Spoiler alert. “Unorthodox and Unhinged” hinges on my twin card carrying credentials as an irreverent reverend and as a bonafide crazy person. I am not a therapist – not a social worker – not a psychologist – not a psychiatrist – I am a parish priest – who writes this little blog from a decidedly personal perspective…. I am not a doctor of any kind….
But my dad was. My father, God rest his soul, was a healer and I was in awe of him. When I was a child – I would pull wondrous instruments out of Dr. Peacock’s little black bag – the same things he would use to prod and poke us if we claimed we were too sick to go to school – the stethoscope to listen to your chest, tongue depressors to look down your throat, the little flashlight to peer into your ears, the little hammer to hit your knees. Invariably he would pronounce us well, prescribe two aspirin and send us off to school. I won the perfect attendance ribbon — for five years straight at Holy Family School.
We had seven phones in our house and three phone numbers – so my dad would not miss any important calls. The calls would drive my mother crazy not for their frequency but for their content. While we ate dinner my dad would blithely talk about barium enemas causing my mother to scream, “Bernard, not while we’re eating!” Occasionally he would take one of us six kids with him on his rounds at the hospital. We sat in the waiting room of course – and hoped against hope, we could stop in the gift shop on the way out – but my dad never had any money in his pockets. He was a surgeon – a general surgeon. He did not deal in hearts and minds. But he could mend just about anything else that was broken – head to toe – on just about anyone – but not so my mom. There was nothing in that little black bag that could fix my mom.
Depression laid my mother low in the darkness of her room. Mania had her maxing out her charge accounts and staying up all hours of the night rearranging the furniture. My mother’s nameless malady landed her on the psychiatrist’s couch. At that time, Dr. Freud’s name was prominently on the door. The diagnosis was a given. Blame your mother for weaning you too soon or blame your mother for weaning you too late. Blame your father for stealing your mother’s affections. Blame your thoughtless husband. Blame your lousy kids. Moods swing and sway not because of your brain but because of all the baggage you carry. You are the victim. The prescription was Valium and Librium topped off with a Heineken or an Old Fashioned. Not particularly effective but it had to do.
“My Psycho-pharmacologist and I, it’s like an odd romance. Intense and very intimate, we do our dance”. Sung from a Broadway stage, these are the opening lyrics to a song from the Bipolar blockbuster – “Next to Normal”. Manic Diana sings of her therapeutic love affair:” My Pscyho-pharmacologist and I ….we call it a lovers game….he knows my deepest secrets ….I know his name…And though he’ll never hold me, he’ll always take my calls ….and its truly like he told me, without a little lift, the ballerina falls.”
Appointment after appointment the shrink tinkers with her chemical cocktail. He adds and subtracts medications on a whim. He fiddles with dosages. He prescribes a virtual cornucopia of pharmacopeia. “Zoloft, Paxil, Depakote, Klonapin, Xanax and Prozac….Adivan calms me when I see the bills. These are a few of my favorite pills” . And of course just like those ads on TV, the dance includes the mandatory disclosure: “May include the following side effects: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, insomnia, sexual dysfunction… and o by the way….use may be fatal.”
Ten years ago I found myself in just such a mad embrace. Its kind of like a love affair with a mad scientist. And the beloved often ends up feeling like a science experiment. After being discharged from Dominion Hospital for the first time, my depression was supposedly chemically under control. So I went home and turned into Martha Stewart on speed. I stayed up several nights in a row turning spice racks into towel racks, cleaning out closets and rearranging my reality. But as my friends and family will tell you, I am no Martha Stewart. So pray tell, doctor, what is wrong?
Anti-depressants can magically turn a bipolar person manic. So let’s subtract those and add something else the good doctor said. And so it went on for weeks and months and nearly a year. At one point, I ended up taking up to seven different little pills daily. I cannot begin to recite the litany of all the medications I was prescribed to either lift my depression or tame my mania. And the greatest fear I had in the midst of all this was that I would really and truly lose my mind. I was terrified of losing myself, terrified of losing Joani. I will be damned if I allow anyone to medicate away the madness that is me.
So us bipolar people often refuse to dance with this devil. Many of us end up marked by the medical establishment as “non-compliant”. We climb on the medication merry-go-round. Sometimes we take this stuff and sometimes we don’t.
There is a common myth about psychiatric meds. Many believe you just have to get your meds straight and everything will be okay. Just get your meds right and everything will be alright. Just get your meds right and you will be cured – Bipolar no more. Well nothing is further from the truth. The truth is you do have to get it right, but you also have to do much more. Besides the help “from your little helper” you need a little help from your friends.
Do you know the story of Jesus in the gospel of Luke healing the paralytic, crippled and unable to walk? Well healing came with a little help from his friends.
“They arrived, carrying on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed. They were trying to bring him before Jesus. Because of the crowd they could find no way in, so they went up on the roof. They lowered him down through the tiles on his pallet to the space in front of Jesus… When he saw their faith… the faith of his friends… Jesus said –over the objections of the status quo– he said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, Rise! Walk! Pick up your pallet . Go to your house!'”
He got by with a little help from his friends. He even got high –lifted high on the roof — with a little help from his friends. The scholar, David Lyle Jeffrey wrote, “Much has been written on the faith and ingenuity of the palsied man’s friends.” Take note he says of their “faithfulness, perseverance and love. It is their faith that captures Jesus’ attention”. Moved by the Spirit, these friends spoke for their friend when he could not –carrying him on a stretcher into the office of the Great Physician.
Now do not get me wrong. Friends come in all kinds and none need be Christians. The Great Physician blesses us, I believe, with all kinds of friends along the road – be they Buddhist or Ba’hai, Muslim or Mormon, Christian or Jew, or nothing at all. The healing road is a holistic road. It is expansively inclusive. It includes crackerjack therapists and psychiatrists. It includes supportive family and loving friends. It includes pastoral teachers as well as thoughtful preachers. It includes the wisdom of gurus as well as the wisdom of your grandmothers. It includes your co-workers and your colleagues. It includes your high school buddies and your college roommates. It includes whoever your significant other might be. It includes your kids and your cousins. It includes your neighbors across the hall and your acquaintances across the street. It includes the cat you love and the dog you walk. Yes, healing is expansively inclusive. Healing is saying an emphatic “YES” to life giving connections – wherever they may be found.
So folks, take a look around you and give thanks for your friends. Give thanks for every little help they have given you along the way. Because after all is said and done, LOVE is the greatest prescription of them all.