The Trouble with Hidden Troubles
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of whatdo or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to a small group of professionals about vulnerability. I was one of 10 speakers and each one took a different angle on the subject which was fascinating and illuminating. We all experience vulnerability so differently!
One of the speakers used her time to discuss a disease she has that is not obvious and would not show itself unless she said anything about it. We all probably know someone that suffers from such an ailment but something she said really struck me. In being vulnerable with us about the effort she has to go through to keep herself healthy she said something along the lines of “I don’t like being this person that is always asking questions...always telling people about my condition.”
I was immediately humbled. How often do I interact with someone who is talking about something chronic and think “this again?” It’s almost as if deep down I assume they enjoy talking about their problem and letting people know - rather than carrying the burden of having to talk about it or else we would not know about it.
I’ve written before about how we should receive vulnerability and this experience reminded me of how deep my assumptions play into it. I’m heading into a field where maybe 90% of what people suffer from is beneath the surface, out of view, untouched. Mental illness does not always require bandages or casts. It is largely hidden and not talked about unless the person suffering from it decides to bring it up.
I think this can lead to some dangerous thinking about mental illness, especially when it is chronic. You’ve been depressed for how long? Haven’t you found a way to be happier? We can begin to expect that because it is a matter of thinking or feeling, eventually it should change by sheer force of willpower. When we can see the ailment - a broken leg - we can watch it, through x-rays and doctor’s visits, get better and better.
Watching mental illness get better is trickier. Often it takes a lot of time, and is a process that does not always look linear. There are days when someone suffering from depression feels normal and there are other days when they could not feel worse. And throughout this range they are interacting with those of us who may not suffer from a chronic illness, having to wonder how they can discuss what is going on inside of them.
It creates a strange dynamic. Someone struggling with something that is not obvious, maybe does not want to talk about it, but they know talking about it will help. Those of us who could be listening do not know how to ask about it, or maybe we don’t want to ask about it so we stay silent. Neither of us gains anything by doing this.
I think two things need to happen. First, I think we need to develop a better sense, as followers of Christ, of what it means to see people with the compassion the way Jesus did. His mission was cosmic in scope but he stopped to heal ailments that were affecting real people - some that were hidden from sight. We have to be willing to slow down and imagine what it would be like to have the experience of someone who may not even know how to talk about their experience. The second thing that needs to happen is more encouragement toward those who do struggle with hidden issues that their talking about it does not “get old” to us. There needs to be a safe place for people who are suffering day in and day out, to share their experience. Silence isolates, and isolation leads to further sickness. We have to connect.
Are there going to be times when talking about it is not healthy and we should push for different action? Of course. But until we learn to really meet people where they are, especially when they don’t even want to be there - we can’t expect to earn the right to speak at all. Next time you hear someone begin to describe a chronic problem, ask them what their experience has been having it - seek to meet them with compassion and understanding.
In what ways can you meet someone with compassion this week?