By AJ French
“Today I fight for life to the same extent which I once fought for death.”
This is a statement I often make during recovery trainings and public presentations. It’s true. I once pursued death because nothing of significance was expected of me. Expectation is powerful. The pressures of expectation can bring great anxiety while the absence of expectation cultivates an environment of vulnerability because we are each created for some kind of greatness.
My childhood was painful. My adulthood has also been painful—more painful than any hallucination I have experienced. When my mental health began to deteriorate, I approached a woman a leader at my church. As I described the turbulence of my thoughts and emotions and calls for help, I was apologetically told, “AJ, we don’t do that here.” Even today those words feel like a stake being driven through my heart, because I know if I had asked for any other kind of assistance, I would have received a different response.
I left that church. Years later, I sought out a new congregation and confided in another woman in leadership. As I was sharing my struggles with her, she said to me, “AJ, I think there’s more going on here than regular life challenges. I think you should talk with someone about this.” She then referred me to a local mental health agency. I don’t believe this ministry leader was any more compassionate than the woman I had confided in many years ago. The only difference is that she was better informed and that made her able to recognize and respond to my mental health needs, as well as my spiritual health needs.
I wish I could tell you that everything became much better after I found a new church and obtained mental health care, but the truth is that everything became much worse. I began attempting suicide on an increasingly regular basis. I had numerous psychiatric hospitalizations and at some point, began physically abusing my body. I experienced homelessness. But more debilitating than not having a house was that I had no hope. I was experiencing a hollow existence as death loomed all around.
There were three monumental messages of hope that changed the trajectory of my life. In Illinois, the Division of Mental Health (DMH) has a slogan: The expectation is recovery. In other words, for the first time in my entire life, a message was clearly communicated that it was expected I would get better. Another monumental message of hope came from my Pastor who continuously says “People are sacred creations of God.” He initially was making reference to having high regard for others when I somehow realized I needed high regard for myself. This message is consistent with a third powerful message from the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) facilitator curriculum, which states that I should hold myself “in unconditionalhigh regard.”
Today I serve as Executive Director of Sacred Creations, an Illinois not-for-profit with statewide membership compromised entirely of individuals living with mental health conditions. We are presently developing a training template designed to equip faith communities with cultural competence regarding the mental health needs of congregants. I also work as a trainer for NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program and love teaching people how to share their personal experiences in public venues.
Sometimes people look at my accomplishments and make assumptions. They did not witness the moments when I literally lost the ability to speak out loud. They have not seen me leave a room in tears because the noise was so painful. They were not present when I was told I would never work again due to a psychiatric disability, nor can they fathom my risk for institutionalization. Observing the dilapidated lives of others while maintaining an expectation of greatness is not easy for anyone. It takes real courage to see what is unseen after decades of disappointment, and it takes strength to fully realize the reality of recovery. For those who saw this within me, thank you. Today I fight for life because all people are sacred creations of God.