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Budding Faithful Friendships with Mental Illness: Eric Riddle

Our guest today is Eric Riddle. Eric and I first met in March, 2014, a week before the release of my spiritual memoir, Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission. We went on to form a faithful friendship that, well, I’ll let Eric tell you about it.. (My words are in italics.)

Thanks for joining us, Eric. We’re here to talk about faith and mental illness, two subjects I know you are passionate about. First tell me how you came to faith.

I was raised in the church. As many who grow up in the church, I was following in my parent’s tradition. I became more serious about my faith after my daughter was born. Going on a “Walk to Emmaus” retreat was a turning point in getting much more serious.

I’ve heard those can be very transformational.

Yes. The retreat was for men only and about 40 guys representing many churches attended. I really began to undestand the meaning of “the body of Christ” during that weekend. I think it is very important to spend time time Christians of many different denominations and worship styles.

I forgave my father after that retreat and let go of a lot of anger.

I recently heard a phrase, “Forgiven people forgive.” Sounds like that’s what happened to you. Okay, let’s shift gears to mental illness. Do you have a diagnostic label? More importantly, when did you first notice you were struggling with mental health?

My diagnosis is Bipolar II. My mental health issues became apparent when I moved to Columbus, IN from Owensboro, KY when I was sixteen. I was uprooted and became depressed for about nine months. Bouts with suicide… Our rental was across the street from a graveyard when we moved.

I went through stretches where anxiety would activate my insomnia and I would dive into a deep depression. During the 7 year period from 1996-2002, I experienced depression about 25% of the time.

In 2002, I had a manic episode during my senior year in college following a panic attack. That was the only panic attack I’ve experienced and it was the start of a very tumultuous few months.

I was at my girlfriend’s house getting ready for a double date and I had some anxiety that was not related to anything in particular. The other couple were friends that we had known for a long time, but I couldn’t get out of bed to go to dinner. It was probably 8 pm or earlier on a Friday night and I began hyperventilating and passed out. I did not wake up until the next morning.

When I woke up, I felt absolutely free of the previous depression that had really been hounding me for about 4 months. The vitality stayed with me for a long time.

It’s one of the experiences that is hard for many to believe unless you have gone through it.

 

At the time, I was not practicing my faith so I didn’t relate it to a spiritual experience It was more like a serendipitous “overcoming” of my depression.

So, now that you do practice faith, how would describe what happened?

Great question. I have never thought of that and it may take a while to have an answer. My initial thought is that God was showing me that there are forces outside of my control that create profound physical, emotional, and spiritual changes.

 

It truly felt somewhat miraculous at the time but not something I attributed to God. Unfortunately, it led me down a reckless path that turned into the only manic episode I have ever experienced. Thankfully, after a brief hospitalization about a month later, I quickly stabilized.  

Let’s move forward to when we met in 2014. Would you describe how that came about?

You were highlighted in newspaper regarding your upcoming book release. I had been hospitalized a year prior for depression and consistent suicidal ideation. While I did recover well (and have not been hospitalized since), it led to a heartbreaking job loss.

When I met you, I had only been out of work for about two weeks and was thinking a lot about starting a mental health ministry. Our relationship was very much God directed.

I agree. So we met for coffee. Jill’s Diner, right? Go on.

Yes. I felt an instant connection to your faith perspective in dealing with a mental health condition.  It was the start of many long walks and prayers together. You truly discipled me during your time in Columbus.

Now, you have been led to advocate for folks with mental illness and I see how your faith shapes your approach. What do you see as one of the major steps the Church needs to take to reach out to those of us who have troubled minds?

I think that prayer is a great place to start. Discernment is important, because ultimately I think we need people to feel comfortable sharing their mental health struggles with fellow Christians.  Overcoming stigma, unfortunately, is just as difficult in church settings as it is in society in general.  Prayer and discernment help people know the appropriate time to share.

My home church is doing well in this regard. I have a friend at my church who was hospitalized this week and his wife was praising God before our worship service.

Really? What was she praising God for?

The prior week, before the hospitalization, the church prayed for him and his family during the church service. The family had no fear about being public and instead was confident that Christ’s love would be expressed by our church community.

During his hospitalization, the support for the family was the same as if he had suffered a heart attack. Thank God it wasn’t a heart attack!

That’s beautiful. Your church does an exceptional job reaching out to folks who are broken hearted.

Yes, our church hosts the Faithful Friends mental health ministry, so we have awareness of mental health struggles in our church culture. It’s not surprising that the family was able to be transparent.

For the reader, Eric and I began the Faithful Friends ministry as a faith-based support group. I know in my experience with the group that support was quite evident. We could see the Holy Spirit moving within us and among us.

It is peer-led, so it’s a different experience compared to clinical therapy. There’s the key element of strengths-based encouragement, rather than trying to reduce/eliminate negative symptoms. The routine of prayer, wellness discussion, scripture study, and open ended personal sharing really helps.

One thing I admire about you, Eric, is that in your personal mental health history, you build a bridge between the secular and the sacred, church and community. You focus on hope and the process of recovery both at Faithful Friends and the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). Before we close, I would like to share a couple of your haikus. You’ve been writing a daily haiku since September 9, 2016. Would you briefly note the role that writing plays in your mental health.

I have been a writer all of my life. I published a book in 2009 called Watershed: Service in the Wake of Disaster. The book was about the concurrent recovery for me and my hometown following a historic flood. It is through service to others that I am best able to cope with my symptoms.

 

Recently, I have been writing haikus. I like the challenge of packing meaning into seventeen syllables. I will leave you with a couple!

 

2.28.17

No need to impress

Share life with humility

New friends will emerge

 

5.1.17

Share the abundance

Can’t divide the infinite

Your joy is my joy

Published inDelight in Disorder

6 Comments

  1. Carol Oktavec Carol Oktavec

    I first met Tony and Eric at a NAMI meeting in Columbus, IN. My adult son had just been released from the Hospital & we desperately needed to connect with other people who could understand the experiences we’d had with mental illness. My son and I began attending the weekly Faithful Friends meetings. At first we agreed that we both simply felt better when we left the meeting than when we had arrived.
    We’ve continued to attend the group meetings and I can’t say enough good things about the Faithful Friends model of healthy support for persons with a mental health diagnosis.
    At first I didn’t think I would be welcome since my son was the one with the illness, but everyone made me feel welcome and appreciated. I learned that the person with a diagnosis is allowed to bring a family member or support person with them.
    The Faithful Friends group serves as a bridge between illness & wellbeing, between isolation and community and between spiritual deficit and healthy spiritual participation! I thank God for our “Faithful Friends”! I know now we don’t have to face mental illness alone! We have been and continue to be blessed by God through this very important group. Thank you, Tony and Eric!

    • Carol, thank you for your generous words. I am grateful to God for moving in our lives through Faithful Friends, like you.

  2. David Teike David Teike

    Thank you for posting this.

    • You are most welcome, David. It’s good to hear from you. Stay in touch.

  3. Tony, what a wonderful friendship you have with Eric, and what godly and encouraging work you both are doing through Faithful Friends.
    You did not mention if Eric has a blog or website. If he does, would you please include his url?

    • Thank you for your encouraging words, Susan. Faithful friends are indeed more precious than gold.

      Eric does not currently have an active blog or website, but I’ll let him know you asked. Who know where the Lord may lead?

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