Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian

The Peacock Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


An illustration from Guy of Pavia's 14th century medical treatise on brain surgery

An illustration from Guy of Pavia’s 14th century medical treatise on brain surgery

Dr. Peacock was not a brain surgeon. Confident with a scalpel and a knife my dad was a surgeon of a more general kind. His little black bag was full of magical medical stuff. As a child I would sit on the floor and pull them out one by one like rabbits out of a hat. Abracadabra! Poof! A blood pressure cuff! A stethoscope! What medical marvels these!

Now my father being a surgeon also collected surgical implements of a more medieval kind. In his library there was what appeared to be a tattered black suitcase — just the right size for a weekend trip over the river and through the woods. Lifting the lid, however, was like a trip to another time and another place – a very scary time and what must have been a most terrifying place. The suitcase was a Civil War version of my dad’s little black bag. There were saws for sawing off legs. There were pliers for extracting bullets and yanking out  teeth. And there was a hammer and a chisel for cracking open skulls.

A hammer and a chisel to tap into the brain.

Brain surgery is not just medieval it is ancient. Archaeologically speaking it is the oldest documentable surgical specialty — dating back nearly 10,000 years. 10,000 years –that’s Neolithic. Carefully cracked skulls have been found in Stone Age caves in France. 4000 year old bronze surgical tools have been dug up in Incan Peru. 5000 years ago the word “brain” was first recorded on Egyptian papyrus. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, penned several textbooks on the subject — 500 years before Christ was born.

We may think that such a primitive practice was purely for magical purposes. Not so. It was a practice practiced with remarkable success – on patients with epilepsy, organic diseases, head injuries, and even headaches. Those carefully cracked skulls found in those caves show clear evidence of recovery and healing. And brain surgery was the cure of choice for those who suffered insanity, for those who heard voices, for the poor souls possessed by demons, for those who raved like lunatics. The clerical cure of surgical exorcism.

In fact, Christian clerics – learned in Greek and Islamic literature – were the brain surgeons of the middle ages. Even though the study of anatomy was prohibited — no king would be without one in his court – no pope would be without one in his conclave.

So where was the surgical exorcist when my mother needed one? There was no crucifix — there was no holy water in my father’s little black bag.

Growing up my mom was in and out of psych wards.  Her manic-depressive mind was a mystery apparently  no doctor could solve – psychologically, chemically, or surgically. Her darkness was deep and unrelenting. Her mania zany and out of control. Her behavior sometimes beyond belief. Her thoughts no longer her own. Once she “streaked” in the woods behind our house. Free as a forest nymph she ran until my dad went out with a raincoat and brought her back in. Once during a hospital stay my mom had  a three way conversation with herself, myself,  and celebrities not there —  “B list”  celebrities like Regis and Cathy Lee. And during that same visit she told me that God had opened up holes in her head  — so that the evil spirits in her skull could pass through.  I did not know whether to laugh or to cry – but both seemed best.

Her every circuit was firing, her every neuron engaged, her every synapse snapping — as this Peacock flew over the cuckoo’s nest. That is — the first Peacock to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. I was the next.

Sometimes my thoughts also  have not been my thoughts.

In my most manic of days, I too have been so lit up inside – as if by a million fireflies – that I thought I could fly. Driving down the highway – ever so much faster than the legal speed – I  truly believed that my car would lift up off the road  —  just like an airplane taking off from a runway. Down Interstate 95 I would fly over — not under — every overpass – euphorically grinning from ear to ear….oblivious to the risk…in total denial of the danger.

I know what it’s like to have my brain so bedazzled with delight that fairies whispered in my ears. “You can fly, Joani, yes you can fly.” I believed I could actually see their gossamer wings fluttering just outside my window. Better to not tell anyone — psychiatrist and therapist included — about the fairies though. They might want them to go away and I did not want them to go away. I felt as if I had found a portal to another world – of things seen and unseen — a magical place, a mystical place — where the heavenly veil was torn —  and I was able to step through. And something godly was calling me to the other side.

Now this happened to me once — once upon a time a very long time ago. And it has not happened to me since – since with the miracle of modern medicine and therapeutic therapy — my bipolar brain buzzes along just fine. But even when sugar plum fairies were dancing in my head —  I never thought I was the queen of England or Joan of Arc or some kind of saint. But if saints could hear voices, why too could not I?

Yahweh says “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” but in my manic brilliance, I began to believe that maybe my thoughts were God’s thoughts. Tuned into eternity, flying with the angels — this is a level of exquisite so exquisite I  cannot begin to tell  you how exquisite it was. This surely must be what heaven feels like. Who would want to medicate such mania away?

My diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with psychotic features. Pretty damn scary when you see it in black and white. When our brains go wrong it comes out in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. The thoughts can be obsessive thoughts, intrusive thoughts, destructive thoughts, creative thoughts, inspiring and terrifying thoughts. Thoughts seemingly not your own. The outward and visible signs of such thinking can scare the bejesus out of those who do not understand. And when your own mind shatters into a million little shards — you can scare the bejesus out of yourself just as well. You lose your bearings.  You have no longitude or latitude. You are lost and adrift at sea. Your head goes dark — and you have need of something like a brain surgeon.

So I take one little pill a day to keep the cuckoo away. Its called Seroquel, an antipsychotic. Its not the only thing that keeps me thinking straight but like a spoon full of sugar — it helps my medicine go down. It helps keep these bipolar feet firmly planted on the ground. It keeps my manic mind less heaven bound.  It makes my head less cloudy and my thinking more clear.  Seroquel, my little surgical, chemical exorcist.

So friends, consider this. Sometimes your thoughts may not be your thoughts. Sometimes your thoughts may be intrusive. Sometimes your thoughts may be obsessive. Sometimes your thoughts might race. Sometimes the voices in your head may not be your own. Know this: you are not alone. It’s true of 20% of the world out there. And it’s just as true that there is help out there — though tragically up to 60% of the mentally ill get no help at all. There are doctors of the mind —  of all kinds — out there. Maybe you don’t need a brain surgeon — a board certified psychiatrist and a fully credentialed therapist much more likely will do. And maybe a little prescription  will be a little  benediction for your brain as well. A little blessing  – to keep you from flying…. like this Peacock once flew — once upon a time — over the cuckoo’s nest. Soli Deo gloria!



Author: celticjlp

Episcopal priest, 24 years. 15 years, balanced and bipolar. "Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity" @EEC. Bibliomaniac desk jockey and docent at Library of Congress. Washington DC born and bred. Half marathoner and avid pedestrian. Friend to many and mother of four. Blogger, Storyteller & Mental Health Evangelist.

2 thoughts on “The Peacock Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

  1. Thank you for these amazing words…and for just being a plain amazing person.

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