Sickness, Madness and Burnout

You may have heard of Charles and Mary Lamb, who were siblings as well as the authors of the literary classic, ‘Tales of Shakespeare’.  What you may not know, is that, in 1796, aged 31, Mary murdered her mother and stabbed her father.

What enabled Mary to keep writing and out of prison, was her brother’s intervention and care, as well as an enlightened diagnosis of sickness/ madness, rather than just ‘badness’. Lisa Appighanesi explores this in her book, ‘Mad, Bad + Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the present’.  It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between sickness and mental health, as well as the changing cultural evaluations and value judgments made throughout history. However, what interests me even more than this, is what prompted her initial breakdown.

Here’s one of Appignasi’s observations:

What emerges from Mary’s and indeed Charles’s letters, is the sense that her feminine identity is tied up with being ‘useful’, ever busy in household tasks or indeed, needlework, or ever seeing friends, being serviceable to them, entertaining… For Mary Lamb, the very feminine usefulness she prides herself on is also the agitation which leads to her exhaustion, which in  turn brings on her mania.

Is it just me, or does this sound just a teensy bit familiar? I haven’t yet swung the meat cleaver at my nearest and dearest, (well, only in jest). However, my own  crash was precipitated in large part by my drives to be ‘the best’ – student, wife, church worker…you name it, I’d do it – Better. These drives have been a feature of my life for as long as I can remember – and I see them in my friends, especially other women.  As I look at my own experience, I can’t help wondering what part they played in making me sick.  Unconsciously, as I flew from meeting to assignment, I remember thinking, ‘this is actually horrific.  But I can’t stop.  If I do, everything will crumble and I’ll never get back up again.’ Perhaps if I’d listened to those worries things would have turned out differently.  But in the event, my body and brain just gave up.  And in some senses it was a blessed relief. But I wonder how many modern malaises also begin the same way.

This is not a problem restricted to women – but it also seems to me that women have a particular leaning to find identity or meaning in usefulness or busyness.  Women are  twice as likely to get depressed as men, whilst in the UK, one in nine women seek help for a mixture of anxiety and depression.  And when the busyness gets too much, any number of maladies present themselves as ways to get off this self-made hamster wheel.  (I discuss this more in  “A sicknote from life.”)

That’s not to say that sickness is a simple choice or caused by bad decisions.  That may be the case, but there are always a host of factors at play, many outside our control.  It’s also to refute the idea that people with mental health issues are somehow separate from or weaker than those with ‘purely’ physical complaints.  Our bodies and brains are intricately connected – society may encourage us to compartmentalise, but we’re whole people and when something goes wrong in one part, it impacts the rest.

Anorexia for example, has left me with irreversible and (seriously unsexy) digestive  failure.  (This isn’t necessarily par for the course, which is partly why eating disorders are so insidious.  What will leave some relatively unscarred, will kill others – even at a relatively high weight). So, my stomach doesn’t really work and there’s equipment and medication and surgery that can help.  But guess what, when I’m stressed, it’s worse.  So it’s both – mental and physical.  But when I’m tired or feeling low, my head says it’s neither.

In the same way, how we act physically has a huge impact on how we’re doing mentally.  When we’re running on empty, especially over a long period of time, something has to give.

This isn’t just an issue for management consultants or bankers in the city.  We’re all familiar with case after case of vicars or Christian workers who experience physical and mental burnout, often just a few years after leaving college.  Rest is there in the Bible for a reason.  The Lord doesn’t want us to work twenty-four seven – and burning out gloriously for Him is a poisonous myth.  Yet the need to be needed is a powerful urge driven by pride and a lack of trust and whitewashed with good intentions.  So perhaps we need to listen to our heads and our Bibles, before our bodies take over and make the decisions for us.

4 thoughts on “Sickness, Madness and Burnout

  1. Spot on, again. Women are really prone to this in a way which I could never imagine myself being like. I remember GK Chesterton saying that it was because of this that he didn’t think women should have equal work rights as men, because they’re so much more conscientious that they’d work themselves into the ground (good point, if a little reactionary). If you knew a woman like this would you speak to her about it? A friend of my wife’s is just like this, and my wife gets worried for her, but how do you go about mentioning it?

  2. As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of Genesis 3:16 in relation to the people-pleasing nature of women. I’m reminded daily that my perfectionism is sin. But it’s precisely that sin that always leads me back to the Lord. I’m more than a little conflicted. ;)

  3. Hi Missy
    That’s a great observation. As you say, the Fall impacts the relationality of women and the labour of men. But in God’s grace, even our sin can lead us back to Him and to a better understanding of ourselves and others.

  4. Hi David

    Good question .
    I would raise it – but in the context of my own struggles with the same issues. I find that when I’m honest about my own weakness, that can be the best starting point for discussions. It depends too on your friend’s personality type and your wife’s. I don’t have a subtle bone in my body, so I’d probably raise it outright, but that’s not always an ideal approach. And it’s not so much the busyness that’s the problem as what underlies it – which is where prayer and listening makes the biggest difference.

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