we face as mentally ill people and while I could probably live with being misjudged by people in the local pub, I would find it very hard to be misunderstood by people in my church.
I would like to be more honest. Being honest is important to me, and certainly if someone asked a direct question about anything about me – whether it is opinions I hold on certain Christian issues which others might disagree with, or my mental health, or anything like that, then I will answer completely honestly. But I do not want to be passively honest, but to be open all the time, to risk being rejected, to be vulnerable, to be truly me. I think of Christ, and how he became very vulnerable for us, taking on human flesh, and risking and receiving the hatred of those he came to save. His vulnerability took him to the cross – to be vulnerable is not a small thing, not a safe thing, but in the end I meet Christ in my vulnerability and I know that he has been there too. I suppose it is the same idea as the wounded healer – those who have hurt are best for those who are hurting. In a way that is what I seek to be – someone who can, by laying my soul bare, by being utterly myself without any pretence, someone who can help others, who can reach out to others.
We are told by Jesus not to judge by appearances, yet we do, all of us. I think of my brothers and sisters in the church and in other churches that I know as being all perfect and wonderful, all light without any shadows. I know this cannot be true, that we all struggle with something, that we all make mistakes. Yet I continually tell myself that they must be better than me because of how they act in public, in church, in the same place that I too wear an acceptable face. Silly, really. Others probably judge me too by my appearance, and there may be those who think of me as more Christian than they – when I know that is far from the truth. Honesty. I think sometimes that we need to be more honest with one another – stop being acquaintances making small talk and instead be ourselves, be more like friends, where we know one another’s faults and mistakes, but love one another anyway. To do so is to be true to the one called The Truth, and helps those who do not believe to reconcile the teachings that we preach with the sadly faulty nature of humans, even Christian humans.
It is hard, though, to be honest. I risk rejection and so do you if we “come out” as mentally ill, if we show our brokenness and the sort of things that mental illness can cause us to do. It is, I think, right – but I cannot tell another to do what I so far have lacked the courage to do myself. I just have a feeling that if I can be totally myself, that I will be closer to my friends in church, that I will feel good, because I am not wearing any face for church or anywhere else any more. But it is hard. I’m sorry that this is a rambling post, I didn’t really mean it to come out this way, but these are a few things that are going through my head right now. I long to be as honest here in the North as I was with my friends in the South, to be understood as I was there. Even though I have faced stigma for being mentally ill even among people I knew down there I still feel I would like to be honest here. I would like to mention my bipolar, but I am frightened to. Once it is said it cannot be unsaid, and things will change once it is mentioned. It is a risk, but one day I will take that risk, because to me being at risk from others is part of being human, and part of following Christ.