Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Stigma, The Stuff That’s Stuck to the Bottom of Your Shoe

Bipolar, Black & Whites

Bipolar, Black & Whites

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?

Pax vobiscum,

Joani


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Serving at Saint In-Between

"An oath I could not quite live up to."

An oath I could not quite live up to.

My first call to serve God and country came at the age of nine. First as a Brownie for year or so – until proudly I got my “wings”. Sprouting wings I ascended to the rank of Junior Girl Scout. Green uniform and all. But I was not a very good Girl Scout. In fact I was a pretty lousy Girl Scout.

My uniform would never quite pass inspection. There was always stuff that needed to be sewn on that wasn’t – troop numbers and patrol badges. I hated camping and when no one was looking, I would switch assignments with the other troop members. Let me gather wood any day – rather than take latrine duty. I never got past the introduction in my handbook and I barely completed the most basic of requirements. I fudged what I could to get my citizenship and cooking badges. At flag ceremonies, the other girls’ sashes were a veritable rainbow of ribbons — while my naked sash was the ultimate embarrassment. My commitment was shaky. My efforts sub par. My loyalty questioned…to God…to country…to Troop 4111.

Girl Scout uniforms circa 1965

Girl Scout uniforms circa 1965

“Joani”, the troop leader asked me “Do you want to be a Girl Scout or not?”

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Silly as this may sound, at nine years old I had made a choice to serve something much bigger than myself. The Girl Scouts had lofty ideals. It was a place where I could make friends, learn new things, and make a difference for my native land in a grade school kind of way. I had taken the Girl Scout oath but this little nine year old did not quite have the hutzpah to live up to it. Sadly my scouting days were over.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Just who that would be I did not know for a very long time. If it was not country than maybe it was God. I was really good at the “God stuff” at Holy Family School. I loved first Friday Mass. I loved the holy cards that marked my place in my missal. I loved the stories of the saints. I loved the chanting and the incense. I loved the Stations of the Cross. I loved the rosary. I loved the Baltimore Catechism. I even loved the uniform. Peter pan collared blouses. Plaid jumper. Red bow-tie. Saddle shoes. Bobby socks. My home life was hell but Holy Family School was heaven to me.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

But then came the questions. My Jesuit educated father had gifted me with an insatiable curiosity – “an inquiring and discerning heart”. I raised my hand religiously in religion class – frustrating the good sisters to no end. “Transubstantiation makes no sense, Sister. Why would Jesus want us to eat him?” “Jesus was born of a virgin? Didn’t Jesus have a real dad, Sister?” And as I got older my questions got bolder. “I don’t understand why French kissing is a sin, Sister. What’s wrong with tongues touching?” And the nail in my coffin — “What the heck does the Pope know about birth control?” Sister Mary Clare took me aside and delivered the diagnosis: “Joani, you are intellectually gifted but you are spiritually retarded”.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Well maybe it wasn’t God. I went off to Catholic University and majored in philosophy where I could ask all the damn questions I wanted. I studied Plato and Aristotle; Boethius and Aquinas; Descartes and Kant; Hegel and Kierkegaard; Sartre and Camus. I loved the proofs of logic and proving the Jesus freaks wrong. But the meaning of life evaded me.

Until I became a mom. When I became a mom it was abundantly clear just whom I was serving and their names were Zach, Colleen and Jacob. I was not a stay at home mom. I really do not have a domestic bone in my body. My children are all grown now. But I really mean it when I say that every age was a good age and every stage was amazing. Not perfect of course – hell no — but amazing. And my children just by being my children taught me the meaning of life. This life is sacred. Every day – no matter how lousy – is a gift of God. Every single day is a Holy Day – a Feast.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

So with kids in tow I found myself back at church – but this time at the Episcopal Church. I taught Sunday School according to the Gospel of Frog and Toad, Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears. I helped start a neighborhood preschool for at risk kids. I read lessons and passed the chalice. I read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” and the Ulanovs’ “Primary Speech”. I was the “Theotokos” in a liturgical drama. I was hooked. I was an Episcopalian.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

So I guess it was God after all. I guess it was God all along but it took a while to really know it deep down in my gut. So I walked across the street — literally — I walked across the street to Virginia Seminary in 1991. And now ordained twenty years I have served God in Her church in five different parishes. Saint Luke’s. Holy Cross. Saint George’s. All Saints. Emmanuel. But the hardest parish I have ever had to serve is Saint In-Between.

Ten years ago I crashed and burned after being 24/7, seven days a week, chief cook and bottle washer at Holy Cross. No need to bother with the details but once I was checked out of Dominion Hospital I was also without a church. And quite literally without a job. I rearranged my resume to try and pass off my skills in the secular world – but to no avail. I had lots of interviews but no offers. I volunteered at Ten Thousand Villages and United Community Ministries. Unemployment among the mentally ill in the United States is estimated to be as high as 80%. A staggeringly obscene statistic. I took the only job I could find  — the lowliest I could have imagined doing inventory in a library.

Learning to live a bipolar life is just about the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And some days – the depressed days — it was all I could to get out the door. But get out the door I did. And you would think that church would be a great help at a time like this. But church was no help — no help at all. And diocesan functions were the worst. In a hierarchical church, who is a priest without a position? Who was I with only my name and not a church name on my name tag? “Where are you serving now?” nosy folks would ask. Invariably I would answer: “I am serving at Saint In-Between.”

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Well I believe it is still  God of course. I still endeavor the best I can to be Her humble, bumbling, and imperfect  servant. But my discipleship has been reshaped and redefined. Work is incredibly healing – especially meaningful work. But my work now is different.  I still work in that library – Bishop Payne Library – where at the front desk I serve as pastor, priest, book jockey and mental health evangelist. And I am also awesomely blessed to serve as Priest Associate at Emmanuel on High – where I get to preach, teach, and celebrate. (And where I have the best colleague in the world, the Rev. Chuck McCoart.)

My ministry now is different but different is good. Different is delightful. Different is divine. And for this different – I am deeply grateful.

So my friends, tell me about your Saint In-Between.

Pax vobiscum,

Joani


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Mary of Magdala, Seven Times Out of Her Mind

"Mary of Magdala", pencil and  watercolor Art Uniting People Exhibit  @Convergence, May 6 thru June 13, 2014

“Mary of Magdala”, pencil and watercolor
Art Uniting People Exhibit
@Convergence, May 6 thru June 13, 2014

Mary of Magdala had her own name. She was attached to a town but not attached to any man. She was a woman of means –perhaps a weaver, a seamstress, a merchant.  We know not — only that she was NOT a prostitute. And out of her purse — she among others — paid the traveling expenses of the itinerant preacher – Jesus of Galilee.

Why?   Because she was a woman gone mad in seven different ways. Seven times she lost her mind. Seven times she got it back. Seven demons the Lord cast out. We do not know their names. But just imagine… Losing a home… Losing a child… Losing a lover… Losing your livelihood… Losing your friends…. Losing your anchor… Losing your soul….

Mary of Magdala is by far my favorite saint for so, so many reasons. But most of all she is my favorite saint because she loses her mind these seven times. Biblically speaking, Mary of Magdala gets it back in just a few verses. But very truly I tell you, this is not how it usually goes. And how do I know this? I know this because, like my favorite saint, I have lost my mind but five times. Five times I have found myself a patient at Dominion Hospital. Inside of three years I was admitted five times over. And it is that first time that I remember the most.

They do not lock you in on the cancer ward. They do not lock you in on the cardiac ward. But if there is something wrong with your brain, society believes you have to be restrained. Hearing the nurse turn the key in the lock that seals you off from the real world is surreal. And the truth be-told — a very small number of folks like me can be a danger – mostly to ourselves. And that is how I bought my ticket to Dominion. Having crashed and burned as rector of Holy Cross, I did not want to wake up anymore. So I answered all the questions and filled out all the forms. I handed over my shoelaces, belt and keys and then a psych tech led me to my bed. And on that bed, I prayed that my manic-depressive demons be cast out. Deeply depleted and despondent, I had no earthly clue how this would happen or how long it would take.

It took ten days.

I took a ten-day cruise on the luxury liner, the good ship Dominion. This is the itinerary. Wake up call at 6:00. Shower and dress by 6:30. Breakfast at 7:00. Community Meeting at 8:00. Group Therapy at 10:00. Psychiatrist at 11:00. Lunch at noon. Fresh air and exercise at 1:00. Art therapy at 2:00. Social worker at 3:00. Yoga at 4:00. Dinner at 5:00. Free time from 6:00 to 8:00 . Safety check at 9:00. Off to bed at 10:00.  Bed check, bed check, bed check every fifteen minutes. And then get up the next day and do it all again.

Believe it or not, I loved it. It was like heaven to me. I might as well have been staying at the Hilton — but not like any Hilton I had stayed in before. The meals were of course mediocre but I did not have to make them. The accommodations were basic but all I had to do was make my bed. The activities director choreographed all our days. Dinner companions, sparring partners, and newfound friends and foes were all provided – at no extra cost. All I had to do was show up. And showing up was just about all that I could do.

My first few days were a bit of a bipolar blur. I remember standing in line and getting little plastic cups with little colored pills. I remember eating with a spoon because I couldn’t be trusted with a fork. I remember chocolate milk being the highlight of my day. I remember trying to sleep when so many demons seemed to stay awake.

On a psych ward you are never alone. Surrounded by staff it can be a bit suffocating. There are psychiatrists, social workers, psych nurses, and therapists of every kind. There are EEG and EKG and ECT techs. There are orderlies dressed in white. There is a safety check every morning and a safety check every night. Three times a day you get escorted to the dining hall. Twice a day they strap your arm in a blood pressure cuff, listen to your heart with a stethoscope, and take your temperature. As if all our moods could be measured thus.

And then round and round we’d go to group after group. The room would change. The leader would be different. We’d sit in different places all with the same faces. Like a game of musical chairs, round and round we’d go with different melodies playing in our heads. Dizzy and disoriented, not knowing just where to stop.

Yes, it was all a bipolar blur, except for the art room. I could barely wait each day to go to the art room. There was no talking in the art room. There were no awkward therapeutic moments in the art room. There were no embarrassing secrets to reveal in the art room. While the group therapy rooms were claustrophobic, the art room was bathed in light. Most of the rooms on the psych ward were as dull as dishwater. Not so, the art room — it practically danced with color. And when I could barely string two words together, I could string beads in the art room. When I was sure that my brain was broken, I could make a collage in the art room. When I had no idea how dark my moods were, I could still color Crayola style in the art room. When I could barely pick myself up, I could pick up a paintbrush in the art room.

Discharged after ten days, the art room was no more. At least I thought it was no more. But I was blessed to spend the next ten days under the roof of a very dear friend. And the very dear friend had a church on the edge of the Rappahannock River. And the church had a watercolor class where I spent part of each of my days. My art supplies were simple indeed. I had three brushes, a plastic box filled with squares of paint, and a cup of water. I pulled a book off the shelf and it being a church it was filled with saints. So day after day, I painted the saints one after the other. It seemed just a bipolar exercise  — until I painted Mary of Magdala.  And so my favorite saint became the  patron saint of my moods and my madness.

Mary of Magdala lost her mind seven times and seven times she got it back. And so with me, five times I lost my mind  and five times I have gotten it back. I got it back by the grace of God, God’s gift of medicine, God’s gift of therapy, God’s gift of love. This is good news, good news indeed.

“Do not look for the living among the dead” the angel said and Mary of Magdala ran from the empty tomb to tell the others.

And as a “mental health” evangelist – like Mary of Magdala who came before me  – I am called to proclaim the same.

Pax vobiscum,

Joani

P.S. “Art Uniting People” celebrates creativity, recovery and healing. All of the artists whose work is part of the exhibit live and flourish with a mental health, addiction, or developmental  issue. The  exhibit is on display through June 13 at Convergence, 1801 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, Va.