Mary Button

20150422_Mary Button 01 low res
Mary Button, Minister of Visual Art at First Congregational Church

Who I am…

My name is Mary Button and my title at work is Minister of Visual Art, and I work at First Congregational Church.

What led me here…

Originally, I grew up in east Texas outside of Houston, but my parents are both from Baton Rouge and they relocated there, and so I kind of consider myself as from being from Texas and Louisiana.

I went to art school at NYU where I got a BFA in photography and then after I graduated, I received a fellowship called the Rosenburg Fellowship to spend about two years creating a project and that project ended up being the Hymn Book Project where I collected hymn books and Sunday school primers and I turned them into art books.

And that just led to a deeper interest in religion, so I started applying to grad school for programs in theology and I ended up going to the Candler School of Theology and while I was there, I became interested in making devotional work and that’s sort of what led me here.

Living with bipolar disorder…

So there’s, like, bipolar type 1 and there’s, like, bipolar type 2. And type 1 is the type that I have, so I’m more prone to depressive episodes. I’ve had manic periods, but my experience of mania is usually, just, like, hyper anxiety. There’s sort of these classical symptoms, like decrease need for sleep. You start thinking that you’re a genius, which feels real good. I also feel really funny when I’m manic.

I heard Carrie Fisher talking about being bipolar and she was like, “The thing about being bipolar is that you’re amazing half the time. You know, it’s like, life is so great! Let’s go to Mexico!”

But the greater experience of my bipolar disorder is just suffocating depression, losing weeks and months. I just don’t enjoy stuff and social situations bring me a lot of anxiety, which is like the exact opposite of when I’m feeling manic ‘case then I’m like, “Everybody’s amazing!” And then when I’m depressed I just I can’t.

It’s like you don’t even have the energy to commit suicide. You think about it all the time, instead.

It feels like a terminal illness and it’s hard to talk about with people because they will say things like, “Well, you have it easy. Like, you know, least you don’t have cancer.” People have said that to me a number of times and you don’t want to respond with, like, “I wish I had cancer. I wish I had cancer ‘cause then everyone would be like, ‘Oh, Mary’s got cancer! Like let’s pray for Mary!’” Instead it’s like, “Mary is just whiney and awful.”

Sometimes I wish that there were something physically wrong with me, you know, so that people could see that I’m sick and instead it’s like, no, this thing is, you know, quote-unquote all in my head and if I just work hard enough, if I just pray hard enough, if I just, like, you know, release this to some higher power then I’m going be OK.

But it’s not how it works.

It wasn’t really until I was in seminary and I got this bipolar diagnosis that I realized that like, not everybody thinks about suicide all day long. This was this really shocking realization at the age of 25 that like, “Oh! Most people if they get a bad grade on a paper aren’t like, ‘I should just kill myself.’”

And that realization, I think, the fact that it happened while I was in seminary was a good thing.

Faith and mental illness…

Well, for a long time it made it really hard. I do worry that it makes me a bad Christian, that I can’t be hopeful.

Last time I was seriously depressed, I took communion and I just had this constant, suicidal thinking.

Suicidal ideation is something that I really, really struggle with and when I’m depressed it just takes over my life and it doesn’t matter what I’m doing suicidal thinking will interrupt.

And so this happened when I was taking communion, I just thought, “I should just kill myself.” And I remember calling a friend of mine who’s a United Methodist minister and just being like, “I poisoned the sacrament. I was thinking this horrible thing. I’m going to go to Hell.”

And my friend was like, “That’s not what happens at communion. Grace is what happens at Holy Communion and if anyone were to tell you what you’re saying to me, you would have the same reaction. So treat yourself with the same way you’d treat anyone else.”

And, and she’s right, but, you know…

I define healthcare as…

I think that good healthcare cares for the whole person. That it isn’t just physical wellbeing but emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and so, for me, like a holistic idea of healthcare involves things, like, you know, people’s right to meaningful work and the right to fair wages.

It means being given the opportunity to sort of live a full and self-actualized life, is what I would say.

Mental health and healthcare…

More and more, the mental healthcare system is being driven by people like myself who identify as peers and consumers and who are shaping these conversations because we can talk about it, right? And so there’re all these other people who are trapped in this behavioral healthcare system but their diagnoses limit their ability to talk, to articulate what’s happening to them.

Once you have this mental health diagnosis, anything that you say or do, like, you know, I quote Hilary Mantel,  “Anything you say or do becomes an artifact of your mental illness diagnosis.”

Initially my diagnosis was borderline personality disorder, which I don’t have.

I was a young woman and I was self-harming and I don’t think my doctors saw past that and so I got borderline personality diagnosis and those diagnoses are really, really hard to shake because the hallmark symptom of borderline personality disorder is attention-seeking behavior.

I was in and out of psychiatric treatment for 10 years and I honestly think that was because I was a young woman. Because, you know, the automatic assumption was that I was hysterical or that I wanted attention and, and those assumptions took the front seat and me actually saying, “I just want to die, please let me die,” like, that took the back seat.

You have to be an advocate for yourself in a way that I don’t think we expect people to be advocates for themselves when they are struggling with other types of chronic disease and so there’s a certain amount of privilege that exists and I feel that very acutely, like right now because I am able to describe what’s happening with me in some way and I worry about what will happen if and when I become so sick I can’t describe what’s happening to me.

One of Memphis’ greatest healthcare challenges is…

I think the biggest challenge to healthcare in Memphis is income inequality, you know? I think in cities like Memphis and Baltimore and Detroit, in cities where there’s just this huge wealth disparity, then you see the way it affects people’s physical health in very profound and disturbing ways.

You can just see when people’s whole lives aren’t taken care of then all these other things happen. There’s more violence in communities and poverty becomes more deeply entrenched.

People are trapped in jobs where they’re working 60 hours a week in pretty grueling conditions and they’re unable to care for their families and make their rent. I mean, that’s a that’s an assault on humanity, that’s an assault on their value as a human being.

I have hopes that it’s changing, that we’re sort of shifting this dialogue, but…

But what Memphis healthcare is doing right is…

The MEMPHIS Plan is great, in large part because it’s trying to step into that gap that I’m talking about, you know, where people are working and unable to make things work. So I think that that’s great.

I also think that Memphis has this incredible rich artistic and cultural heritage and I think that that’s huge, you know, that a community’s sense of self-worth comes in many ways from its artistic production and so I think that Memphis has that going for it.

I also think there’s a lot of energy in Memphis around things like community gardening and urban homesteading and the stuff that Roots Farm Academy is doing is really great.

The biggest challenge in my healthcare story is…

Sexism. I think people make assumptions about women’s emotional lives, even female doctors. My healthcare story is partly my healthcare story and it’s also partly my family’s healthcare story.

So my mother has a chronic form of, of thrombophilia, which is like the opposite of hemophilia. And when I was fourteen, she had a stroke that sort of permanently disabled her in a lot of ways. And a year later, she had a heart attack. It was in her medical records, you know, that she had had this stroke less than a year prior and she had this thrombophilia, but when she went to the emergency room complaining of chest pains and numbness in both of her arms, the first thing she was told was that she was having a panic attack.

Even though it’s sort of well-known at this point that heart disease is the number-one killer of women, heart attacks are still routinely misdiagnosed in women because the immediate assumption is that the physical reaction is prompted by emotion and feelings as opposed to physical reality.

I think all women face those issues when they encounter the healthcare system and for me, that’s certainly been true.

People with mental health diagnoses also face the same problems that there are immediate assumptions about what people are seeking treatment for. It’s like, “Oh, you have a bipolar diagnosis.”

I had this issue when I was having some stomach issues. And it was like, “Well, it’s probably just your anxiety, you know.” Well, it might be my anxiety and it might also be that I’m, like, physically not feeling well.

The greatest reward in my healthcare story is…

I think that having faced a lot of these challenges, I have a greater appreciation for the struggles that other people encounter in similar systems.

My mother’s German, so she’d always say that, like, you know, “Struggling builds character!” That’s kinda of true, actually. Obviously there are limits to that. You know, some struggle is just pointless struggle. But, yeah, sometimes it does give you a greater clarity and a deeper sense of empathy.

The fact that I’m able to say that it’s built character in some ways and it’s given me greater empathy speaks in, in some profound ways about just how little I’ve struggled in comparison to other people. I guess.

Learn more about Mary Button and First Congo Church.

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