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[Editor’s note: We’ve decided to take the last few days of 2018 to repost some of our favorite pieces of writing that showed up on the blog this year. The second piece we’re sharing is “Awkward Saint Crazy” by Adam Whipple, in which he earnestly and skillfully asks how the Church can best engage with mental illness.]
Had my wife and I been born a hundred years ago, our lot might have been quite different. Our family has a history of bipolar disorder, you see. Mental illness was looked upon with even greater stigma in days of yore than today. The canon of schoolchild literature hailing from 1850 through the 1970s is littered with characters subject to one stripe of insanity or another. Mr. Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre, Conrad’s demigod Kurtz, Boo Radley, Robert Cormier’s Adam Farmer in I Am the Cheese, Mr. Hyde, and the tragic cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all come to mind.
To be fair, this initially only suggests that insanity makes for a useful plot device (which it does), but the way in which all these authors presented their characters is telling. Though some of the authors stared the darkness of mental illness in the eye, the best that can often be said of the characters is that they are anti-heroes. Even Arthur “Boo” Radley, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is presented as a hidden mark of family shame—an accurate depiction of a common situation, if truth be told. Our understanding of mental vagaries during those past eras was marked by fear and loathing.
We’ve changed our terminology since then, preferring euphemistic jargon to the tactile but oversimplified monikers of older times. We no longer have lunatics, for example—those whose minds are affected by the phases of the moon. These days, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—that worthy tome by which we assess the mind’s irregularities and defects—is weighted with terminology enough to cause blunt force trauma. Take this paragraph on Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder:
The essential feature is a Personality Disorder (p. 305) in which there is resistance to demands for adequate performance in both occupational and social functioning; the resistance is expressed indirectly rather than directly. The consequence is pervasive and persistent social or occupational ineffectiveness, even when more self-assertive and effective behavior is possible. The name of this disorder is based on the assumption that such individuals are passively expressing covert aggression.
You could be forgiven for pausing amid such dry prose for a small nap, and possibly to douse the paragraph with water. It’s a far cry from lunacy, though in our persistent fearmongering about what is pejorative and what is not, we seem to forget that such words as demented and mad used to be clinical in usage. In one way, I’m thrilled that our explorations of the mind have birthed such extensive literature. It’s a testament, at least, to how complex and unfathomable the human mind is. For such a work of art, we can give glory to God.
At the Whipple house, though, our best weapon against fear and misunderstanding is simply talking about it. We don’t speak in the languorous gobbledygook of the DSM, helpful though it may be; we use simple words. Sometimes, my wife, who struggles with being bipolar, is even keen to tell me that she’s “crazy.” At times, we use that word in jest and wonder if we’re kidding. Some members of my family have questioned if I’m on the autism spectrum; I often think that perhaps they’re right. The other day, I was trying to have a conversation with my wife, and I simply couldn’t do it—because I heard everything. Her computer keys, the box fan, the kids talking in the back room, the swoosh of the dishwasher, the dog’s nails clacking on the floor—it was all too much. Our house isn’t particularly loud, but I actually put my hands over my eyes because there was too much information.
“I’m going to just need you to look right at me here in a second,” I said. “Otherwise I can’t talk.”
If this is all somewhat offensive to you, or if it makes you uncomfortable to read it, you should see what it does to polite conversation in person. In dealing with our mental roadblocks, my wife and I are now pretty comfortable mentioning things both to total strangers and to acquaintances who would rather not know. You’d be amazed at the way some folks clam up at the subject of mental illness. People shift in their shoes and look elsewhere. Quick talkers suddenly stutter. Nearby Chatty Cathy dolls burst into flame. No matter how it has made others feel, though, talking about it freely seemed to help us. We’ve never really been good at political correctness with our problems anyway, though we’ve certainly grown in our freedom to deal with them and to be human, especially within the church. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.
For a number of years, we attended church with several people who had a difficult time with our struggles. To clarify, this congregation was full of loving, wonderful individuals, many of whom I still see and others whom I miss terribly. I also understand the obvious caveat that every church has its problems. While we adored this church, of which we were deeply a part, one of the unspoken rules that seemed to pervade their doctrine was that mental disorders ought to be matters of prayer only, rather than matters of prayer and medical treatment. In our family’s dealings with bipolar disorder, we grew walls around ourselves in odd places. While in certain arenas of our lives—sin, finance, servanthood—we attempted to maintain transparency, we were also quick to protect ourselves when we sensed a billowing tiff about psychological things.
If we are to face our demons, we do well to look at them in the light of day. In the Church, of all places, we should be unafraid of sharing our weaknesses and failures, for it is there that God's workmanship is so obvious.Adam Whipple
It was strange; there were those in that small body of believers who faced mental illness on a daily basis in school system jobs or social services. They had a wealth of experience dealing with psychoactive medicines, at least by extension. Yet, like the janitor whose own house is a wreck, or like the banker whose credit is in shambles, they seemed to have a blind spot. It was insinuated to us—and occasionally we were told outright—that we should get over it. On its face, this isn’t strictly a bad idea. No medication or corrective action is perfect in mental health. A certain amount of getting over it is part and parcel, but to me, this advice felt like a fear-based response, a question hanging in the air about God’s ability to heal people. I was angry at times, but who was I to judge? I had spent years of my own blowing off psychology, and anyway, the Church is a family. If we open ourselves to know and be known, we’re going to get hurt. In a broken world, love will always know pain.
I don’t say this to denounce anyone. Through being a part of that church and others, and moreover, by the work of the Spirit, we’ve grown to be able to share our experiences, even when people disagree. This, I think, is essential to the work of the Church, especially as the internet and other media enable us to surround ourselves with a veritable Greek chorus of yes-men, always affirming our quirks or opinions. In the echo chamber of social discourse—which is rarely discourse these days—we don’t truly get to hear that most essential voice: the naysayer. As much as I chafed at being gainsaid by brothers or sisters (in a variety of subjects), I’ve been glad to meet real people who will tell me that I’m wrong, because I am. Every day. In thought, word, and deed. Mea maxima culpa.
When we’re up front about our difficulties, about our failures and hangups, it is Christ who gets the glory. There are so many buried struggles, so many skeletons hung to dry in family closets. Some of them are immoralities of our own making; some are just problems we inherited, ripples of the Fall charged with the potential energy of redemption. I know that I personally cannot pretend I was born tabula rasa, fresh as a new box of Arm & Hammer. I came with history, and I made more along the way. I’ve talked about my own struggles with sin to fellow church members and sometimes received the same clammed-up horror as when we discuss bipolar disorder. Other times, thankfully, there is grace and an understanding of God’s finished and continuing work.
In some ways, we can honestly be glad this isn’t some century past, a century where Joseph Merrick gets chased through the streets and Bertha Mason gets locked in the attic. Nevertheless, we all still try to keep darknesses and difficulties out of sight. Yet if we are to face our demons, we do well to look at them in the light of day. In the Church, of all places, we should be unafraid of sharing our weaknesses and failures, for it is there that God’s workmanship is most obvious.
In any case, you can always have that delightful moment of social discomfort to brighten your day.