A mental healthy testimony by Rev. Brittany Stillwell
I like to joke that it takes a coach, a therapist, and Zoloft to keep me well, but I guess it’s more truth than a joke, even if I say it with a sparkle in my eye. I can name and claim this fact with humor because it is this dynamic trio that creates space for the sparkle. Believe it or not, the sparkle has not always been a given in my life.
My mental health journey began with a coach. I was seeking a church with whom to minister, and I continued being rejected right and left, often implicitly and explicitly because I am a woman. In the midst of this roller-coaster of interviews and rejections, Pam Durso, the Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry at the time, reached out to see if I would be willing to help someone get the hours they needed for a clergy coaching certification. What started as free coaching while I struggled with my call to ministry and sense of worth as a pastor evolved into paid coaching for over five years. This coach helped me discern my call to Memphis, South Africa, and even my call to Little Rock. She helped me find balance in my work and home life and guided me through the tumultuous waters that come with being a woman in ministry.
Coaching is not therapy. A coach’s job is not to tell you what to do or how to do it, but to serve as a discerning partner for the journey. It centers around the idea that the answers to our struggles do not come from somewhere outside of us, but can be found within; we just sometimes need help getting there. A coach’s greatest tool is a well-formed question, and it is amazing how deep this tool can dig. Here’s an example:
I was struggling with my role in my church and in the beginning stages of recovery from a traumatic divorce when I said to my coach one day, “I just wish I could drop everything and go rock babies in South Africa.” She responded with a magical question that mined the depths of my soul and changed everything: “Why can’t you?” I remember sitting there stunned, searching for an answer. I said the first and only thing I could think of, “I have a cat,” and as I did, I knew something big had just shifted within me. A year later, I was talking to my coach, standing on a rock, attempting to maintain good cell service, in the middle of Village of Hope in South Africa.
Though I had always been interested in therapy, it took a major life crisis for me to make the call and show up. I wish I had called years before, but mostly I am grateful I reached out for help when I needed it most. It took a lot of advocating for myself and walking away from someone who wasn’t well-equipped to find the right fit. This piece of my mental health puzzle didn’t fall into my lap as easily as coaching did, but the work has been more than worth it. Though, I leave therapy with what I lovingly call the “therapy hangover,” I have grown to look forward to our sessions. I can sense the lies I have told myself being rewritten. I am more and more frequently able to name triggers for what they are instead of being confused by my strong, emotional reactions to seemingly ordinary situations.
My crisis has passed, and the trauma is no longer acute, but I still see my therapist at least monthly. It is part check-up, part long-term work. We have an established relationship of understanding and trust should new crises arise; trust that allows me to do the long-term work of healing the deep-seated, long-forgotten pieces of my soul that have been broken.
Zoloft became a part of my daily life at a critical moment, and I am grateful every day that there was a voice inside me that said, “this isn’t right, get help.” My wounds were fresh, and the on-going trauma was making it hard to keep going. I wasn’t making it day by day or even moment by moment, but breath by breath. I had managed to get to my family, my safe place, but the pain was still so searing that I found myself contemplating ways to put an end to it for good. We were in Boston waiting for the subway, and I remember thinking, “I could just step off this platform and it would all stop.” I don’t think I would have done it, but that thought alone was terrifying. As soon as we got to our hotel, I got on the phone and made a doctor’s appointment. I needed more immediate help.
For a while I thought the Zoloft would be temporary. I hadn’t needed it before, and surely when this crisis passed, I wouldn’t need it anymore. However, twice I have attempted to wean myself off and go without, and both times I have realized just how much my daily medication helps me cope. There is noise in my brain that makes me replay issues and situations over and over. A fog that makes everyday life blurry and everything I do a little harder. For me, the medication clears up the fog and quiets the noise. Zoloft allows me to be truly present in my life so that I can feel a wide range of emotions deeply and authentically.
Mental health is not static, and my needs are constantly shifting. It has a been a long journey on a winding, bumpy (yellow brick) road that continues to stretch out before me. I’ve had a coach, a therapist, and Zoloft for over five years now. One to help me navigate the complexities of being a female pastor, one to help me process the depth of my life’s trauma and pain, and another to keep the chemicals in my brain in balance so that I can cope with life. It’s a scraggly cast of characters that help make me whole and for that I am truly grateful.