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The Illness of Mental Horror: Sketching At Coffee Demons

Or is it the horror of mental illness? Sometimes, something as simple as your morning cup of coffee can evoke a sensation of horror—given the right mental state.

I don’t hear much in the way of a conversation about mental illness, particularly in Christian circles. After all, if we supposedly have the Holy Ghost living inside of us, somewhere, working something “good” in and through us, then I can understand why, for some, there doesn’t seem to be much room for mention of anything as dark as mental illness.

But I’m particularly interested in a conversation about those of us who are what I will call The Functionally or Marginally Un-Well. You know who I’m talking about. Perhaps you or someone you know fits this description. You (or they) are, or may be, a believer, a professing Christian. They manage to hold down a job, go to the store, talk on the phone, mingle with friends, go to movies, produce creative work, etc. They manage to keep up an appearance of mental stability, of wellness. I’m only able to write about this because I’m confessing here. I’m one of those “Functionally Un-Well” people. I manage to keep up appearances, on good days at least. I’ve never been institutionalized. I am a Christian, whatever that means—I hold to the creeds, eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, and cry out to God in my utter helplessness. I’m a confirmed Anglican, although I’ve never felt so adrift, so un-confirmed if you will, as I do now.

Point is, I don’t hear a lot of conversation in the church about those of us who walk about as functionally-unwell. That could also just be me. If I’m confessing to my own unwellness, I am more than likely looking at any given picture through a distorted lens, and hearing things through a distorted filter. But I’m not aware of a larger conversation about this, among believers. Why would I even want a conversation? Because these illnesses spread into every crevice of one’s life—including one’s spiritual walk, one’s occupation/vocation, one’s ability to earn a living and even to thrive as a human being in the world at all. I’ve cancelled shows as a singer/songwriter in my deep anxiety and fear. I’ve lost well-paying job contracts and turned away potential illustration and design clients. I’ve ruined relationships. I’ve stared over into the abyss of divorce several times in my 12 years of marriage.


How does one crawl out of one’s own head?

There are your blatantly serious mental illnesses, and those come in all shapes sizes and degrees. These being the textbook disorders that make great movies. I’m not so much talking about those—the kinds that ultimately land well-meaning people in hospitals. I’m talking here about the illnesses of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsivity and paranoia—to name a few. I suppose any one of those modes of being really has a quiet, subversive part to play in the later development of those more overt disorders that writers and movie makers latch onto. For now, for this article, I’m really thinking about the quiet, day-in day-out weight of something like a deep, unrelenting depression. Something suffocating and inescapable like oppressive anxiety.

Those are the bedfellows capable of taking one’s morning coffee ritual and turning it into a journey across gnarled fingers, crushing depths, need for oxygen, layer upon layer of mangled scales and sharp protrusions of thought/anti-thought. Isolation. Oblivion. Where lifting a pencil to touch the fibers of a sketchpad feels like an overwhelming journey, an immensity of hard-fought effort.

I suppose it’s a redemptive thing that in me, an illustrator, this journey casts me back into the wilderness of the sketchbook time and time again. The Spirit drives me there. Or whatever. But with that comes this breed of functional dis-functionality that the course of my life has been marked by—and I’m not sure where to take that. What does one do when neither extreme—neither prayer nor medication—seems to bring any lasting relief?


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