© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 22, 2012

Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

My senior year of high school I got into my first serious relationship. And being at that young age and being still totally naive about the ways of the world, I let it take me over completely. In a very short period of time I forgot all about who I was before meeting her, and just let myself get completely swept away in the excitement of that first relationship. At the beginning, things were great. We spent some of our time together, but still plenty of time with our other friends. But quite quickly the time we spent with others became less and less and the time we spent with just each other became more and more. We would talk on the phone for hours at night, hanging up just before going to sleep. I would think about her all the time when we were apart, and I began to lose focus on school and track. Then I dropped track. And people began asking me where I'd been and why I wasn't around as much anymore. Really. I thought things were still great. I thought I was just about the luckiest guy in the world to have this person in my life that I wanted to spend every minute with.

And then she went on a trip overseas for a month.

Her parents were nice enough to let me drive her to the airport, and after a pathetic scene with lots of tears, I managed to drag my sorry self back to the car and head home. And that was when it began. The farther I got from where I had left her, the more a feeling of panic began to spread through my chest. At first I was hardly aware of this feeling at all. It was merely a small disturbance in my body. But with every step it continued to grow. My head began to swim and I broke out in a sweat. I barely realized that I got into my car and started driving. As I began to navigate through the knot of highways from the airport back to home, I suddenly realized that I had become so overwhelmed by this feeling of panic that I had not been paying any attention to where I had been driving. I now had no idea where I was.

I was suddenly in a full-blown panic. A sense of dread - of overwhelming destruction - completely overtook me. It took every bit of self control I had left in my body to guide the car to an exit, a side street, and finally an awkward parking spot off the road. My breathing became fast and erratic and I completely fell apart. I had no idea what was going on, or where I was, and I was terrified. I had simply never experienced anything like this previously in my life.

After a few minutes of being completely paralyzed, I noticed a pay phone less than 20 feet from my car. I did the best I could to collect myself and called my parents. I barely had words to describe what was going on. It was as foreign to me as if I had suddenly grown a second head. But what I was able to communicate was enough for them to understand I was a mess and lost and needed help. Thankfully. I have amazing parents and they were able to talk me to some level of calm, which took some real time and patience.

After I got home we knew something major had happened. My mom was pretty sure it was an anxiety attack and I soon learned that part of her confidence in diagnosing me was that anxiety issues and mental health problems ran on her side of the family. I had always known that one of my mom's uncles had committed suicide, and that my grandfather had been released early from his military service in WWII for some reason that was always left somewhat mysterious and felt like it had some level of shame attached to it. I also knew that a number of the men on my mom's side of the family tree had emotional issues, but the puzzle pieces had never been all laid out for me before. And suddenly I realized, I had some kind of mental illness.

Predictably, my initial response to this realization was shame and confusion. Was this something that was going to ruin my life? What would people think of me? But I also knew that my grandfather, despite whatever struggles he had, had actually lived a great and healthy life. Clearly this did not need to be a life stopper. But I needed to know more. And I needed help.

I was very lucky in that I had an incredibly knowledgeable and supportive family. From the start they realized what was going on, never made me feel bad about it, and encouraged me to seek professional help, which I did. I would like to say I did immediately but, come on, I was 17. It actually took a few more incidents of crushing anxiety over the coming months hitting me out of the blue to finally get me to a therapist. But I got there. And along with the tools I gained from that therapy, I was given one other very important weapon in my fight against this illness.

My mom's father, the one who I knew had been dismissed early from his military service, did something incredible for me. He recorded an audiotape for me of him talking about his struggles with anxiety attacks. It was one of the most meaningful things that has been done for me, because of how vulnerable he made himself. He described what it had felt like for him, and it was so much like what had happened to me. He described how shamed he initially felt, but also how this had spurred him toward the career he ended up thriving in, becoming first a doctor, but then himself a psychiatrist, back before that was a very respected line of work. And he helped me realize how perfectly normal my experience was.

To be honest, even with all that, it was still hard for me to write the story I began with today because, like what my grandfather did for me with his tape, I had to make myself very vulnerable to do it. I still to this day carry around with me some embarrassment and even shame about losing control like I did. Even as someone who was supported and got help when I needed it, even as someone who feels recovered and healthy, I feel the stigma of mental health problems.

And therein lies one of the biggest obstacles in treating people with Mental Illness. Unlike my experience, most people do not have voices and resources of support around them that make them feel that their issue is something normal. The stigma of mental health is still a deep and wide cavern standing between so many people and the treatment and help they need and deserve.

Nationally, about 1 in 4 people suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem, which translates to almost 75 million Americans, hardly an insignificant portion of the population. In fact, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for people between the ages of 15-44. But only a fraction of these people receive treatment, and when you break this down by age, race, gender and ethnicity, there are some segments of the population who are so underserved it is scary. For instance, one nationwide survey showed that Asian Americans were only a quarter as likely as whites, and half as likely as African Americans and Hispanic Americans, to have sought outpatient treatment.

Seven years ago, Mission Peak called my colleague Rev. Barbara Meyers to be our community minister, knowing that her focus would be on Mental Health issues. In the years since calling Rev. Meyers, you have watched as her ministry has flourished. I am often left in awe of her productivity, as she continues her community involvement through Reaching Across, works on her mental health and faith curriculum, her Mental Health Matters television show on our local public access channel, and her national consulting to other congregations that want to have a mental health ministry.

In calling Rev. Meyers to be Mission Peak's community minister, this community likewise made a commitment to participate in this important work with her. This is an area that I believe we can do better in, and it looks like soon we will have a real opportunity to do this. As many of you know, since the fall we have had a study group working to prepare a proposal for a Mission Peak Mental Health and Wellness clinic. This would be a bold and exciting concept for this congregation to seriously explore. Not only would this be a way to begin to take ownership of our pledge to join Rev. Meyers in her work, but it would also allow us to take our investment in the overall surrounding community to a new level.

I don't know what shape this proposal will ultimately take, and I assure you that whatever proposal is brought forward will be brought before the congregation long before a final decision is made. But I think it is wonderful that this community is exploring what it could look like to take their commitment to Mental Health Ministry to a new level.

As I can personally attest, intervention at the right moment can make all the difference in the world to someone. And so, for all the ways this community already supports our mental health: our pastoral associates, our circle of care, our small group ministry, all of Rev. Meyers' amazing work, and the genuine friendships that are the true core of what Mission Peak is, we give abundant thanks.

For all the ways this community will continue to unfold the ways we may deepen this commitment, I say an excited: May it be so, ashe.

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