Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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“My name is Legion”, The Bipolar Dictionary Redux


The fifth chapter of the Gospeller, St. Mark tells the story of a haunted soul. And a haunting story it is. Jesus finds a man depraved and living among the dead. So haunted is he — he is shackled with fetters and chains. Night and day among the tombs he cries. With stones he beats his breast – in hopes of banishing his demons. Jesus calls out an unclean spirit. And then asks him “What is your name?” The Gerasene Demoniac answers, “I am Legion, for we are many.”

Now history has a legion of haunting stories to tell. Stories about the relative locked up in the attic. Stories about the aunt in the asylum and the sister at the sanitarium. Stories about the brother taken to Bellevue and the cousin committed to St Elizabeth’s. Stories of poor souls confined to St. Mary’s of Bethlehem – from where “Bedlam” gets its very name. Haunted souls like Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Haunted spirits painted in shades of gray and darkest night.

And history also has a legion of names it labels these haunted souls. Some are quite descriptive and some quite derogatory. This is my own DSM-V — my somewhat humorous and yet honest — Bipolar Dictionary – laid out in alphabetical order.

“All in your head” Yes, it is all in our heads. It’s called your brain. This phrase is often used to mean “It’s all in your imagination.” Well, nothing is farther from the truth. “It’s all in your head” is a scientific fact.

“Bats in the Belfry” paints a particularly scary picture where your skull is an empty bell tower and your brain is naught but flapping bat wings. Haunted and frightened and all in the dark no less. This is a phrase best left buried in the Dark Ages. See also the derivative “batty”.

Bonkers” Rhymes with “Yonkers”. This word implies that you were “bonked” on the head as a baby and so not quite right. This notion is completely bonkers.

Certifiable” Supposedly a clinical term where a clinician has categorically categorized a person as insane. And we all know that sanity is a relative term and insanity is virtually indefinable.

Cracked” Like Humpty Dumpty who fell off the wall and had a great fall, the person is cracked and cannot be put together again. While cracked a person’s brain may be, clinically speaking, it can indeed be put back together again.

Crazy” This universal term is universally applied by universally everyone to all things in the universe that can go wrong with our brains. This catch-all term is better used by the people who are crazy than the people who would call them crazy.

Cuckoo” As in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, both a book and a movie full of truth and full of fairy tales.

Demented” Rhymes with “fermented”. People may wrongly assume that a confused person they call demented has been drinking drinks fermented. Not necessarily so. A broken brain can shatter one’s thoughts as surely as a shot of bourbon.

Insane” Categorically indefinable but often used to describe a person devoid of reason and incapable of discerning right from wrong. Neither of which is true of the Bipolar Brain. The Bipolar brain is brilliant and it’s moral compass true. Well just as brilliant and as true as anyone else’s.

Loco” Not short for locomotive, but the Spanish equivalent of “crazy”. The employment of this term is often accompanied by a hand motion — circling the ear with one’s index finger. A bit loco, don’t you think?

Loony” This term is likely derived from “luna”, Latin for moon. And we all know the dangers of exposure to a full moon — lunacy. It will turn you into something like a werewolf — politely referred to as a “lunatic”. For more information see “Looney Tunes” and specifically “Daffy Duck.”

Maniac” Now we’re getting somewhere. Maniac is of course the noun for someone in the throws of mania. But what could be used as a term of understanding instead implies that the maniac’s behavior is absurd and beyond all understanding. So don’t go around calling anyone a maniac.

Melancholy Baby” Once again we are on the right track. “Melancholia” is an ancient diagnosis of the soul. It literally means that our bodily humors are out of balance. Truer words were never said. But just don’t call me “Baby”.

Mental” This one word phrase is shorthand for someone who is believed to be mentally ill or for someone who should be in a mental institution. Most of the persons who use this term know nothing about mental illness or mental health institutions of any kind.

Not playing with a full deck” A poker metaphor that implies that a person missing the Ace of Spades is forever at a disadvantage. Sometimes Bipolar life is like a game of “52 Pickup” where all the cards are dropped and not all the cards get picked back up. Or at least they get picked up in a very different order. Reshuffling the deck is often a good thing.

Neurotic” This is where we insert a photo of Woody Allen. Obsessively self absorbed he over analyzes his every waking moment and crazily (yes crazily) interprets his every dream. See also “narcissism”, a disorder of the personality. Not a disorder of the mind.

Off your rocker” Now this one has a nice bipolar ring to it. Rocking back and forth and to and fro between the ups and the downs. The person who uses this term however doesn’t realize that they too ride the same rocking horse.

Out of Your Mind” This phrase I am especially partial to — as long as I can apply it to myself. As in “Mary of Magdala, Seven Times Out of her Mind” (see May archives). Yes, five times I have lost my mind and five times I have gotten it back. I am batting a 1000. See also “out of your skull”.

Possessed” As in the Gerasene Demoniac, an ancient and biblical understanding of mental illness that implies possession by evil spirits. Well — my bipolar brain is possessed by my spirit and by my spirit alone. And my spirit is possessed of a superior intellect, great compassion and an awesome sense of humor.

Screw loose” This mechanical metaphor implies that the brain is made of widgets and gears held together by screws. When a screw is loose the gears go flying out of control — hence the derivative “screwy”. The brain is the most complicated machine, the most complicated anything in the known universe. Downloading only a few synapses requires digital resources to the gazillionth, gazillionth, gazillionth power. Only a simpleton with a screw loose would use this simplistic metaphor.

Touched in the head” This is not the same thing as “Touched by an Angel”. Touched in the head implies inferior brain-power and irrational thinking. “Touched” by who or what is not at all clear. Whoever thought of this is most certainly themselves touched in the head.

And my favorite … .drumroll…..

Unhinged” a door swings freely but unpredictably off its hinges. A hinge is one of those elementary machines like a pulley or a plane. Unhinged, the bipolar brain, like the door, is free and unpredictable. Elementary mixed up with exemplary. Here is where you insert a picture of Joani.

The names are legion and the names are many.

So friends, what names would you like to add to the Bipolar Dictionary?


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Naked in Public/Coming out Crazy/Redux

U&U is all about coming out. Coming out of my particular closet. I’ve come out in writing. I’ve come out at work. I’ve come out with friends. I’ve even come out “Unhinged” on stage – the Story District stage — three times. I’ve come out of my  bipolar closet to make a difference. Come out crazy.

And now I am excited to report that U&U is going on a little holiday!

Amy Saidman, Executive Director of Story District has invited me to do some blogging for Out/Spoken: Queer, Questioning, Bold & Proud, the annual Story District Pride Show. Eight awesome storytellers will take the stage at the 9:30 Club on June 4th. The show then goes out on the road, first to Atlanta in October, and then to Birmingham in November. Supported by the Human Rights Campaign, the tour is being funded by the The National Endowment for the Arts.

I am so psyched to follow this groundbreaking show!  Thank you, Story District!  Its an honor to sit down with Out/Spoken’s producers, directors and storytellers.  I hope the profiles I post along the way will do them all justice, peak your interest, sell more tickets, and help pack the house!

So it seems appropriate to repost my own coming out story — “Naked in Public, or Coming Out Crazy” —  first published on U&U in November of 2014.

Here I go.

Naked.

Buck naked.

Locker room naked.

Blame the nuns. Blame eleven years of parochial school. I have never been comfortable naked in the company of strangers. I can count on one hand the number of people in my entire lifetime who have seen me in my altogether. This includes my dear departed mother who changed my diapers:)

Catholic school can mess with your mind and create a crazy kind of modesty. The good sisters told us to put talcum powder in the bath water so we would not see our own naked selves. The water literally had to cover us up to our necks! I guess we were supposed to get undressed with our eyes closed.

So….

High school gym class, I never took a shower. Two years of softball practice, I never took a shower. Three years on the Immaculata basketball team, I never took a shower. Personal hygiene be damned, I never took a shower.

But…

Not because I was modest — because I was TERRIFIED. I was terrified of being exposed. Terrified of baring my bare self to the world. Terrified the world would know everything about me. Terrified of being naked in public.

I am still terrified. I am in the pool twice a week at my local rec center. The locker room is awash with naked ladies of every shape and size. A room full of naked ladies — totally comfortable and free as a breeze. Not me. I go into the “closet” and change my clothes. God forbid a neighbor sees me! God forbid a parishioner sees me! God forbid anybody — but me — sees me.

Totally exposed. Totally vulnerable. Totally out of control. Bare naked for all the world to see.

It is not easy for this bipolar soul to step out of the locker room closet. Those of us who are bipolar have to be very careful where we bare our souls. We have to be very, very careful coming out this particular closet.

Coming out — crazy.

Be careful how you come out. You risk being labeled, categorized, stigmatized, and marginalized. You risk condescension and discrimination. You risk being stereotyped and stuck in a box. You risk being hurt.

A friend– who should know better — told me not to risk it. No one will hire you. No church will call you. You will never be a rector. Maybe never even an associate again. Maybe not even a supply priest. Stay in the closet. Don’t come out. It’s way too risky.

So I didn’t. Instead I tried to educate, elucidate, and illuminate the IGNORANT and the INDIFFERENT with FACTS and FIGURES. Do you know 25% of the world walks around with a mental health issue? Do you know 60% of us will have a mental health issue in our lifetimes? Facts and figures are all well and good. But facts and figures alone make very little difference. Very little difference indeed.

So I took a risk.

I decided that I had to come out of this particular closet. Six years ago I came out to my boss. Four years ago, I came out in the pulpit.  I have come out in church forums more than a few times.  I now have come out – crazy — in five different parishes.

And in April of 2014, I came out on Unorthodox & Unhinged. And with this post – in words — I have now come out 87 times.

Naked at work.

Naked at church.

Naked on the internet. FaceBooked. Tweeted.

And with this 87th post — a repost of #32, November 6, 2014 — I come out in living color — totally exposed. Kristin Adair, a good friend and mental health advocate, is also a budding photo-journalist. Kristin asked if she could shadow me at work, at home, at church – to profile in pictures — a bipolar life.

Walking the dog, eating breakfast, watching TV, taking meds, hiking Huntley Meadows, blogging on my couch, celebrating the Eucharist.

In my pajamas. In my sweats. In my kitchen. In my bedroom.

Out of this crazy closet — naked for all the world to see.

(Just click the “play arrow” and you can see too!)

And the truth be told — naked — we all look pretty much look alike. Naked — we all have just have about everything in common. Exposed. Vulnerable. Shaking like a leaf — naked as the day we were born – we all look pretty much alike.

Now Adam and Eve tried to cover up with fig leaves. Naked and ashamed and cast out east of Eden. But biblically speaking — Adam and Eve got this naked thing all wrong. And biblically speaking, the flawed and famous King David — got it so, so right.

David paraded the Ark of the Covenant into the city he named for himself…. all the citizens “making merry before the Lord with all their might, with songs, and lyres and harps, and tambourines, and castanets, and cymbals…. David danced before the Lord with all his might… leaping and shouting”…naked as the day he was born….(2 Samuel 6,7)

Michal, his wife, was mortified. David, however, was glorified. Glorified by the God who chose him. Glorified by the God who loved him. Glorified by the God who created him – flaws and all – warts and all. Unashamedly, unabashedly loved him.

So friends, are you ready to get naked with me? Are you ready to get naked in public?

JoaniSign


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Tickets for “Unhinged”! Free! Please RSVP to SpeakEasyDC!

speakeasydc

Unhinged: True Stories about Living with Mental Illness premiers live on the SpeakeasyDC stage April 25th, 8:00 pm, at Emmanuel on High (no, not Immanuel on the Hill!), 1608 Russell Rd, Alexandria, VA.

Eight masterfully crafted first person tales of living with mental illness, loving someone with mental illness, or working in the field of mental illness.

Tickets are now available. The performance is free. Please RSVP to SpeakeasyDC. Click on the link to reserve a seat.

http://speakeasydc.com/events/item/unhinged

Let’s pack the house and make a difference.

Hope to see you there.

JoaniSign


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Naked in Public – or – Coming Out Crazy

 

Naked.

Buck naked.

Locker room naked.

Blame the nuns. Blame eleven years of parochial school. I have never been comfortable naked in the company of strangers. I can count on one hand the number of people in my entire lifetime who have seen me in my altogether. This includes my dear departed mother who changed my diapers:)

Catholic school can mess with your mind and create a crazy kind of modesty. The good sisters told us to put talcum powder in the bath water so we would not see our own naked selves. The water literally had to cover us up to our necks! I guess we were supposed to get undressed with our eyes closed.

So….

High school gym class, I never took a shower. Two years of softball practice, I never took a shower. Three years on the Immaculata basketball team, I never took a shower. Personal hygiene be damned, I never took a shower.

But…

Not because I was modest — because I was TERRIFIED. I was terrified of being exposed. Terrified of baring my bare self to the world. Terrified the world would know everything about me. Terrified of being naked in public.

I am still terrified. I am in the pool twice a week at my local rec center. The locker room is awash with naked ladies of every shape and size. A room full of naked ladies — totally comfortable and free as a breeze. Not me. I go into the “closet” and change my clothes. God forbid a neighbor sees me! God forbid a parishioner sees me! God forbid anybody — but me — sees me.

Totally exposed. Totally vulnerable. Totally out of control. Bare naked for all the world to see.

It is not easy for this bipolar soul to step out of the locker room closet. Those of us who are bipolar have to be very careful where we bare our souls. We have to be very, very careful coming out this particular closet.

Coming out — crazy.

Be careful how you come out. You risk being labeled, categorized, stigmatized, and marginalized. You risk condescension and discrimination. You risk being stereotyped and stuck in a box. You risk being hurt.

A friend– who should know better — told me not to risk it. No one will hire you. No church will call you. You will never be a rector. Maybe never even an associate again. Maybe not even a supply priest. Stay in the closet. Don’t come out. It’s way too risky.

So I didn’t. Instead I tried to educate, elucidate, and illuminate the IGNORANT and the INDIFFERENT with FACTS and FIGURES. Do you know 20% of the world walks around with a mental health issue? Do you know 50% of us will have a mental health issue in our lifetimes? Facts and figures are all well and good. But facts and figures alone make very little difference. Very little difference indeed.

So I took a risk.

I decided that I had to come out of this particular closet. Five years ago I came out to my boss. Three years ago on campus, I came out in the pulpit. Twice I have come out in public forums. I have come out – crazy — in four different parishes.

And in April of this year, I came out on Unorthodox & Unhinged. And with this post – in words — I have now come out 32 times.

Naked at work.

Naked at church.

Naked on the internet. FaceBooked. Tweeted.

And with this 32nd post, November 6, 2014, I come out in living color — totally exposed. Kristin Adair, a good friend and mental health advocate, is also a budding photo-journalist. Kristin asked if she could shadow me at work, at home, at church – to profile in pictures — a bipolar life.

Walking the dog, eating breakfast, watching TV, taking meds, hiking Huntley Meadows, blogging on my couch, celebrating the Eucharist.

In my pajamas. In my sweats. In my kitchen. In my bedroom.

Out of this crazy closet — naked for all the world to see.

(Just click the “play arrow” and you can see too!)

And the truth be told — naked — we all look pretty much look alike. Naked — we all have just have about everything in common. Exposed. Vulnerable. Shaking like a leaf — naked as the day we were born – we all look pretty much alike.

Now Adam and Eve tried to cover up with fig leaves. Naked and ashamed and cast out east of Eden. But biblically speaking — Adam and Eve got this naked thing all wrong. And biblically speaking, the flawed and famous King David — got it so, so right.

David paraded the Ark of the Covenant into the city he named for himself…. all the citizens “making merry before the Lord with all their might, with songs, and lyres and harps, and tambourines, and castanets, and cymbals…. David danced before the Lord with all his might… leaping and shouting”…naked as the day he was born….(2 Samuel 6,7)

Michal, his wife, was mortified. David, however, was glorified. Glorified by the God who chose him. Glorified by the God who loved him. Glorified by the God who created him – flaws and all – warts and all. Unashamedly, unabashedly loved him.

So friends, are you ready to get naked with me? Are you ready to get naked in public?

JoaniSign


19 Comments

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

 


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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