Several years ago, while living in a community in Tennessee and serving as the full time minister of one of the local churches, I encountered several people in the community suffering from mental conditions ranging from schizophrenia, to OCD, to generalized anxiety. Burned into my brain is a thought that was mentioned during a Bible study. One of the participants asked if anyone thought that mental illness is what the Bible described as demon possession. At that point in my life, I knew almost nothing about mental illness. But demon possession? Give me a break.
The well-intentioned person who asked the question was married to Jeff who lived under the stigma of mental illness. His life was limited. The disease along with side effects of his medication left him disabled. Social Security disability was his only income. A lot of the time he was non-compliant, refusing to take his medication. Usually he looked wild, hair unkempt, clothes disheveled. He showed little emotion—I never heard him laugh. People, for the most part, seemed not to know what to do with him, how to be with him, communicate and befriend him. That included me. I was in the dark as much as anyone else.
At one point he needed surgery to repair a problem with his bowels. After the surgery he was left with his son to recuperate. His son lived in a small house, cluttered and dirty. I checked in on Jeff, finding him stretched out on a recliner, moaning, holding his belly. Across the room his son held a fist full of cards, playing poker with his friends, barely noticing that I’d come in. The room was thick with cigarette smoke and looked like the last place anyone should be recovering from a major surgery. In short, Jeff wasn’t being cared for, and was easily ignored because he didn’t know how to get help for himself.
My wife and I decided to take him home with us. Our boys doubled-up in one of the rooms, leaving Jeff a place to rest. When it was time for bed I started to worry. The stigma of mental illness colored my thinking. I made sure our boys locked their bedroom doors when going to bed. I turned the lock on our bedroom door as well. After all, who could predict what a person with a serious mental illness might do, right? Maybe he’d pull himself into the kitchen, grab a knife and kill us all for no reason. Such was my complete ignorance, fed by cultural portrayals both in cinema and news reports.
The next day I took him to the hospital in hopes that they’d care for him. They refused to admit him. Jeff was easy to turn away, after all who was going to advocate for him?
In a spiritual sense we did nothing to help Jeff recover from his mental illness. In time he disappeared somewhere into the community, just an afterthought. And that was the best we knew to do. Jeff was a victim of mental health stigma. And there was no excuse for the collective ignorance of the congregation. I would be surprised if anyone in the community thought it would be possible for Jeff to recover and get a life of his choosing. With no support he remained on a social level below the surface, alone, desperate, afraid, and worst of all—unloved in any practical way. We let him down.
I spent several years in Bible college and don’t recall the subject of mental illness being discussed–ever. Before I stepped away from full-time ministry, I had preached over 1,000 sermons, never taking on the subject of mental illness. I’m 51 years old and never heard a sermon aimed at support for people living with bipolar or anxiety disorders, major depression, eating disorders, or any of the other mental illnesses. Years ago I had a bias toward mental illness and medication stemming from grandfathers struggle with manic depression and the archaic medications he was prescribed. Mental illness was part of a shadowy world, like the bedroom he spent most of his time in.
If I could turn back the clock my relationship with Jeff would be completely different. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with depression, PTSD, and finally bipolar disorder type 1. Now I see what Jeff must have seen, how abandoned he must have felt, how isolated he was in a world full of people who looked through him not at him.
Coming to grips with my symptoms and getting a diagnosis (and several additional opinions) rendered me a peer in relation to Jeff. After my long battle and recovery I would now be in a position to say to Jeff, “been there, done that.” That’s a tired cliché but is music to the ears of someone who is in pain, especially anyone stigmatized and feeling hopeless.
I don’t know what’s happened to Jeff since the time we moved nearly 15 years ago. I don’t want others to experience the emotional and mental anguish he must have felt. And there’s no reason anyone should feel abandoned, especially in the church; with an intentional, church sponsored ministry or individual effort, our friends and neighbors can be invited out of the shadows and into the light where they belong.
Loneliness, a sense of burden, an elevated feeling of guilt and shame, fear, isolation, all contribute to the risk of suicide. I wonder if Jeff ever just wanted to check out. It’s is a common refrain for those of us tortured by unrelenting symptoms. Yet, personal contact can have a restorative effect. That’s why suicide hotlines are so effective.Motivated by the life of Jesus, following him, we can offer more than a hotline; we can throw out a lifeline of peer relationship. When I was a kid in church we used to sing, “rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Jesus is merciful Jesus will save.” Rescuing the perishing takes on new meaning in consideration of the fact that those under emotional distress are most at risk for suicide. In fact 50% percent of people living with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once. Ten percent are successful carry out the act.
Living with the disorder, I never forget those figures.
And I’ll never forget Jeff.
Been there, done that.