Once, while I was living in Wuhan, China, I rode my moped a bit too far beyond the area of the city I knew, and I realized that I was lost and alone. As I imagined how my situation might play out, nearly all of the scenarios I could think of were unsettling. I had no one else there who could come and help me. This city that was my home had suddenly become a place that might as well have been on another planet. Theologian Jessica Coblentz describes depression in her book Dust in the Blood as “unhomelikeness,” and this is exactly how I felt that day when I got lost. I was “at home,” but I felt a million miles away, and it was terrifying.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can feel like losing your way in a place that should be familiar. That is why those who live with mental health challenges need friends who still recognize the landscape and who can accompany them until it feels like home again. Mental health challenges and illnesses are rarely sprints to wellbeing, but long, slow slogs, and in order to move from languishing to flourishing, folks need accompaniment in order to reach both the health and the virtues necessary for contentment. In The Sanctuary Course, accompaniment is defined as a form of companionship that provides both practical and spiritual support, reminding others that they are not alone.
I know from personal experience the difference that the accompaniment of friends can make. I have lived with mental health issues for most of my life, but soon after I began to do a PhD, my anxiety and depression reached levels I never thought possible. As my first comprehensive exam approached, I grew increasingly anxious about it (which is not an unusual response in itself), but I realized there was a real problem about five minutes after I took the exam. As I was walking back to my car, I suddenly felt panicked, overwhelmed by dread and hopelessness. I immediately called my primary care doctor, because I did not have a mental healthcare provider at the time, and he got me an appointment for the next day.
Now, five years later, I still have not fully recovered from this bout with anxiety and depression, but I am still journeying because of the friends who have accompanied me along the way. When I had to leave urgently from a summer fellowship in another state due to a mental health crisis, a friend came to help my family and I get packed, fed, and on the road home so I could receive treatment. Other friends showed up at our house with groceries and offered to help us get settled. When I was having trouble getting an appointment at the campus health center, a professor intervened, and within thirty minutes I had one scheduled. When I could not cook for my family, folks from my Sunday school class stopped by and sent gift cards and meals. When I could not pray (besides crying over and over again, “Jesus please help me”), my advisor would call to let me know that he had lit a candle and been praying for me. When I struggled to find a new therapist, my wife made countless phone calls and did numerous internet searches to find me someone helpful. Each of these people accompanied me—some did so for a moment and others for months or even years at a time.
Accompaniment is integral to friendship and a key practice to helping others survive mental health challenges and illnesses and thrive in their minds, bodies, spirits, and communities. Based on my experience with mental illness and my studies on friendship, I am convinced that commitment and persistent presence are integral to the practice of accompaniment.
Accompaniment requires commitment, not necessarily expertise. This statement is not meant to undermine expertise. Rather, it recognizes that experts are rarely in the day-to-day lives of persons with mental health challenges, but at appointed times and in a specific role. Friends who are accompanying someone on a mental health journey often make themselves available at all hours of the day and night. While a friend may well develop various forms of expertise as they accompany another and learn about their experiences, such expertise is not a prerequisite.
As I reflect on the times in my life when I have been in a mental health crisis, I realize that most of the folks who accompanied me were not professionals, but friends who helped care for me when I could not care for myself—and who continue to support my flourishing. The friends (and especially my wife) who accompanied me to appointments and made sure I kept putting food in my body, and who were persistent about seeing to it that I got the professional care I needed were as responsible for me being alive and (relatively) well today as those who provided professional care. Although I was only trudging along, they slowed down with me to put my arm over their shoulder and pull me forward until I regained the strength to walk alone. Now I am even able to offer my shoulder to other friends as I accompany them in their mental health journeys.
Accompaniment is not about fixing problems, but letting a friend know that no matter what they face, they will not face it alone. Jesus did not promise his followers that their lives would be easy, but rather he promised the faithful presence and comfort of the Holy Spirit (John 14). God promises to never leave or forsake us, to accompany us all the way through this life. God has called us to do likewise for those for whom making the journey seems impossible right now.
Through accompaniment, we can collaboratively find our way in landscapes that no longer feel familiar, move from languishing to flourishing, and possibly even rediscover home. When one is walking in the loneliness of distress, others may not be able to fix the problems leading to that distress. Anyone, however, can accompany a person experiencing mental illness in hopes that the journey back to a home-like feeling might reach the destination of flourishing—no matter how long the road. There is wisdom in the proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Justin Bronson Barringer is the Pastor of Community Engagement and Theologian-in-Residence at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church. He recently defended his PhD dissertation, “Protest and Politics: A Biographical Theology of Bayard Rustin, Friendship, Charity, and Economic Justice” at Southern Methodist University. Justin’s books include Practicing the Kingdom: Essays on Hospitality, Community, and Friendship in Honor of Christine D. Pohl; The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex; and A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence. He is also co-editing The Business of Modern Life book series for Cascade.