The Gift of Helping

My Mom: “Then He began to wash the disciples feet…”

In “The Gift of Helping,” we are exploring the spiritual gift of helping and how it applies far beyond the scope of acts of service at church. The gift of helping is a series of scripture meditations orbiting around personal anecdotes about 10 people who helped me in life saving ways in the last 10 years by exercising the unassuming gift of helping.

Foot-washing is the gold standard in servant leadership set by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, it was the chore no one wanted to do and having to do it marked your status as the lowest on the totem pole in the household.

Growing up, the chore in our house that nobody wanted to do was scrubbing the guest bathroom baseboards…with a toothbrush. Bathroom baseboards are basically the worst. I’m convinced no one notices them. But to my mom, a pristine guest bathroom shows that you care about the person visiting your home. You care that your guest can attend to their personal hygiene in a discreet and comfortable space.

Providing discretion and comfort for performing duties that are undignified by nature is a fairly comprehensive description of auxiliary care. “Auxiliary care,” the job description name for caregiving, requires fastidious attention to the details of completely mundane things that goes unrecognized by onlookers and unappreciated by the recipient.

In reaching out with the gift of helping toward a loved one with mental illness, auxiliary care is essential to her recovery. She won’t want it. She’ll see it as an intrusion of her autonomy and identity. You’ll have to make choices for her and impose limits on her daily activities that are resented. I’m talking about loud, thrashing, outburst-of-anger resentment too, not the much more tolerable passive-aggressive kind.

Recovering from mental illness takes way more than just taking your anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers. When you are new to mental illness, everyone who has gone through the storm before you will chant like a mantra, “Just stay on your meds.” All involved in your treatment plan and every member in your support groups will harp over and over, “Just stay on your meds.”

But I can tell you, in all honesty, that nearly no one stays in recovery by just staying on their meds. Most people require years of experimentation to find the right “cocktail.” Usually, a person needs just one medication that rights what is wrong with their brain, and then a battery of others to enhance, curb, or correct its effects. And on top of that there is a whole set of other prescriptions to support the patient’s secondary issues– sleep disturbance, anxiety, weight gain, tremors, alcohol cravings, etc. I read an article in The Atlantic, if I remember correctly, about a girl who took 17 medications at one time to hem her in.

The advocate term for being well with a mental illness is “recovery.” Like an addict. It’s not the most hopeful term.

I don’t consider myself to be in recovery but rather I consider myself to be in “remission.”

Recovery is allusive, and remission isn’t even a description people imagine. For this reason, support people quickly fade away from those with mental illnesses. Loved ones resign from meaningful relationship with the mentally ill. The perception is that they will never be well.

It is the rare person who has the bandwidth to take up washing the feet of the mentally ill. Very few people willingly take on the role of caregiver. Instead they get frustrated that “just take your meds” is either ignored by the patient, or, as is the case with many patients, psychiatrist after psychiatrist can’t seem to find the right meds to prescribe to them.

I think it is becoming more recognized now (than when I was first diagnosed) that medication is only a safety net. It is not the foundation of recovery. The foundation of recovery is lifestyle- the eight points of self-care, also called the eight areas of self-care.

  1. Physical- diet, hygiene, exercise
  2. Psychological- therapy, medication
  3. Emotional- self-reflection, journaling, stress management
  4. Social- conflict resolution, communication, participating in group activities
  5. Professional- identifying goals, professional development, maintaining employment
  6. Environmental- clean home, socializing in positive environments, getting outdoors
  7. Spiritual- personal spirituality, spiritual communities, like-minded relationships
  8. Financial- paying bills on time, safeguards against manic spending

I have listed 22 activities in 8 areas as the bare minimum of self-care efforts. Taking medication is only 1 of 22 examples of recovery-supportive habits. So do you just need medication to move toward recovery? I think not.

And have you really supported, loved, cared for, and intervened in the crisis of a love one or friend by constantly hounding them to just find, take, and stay on their medication? I’m sorry but your conscience cannot be relieved on that action alone. If you wash your hands of them at that, you really can’t say you did everything you could.

You can’t out-source the care of your mentally ill loved one to doctors and medication. It just will not yield results.

I am in remission, not recovery, but remission– I like to call it functional healing–  because my mom washed my feet for years after my diagnosis.

She did make me take my medication, at the same time every morning and every night. She did make my psychiatrist appointments and drive me to them every month.

She also took me to church as often as I’d let her. She went on walks with me every day. She monitored my diet. She wouldn’t let me have coffee or alcohol– that went over really great seeing as I was first facing the Bipolar Beast in my twenties not my teens!

She asked me annoying questions about my bills, my friends, and where I was spending my time. I resented her for it completely. Here I was a college graduate, and I felt as micromanaged as a preschooler.

But she wasn’t controlling me. She was helping me control myself.

Ten years ago, I don’t think any of us ever thought I’d be able to leave my parents’ home. My mom was only aiming to keep me from the worst outcome. That outcome being repeated and frequent hospitalization. Instead, her caregiving ended up yielding the best: I became able to care for myself fully, independently, and also to care for a family of my own.

I became able to manage the 8 areas of self-care to the extent of stability; of functional healing.

The Apostle Peter while still a hot-headed disciple of Jesus, resisted letting Jesus wash his feet. When Jesus pressed him on the importance of it, Peter goes extreme and says, “Well then wash my whole body so I can be clean!” But Jesus assures him that the feet will do it. And I think I know why. It is humbling if not humiliating to allow someone to serve you so intimately when you are completely incapable of taking care of yourself. Peter had to submit to the powerless position of being cared for by Jesus physically and spiritually. I had to submit to that powerlessness in front of  my mom. (John 13:1-17)

Thank you, Mom for offering me the spiritual gift of helping through your steadfast caregiving.

Mom and Me blog pic


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