Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Confessions of a Not-So-Dangerous Bipolar Soul

I am not a mental health professional, nor do I play one on TV.

But I am openly and optimally bipolar. A mental health evangelist, I share first person stories on Unorthodox & Unhinged to create awareness, dispel stereotypes and encourage healing. You can quote statistics until you are blue in the face and make no difference. Stories, on the other hand, bring to life the challenge of living with a challenging brain.

The tragic events of just the last ten days raise important mental health issues, of course.

Bipolar Disorder is a medical diagnosis. You can find it in the DSM-V, the fifth version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. Approximately 1% of the population walks around with a bipolar brain. Likely I inherited mine; it is how my brain is wired. (Thanks, mom!)

Hate, on the other hand, is a sickness of the soul. It is an emotion 100% of us are capable of. No one is born hateful. Hate is learned behavior. Hate festers and grows like weeds in gardens where we least expect it. Left untended, hate crowds all that is good.

A disturbed mind fueled by hate is a potentially lethal combination. A combination that becomes all the more probable when that person is armed and loaded. A probability, we all pray does not become reality. But reality it is.

I write not just from a bipolar point of view but as a mom and a grandmother, as an Episcopal priest and a struggling minister of the gospel.

In these dark days, I will tell you my personal story, not that you may agree with me nor to tell you what to think. My hope is that my story will encourage you to share yours. I believe that our stories may align, intersect and connect more than we might think. Our stories can help us connect at a deeper level.

So, as you may likely know —

I am no Second Amendment Sister. I am a Million Mom Marcher from way back when. No toy guns were allowed at my house. Only water pistols and Super- Soakers. My kids were crack shots — gunning down dandelions and blowing away begonias in the backyard. No BB guns, not even cap guns crossed our threshold. At least until….

The dawn of Nintendo 64. One showed up under the tree on a Christmas morn with Zach’s name on it. I think Santa put it there. If Santa put it there, it was a really big deal. Mom and dad wrapped up books and board games. Santa gave you stuff that knocked your socks off.

So welcome Mario and Wario (his evil twin.) Welcome Kirby and Donkey Kong. Welcome Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  Lots of fun and games. Lots of jumping over walls, catching stars, and grabbing gold coins. Lots of keys and magic codes to climb from level to level. Zach played for hours on end while his little brother watched in wonder — hoping against hope to take control of that controller. Just two and half years old,  Jacob picked it up and has yet to put it down at the age of thirty-one.

Jacob mastered Mario. He crushed Kirby. He tackled Tetris. He whooped Wario. And “bang, bang, bang,” — arcade style — he bagged hundreds of ducks. The first “stick that made thunder” had made it into our house.

As Jacob matured so did the ratings on his video games. I never really censored the games he played but I would lean over the screen to see just how much blood and guts were on display. “Is that a peace and love game?” I would invariably ask him. “It’s just mummies, mom. It’s just zombies.” So, I bought him “Civilization”, peaceful and educational. “How’s that going, Jacob?”Great, mom! Gandhi just conquered Genghis Khan!”

Jacob has grown up to be quite the indie gamer. And you will find no gentler or loving soul than Jacob. He founded Gaming in Public. On a Kickstarter project, he raised $20,000 for a Hobbit-Inspired game called Super Dwarf Madness.

Super Dwarf Madness is not exactly about peace and love. But it is not all that far removed from Elmer Fudd and his blunderbuss or Yosemite Sam and his six-shooter. “Sticks that make thunder” cartoon style.

Yosemite Sam was “the roughest, toughest, fastest gun-slinger west of the Pecos!” but he couldn’t hit the side of a barn. And every Saturday morning, Bugs Bunny got away with nary a scratch. It was a kinder and gentler time. Remember Sheriff Andy Taylor? No gun. Remember Deputy Barney Fife? One gun and no bullets except the one in his pocket.

These were the only guns my dad would allow in our house: celluloid guns; cartoon guns; sitcom guns; maybe a water pistol or two; maybe even a cap gun. But never, ever the real thing.

Guns were for my dad a very real and present moral dilemma. You see, my Rockefeller Republican father was Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast Community Hospital in D.C.. A general surgeon, he took out gall bladders, repaired hernias, removed tumors. He loved his work. But extracting bullets from young men, my dad told us, he hated having to do.  He said that he had lost way too many young men on his operating table. Tragic and traumatic, so young and full of life, never to go home again. Never.

NEVER have a gun in the home, my father taught us. NEVER. Guns in the home were anathema to him.  In the heat of passion, it was best to err on the side of safety.

A lesson learned from my dad that I have taken to heart.

In my 64 years, I had never ever even seen a real gun – much less handled one, until a few years ago when I visited the home of a sharpshooting friend. Law abiding in every way, she only shoots tin cans and paper tigers. Proud of her sport, she took out her collection and introduced me to her “sticks that make thunder”. She taught me the difference between a rifle, a shotgun, a pistol, and a revolver. Patiently she explained cartridges, caliber, clips, millimeters and magazines. And she drove home the importance of safeties – the tiny little lever that keeps a gun from firing.

This tiny little lever between this life and the life to come — is called a safety.

Now there is a stereotype that people like me are not safe. Mall shooters and campus snipers are indeed disturbed and deranged. Of that, there is no doubt. But bipolar-me is no more likely to gun you down than anyone else. Regardless, the media often diagnoses the dangerous, as a soul likely off their meds. But it’s simply not true or at least very rarely true. Self-harm, rather than harming others, is much more likely with folks like me.

I have never had a plan to do away with myself. But I do know what it’s like to not want to wake up anymore. Depression can eat you alive just as surely as cancer can.

“Do you feel safe?”, the nurse at Dominion asked me. “No”, I replied. So, she took away my shoelaces and my belt and my cell phone. Dangerous weapons, I guess. First light every morning and last thing every night, we had to answer the same question: “Do you feel safe? Rate yourself on a scale from zero to ten.” Zero and you can go home. Ten – or anything close to ten – and you get to stay a little longer. To stay your hand from doing yourself in. To stay your hand from doing what cannot be undone.

Especially, if at home, you had a gun. God forbid, if I did. Thank God, I did not.

God has nothing specific to say about guns, of course. And biblically confusing, Yahweh vacillates about whether we should be beating those plowshares into swords or those swords into plowshares. But Jesus – he’s pretty clear on the subject. Clearer than Ghandi. Clearer than Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I say to all who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. The one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek…Love your foes and treat them well….  Be just and lenient as your Father. Be not a judge…Be not an executioner. Pardon and you will be pardoned”  Luke 6 (trans. Garry Wills)

This is not faithless passivity. This same Jesus, a very angry Jesus, turns over the Temple’s tables.  Not just a place of prayer, ‘the temple was the center of worship and music, the center of politics and society, a place of national celebration and mourning. It was the focal point of a nation and its way of life.” (N.T. Wright)

Righteous anger is the antithesis of hate. Angry for all the right reasons, Jesus threatens to tear the place down. Forty-six years it took to build, but Jesus says he will raise it again in just three days.

Not resurrected stones, but literally flesh and bone. Not a resurrected building but resurrected life.

In my tenure as Emmanuel’s Associate for Worship, we have prayed a prayer inspired by an America Magazine article written by Jesuit James Martin. We have had to pray it way too many times and I hope to God we never need pray it again, but sadly, I know we will.

Genuine prayer is more than pretty words. Prayer is the act of God stirring souls to rise up off our knees. Prayer is the daily doing of loving, speaking the truth in love, and the hard work of reconciliation. Real prayer makes a real difference.

So I pray this revised prayer once more.

Lord God, in the wake of tragic gun violence in Virginia Beach; Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio: we ask you to embrace the souls of all the dead and to comfort and heal the wounded, to console family and friends and to strengthen the hands and hearts of first responders. In Christian charity, we pray for those who took these innocent lives. Cast out hatred from the human heart. Relieve the anguish of disturbed and troubled minds. Deliver us from demonizing and dehumanizing those different from ourselves.

We cry, Lord Christ, as you wept at the tomb of Lazarus. We are weary, Lord God, weary, as when an exhausted Jesus fell asleep in the boat after wrestling with the demons of his day. We are angry, God, angry at the corrupt powers of this world that prioritize principalities over people: angry, as was Jesus, when he upturned the tables in the temple. Grant us courage and strength to preserve and protect the lives of all God’s children. Turn our tears into compassion, our weariness into advocacy, our paralysis into acts of love.

 Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For further reading:

More on mental health

More on video games


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The Littlest of Prophets

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I have been a bleeding-heart liberal from my earliest days. A teenage rebellion, I am sure against my tastefully conservative Republican mom and dad. A straight A student, I rebelled in hippy dippy ways.  I skipped school to protest the Vietnam war.  I served — in name only — on the staff of an underground newspaper that never actually published a  single issue. (Sister Mary Clare really clobbered me for that one!)  Never a jock, I won awards with my words, my adolescent purple prose.  I earned my high school letter at debates and speech contests. In one stellar outing, I gave a speech supporting birth control in the voice of a not yet fertilized egg. And from my secure, segregated suburban life, I railed against racism. I remember but one line from my blue-ribbon speech that took me to the city finals:  “The blood of the black man is on our lily-white hands.”

  I loved the talk but I myself did not always walk the walk.

Thirty years later, this preacher woman was sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon when. an elderly African American gentleman paid me a call.  His concern and complaint. took me totally by surprise.

He wanted to know if our choir had participated in the Martin Luther King Day Choir Festival. Proudly I told him yes. that indeed both of our choirs had sung that day in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Well. this gentleman was a contemporary of Dr. King and said for certain that he knew there were finer preachers whose names he rattled off. And worse than that did I know, he said, that Martin Luther King had been Tom-catting around Atlanta. He and his wife claimed to know of the Rev. King’s illicit comings and goings.  And then he blamed bleeding heart liberals like me for canonizing this flawed leader.

Martin, he said, talked the talk. but he certainly did not always walk the walk.

Indeed, all of these years later many have measured the weight of Dr. King’s life differently. He has been accused of many failings including communism and plagiarism. Younger African-Americans have criticized his passivity.  And biographers have lingered over his personal life.

Sister Joan Chittister tells it well:

“The truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King Jr.  was Martin Luther King Jr. till the day he died. Organizer, preacher, prophet, father, husband, cheater, lover and leader.  He struggled with anger and depression and sexual excess all his life.  And like the rest of us in our own struggles, he never totally conquered any of them.”

Prophets you see are not always perfect. Seldom are they saints and even once sainted remain sinners.

But prophets speak truth. God’s truth.

Martin Luther King Jr as a boy“King was an unlikely leader, black in a white country, a preacher who led a political struggle, the son and grandson of ministers who held a privileged place in the black community.  Proud of his family and home, he learned young that he lived in ‘nigger-town’.  He lost his two best friends in the first grade because their mother would not let them play with a ‘colored’ boy.  When he was twelve, a society matron in a down town department store called him a nigger and slapped him across the face. The sting of it stayed with him for the rest of his life.  He was with his father when a shoe salesman refused to wait on them unless they moved to the back room of the store. It was the first time he had seen his daddy so angry and he remembered his response.  ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system. I am never going to accept it.  I’ll oppose it till the day I die.’”

 Again, and again the message was hard to ignore.  And Martin began to get the message. Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

“And so, like his Daddy, he grew up to be pastor of a major black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus. And for the first time, King stepped out his privileged pulpit and truly became a prophet.  The first night of the bus boycott he addressed thousands who had gathered for a mass meeting. And he addressed them with the truth, with Gospel truth.”

“’Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. Love must be our regulating ideal.  Once again, we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame.  In spite of the mistreatment we have confronted, we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers and sisters. Let no one pull you so low as to make you hate them.’”

 “’If you will protest courageously with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written the historians will have to pause and say. There lived a great people, a black people, who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.” (A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister)

He talked the talk and he himself led the walk. And yes, he stumbled and he fell along the way.  But the prophet Martin prophesied so that his black brothers and sisters. so that our brothers and sisters,  might taste justice, might taste the freedom of this Promised and Privileged Land.

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

Now most of us, if we got the call to be such a prophet would hang up. Biblically speaking, prophets are not particularly attractive folk. They tend to push the envelope of society’s conventions and expectations. Frederick Buechner says that, Elisha would have been called cruel, for turning bears loose on boys who taunted him.  Jeremiah would be called crazy for literally eating the scroll on which sweetly written was the word of God. Amos would be called a carpetbagger. for berating his southern neighbors to justice with a northern accent.

Prophecy is not very desirable work, Buechner says. Telling the emperor, he has no clothes is a thankless job. After his fairy tale like call to become a prophet, Samuel delivers some pretty bad news to his father in God. Eli, God is going to bring down your house. These were not sweet nothings, but some very nasty news that God was whispering in Samuel’s ears.

And the prophecy business is dangerous work. With God hiding in the shadows, Buechner continues, people are likely to shoot the messenger.  Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern.  Isaiah was rumored to be sawed in half. And Martin was stabbed, attacked, and his home bombed many times. And then cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. Just thirty-nine years old.  Prophets pay a price that most of us do not have the guts to pay for ourselves.

But….

But God whispers in our ears just the same. Niggling, annoying words, taunting us to rise up out of our lazy beds. To witness and to speak up for our brothers and sisters marginalized now, even as we speak.  We live in challenging times – in a time where neo-Nazism and white supremacism are on the rise. We live in a time when hate crimes against our Muslim brothers and sisters shamefully increase. We live in a time, where we barely know how to speak to people across the political divide. We live in a time when the privileged cross the street to avoid the poor by the side of the road.

My Christian brothers and sisters, in God’s eyes, this will not stand. Let’s dredge up the strength to reach down, way down, deep down and find the courage and the compassion to be a prophet – even if it be the littlest of prophets. Like Samuel, here now in 2018.

And so aptly let us pray the Collect of this Day:

Almighty God, by the voice of your prophets, you have led your people out of slavery and into freedom; Grant that your Church, following the example of the prophet Martin, may resist oppression in the name of your love; and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

JoaniSign