Tommie Kessler is an active Christian, a missionary kid, a passionate servant to individuals with special needs, a Jesus lover, and someone suffering from bipolar disorder who has survived multiple suicide attempts.
And on Friday her story, along with the stories of others affected by suicide in some way, will be displayed in black and white photographs as part of Grace June’s “Survive Project Art Show” that will take place at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (1832 W. Dean Ave.), from 5-8 p.m.
Kessler’s story with mental illness and suicide is not an uncommon one, but it is an uncommonly known struggle in many of the Christian circles to which she’s belonged.
For Kessler, she thought there was something wrong with her because she believed she was not supposed to have mental health struggles as a Jesus follower.
“I struggled with my faith. Why, if I’m saved, why don’t I have peace?” Kessler explained. “The Bible says, if you’re saved you have peace, right? You know. Or, if you’re saved, then you have joy. Those are the byproducts of being a Christian, and so I didn’t understand why I didn’t have those things. So I really struggled in my faith and not knowing what to do.”
Kessler grew up in a Christian home, her parents were missionaries, and she remembers making a profession of faith when she was five years old. But throughout her life, she can always remember feeling a darkness clouding her thoughts.
At the age of 13, Kessler experienced her first strong descent into depression, while her family was on the mission field in Colombia, South America. Living in that country didn’t help because of the heightened guerilla terrorism alerts and fears of being either kidnapped or killed. She attended a boarding school then and remembers she and her classmates had to be evacuated three times.
She recollects being passionate for the Lord, but in tandem with her passion and desire to serve God, she would also experience extreme anxiety, even to the point of passing out because she was so overwhelmed.
At 16, for many reasons, including her own state of mind, her parents decided to come home from the mission field.
One year after coming home is when Kessler made her first attempt at committing suicide.
Kessler said, “It just was a heightened time of emotion, and I didn’t know how to cope. And I didn’t know what to do and it just felt so helpless.”
Doctors didn’t know how to help her, the high school staff suggested she complete her last year at home (in large part because Kessler was still passing out), which she did, and her Christian community gave poor counsel.
“Even at that time, there was someone who approached my parents about whether I was demon oppressed/possessed, because of the things I was struggling with,” she said. “The church, unfortunately, for a lot of years, was not only misunderstanding [the mental health struggle], but actually kind of opposing it, [with the] attitude that it’s a lack of faith, if you just pray more, and all those things.”
Fifteen years after her first suicide attempt, she finally got the bipolar diagnosis that explained her mental health struggles. Unfortunately, she went through one more suicide attempt and a near miss attempt before she got the diagnosis.
Despite her correct diagnosis, though, Kessler’s journey continued to be fraught with challenges. She’s been under-medicated and overmedicated. She’s gone through several therapists. She’s spent a year at His Mansion Ministries, a Christ-centered healing community located in New Hampshire focused on discipleship, to recalibrate her relationship with God. She’s had two hospital stays. She’s had another suicide attempt. Then, her father passed away suddenly nearly a year ago.
Still, she is confident, God never left her side.
“Throughout my life—God has pursued me,” Kessler said. “He never let me go.”
Because of this, Kessler finds the strength and resources to serve the Lord using her passion to minister the love of God to individuals with disabilities. Over the years, she has partnered with Joni and Friends, a ministry dedicated to extending the love and message of Jesus Christ to people who are affected by disabilities all around the world.
She has written on what she calls her “Safety Plan” that one of her reasons to live is her relationship with Jesus.
“He died for me, so I may live,” she said. “And Jesus suffered. He chose to suffer. He chose to go through intense mental anguish for the purpose of giving me life.”
She says if churches are going to help people like her, they need to change the narrative that peace, joy, and hope are not guaranteed. Pastors and church members also need to be more authentic about their own struggles.
“There is so much faking it in the church,” Kessler said. “Struggling seems to mean you don’t have enough faith, but I don’t think that’s biblical. Look at David. Moses. Abraham.”
Suicide is a public health problem, and suicides occur for a variety of reasons, one of them being mental health issues.
And as Kessler’s experience testifies, Christians are not immune.
The latest high profile suicide story in the news is another case in point. California megachurch Pastor Andrew Stoecklein took his life in August, leaving behind a wife and three young children. He, too, struggled with mental health issues.
“Whenever I read a story like that, I always think that their Christian environment is not a safe place to struggle,” said Brian Sayers, the associate pastor at Spokane’s Faith Bible Church, who leads the Discipleship & Counseling programs there.
Suicide is on the rise in nearly every state, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control report. In 2016, there were nearly 45,000 deaths in the nation due to suicide, which is double the number of deaths by homicide.
From 1999 to 2016, suicide rates increased 18.8 percent in Washington and 43.2 percent in Idaho.
In Spokane County, there were 122 suicides in 2017, which was an increase of 31 from 2016, according to the Spokane Medical Examiner 2017 Report. Eleven of those suicides were committed by teenagers.
Sayers believes Christians struggle with sadness in large part because so much that passes for Christian teaching is shallow. With “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” being the opening of the most widely distributed Gospel tract and Joel Osteen’s book “Your Best Life Now” being a No. 1 New York Times Best Seller, he said it’s no wonder “most Christians don’t believe it is OK to be sad.”
However, he says that the Bible is full of sadness, and that one of its books, titled Lamentations, is all about sadness.
In his church’s counseling center, Sayers said, “We teach individuals how to lean into God in their sadness. I can express sadness and still have this settled confidence in God. That’s lost on a lot of Christians these days.”
Jeanne Ekenberg, LICSW, has been a counselor in Spokane for 20 years, now working in the Clinical Psychology department of CHAS Health. She finds that Christian churches who are more open and “tend to promote education, knowledge, and community awareness are more supportive of treatment for their members with mental illness and suicidal ideation (thoughts).”
However, she also said, “Christian churches who appear as closed systems, not open to outside information, quick to criticize the differences in people’s lifestyles, struggle more with the concept of mental illness and suicide.”
She added, “I have had Christian clients who do not want to take medication because they believe it is a lack of faith or a sin. They do not want anyone to know that they are in counseling because they will be alienated. This is where religion gets in the way of healing.”
According to an article about the 2017 LifeWay Research study, Suicide and the Church, “Three-quarters (76 percent) of churchgoers say suicide is a problem that needs to be addressed in their community.”
The study also discovered that most Protestant pastors (80 percent) believe their church is “equipped to assist someone who is threatening suicide,” but that “only 30 percent strongly agree, meaning more than two in three pastors acknowledge they could be better equipped.”
Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, is quoted in the article, saying, “’Suicide in our culture has for too long been a topic we are afraid to discuss.’”
Kessler, though, is not afraid to talk about her story. She hopes that by sharing her experiences that others will find comfort and help.
And grace entered her life to help her with that goal. Grace June, that is.
June, the photographer who’s “Survive Project Art Show” Kessler is a part of, is also diagnosed with bipolar and someone who struggles with suicide attempts and thoughts, as well.
The two met at a Power 2 The Poetry gathering in Spokane soon after Kessler’s suicide attempt in 2017. June was looking for people to participate in her project. Kessler wanted to learn more and eventually became a part of her project.
Soon after meeting, they both found out they had another connection: Kessler’s father, Tom. When they discovered this, she and Kessler had a good cry and an instant connection.
June remembers helping him in the kitchen for a Summit Church gathering here in Spokane. “He had a positive impact on me,” June said. “I know he definitely would’ve wanted us to meet.”
Because of June, Kessler was able to put her story out there in the public. But because of Kessler, June was able to complete her project.
Kessler helped support June as she was laying out the photo book that features all of the artwork and the texts the individuals wanted to include with their photos. June was struggling at the time to get it done. It was a very emotional experience and was hard on her, and she was so thankful to Kessler’s support.
June said of this time Kessler gave her, “It’s a gift to others to let them be there for you. Isn’t sharing our vulnerability a very Christ-like thing to do?”
Part of the story text Kessler wanted with her photograph reads: “I am, bipolar and all, valuable, loved by God, loved by my family and friends; I have a purpose in this life.”
In other words, God loves Kessler and has a plan for her life.
Kessler concludes her story in June’s book with Psalm 118:17, which says, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.”
“I want my journey to make a difference to other people,” Kessler said. “I want other people to feel free and safe—to be allowed to be real.”
And by being this safe person for people, she also hopes individuals will begin to learn by her example how to continue that ministry of love and care toward others to help prevent suicide and to walk with others in their dark places, too.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day
Frontier Behavioral Health, in Spokane: 509-838-4428
Daybreak Youth Services: 888-454-5506
Be The One to Save a Life: www.bethe1to.com