Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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A Response to the Bishop of Georgia’s E-Crozier Post on the Death of Robin Williams from an Openly Bipolar Cleric

bishop's purple mitre

Introduction: After reading the Bishop of Georgia’s E-Crozier post on the death of Robin Williams (printed in its entirety below) I was dumbstruck. As a mental health evangelist I could not help but respond with the following words:
Bishop Benhase,

My name is the Rev. Joani Peacock. I have been 20 years ordained and 10 years bipolar and balanced. I consider myself a “mental health evangelist” and I advocate for mental health education for all. I serve at Emmanuel Russell Rd in Alexandria, VA. I also am on staff at the library at Virginia Seminary. I have sponsored mental health forums on campus and am working with the administration to bring Mental Health First Aid Training on campus in the spring for the VTS community. 20% of all of us live with a mental health issue. 50% of us will in the course of our lives. Mental illness is an organic illness. Untreated mental illness is a deadly disease. We would never blame someone for dying of cancer because our culture considers cancer a “real” disease. Blaming someone who succumbs to the darkness of depression for taking their own life is beyond belief. Your post about Robin William’s death I find deeply disturbing for a Bishop of the Church.

You say that you have compassion for those who live with clinical depression yet it is apparent you actually know very little about the nature of mental illness. You applaud Robin William’s gifts as an entertainer but you fail to understand that his genius was fueled by the manic brilliance of his bipolar disorder. The cost of such brilliance was the depths of depression that led him to take his own life. That you label his act of desperation as “selfish” I find abhorrent. It is also exceedingly irresponsible to send this out to your diocese. Because of entrenched stigma around mental illness in our country, it is exceedingly difficult for people who have a mental health issue to seek help. 60% of those with mental illness never receive any treatment at all. In your post you offered no words of encouragement to your clergy or to parishioners about how to seek help. Instead you chose to label the dying person as selfish. I find this unconscionable. I strongly encourage you to take the time to educate yourself and your diocese. There are excellent resources at NAMI.org<http://NAMI.org&gt; (The National Alliance on Mental Illness), DBSA.org<http://DBSA.org&gt; (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) and Mentalhealthfirstaid.org<http://Mentalhealthfirstaid.org&gt;.

To eradicate such stereotypes and ignorance in the church I have come out of this particular closet to tell “Tales of a Manic Christian” from the first person point of view. Bipolar disorder is the gift that keeps giving in my family. The tales are often humorous and disarming but they are also exceedingly honest and hopefully enlightening. Hopefully reaching others who have similar stories to tell. So as a “mental health evangelist” I share them with you as well.

I ask you too in the name of the compassionate Christ who set the Gerasene Demoniac free, to take down your post on E-Crozier. And I pray you may reach out in compassion in a future post to those who live with mental illness.

Respectfully,

The Rev. Joani Peacock

 

The Bishop of Georgia’s E-Crozier Post of August 29,2014

Robin Williams, My Friend, & The Selfishness of Suicide (eCrozier #229)
On August 29, 2014,  by bishopbenhase
A lot’s been written already about Robin Williams’ suicide. Here, I’m less concerned with a hagiography of Mr. Williams or any analysis of the all too real problem of clinical depression in our society. Of the former, let me just say that he was a brilliant performer who brought much joy to millions of people, including me. Of the latter, all I can say is that far too many people suffer alone with such soul-deep depression and the disease’s very nature often dissuades people from seeking the help they desperately need.

But I’m more concerned here in the reactions I read from many people after Mr. Williams’ suicide. My hunch is that most people’s reactions were an effort to be kind or maybe helpful or, as Monty Python might sing, they were trying to “always look on the bright side of life.” Their reactions, however, probably masked their own unease with death, and particularly, with suicide. Many of the comments made, however, were at best not helpful, or at worst, theologically problematic. Let me explain.

I heard many comments that basically said something like: “Well, now the pain he endured for so long is lifted and he’s at peace.” I know such statements were an effort by some people to make suicide theologically intelligible, but to a person presently suffering soul-deep depression and hearing such statements, it’s actually an invitation to imitate Mr. Williams’ act. Their thinking could well go: “If so many people think that’s the way he found peace, then maybe that’s the way I can find peace, too.” Like I said, it’s theologically problematic, for suicide doesn’t bring peace to the living.

I had a dear friend who committed suicide four years ago. Like Mr. Williams, he was brilliant. His brilliance, however, was in a different vocation. He was a palliative care physician. The irony of his life was that he could relieve everyone’s pain but his own (like Mr. Williams who brought so many people joy without finding joy himself). My friend knew he had many people who loved him dearly. I don’t know what was going through his mind and soul when he chose suicide. Clearly, he was in emotional and spiritual pain. Maybe he thought his suicide was an act of love and kindness to us who loved him? It was not. His act was neither loving nor was it kind. It was selfish. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true.

What my friend needed and still needs from me isn’t the cheap grace and absolution of the well-intended “well, I guess he’s at peace now.” No, what he still needs from me is my forgiveness for what he did to himself and to those who loved him. This in no way diminishes the deep pain he suffered or the pain anyone else suffers when they experience soul-deep depression. It’s merely to say that the solution they choose deeply hurts the people who love them. And such hurt, we must know, breaks God’s heart. Yet, with all I know to be true, God’s broken heart is strong enough to envelope the life of Robin Williams and my beloved friend. It’s strong enough for the entire hurting human race. And God’s broken heart is strong enough to hold our grief and anger when those we love take their own lives. After all, God isn’t a stranger to death. We worship the crucified, yet Living God.

+Scott

The Bishop very kindly responded but retracted nothing of what he said.  So dear friends, I leave it to my readers to decide.

Wednesday, September 3 is #Act4MentalHealth Day sponsored by NAMI. Its a day to donate, educate and advocate for the mentally ill. If you are so moved please write to the Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase at bishop@gaepiscopal.org.

And here is a bit of good news. An excerpt of E-Crozier was posted on TLC. After receiving my request to take it down, The Living Church has responded with compassion and posted my August 14 piece: “Lost in Space — Maybe, Lost to God — Never.”

The church of all places should be a haven of healing and hope. Let’s pray that it be so.

JoaniSign


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“Lost in Space” — Maybe. Lost to God — Never.

Mork, from stardust he came, to stardust he returns.

Mork, from stardust he came, to stardust he returns.

In 1966 the universe  — namely my universe —  expanded exponentially.  Thursday nights at nine o’clock on NBC I boarded the USS Enterprise. “Space, the final frontier” called to me and I answered the call. This was a mission, this little missionary, could barely conceive of – to “explore new worlds, seek new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before.” Well I was “no man”. I was an awkward eleven year-old, a little Roman Catholic cosmonaut. Star Trek sounded like heaven to me. So in 1966  this little Trekkie was born.

I am a Trekkie still — a closet Trekkie.  I don’t go to conventions or dress up like a Romulan or speak Klingon, but I am still quite an officianado of Star Trek – especially the original Star Trek. I have all 80 episodes on DVD and a commemorative edition that came with a fluffy, purring, pink Tribble. I dorkily have plastic action figures of the crew, including the Captain and his coffee pot. Nothing clears the room quite so quickly at my house as when I tune in and hunker down to watch the reruns marathon style. (An extended ritual I go through about once a year!) I am especially fond of the episodes where the brazen and brash Captain James T. Kirk quite literally loses his shirt.

This 1960’s series is still  a great solace to my dorky soul. While the cast and crew battle the unknown forces of the universe, I am comforted by the plethora of “M” class planets. “M” class planets are scattered all across the Milky Way and each one is capable of sustaining human life. I think “M” stands for miracle. Miraculously even the aliens speak English. The 430 crew members may be  “Lost in Space” but they are  never ever really far from home.

Star Trek was light years ahead of its time. Light years ahead of the space operas that came before it. But it is missing something that those quaint and quirky sci-fi series deeply understood. What is it like to truly be a stranger in a strange land?

My Favorite Martian blinked off the air the same year that Star Trek blinked on. Exigius, the exo-anthropologist from Mars crashed his one-man spaceship in the Hollywood Hills. Stranded he was taken in by a newspaper reporter who passes him off as “Uncle Martin”. (Sitting on the biggest story of his lifetime!) Each episode Uncle Martin tries to keep his antenna down and and stay undercover. The going gets difficult though — especially when he breaks out in Martian mumps and measles. Things get crazy and confused. The laugh track prompts the television audience exactly when to laugh.  And the audience does as they are told. They laugh in all the right places not just because it is funny. They laugh in all the right places because it is true.

“Being a stranger in a strange land” was a sure fire formula for sit-com success. After My Favorite Martian came ALF – the furry Alien Life Form from  Melmac with an appetite for cats. 3rd Rock from the Sun debuted in 1996 with a house full of  extraterrestrials disguised as a college professor, a curvaceous military expert, and a teenager. And of course, there was the hilarious 1970’s series — Mork and Mindy.

Mork – the world of course knows – was played by the manically comic and the manically gifted Robin Williams. And the world was stunned this week to learn that Mork had died by his own hand. After battling a lifetime of depression and addiction, he succumbed to the darkness.  Mork hung himself quite literally from a metaphorical tree, the frame of his bedroom door. And now the whole world is crying for the loss of this amazing man who never failed to make us laugh.

So how could this possibly be? He was hilarious. He was happy. He was a comedian beyond compare. He was “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Patch Adams”. He was our ever-shining star of stage and screen. But even stars run out of fuel. Even stars implode. Even stars turn dark.

Mork’s mood disorder – specifically bipolar disorder  — was the demon that plagued him most of his life. Depression and its companion mania are commonly misunderstood. Happiness and sadness are ordinary human emotions. They ebb and flow with the ups and downs of everyday life and they ebb and flow in  us all. But different in kind are the moods that manifest themselves in the heights of mania and in the depths of. depression. It’s not about being happy or sad; it’s about the size of your universe. On the up side you are exploring the galaxy with Captain Kirk. On the downside you can barely get out bed.

“Barely” is the operative word. While those who live with depression often can barely get out of bed —  they in fact regularly do. And they do so to different degrees.The effort it takes  to change out your pajamas can be painstaking. The simplest of tasks can take enormous energy. And yet — even so –depressed folks get to work on time. Depressed folks work hard and get promoted. Depressed folks run companies. Depressed folks run marathons. And depressed folks also run like crazy to escape their depression. Depressed folks are very good at disguise. Depressed folks are marvelous actors. They have to be — because they are strangers in a strange land.

And this is how a star implodes. Every last little bit of fuel is exhausted. Every energy source is completely depleted – be it physical, spiritual, or emotional. And you are Lost in Space. The universe may be expanding but so does the void within you. You have absolutely nothing left. Today is an unthinkable burden and the thought of tomorrow is unbearable. And you go to bed not wanting to wake up anymore. You believe yourself a “foreigner and a stranger on earth….looking for a country of your own” (Hebrews 11:13-14) A country not of this world.

People tell you to be patient; that the pain will subside; the crisis will pass.  But you do not believe them. How could they possibly know if they haven’t suffered so? You just want it to be over, now and forever more. So in the depths of despair people take their own lives; die at their own hands.  In the US nearly 40,000 people this past year. Nearly 20,000 by firearms.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is no greater taboo – than suicide — that so sorely needs to be talked about. No taboo that so sorely needs to be brought out into the open.

Difficult as it may be, we need  to speak this truth in love. When we believe a loved one, family member, coworker or friend is thinking of hurting themselves  — we need to ask them just that. With compassion and concern: “I am worried about you. I have noticed (whatever you have noticed) and I want to ask if you are you thinking about hurting yourself?” It’s a myth that discussing and naming a loved one’s suicidal thoughts — puts these thoughts into their heads. Not true. Directly asking a person whether they are thinking of suicide can save that person’s life. Mentioning it out loud can be an enormous relief. Mentioning it out loud allows your loved one to name and claim the demons that haunt them. If your loved one answers yes – or if you believe the answer is yes — then call 911. Stay with them until help arrives. Don’t be afraid to appear foolish or wrong. You cannot diagnose your friend but you can perform first aid, call an ambulance and get them to  professional help. And if you need help finding the words — sign up for Mental Health First Aid (mentalhealthfirstaid.org).

In ages past the church classified  suicide a mortal sin, denied the dead burial in sacred ground, and condemned the sinner to the fires of hell. Christianity was not alone in its error. Historically in Judaism suicides were also segregated to separate sections of  cemeteries and the dead buried with lesser rites. Islam views suicide as the gravest of sins and anathema to eternal life. Muhammad says that anyone who throws themself down from the mountain will eternally be falling into the depths of hell. For Hindus suicide violates the code of “ahisma”, the code of non-violence and one who takes their own life will forever wander the earth as a ghost.

Blessedly for Christians  — and believers of other kinds —  this theology is mostly no more. But old beliefs die a hard death. Its seems virtually beyond belief that anyone could still believe in such a cold-hearted god – a god so devoid of compassion. But people still do. So  —  biblically speaking  — let me speak to the matter of suicide and how God decides the disposition of our souls.

Saul may have fallen on his own sword; Judas may have hung himself from a tree. Out of the depths of despair, they may have condemned themselves to hell. But God did not.

The God who loves us — loves us most desperately.  God  understands the depths of despair because  God himself has been there. Our God knows what it is like to lose his own life.  Our God knows what its like to lose his own soul, to be emptied with nothing left to give. God in Jesus — just as human as you and me — gave up all that he had and all that he was. He gave it all up  so that the whole world might be graced with compassion  – graced by forgiveness. That the whole world would taste and see that God is good.  Be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Scientologist, Wiccan, Agnostic, Atheist, Romulan, Vulcan, Klingon, Earthling, or none of the above — . We may be lost in life, bereft in death . We may be  lost in this place and in this time, but lost to God — NEVER.

At least that’s the God I believe in. And It’s the same God I believe that Mork believed in as well.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant Robin with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing but life everlasting. 

From stardust he came. To stardust he returns.  All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Nanu! Nanu!

JoaniSign