Content notes: Mention of suicidal ideation and eating disorders
“If someone were to walk in your shoes, what would that be like? What are some ways we can walk in another person’s shoes with love and care?” These are some of the questions that will be explored at Sanctuary’s virtual Christmas gala on the evening of December 2, 2021, through interviews with our ambassadors, supporters, and partners.
In line with this year’s gala theme, ”In My Shoes,” we’ve been gathering stories of what walking in your shoes may look and feel like and how Sanctuary’s work has impacted your lives this year. And when one of our Instagram followers, Barbara Arenburg, submitted this moving and powerful testimonial, we knew we had to share it on The Sanctuary Blog.
There are many ways to give to Sanctuary, and sharing your story with us is one of them. We are deeply grateful to Barbara for writing this honest and vulnerable piece on being a caregiver for three of her children who live with mental health challenges.
May Barbara’s story encourage you as she reflects on what walking in her shoes has been like and why she has become a Sanctuary advocate.
2012 marked the beginning of a journey of pain, loss, grief, and setback upon setback. If you were to tell me, while I lounged on my Adirondack chair and watched my four children create imaginary plays in the backyard when they were wee, that walking in my shoes would one day mean sitting by three of their bedsides in locked units of mental health facilities and praying they would make it—praying they would stop self-harming, stop restricting, stop the distorted thinking, stop with the suicidal ideation, stop overdosing, stop experiencing OCD symptoms, stop experiencing psychosis—I’d have adamantly argued with you that such extreme and traumatic experiences like that would never happen in my family. My children? Not mine. These kinds of ruptures don’t happen to the likes of us.
I find that in Christian circles, people are not always as well-informed about mental health as they could be. And it is for this very reason that I am so grateful to Sanctuary Mental Health for actively working to shed light on mental health challenges and how best to support people in the Church who live with mental health challenges and those who care for them. I was once someone who was very ignorant in understanding what it meant to experience a mental health crisis and was unknowingly judgmental—until it became our life, our journey.
After experiencing a job loss and a home loss, we moved back to Canada in the spring of 2013, penniless, and with an—unbeknownst to us—fifteen-year-old suffering with anorexia. After three years of continuous admissions to a pediatric eating disorder unit, we discovered a second child was experiencing the same disorder. This added three more years of in-and-out visits to the same pediatric eating disorder unit. Apart from the trained eating disorder specialists, the medical world is still quite misinformed about what it means to live with an eating disorder. Sadly, the same can be said of many churches. In my experience, few congregations are educated or trained to understand, offer empathy, or properly support those who are living with this terrifyingly shame-filled illness.
In the throes of supporting this second suffering child, our son began to show signs of depression and experienced psychosis. Just prior to COVID shutting the world down in 2020, we had two children admitted to locked mental health units in two separate hospitals located in two different cities. I travelled back and forth robotically, disconnected from the level of crisis we were facing, and acting more like a first responder than an empathetic, engaged parent. I was running on adrenaline, trying to meet everyone’s needs at home and in hospital, not to mention fielding the new territory of being a single mother and adjusting to a new job after twenty years of working as a homemaker and home educator. All this time, too, I was homeschooling my youngest child. To walk in my shoes meant feeling anxious, irritable, hyper-vigilant, often unfocused, dissociated, and primed for my own inward rupture.
This is how I arrived at therapy. I knew I needed to do my own inner work in order to heal, process, and be able to continue supporting my dear ones.
I had been unable to read while in the throes of the many crises our family was experiencing, though I longed to be able to do so while I sat at bedsides and in intensive care for hours, calling the hospital our second home.
When the day came where I found myself focusing better, and able to read for snippets and then longer periods of time, I knew I was incrementally taking small steps towards healing. At this stage, I started an Instagram account about the books I was reading on psychology, spiritual formation, writing, and memoirs. And it was there on Instagram that I discovered Sanctuary Mental Health.
I was immediately drawn to Sanctuary’s focus on art through their posts on Healing In Colour. My heart bubbled with passion every time they posted about an artist who would talk about their art, faith, and mental health journey. I kept thinking, “Wow, Sanctuary is really on to something good here in the Christian community. I need to keep watching their growth.”
Then, while on Instagram one day, I watched a video of Markku Kostamo, Sanctuary’s Director of Development, on living with bipolar disorder. I was so impressed with how openly and authentically he shared about how prescription medicine, self-care (particularly being in nature), having a supportive community, and investing time in therapy and spiritual direction collectively played a vital role in his experience of living with mental illness. Wow, here was a non-judgmental Christian community who weren’t trying to “pray it away” or send you a verse as the answer to your lack of faith. Rather, they were saying, “we see you, we understand this, we’re respecting you and loving you in your experience of mental health challenges, and here’s what we believe is helpful from a bio/psycho/social/spiritual perspective.” I immediately showed my son this video, and he was moved and encouraged by Markku’s words and testimony.
Over the summer, Sanctuary ran a campaign called Move for Mental Health. Since I began this mental health journey as a caregiver for multiple loved ones experiencing mental health challenges, I knew I also needed to take care of my own mental health. So I started running. Besides enjoying leisurely walks, exercise has never been my forte. But I discovered that movement helped me to work out so much of the trauma I had stored up as a result of having to push through multiple crises. By joining a run club, I found that I was not as foggy-brained. I felt enlivened not only because I was moving my body, but also because of the community of runners I run with. Both have been immensely rejuvenating for my soul.
I also recently learned that registered clinical counsellor Dr. Hillary McBride is a Sanctuary Ambassador and have ordered her book, The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection through Embodied Living. I am taking embodiment practices to release stored tension and trauma very seriously, and am making space for moving, loving, and experiencing my body as part of my holistic healing process.
I am thoroughly impressed that Sanctuary has partnered with Regent College to offer Certificates in Christianity and Mental Health. These courses will help to educate and equip church leaders to wisely and sensitively support those who are living with mental health challenges and those who are caring for them.
It is my prayer that many leaders and churches will see the seriousness of the need to be more educated in how best to come alongside suffering families with the appropriate guidance and care. I take every opportunity to share with others how much Sanctuary has impacted me, and hope to continue to be a partner in advocating for the education of the Church on mental health. Thank you, Sanctuary, for this opportunity to write about the work you do and how impactful it is on the lives of those in the thick of prolonged suffering.
By Barbara Arenburg
Barb works part-time in a library and continues to home educate her youngest child. She earned a degree in English 25+ years ago at the University of Toronto, where she also went on to receive T.E.S.L. certification. She has spent the last nineteen years home educating, and is now in pursuit of reactivating her passion for writing. Barb can be found on LinkedIn as well as on Instagram @books_and_blurbs, where she reviews psychology, spiritual formation, memoirs, and books on the writing life.