Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian

Getting Your Head Examined & Exorcising Your Soul

My dad was not a brain surgeon but he was a very brainy history buff. He collected surgical implements of the medieval kind.

In his library, there was a tattered black suitcase on the shelf. Its mysterious contents under lock and key. I remember sneaking the key out of his desk — super curious to find out what was inside. And what I found scared the bejesus out of me.

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 medical practice wielded with remarkable success – on patients with epilepsy, head injuries, and even headaches. Some of 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 possessed by demons and deemed insane; for those who heard voices and raved like lunatics.

The clerical cure of surgical exorcism.

Guy of Pavia, 14th C.

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 such a doctor in his court. No pope would be without such a physician 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. 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 wild until my dad wrapped her in a raincoat and brought her back inside. And once, during a hospital stay, my mom had a three way conversation with herself, invisible celebrities (specifically Regis and Cathy Lee) and me.

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.

Her every circuit firing, her every neuron engaged, her every synapse snapping — my mom, like her mother before her, flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

And I was 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 — like a plane taking its leave of the runway. Down Interstate 95, I would fly over — not under — every overpass. Euphorically grinning from ear to ear. Oblivious to the risk.

I know what it’s like to have my brain so bedazzled with delight that fairies whispered in my ears. I believed I could actually glimpse their gossamer wings outside my window. Better to not tell anyone though. Not the psychiatrist. Not the therapist. They might shoo the fairies away.

I felt as if I had found a portal to another world – a world of things unseen. A magical place, a mystical place where the veil between the worlds was torn. And something godly was calling me to the other side.

Sugar plum fairies dancing in my head —  I never actually thought I was Joan of Arc. But like her, why could I not also hear voices?

Yahweh says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”

In my manic brilliance, I began to believe that maybe my thoughts were the thoughts of God. Swept up by angels — mania tastes delectably delicious. So exquisite. Surely this must be what heaven feels like. Right?

Who would want to medicate such mania away?

Now this happened to me once once upon a time a very long time ago — fifteen years ago to be exact. And it has not happened to me again. Not since I began to get my head examined. Once a quarter by my psychiatrist. And weekly – yes, weekly —by my LCSW. Thanks to them (and me, of course!) my bipolar brain buzzes at optimal speed.

My diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with a cherry on top. With psychotic features. Seems pretty damned scary when you see it in black and white! But it isn’t really.

When our brains go awry, it manifests itself in our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Thoughts can be distracting or delightful. Creative or destructive. Inspiring or terrifying. Thoughts spinning out of control.

The outward and visible signs of such thinking can be alarming to those who do not understand. And when your own mind shatters into a million little shards — you become disturbing — even to yourself.

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 crazy at bay. It’s called Seroquel, an antipsychotic. It’s not the only thing that keeps me thinking straight but like a spoon full of sugar — it smooths the way. 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 or obsessive. Maybe your head races. Maybe you hear voices that are not your own.

Know this. You are not alone.

One out of a hundred — of just about everyone — walks around with a bipolar brain similar to mine. 20% of just about everyone, at any one time, walks around with a mental health issue. (Though sadly only 40% get professional help.) There is help out there.

There are doctors of the mind —  of all kinds. Maybe you don’t need a brain surgeon. Much more likely, a board certified psychiatrist and a fully credentialed therapist will do. Maybe a little medication. A little blessing  – to keep you from flying — like this Peacock who flew over the cuckoo’s nest — once upon a time.

Get a referral from your pastor or your doctor. Check out community mental health resources like CSB of Alexandria. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a also a treasure trove of resources.

It might just be time to get your head examined. It might just be time to exorcise your soul.


One Pill Makes You Smaller; One Pill Makes You Tall

Smaller or taller?

Smaller or taller?

Alice could not reach the doorknob.

Shrunk down so small, Alice saw no relief in sight.

And then what should appear but a little bottle by her bed.

“Drink me.” It said.

And so she did.

And on the table was a little cake.

“Eat me.” It said.

And so she did.

She opened up like a telescope and shot up like a shooting star. Her neck stretched; her legs grew. Her head burst through the ceiling. Her arms burst through the windows. Her feet stuck out the door.

Welcome to Wonderland.

Welcome to my world.

Take a little bit of this and a little bit of that until you get your bipolar brain just right.

So before I lay me down to sleep — I wash down three little pills with a glass of water:

One little pill to — balance my brain;

One little pill to — help me sleep;

One little pill to — keep me this side of crazy;

A mood stabilizer; a soporific; and an antipsychotic.

I have got this thing down to a science. I am a walking, talking miracle of science.

But the recipe for this little cocktail is not written in stone. Every once in a while I need to have my head examined. Yes, literally have my head examined by a board certified psycho-pharmacologist. And then re-examined.

But we are not just a pile of chemicals. Being organic, every little aspect of our being has a bearing on our brains.

So like going to Jiffy Lube, my doctor peers down at his clip board and runs my brain through the 39 point checklist:

“How much shuteye have you gotten lately?”

“Well, doctor, less and less”.

“When was the last time you took a run around the block?”

“Well actually, doctor,  I’ve been doing that more and more”.

“What have you been eating for breakfast?”

“Well, doctor, I am crazy about breakfast. I eat it three times a day.”

“How about your workload?”

“It’s great, doctor, but I rarely say ‘no’.”

“How is your love life?”

“What love life?”

“How are your finances?”

“What finances?”

The measure of my moods is the balance in my checking account. And recently when it comes to money I have gotten way out of balance.

At first my spending seems most sensible.

For water aerobics, a new bathing suit – and then a new pool bag and water shoes to match. Of course, they have to match.

And then another bathing suit, just because.

For walking that next half marathon, new running shoes — and then new socks, new tights, new jacket, new hat. Of course, they have to match.

Two new dresses just because.

And just because I was traveling: new slippers, new scarf, new coat. And of course, they have to match.

And just because I love to read, a new e-book, a new real book, new bookmarks.

And because it is cold — new boots.

And because they might break — a new toilet, a new washer, a new dryer.

You get the idea!

And o by the way, walking, and swimming, and half marathon-ing this last year  —  I have lost weight equal to that of a small child or two. (And yes, I look amazing! Thank you for noticing!)

Money matters out of whack. Metabolism redefined. It’s time to get my head re-examined. And even though I know I should, this is something I am wont to do.

Feeling fabulous, I regularly drop by my therapist’s office to tell her so. But I am neglectful of my visits to the psycho-pharmacologist.

Who needs to go to the doctor — when you’ve got this down to a science?

Medication may be only a small part of being marvelous. But an important part it is. And when there is a big change in your life; you may just need a little change to your prescription cocktail.

One pill makes you smaller; one pill makes you tall. And when you are not sure —

Make an appointment with Dr. Alice. I am sure she’ll know.


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The Doctor’s Daughter and the Great Psycho-Pharmacologist

“Running to the shelter of mother’s little helper”

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, no medicine that could heal my mom.

“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.

Pax vobiscum,