Natalee Whitesell on Finding Hope in Mental Illness

Natalie W

My friend from back in my Clemson University days, Natalee Whitesell , set out on an exciting and sometimes frightening discovery of her true identity over the last few years. Her journey has led to a deep hope that we can all learn from and her book, Dismantling Taboo, tells the story of how she found that hope while battling mental illness. She also speaks to churches and other organizations about how they can help the mentally ill.

KW: How did you come to the point in your own life that you were able to write a book about mental illness?

NW: This has been a journey. During my recovery periods, I couldn’t find many resources that talked about faith and mental illness. I longed for stories of hope and healing and I couldn’t find many of these in print. I don’t know why this is. Maybe because there is so much stigma around losing your mind. Jesus used Story to bring both conviction and healing. I began writing my story down a couple of summers ago and found this to be a tremendous healing process personally. It helped me sort things out in my head. I’ve heard that 1 in 4 suffer with some type of mental illness. I’ve also talked to many people that suffer and are afraid to talk about it because of stigma and shame. Not only did I write my story to help with my own healing, I wrote about it to help people know they are not alone. There’s a man near my neighborhood that I often see talking out of his head and swinging his cane at things that aren’t there. In the past, I would have judged him, but I’ve been that man. I was able to finally write this book because I’ve been him. It is my hope to reduce stigma and to help people see that “crazy people” are complex beings with complex stories. I think I was able to finally write the book out of compassion for myself and for the many who suffer in silence.

KW: What was the hardest part about writing the book?

NW: Addressing such a complex, mysterious not talked about issue, with Hope and balance. I didn’t want to leave myself as the writer or a potential reader with too much heaviness or formulas. It’s a heavy subject, mental illness. I talk about psychosis. I talk about thinking my husband was Jesus. I also talk about hummingbirds showing up at the right moment, attempting to balance the darkness with the light that is indeed greater. It wasn’t my goal to give a step by step, so I had to wrestle with mystery.

KW: What was the best part?

NW: Coffee. Holing up in the spare bedroom in the mornings. Typing for hours and finding healing in the clicks of the keyboard. Arranging and rearranging. Letting the story flow. It just kind of flowed, in a way that surprised me. The shame that I carried melted away as I began to see the whole of my story. There was dignity. Dignity in the person of Jesus in me…even in my darkest moments. It was good to simply remember. Not only the pain, but the goodness of God.

KW: What are some of the biggest misperceptions that Christians have about mental illness?

NW: I’ve found that (some) Christians like to put mental illness into a categories. And the categories are often black and white when they shouldn’t be. It’s either viewed in a hyper spiritual sense, or in a clinical sense. It can either be “solved” by casting out a demon or going to a doctor. In my experience, mental illness is much more of a mix, a grey. Humans are complex beings, and mental illness is equally as complex. If it is treated as a black and white issue, it puts one who suffers in a really tough place and can contribute to him/her feeling more alone. I’ve been treated like it’s just a spiritual issue and like it’s just a medical issue. That’s really hard. Either misconception has wounded many and has definitely made recovery harder.

KW: How can families and Christian communities do a better job supporting those struggling with mental illness?

NW: Honestly, to not be afraid of it. Talk about it. Offer support groups and healing prayer. Become familiar with resources like NAMI. Advocate for those who suffer on a legislative level. Mental health desperately needs the input and voice of faith communities.

I’ve found that the communities/individuals that were the most healing were first Spirit driven, then solution driven. Jesus loves His church and I believe He’s calling the church to fight for the mentally oppressed. It may require the church wrestling a bit. Shedding some old skins. But that’s always a good thing. The people/churches that were and still are healing for me are those in whom I can smell Jesus. Disarming. Offering me a cup of tea in my worst moments and just being with me. Reminding me of the dignity inside, who I really am.

KW: What hope to you want to leave people with?

NW: Facing mental illness is half the battle. Admitting it. There’s great hope in just admitting it. It becomes less scary. The wildness of the Gospel is that Jesus often uses our darkest, weakest, tragic places to explode Hope to others. The good news is that those who suffer with mental illness are not defined by it. All it is, is part of a story. Like the blind man. His blindness, ultimately, was just a part of the story. Mary was known mainly for washing Jesus’s feet and being at the tomb instead of her past. Mental illness goes on the cross. We have new identities and in the process of discovering those identities, there’s healing.

KW: What is the biggest message you want readers to walk away with?

There’s hope. So much hope. The goodness of God is alive and more alive than suffering, even when it feels the opposite. Wrestle with God. Wrestle with yourself. He and you are both worth it.

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