"Showing Up" with Carlene Hill Byron

“Showing Up” with Carlene Hill Byron

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 21
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 21: “Showing Up”, with Carlene Hill Byron was released on May 24, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In today’s episode, ~ing producer Ben Wideman, is joined by Herald Press author, Carlene Hill Byron. In addition to being an author, Carlene is also a fundraiser and communicator for nonprofits that serve people with disabilities and other profound life challenges, and a spiritual wellness volunteer in the MaineHealth hospital system. During our conversation, we’ll explore themes from her recent book, Not Quite Fine: Mental Health, Faith, and Showing Up for One Another, including the mounting dilemmas that pastors and churches face around mental health.

Carlene Hill Byron, Jonny Rashid, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Carlene Hill Byron  00:27
Faith communities are uniquely situated to provide outstanding mental health supports when we do what God calls us to do. Churches are designed to be places where people experience meaning and purpose, and belonging and value and hope. And those are the mental health supports that we are best qualified to provide.

Ben Wideman  00:50
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Hello again, friends. Welcome back to ~ing Podcast. I’m excited today to be joined by Carlene Hill Byron. She is a fundraiser and a communicator for nonprofits that serve people with disabilities, and other profound life challenges. She also happens to be one of MennoMedia’s Herald Press authors. And we’re really excited to have her here with us today to talk about themes from her book, Not Quite Fine: Mental Health, Faith, and Showing Up for One Another. Carlene, thank you so much for joining us here on ~ing Podcast.

Carlene Hill Byron  01:28
I’m really glad to be here with you today. Thank you, Ben,

Ben Wideman  01:31
Your book has a lot to offer. And we will get to that. But I’m wondering for those who don’t know you, how do you describe yourself?

Carlene Hill Byron  01:38
Oh, my goodness. Well, I am sitting in my home office looking out on my neighborhood street. In my neighborhood, I’m the lady who plants things. So people know me for… I just did the entry monument of the neighborhood this weekend. In my church, I’m a member of the Council, I sing in the choir. I’m sure there’s other things I do, too. I’ve been a volunteer chaplain in our local hospital’s Senior Health Center for several years. And I really like to bake. So my standard holiday baking is someplace between 30 and 50 dozen, most of which goes to somebody’s fundraiser.

Ben Wideman  02:24
Oh, that’s amazing. Well, as someone who’s spent some time in pastoral spaces, and in nonprofit spaces, I know that for people who work in those areas, there’s always something else to be doing too. So you have quite a full plate. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us on the podcast! Amid all of that you somehow felt this call to write a book. Can you talk about the journey to this new book Not Quite Fine?

Carlene Hill Byron  02:52
You know, it was one of those things that I experienced as God just making a path. I mean, I’ve belonged to a particular rightist group for several years. And one of the other authors, Leslie Vernick, who has also published unknown media sent out a call in the group saying MennoMedia was looking for authors on these three topics. I thought, Oh, that one sounds fun. I’ll write a proposal. And about halfway through, I realized I wasn’t qualified to write on that topic. And so I came back to MennoMedia and said, find a different author. I couldn’t do this for you. And within 24 hours, MennoMedia came back to me and said, “but you do write about mental health, would you consider a proposal in that arena?”

Ben Wideman  03:34
Oh, wow.

Carlene Hill Byron  03:34
So that’s how the initial contract process got started. And I feel really grateful that I received the contract. At about the same time we locked down for the pandemic. So during the many hours that I was not doing the things that I usually do in the community, I was able to sit at my desk and write a book that I hope is helpful to people.

Ben Wideman  03:57
Wow, pandemic provided the space needed, I guess. Wow, wonderful. And this is not a lighthearted book, I guess you could say talking about mental health and faith and showing up for one another. How do you describe this book for people who have not yet picked it up?

Carlene Hill Byron  04:15
This book hopes to help people who are part of faith communities recognize that faith communities are uniquely situated to provide outstanding mental health supports when we do what God calls us to do. Churches are designed to be places where people experience meaning and purpose and belonging and value and hope. And those are the mental health supports that we are best qualified to provide. One of the things that motivated me to get into this topic was feeling like I was seeing churches moving into and creating and attempting to create specialized mental health services that added burdens to the pastor’s And the staff and the elders and so forth, that took away from their ability to do what God has, in fact called us to do in the mental health arena. And so that that’s kind of what motivated the project.

Ben Wideman  05:16
I was, I would assume that we approach mental health in faith spaces, with some awareness of the ways that we have failed in the past, right? Like that we have had a tendency, perhaps in some spaces to say, “Well, if you’re if you’re struggling with your mental health, then you’re just not praying enough, or your faith must be weak in some other way.” And the sort of other end of the spectrum may be we have attempted to fill in for qualified medical personnel thinking, well, the church can handle this, you don’t need to go see a professional. So we’ve got these extreme polls where we’ve kind of failed. What what do you say for people who have some trepidation when entering spaces like this?

Carlene Hill Byron  06:04
I think that the polls that you’re describing are accurate depictions of the challenges that we experienced in the faith community, you didn’t mention the folks who belong to faith communities where they want to deliver you have a demon? Oh, yeah, of course, you know. And I’ve met quite a few people who’ve been injured by that cluster of reactions to mental health problems and personal suffering. And I suspect there are others who are similarly injured by folks who are attempting to provide supports that might better be provided by medical professionals and professional counselors. I think in my own experience, a really good example of where the church falls into that middle space of providing belonging and value and hope happened when due to a change in my medications. And I’ll say tangentially that, so far, I’ve been given six different diagnoses and treated with 22 different medicines. My sense of what the medical profession is and isn’t able to do is a little bit more nuanced, than some folks might be. But during one of those meds change moments, when a new med caused me to believe – and this is gonna be hard for you to understand if you’ve learned about how helpful all these meds are – a new medication caused me to have the delusional belief that God is evil, and the Bible is a pack of lies like any dysfunctional daddy would create to justify himself, right. And when you’re delusional, you really can’t not believe something. That’s the nature of delusionality, there was a little teeny tiny piece of me that knew that this was not me. But it was really teeny, because my brain had been taken over by this delusion. Because I had a prayer partner in my church who I had been praying with weekly for a couple of years at that point, when she came over on Wednesday night, I could tell her what was going on. And she could respond really calmly, well, you haven’t always believed this. And I don’t think you’re always going to believe this. But while you do believe it, you don’t have to pray, I’ll do the praying. And that’s the kind of middle space intervention that we as a people of God can be really good at. She allowed me to still be part of the people of God, to still be part of that weekly prayer routine that we established, and did not ask of me something that was not possible in that delusional state.

Ben Wideman  09:03
And in some ways, carried something for you too, that you were unable of carrying at that moment. I think in talking with people who’ve experienced trauma or really intense grief, when they found themselves, unable to pray, or unable to talk to God, to have a community, come around them and say, “we will hold this for you. And we will pray when you are unable,” that that seems so much healthier and more authentic. Then when the church surrounds you and says, “well, just try harder,” right? If your friend had said, “Well, that’s a lie, you know, just shake yourself out of it.”

Carlene Hill Byron  09:47
Recite to yourself, these Bible verses whenever you think that it’s like, well, all I would be able to do is recite those Bible verses and then I would get a new diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder because I’m reciting this Bible versus all the time, right?

Ben Wideman  10:01
Yeah, yeah. And perhaps even more debilitating to you to hear that in that space too. If that had been the posture, wow! I’m curious… bringing your your full self, it sounds like to this project must make this a very, very personal book for you.

Carlene Hill Byron  10:19
It really is. And, you know, again, going back to when I say it feels like this was sort of laid out for me. I didn’t spend a lot of time researching, for example, stories I was going to tell, including stories that were not from my own life. These are stories that I’ve heard over four decades of knowing other people with mental health challenges, knowing pastors who interact with folks with mental health challenges. And so, there’s a lot of research to get to the contemporary statistical information that’s included. But the stories are stories that my friends and I have lived through, over these, you know, 40 years that I’ve been an adult 40 plus years that I’ve been an adult with a diagnosis.

Ben Wideman  11:14
Are there metrics, I guess that that faith communities can use to know where their place is, in walking with someone at you know, how do we have the wisdom that your friend had to sort of find that correct posture or moment?

Carlene Hill Byron  11:31
That’s a really interesting question. And I have to say, I think my friend knew the right posture, because she had learned to listen to God. I tell the story in my book of a pastor, I knew who, in the Sunday evening service, you know how bad Sunday evening services can go, that’s when a crazy is gonna show up. That’s when, right? Someone sits down in the front row. And as soon as he starts preaching, the guy’s hand goes up, he’s got a question. And Pastor answers it and goes back to his message and the hands right back up again. Yeah. And so pastor looks at the guy answers the question, and he says, “Look, would you look around? You know, there are a lot of people in this room who have come to hear the message that I prepared. And I also want to answer your questions. So would you be willing to hold your questions till after and then we can go to my office and talk? And I’ll answer all the questions you have.” And so the guy actually had to sit on his hands to stay silent. But he did. And then went back to pastor’s office, and got into this long conversation that ended up with him saying, Well, I don’t usually say this to people, but I have kind of a mind meld with aliens and the aliens in my brain want to ask you a question. And Pastor said, Yeah, I said, well, they want to know, this, Jesus, did he die for them, too. And Pastor was not at that point processing is this guy psychotic, because he says he has aliens in his brain. He was processing, this guy is worried about somebody’s salvation. And so he thought, Well, let’s think about that. Jesus is God’s only son. And he died once for the sins of the world. And that’s for everyone since so, yes, I would say he died for the aliens in your brain. And the guy said, thank you. And he was happy and went out

Ben Wideman  13:32
Wow. Finding… finding a meeting place or connection point with the individual.

Carlene Hill Byron  13:38
Well, it can be really a lot like, I mean, I’m a Senior Health Care chaplain, a lot like when you talk with somebody who has dementia, you know, you don’t necessarily understand what’s going on there. But you do understand there’s a person there. Yeah. And it’s your job to meet the person, not to have a cognitive connection, but a human connection.

Ben Wideman  14:03
Yeah, we don’t try and rationally argue our way to, to the truth with someone with dementia. You mentioned that in your writing, you try and alleviate some of what we’ve done as faith spaces and putting it all on church leadership. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Carlene Hill Byron  14:24
One of the examples that really jumps out at me because it keeps coming up and keeps getting pushed on churches is the idea that churches need to establish and maintain a referral list. And from my perspective, as a person who is employed, and has employment based health insurance, and whose employment based health insurance changes every year, which means my network changes every year, which means the providers that get paid for changes every year. If you develop a referral list, the odds that I can use any one of those providers. Maybe right to write, and how many times you’re going to redevelop that referral list and what criteria are you going to use? So I’ll give you an example. When I was living in North Carolina, I was seeing for a while, the only psychiatrist that the area’s conservative churches recognized as being a Christian like them and able to deal you’re always worried about if you’re a person of faith that you’re going to say something about how you interact with God. And they’re going to take it as a form of delusion, right? Yeah. So that was who I saw. And that’s apparently who diagnosed me as psychotic. You know, you guys can do the best you can at creating a referral list, and it’s still not necessarily going to be very helpful. Yeah. So it’s much more useful for pastors for pastoral leaders, elders, deacons, whatever, to say, look, the odds are pretty good. This is could be a long process. This is how we understand the process goes, there are different people who provide this service. They provide it from different approaches, some people are going to look backwards at your past experiences and try to help you resolve stuff, some are going to look forward, it’s skills you might want to develop, and help you do that. Some are going to seek to alleviate emotional difficulties with medications. And all of these might be helpful to you. And I can’t decide which, but we will be with you through what might be a kind of long process and tiring process of trying to find the right person to help you.

Ben Wideman  16:43
I spent a little bit of time in youth ministry and a few decades back there was this ratio that often got talked about, like how many adults do we need with the amount of youth that we have. And at some point that sort of switched, and it switched in this way, it was almost as if the ratio was reversed. If before, we used to think we need at least one adult for every 10 youth, the new model was, well actually, we need to be creating a network of 10 adults to walk with with each youth. It’s not just the youth pastor, it’s not just the youth volunteers. It’s not just the lead pastor… it’s adults in their community, their school, their, their workplaces, all of them sort of acting as a web of care for this individual, rather than thinking that one person can oversee the lives of 10 to 15 young adults. And it strikes me as I’m hearing you talk that that’s kind of what we need to strive for in the church, right? When we’re walking with someone with mental health. It’s not up to one of us to handle all the people who have mental health challenges, but to surround those of us who carry these mental health challenges with a network of people that they can turn to in their in their time of need. And to imagine us as being more connected just seems so life giving, really, I mean, we all need that, regardless of where we are on the mental health spectrum.

Carlene Hill Byron  18:10
Well, I think that what you just said is really important. We all need that, regardless of where we are on the mental health spectrum. One of the things that is statistically true about people who live with mental health challenges is that we have fewer friends than folks who don’t have mental health challenges. And the friends that we have are more likely to be just family members or dominated by family members. So that network of belonging, that web of belonging that is so critical to normal human health is ruptured in our lives. Here, here for me, one of the things that was remarkable after I moved back to Maine was discovering how nurturing a network of belonging my rotary club turned out to be. You know, who thinks that this just century old civic club of business people would be a good resource for belonging. But you know, when you’re thinking about what are the networks of belonging that folks have, it can include the folks at church and hopefully can include some other folks. Yeah, you know.

Ben Wideman  19:25
Yeah, I wonder what word you would have for those who, like myself have have found their way to a mental health challenge later in life. Many folks experience mental health from a very mental health struggles from a very young age. But some of us like myself, it happens much later is there is there word of wisdom that you have for for people who you know only now are discovering how challenging mental health can be.

Carlene Hill Byron  19:56
First off, you are only average In that, because the CDC says that half of us will experience a mental health challenge in our lifetime. So that, to me says that there is this bar between no mental health challenges and some mental health challenges that’s exactly at the middle, which says it’s normal to have mental health challenges. I mean, half of us don’t half of us do, you know, big whoop, right. And I think that, and without knowing what’s going on for you, there’s a lot of stuff that happens as we move into our lives. That is challenging. Yeah, I mean, I think particularly, you know, at your age, there’s going to be career transitions, there’s going to be stress of family management, that potential sandwich generation, caring for aging parents and young children at the same time. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that is gonna make you tear out your hair, if it makes you, your mind go ragged. At my age, man, people die all the time. I have a lot of friends who die. And it’s normal to struggle with some of these things. It would not be normal, if you didn’t, yeah, I mean, really, you know. And I think it’s really sad that we’re reaching a point where we’re looking at folks who are behaving and feeling the things that even in the case of, you know, your midlife, young family stresses, our evolutionary adaptations, I mean, you’re supposed to feel anxious when there’s a big challenge in front of you. That’s what allows you to focus and drive towards succeeding. And so when we make these into disorders, instead of normal human functions, it’s kind of problematic. Same thing. I mean, this new transitional version of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental illnesses, has just defined a new diagnosis called prolonged grief disorder. I mean, it used to be they could call you chronically depressed if you weren’t over your grief in two weeks. But now, if you are, if a year after you have lost someone you’d love, you still think about them every day, you still feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself, you still find it hard to be around the things that represent time you share together, you can be diagnosed, and I would say you are normal, and you are going through what it is to find a new path when a significant part of your life is gone.

Ben Wideman  22:41
Oh, that’s so refreshing and life giving? And this whole conversation really, currently. And I’ve been feeling that. Where do you find hope? As you as you find yourself in such a heavy space of mental health, where are you finding hope in this moving forward?

Carlene Hill Byron  23:01
Well, I’ll tell you what I said to a friend who is not a follower of Jesus that I was having coffee with on Friday. I love the picture at the very end of the Bible, of a place where there isn’t even any salt to make tears out of. And I love the pictures in the Old Testament of the time when the people of God are revealed in their glory. And the trees are clapping, and the mountains are dancing, and it’s like I want to go to that party. You know, there’s little hope that I find along the way. And as we all do, as we face and surmount specific challenges, but there’s also that big hope that we can hold on to even when the challenges are not surmountable, or when something that we thought we had attained suddenly crashes. So I find it really revealing that in a European study done by the London School of Economics, of what community engagement intervention was most effective in helping older adults like myself, deal with depression. And it wasn’t sports clubs, or political clubs or neighborhood associations or the pub, they go to every night. It was their faith community. Yeah. And of course, Europe doesn’t do a lot of faith community. So that’s even particularly remarkable, right? Yeah. And what I see is the difference there is that you can work politically for something that crashes Right? And, you know, even decades and and you’re disappointed your sports club. Sports Clubs fail all the time, right? And unless you’re in Boston, you crash. And the same thing with you know, all kinds of human associations but in our faith communities, we are placing our hope in something that does not change and does not fail. And that allows even the losses against short term hopes to be placed in the context of a hope that doesn’t change.

Ben Wideman  25:21
Carlene, it has been a joy for me to have this conversation today. I want to say thank you. And I encourage those who are resonating with what you’re saying to consider picking up this book, Not Quite Fine: Mental Health, Faith, and Showing Up for One Another. Carlene, if there are folks who want to follow what you’re up to, do you have online places that you point people?

Carlene Hill Byron  25:45
You can look at “Carlene Hill Byron Author” on Facebook. That’s the best place to find me online. And when I post to my blog, it will always appear there.

Ben Wideman  25:56
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us today.

Carlene Hill Byron  26:01
Thank you for having me, Ben.

Ben Wideman  26:04
Next week on ~ing Podcast, join us as we sit down with pastor and author Jonny Rashid.

Jonny Rashid  26:10
I think that it comes from how polarized our political system is, and the anxiety that comes with appearing partisan or appearing political, because people don’t want to do that. And so what I talk about in my book is, I want to get people permission to stand on the side of the oppressed, even if it appears to be incidentally partisan.

Ben Wideman  26:33
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.