I remember mornings walking to Holy Family School. I remember them quite fondly and quite well. The sun shining like a bright copper penny. My homework all tucked away in my book bag. My lunch packed, bologna sandwich and all. God was in his heaven and all was right in my parochial school world. I usually walked to school with a sibling or two and kids from the neighborhood. And sometimes we actually skipped. Remember skipping? Rounding the corner on 23rd Parkway to climb that last hill, my little grade school heart almost skipped a beat. Soon I would be at my desk waiting for the bell to ring, my pencils sharpened and ready to crack open my spelling book. Until….
I stepped in something squishy and slippery and odiferous. Sh*t — yes literally sh*t. Dog stuff was stuck to the bottom of my saddle shoe. “Phew! That stinks!”, my so-called friends said. Solo I sat down on the curb, took off my smelly shoe and scraped off as much as I could in the grass. Then with a stick I tried to get as much of the crap out of the crevices that I could. But little bits of that smelly, sh*tty, crappy stuff was still stuck to the bottom of my saddle shoe. So what to do? Walk around with one shoe? Run home and grab another pair? God forbid! Goody two-shoes me (yes, pun intended) wasn’t going to risk getting demerits for being tardy or “out of uniform.” This kind of sh*t happens all the time, I said to myself and off to school I went. (Pardon my language, but “sh*t” is a word I learned quite early from my parents!)
While reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and praying our morning prayers, I was sniffed out by Sister Inez Patricia. “Joan Louise Peacock, what is that smell I smell? Good Lord, you stepped in dog stuff didn’t you? Out of my classroom, young lady. Clean out your desk and go sit in the corridor.”
Stigmatized by the stuff stuck to the bottom my shoe.
I do not like the word stigma. I really do not like it at all. But it is a word that is thoroughly and fixedly stuck to those of us who live with mental illness. It as thoroughly and fixedly stuck as the sh*t that was stuck to the bottom of my shoe. And just as surely as the mentally ill are stigmatized — they are just as surely marginalized. Stigmatism is born of ignorance. It is born of unfounded fear. Stigmatism is born of downright stupidity. Culturally this is so. Ecclesiastically it is so.
The church is very big on pity and pastoral platitudes. The church preaches compassion but more often it practices condescension. While Jesus surrounded himself with folks both sick in body and mind; the church prefers to minister to the former and ignore the latter. Strong words I know but I know it is so. I know it is so because I know it firsthand, up close and personal. Let me count the ways.
Once upon a time at a church eons ago and in a galaxy far, far away, as I was crashing and burning and coming apart at the seams (but still doing every service and preaching every sermon and going to every meeting and even singing in my own choir) I was paid a visit. Two supposedly pastoral parishioners of power and might came to my office and diagnosed me. “Joani, you are not right. Something is wrong with you. 40% of the congregation doesn’t like you. You are not spiritual enough. You don’t make us feel holy. We don’t feel God up there when you are up there at the altar.” When they were finished I was silent. And when they had left I got up and closed my door. Then I laid my head down on my desk and cried and cried. I cried myself all the way to Dominion Hospital. But at that point I was just as ignorant as they were about what was happening to me — all of us stumbling around in our stupidity. But there was really just about nothing worse they could have come up with to call this priest when she was down. Not spiritual. Not holy. A pretty low blow. About as low as it could go.
My next parish on this planet was the polar opposite – pun intended. I went in with full disclosure of all things related to my bipolar brain. I was honest about all the things in ministry I could do and the few things I could not. Bipolar folks need to get to bed on time. Too many late nights and we break out in mania. Bipolar folks need regular hours and a steady pace. Crazy schedules make our clocks speed way too fast or way too slow. Neither is good. Having heard all this these heavenly people understood. The parish powers-that-be hired me on the spot. Welcomed aboard by these enlightened folks, I had a place to be a productive priest, pastor and teacher again. Sailing from Sunday to Sunday was not always smooth sailing. But as part of this supportive crew, I was sailing full steam ahead.
Until a new captain came aboard. You see I was not quite the deckhand he had hoped for. So under the guise of “prayerful discernment” he used my diagnosis to slowly throw me overboard. Knowing I needed to work 9 to 5, he told me any priest worth their salt worked 50 or 60 hours a week. He watched my every coming and going and chronicled my every hour as if somehow being bipolar made me less responsible or less trustworthy or maybe even unsafe. He inappropriately and quite illegally wanted access to my medical records and a weekly conversation with my therapist. He doubled my responsibilities and cut my hours virtually in half — cutting my salary virtually in half as well. He feigned compassion for me and pigeonholed this priest into his bipolar box — of his own ignorant construction. It was a convenient way for him to show me the door. Needless to say, after this painful six-month job interview, I “prayerfully discerned” my happiness and health lay elsewhere. No more stigma, thank you, stuck to the bottom of my shoes.
Being in a supposedly compassionate profession you would hope that clergy would know better. Or at least take the time to learn a little something — so that they can know better. But sadly for the most part this often is not so even for those higher up the ecclesiastical ladder.
One Sunday morning while escorting an esteemed visiting cleric around the church, I was virtually patted on the head like a small child when he found out I was bipolar. Standing in front of him as a fully articulate and highly functioning parish priest, he talked to me as if I were a homeless person. “O my, my”, he said, his voice crackling with pity, “I am so sorry. Are you managing okay? How are your meds? I hope you have a good psychiatrist?” Stigmatized and stereotyped — in stained glass style. Stained glass or not — it’s still the same stuff stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
Here seminary education has a very important pastoral and educational role to play – but this is a role seminaries sometimes sadly play badly. In my own three-year tour of duty, two decades ago, I was required to do a summer of CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. I did mine at a community hospital – at Sibley Hospital – and most of my classmates did much the same. Only the bravest of the brave did theirs at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the historic hospital for the insane. I had to take a few pastoral care classes of course. They were mostly on things like marriage prep, ministering with the elderly, death and dying. Difficult stuff for sure but nothing at all about mental health – in a hospital, a parish or otherwise. Nothing at all. And currently at my seminary there is still no required mental health course for pastors in the making.
I believe this has to change. That is why I tell these stories – true stories. These Tales of a Manic Christian are not stock sermon illustrations with stick figures. Unorthodox and Unhinged is about real people and hopefully making a real difference. And even though I know that you likely can read between the lines of this little blog, the only way I know how to truly make a difference is to tell the truth. The God’s honest truth.
So my friends — especially my clergy friends — write these words down and embroider them on your hearts.
What goes wrong with our brains is just as “normal” as what goes wrong with our hearts. Mental illness is physical illness. If you have a brain in your head this is as much about you as it is about me. 20% of the US population at any one time is dealing with a mental health issue. 50% of that same population (that means all of us) will deal with a mental health issue in our lifetimes. That represents more of us than those of us who will have cancer and heart disease combined.
Being bipolar does not make me any less responsible, or less trustworthy, or less safe or less intelligent than folks who count themselves as normal. I am no more likely to be violent than you are. Yes, mall shooters and serial killers are greatly disturbed. No doubt about it. But it is a scientific fact that I am no more likely to gun you down than anyone else. And tragically when the mentally ill do become violent and get a hold of a gun, they are more likely to take that violence out on themselves. Untreated mental illness
is a deadly disease.
Unorthodox and Unhinged is my weekly mental health manifesto. And I have coined a title for myself – which I hope will catch on – “mental health evangelist”. I am happy to say that things at the seminary I graduated from and now work at – are beginning to change. Hopefully with the administration’s support, Mental Health First Aid Training will be offered on campus. And at the diocesan level — using the backdoor of a certain esteemed cleric’s Facebook page — I am now in conversation with my diocese’s Mental Health Committee. Maybe my little cyber-pulpit will find a home on their homepage. Maybe I’ll get to preach a few sermons or lead a few forums at a parish or two. My mental health mission is plain: I intend to subversively subvert the stigmatic status quo wherever I go. Talking to anybody and everybody who will listen.
My theology here is deeply incarnational. In the 1950’s when white people first got to know real black people, stereotypes began to crumble. In the 1980’s when you first found out your little brother or your best friend was gay, stereotypes began to fall away. And now I pray — in 2014 — when you get to know bipolar people like me, ignorance might finally begin to give way to understanding. This of course is certainly easier said than done. Because of ignorance and stupidity, it is terribly scary for people like me to come out of this particular closet. But come out of the closet we eventually must. It’s more than time to scrape away all that sh*tty and crappy stuff off these bipolar shoes — that sh*tty and crappy stuff called stigma.
So friends, can I get an Amen?