Silent no more: One pastor shares mental health struggles

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For more than 38 years, Vance Lowe was a successful United Methodist minister, with churches growing and thriving under his leadership. What his congregations and those closest to him did not know is that Vance daily struggled with mental illness, which led to addiction and eventual hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Listen as Vance candidly tells his story, sharing hope to those who, like him, live with mental health struggles, as well as suggesting ways United Methodists can combat stigma and offer help.

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This episode posted on May 13, 2022.

Transcript

Prologue

Crystal Caviness, host: For more than 38 years Vance Lowe was a successful United Methodist minister with churches growing and thriving under his leadership. What his congregations and those closest to him did not know is that Vance daily struggled with mental illness which led to addiction and eventual hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. On this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape Vance candidly tells his story, sharing hope to those who like him live with mental illness as well as suggesting ways United Methodists can combat stigma and offer hope.

Crystal: Hi Vance. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Vance Lowe: Thank you for having me.

Crystal: Before we delve into the topic for today which…we’re gonna talk about mental health, I’d love for you to just share a little bit about yourself and how you spend your time.

Vance Lowe: Well, I’m a retired Methodist minister, of course. And 38 years in the ministry. I retired in 2017. I can’t believe it’s been 5 years since I retired, almost. And I have 6 grandchildren, 2…4 right next door and 2 about an hour and a half away. And I love to do anything outside, golf, gardening, yard. I was the kind of kid that mom had to call in at dark. So I can’t work ‘til dark anymore, but I love being outside. Oh, and I’m married for 45+ years. I’d have to do the math. And my wife’s gonna kill me. But it’s 45+ years.

Crystal: Thank you again for being here. We’re going to discuss mental health and why this is an important conversation to have, especially in the church. I was doing a little bit of research preparation for today. And the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in 2020 that one out of five U.S. adults experience mental illness with one in 20 of those people having a serious mental illness. So it’s definitely a relevant topic. It’s affecting people and families inside our churches. Will you tell me and tell us a little bit about your story as it pertains to this topic?

Vance Lowe:   Well, I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with me. But from about age 25 on I began experiencing increasing depression and anxiety. And at each appointment I moved to it seemed to get worse. So I sought out a counselor at my second appointment and began to take antidepressants. And they helped a little. But for the next years, up until 2005, I guess, it was just depression. And my form of mental health is bipolar depression 1. And I say that because it’s important to get a proper diagnosis so that you know what you’re dealing with. And I thought mine was just depression. So about 2005 I moved to a really busy 800-member church. It was real active and demanded things of you. When you have bipolar disorder you have a lot of lows. And you have these periods of elevated energy and mood and you feel like you can do just anything. Well, churches love that because they love a manic pastor because he’ll do everything, you know. And that was pretty much me. I just tried to do…no limits, just wide open. And I found out that my mental illness was getting worse and my depression was getting worse. And I chose to use alcohol to self-medicate. A lot of people don’t realize that folks with mental health issues turn to substance abuse, especially when they can’t find the right help anywhere else…just do something to deal with the pain. And I got in trouble with that. In 2006, you know, I wish I could say God just reached down and grabbed me and made me stop drinking. But it was actually the State of North Carolina and some blue lights in my rearview mirror. And I got a DWI, spent a night in jail. Had to tell my church about it, and took a month’s leave and satisfied the requirements of my bishop and his assistant and then went back to work. And I continued to work until 2008, but something was still going on. And the anti-depressants just weren’t enough. And in 2008 my wife was out of town and I was in a really manic phase, the worst one I’ve ever had. And so I decided to pack up some stuff in my car, including a lot of camping stuff. And I had a plan to leave, just to run away, just to escape from the stress, from the church, from all that was pushing in on me. My father had Alzheimer’s and I was trying to take care of him and the whole bit. And when you have bipolar 1 disorder you can have what’s called a psychotic break where you just kind of lose touch with reality, which I feel like I did, because what was absurd starting making sense to me. It all made sense. My plan made sense. And I leaving a wife, 2 daughters, a church. I was leaving an ailing father in a memory care facility, leaving a career. And my plan was to go camp in state parks because you can hide in state parks pretty much, and then move to another one and move to another one. And then end up out west somewhere. So I loaded everything up. My wife was out of town. So it was a convenient time. I wrote letters to everybody—my wife, my daughters, my supervisor, my staff parish chairman. And then took one last look at the house, locked up and took off. That’s when God intervened because I only made it 10 miles in my runaway. When I got near the exit of the hospital the words of my therapist on this answer machine came into my mind, when it said, ‘If you have an emergency, go to your nearest emergency room.’ So that’s what I did. And I went to the ER and I told the intake nurse that I was just really in a bad way and didn’t know what was wrong with me and I needed some help. And so they admitted me. The ER called in for a psychiatrist to do a consult. And it’s kind of…both a sad statement about our system and a reality. She asked me that question you’re always asked, ‘Do you feel like you’re a danger to yourself or others?’ And I knew that was the only way I was gonna get some help. Plus, I didn’t know what I might do if I left there. So I said, Yes. Well, that ended up in a hospitalization for a week in a place 2 hours away. I had to ride there shackled, handcuffed in the back of a sheriff’s car. And that’s just still the way they do it. And I understand that. I understand why. But it was very humiliating. And got there and after a week in the hospital a lot of group therapy and individual therapy, that’s when it was determined that what was going on with me was bipolar 1 disorder, which is different from regular depression. And I was diagnosed and given a medication regimen and assorted treatment plans, some ideas how to change my lifestyle. And one of the first things that I did that I think helped was that I accepted it. I accepted the fact, okay, here we are. This is what I have. And this is how I treat it. And one problem with bipolar 1 disorder is noncompliance with medication. And I never really had that because I wanted to do all I could to get better. And believe it or not I got out of the hospital and the very next week I was back in church, leading a Palm Sunday service. My wife explained my absence by telling people I had the flu, which I did have the psyche flu as I call it, a bad case of the psyche flu. And when I went back I changed some ways I worked. I took my medicine. I was very, very lucky because a lot of people who receive medication don’t get the right combo. But make a long story short I was able to get reengaged with the church and served 2 more years there. And then I served 7 years at my next appointment and then retired. The ironic thing about it is I didn’t tell either church about my mental health hospitalization because I was afraid to. I chose to suffer in silence all those years. And then I chose not to tell my story to them. And it’s ironic that I was willing to tell the one church I got a DWI, but didn’t feel comfortable telling ‘em I had been in a mental health hospital for a week. And that’s just kind of sheds light on the perceived stigma, which is the guilt and shame you feel like you receive if someone knows you have a mental illness. And I was afraid it would affect my career, my job. So I just kept it to myself. Now that I’m retired, telling that story has been healing and helpful. So I do it. But there’s a lot more to my story. But that’s sort of the highlight.

Crystal:  Vance, thank you for sharing your story in such a candid and authentic and transparent way. I’ll share with our audience that I’ve known you and your family since the mid-80s. You were appointed to the church where my family attended. And you were just such a beloved pastor and your family is just so dear to me and has been now for, you know, more than 35 years. And as I heard you telling your story I just felt overwhelmed with…you were going through these things and we had no idea. You were the pastor who was doing it all. You were unstoppable. You were always there for whatever family emergency. My family needed you when my grandfather was sick and passed. And so many other things. And I just wonder how does that…. I mean, did you feel alone? Did you feel like there were two of you?

Vance Lowe:  Yeah, I felt like …. I mentioned earlier, I suffered in silence by choice. And there were some really long, dark, awful days because…like in 2006 before I quit drinking…. (And I am glad to say I had my last drink in 2006 and I’ve been sober ever since.) But yeah, I mean, the image was that I would be depressed, or, ah, extremely manic one day. I would do my normal job. I’d put on my happy face. I have a gregarious personality. I’d switch that on. And that night I’d go home and drink myself to sleep. And I’d get up the next morning and I’d feel really rough. And I’d put on my happy face and do it again. So what people saw on the outside did not match up with what was going on on my inside. So I kind of did feel like split. And that in itself created a lot of pain and it was sort of a miserable feeling. I did have therapists. I talked to them. But I just really never told anybody about my struggles. They knew the side of me that was happy and gregarious and worked hard and ministered to people. I was told, you know, all my ministry that I was good in crisis situations and death situations and funerals. That’s not how I felt inside, that I was good. So that’s a long time, over 35 years, to kind of feel two ways.

Crystal:  Absolutely. So you were able to…your career really thrived. You moved churches and went and helped churches grow and just kept getting larger churches. That’s kind of the path…that career path for a United Methodist minister. You were successful in that. Were you seeing along the way, though… I would imagine that you had church members who also were dealing with mental health crises that maybe were turning to you. Were you coming in contact with people that you were maybe recognizing yourself and having to be a counselor for them, or be, definitely minister to them?

Vance Lowe: Yes. And I think that’s the one thing that helped. I knew enough about my situation to know what to recommend to them in counseling. And I would often recommend counseling for a person. I was hooked up with a counselor and I would recommend that person to them. So that’s one way I turned it to a positive. They didn’t really have to go into a great detail to tell me what depressed felt like. Or, you know, I mean, I knew, but I was able to help out of that. And that was…. You know, one redemptive thing is that I was able to use my experience to help others. But yet I would go home and feel terrible.

Crystal:  Looking back, how could the church have served you better? How can the church serve people better now?

Vance Lowe: Well, one of my regrets is that I didn’t share some of my story. And it could have been a teaching moment for the church. And we could have walked through it together and learned a lot. But, you know, you hear comments from people about mentally ill folks. The labels they use—crazy, insane, off-the-rocker. My dad (God love him) used to say people were "two cards shy of a full deck." And that kind of labels. And then people talk about folks who are mentally ill in negative ways. And so such just hearing a little bit of that and the not the bad, I decided I’m not telling my story. I’ll be rejected or treated different or looked down on. And the other thing is the silence of the church on it. I read a book once by Amy Simpson who said that silence from the church on mental illness sounds a whole lot like silence from God to a person suffering with mental illness. And so one way to remove that stigma, which is the guilt and shame people feel, is to learn…for the church to learn all it can about mental illness to recognize that the stigma is real and understand its impact and adopt an accepting, compassionate language about mental illness and making discussions about mental illness more normal. That may mean from the pulpit. That may mean in a support group. But just trying to normalize the conversation around mental illness in all the ways the church can think of to do that.

Crystal: You’re doing some work right now, kind of with that goal.

Vance Lowe:  Yes. I’m volunteering with a group called NAMI. And they have a program called FaithNet. And NAMI’s totally volunteer. And I got on the board and had already gotten interested in FaithNet. And so I’m now in charge of coming up with the program we’re going to develop to present to the churches. And we’ve got two dates…two engagements potentially to do that. And we’ll just have to see how it goes. And from that I’m sure we’ll tweak it or whatever. But myself and 2 or 3 other people will be doing these programs, and hopefully in our area, you know, we can begin to do more and more. It’s a great program. It talks about stigma and mental health responses. The biggest thing for a church to know, though, is that mental illness is not a lack of moral character. It’s not anybody’s fault. Mental illness is a medical condition. Someone once said to me that a psychiatrist is a doctor and, if a doctor has to treat a condition, it’s a medical condition. And just like any other major medical conditions, we try to (in this program) share with churches that you sort of do what you would with any other medical major illness. You reach out, take a casserole, you call, you check in. You just do the kinds of things with caring and acceptance. It’s funny. Someone’s called mental illness the non-casserole disease because it doesn’t get the casseroles usually. But you know, for the church to create a culture in which it can just see people dealing with mental illness issue. It’s just having a medical condition like someone with diabetes or blood sugar trouble or even heart trouble or even cancer and respond to them the same way they would these other people.

Crystal:  You’re working with NAMI and that is a national organization, but your work is done in your county. So my understanding is NAMI has chapters all through the U.S. So people should check in with their location as far as what kind of services are offered. Correct?

Vance Lowe: Correct. It’s a national, a state and then local affiliates. And each one should have a website of its own. If not, the main one, NAMI.org, can help you find affiliates in your area.

Crystal:  So, I know that you’ve worked hard. You’ve said that you’ve worked hard to find a way to have balance in your life. Can you talk about that part of your journey because when I hear you talk about that there’s so much hope there? And I think that hearing hope from someone like you who feels like you’re working through it and you’ve reached a place where you can saying you’re managing your mental illness would be an encouragement.

Vance Lowe:   Well, balance is important with bipolar 1 disorder especially because the ups and downs are what are the bad part. So I just try to have a good mix of being outdoors, reading, journaling, meditating. I use a variety of things to keep me balanced. I see a spiritual counselor every two weeks. That helps. I see my psychiatrist for medication. And it’s all those things. Enjoy my grandkids, go on trips. It’s all these things put together to try a variety of things that keeps me balanced, and not doing just one thing or another, but all these things, which sounds a little counterintuitive, but it keeps me balanced.

Crystal:  Vance, you were going through, since you were 25, so for the majority of your life you’ve said that you’ve really been struggling with your mental health. What part did your faith play in that?

Vance Lowe: Well, you know, it gave me hope. I never felt like God was not with me. Through all the ups and downs and bad experiences and crazy things and bad judgement I felt like God was there. And I didn’t feel judged by God. I felt compassion from God. And that just helped me to know that I had God beside me walking through this. I didn’t understand everything. And I used to beg God to take it away, but I always felt like God was with me.

Crystal:  That’s a very encouraging space to be in because I, as I was mentioning earlier, I would think hopelessness…that a lot of people with mental illness might feel hopeless.

Vance Lowe: Yes. And isolation and withdrawal and loneliness. And that’s where a faith community can be such a support together in a person going through that, and offer the spiritual resources, the fellowship, the community that will help with the isolation and loneliness. Faith communities are in a unique position because they’re seen as safe spaces. Sometimes they’re more available and accessible than a mental health system and people turn to them first sometimes. So, that’s one reason faith communities have such an important role to play.

Crystal:  Vance, how do we start that conversation in the church?

Vance Lowe:   Well, I think…. Naturally I’m going to say this as a minister. But I think it needs to start from the top down. But it can also start from the bottom up. It just needs to be started. It takes brave individuals, again, to say, you know, we need to talk more about mental health and mental illness here. And then try to do programming and preaching and praying for people in worship (with their permission, of course), praying for folks who suffer with mental illness. And I do think that a strong leadership in that direction—either strong lay leadership or strong pastoral leadership and ideal would be both—to just kind of make it happen. Take those first steps and get it started. And I think part of the problem is that since it’s not being talked about no one does know where to start. So I think those initial conversations and attempts to find out more about how they can do…. There’s a book by Amy Simpson called Troubled Minds that really give churches a good perspective on things they can do to begin the conversation and offer the resources people need who are suffering with mental illness.

Crystal:  I just have a couple more questions today, and the final question. Is there any other information you’d like to share or any other encouragement you’d like to offer now that you have stepped into that space of sharing your story?

Vance Lowe: Well I just think it’s important for people who suffer with mental illness to not lose hope. I think that it’s important for the church to offer resources to help with that. And 75% of people who have serious mental illnesses do recover. And usually that involves a treatment plan; medicine, psychiatrist, psychologist, counseling, getting plenty of sleep, taking care of your body, and then the spiritual resources the church offers are a big part in that. So all that works together, I think, to provide hope and help people look…and be able to see beyond their mental illness to a different future.

Crystal:  Thank you for sharing that. The last question that we ask all of our guests on Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Vance Lowe: Well, I do a variety of things. I mentioned earlier the outdoors and trying to keep balance. Lately I have learned to put self-care (a 2 1/2 hour block a week) on my calendar as something I make intentional. And what I do during that 2 1/2  hours is up to me because it’s to take care of myself. It may involve a long walk. It may involve reading, but just to have it on the calendar so that I could say to someone, well, I can’t do that at this time because I have something planned. That’s very helpful. And one very different kind of thing that helps me is to plan trips. I could be a travel agent. I’ve learned how to do research and look into rentals and the whole nine yards. And sometimes when I’m feeling a little stuck I’ll just talk with my wife about our next trip. And we’ll plan it.

Crystal: I know that you have certainly planned some amazing trips that have been a gift to both you and your wife and your whole family. So that’s a very cool way to nurture yourself. Vance, thank you for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape today. I just appreciate your courage and your transparency in sharing with our audience and your encouragement and words of hope. So thank you so much.

Vance Lowe:   You’re welcome. I just wish anyone who might think they’re suffering from mental illness well and encourage them to get help they need, and encourage the church to be open and accepting. That’s part of the help.

Epilogue

Crystal: That was the Reverend Vance Lowe discussing his own mental health challenges as well as sharing resources for churches and individuals. To learn more about the books, organizations and programs that Vance mentioned, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.