Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Devil is in the Diagnosis

The nurse asked me to bring a Bible to the psychiatric ward. It was the summer of my seminary training as a hospital chaplain in Honolulu at Queens Medical Center. I was the on-call chaplain that night.

Through a long maze of dimly lit and deserted hospital corridors, I reached what seemed to be a forgotten place, fallen off of the earth: the psychiatric ward.

As I entered the psych ward rec room, Bible in hand, the tv buzzing, fluorescent lights glowing, I saw the nurse standing next to a tall and thin balding man. Without words the patient turned towards me and then fell to the floor, his lanky body prostrate at my feet, face down.

I crouched down beside him and awkwardly whispered, “You don’t have to do that.” I wasn’t even a real minister yet. I felt like an imposter.

Even for a psych ward, this behavior was bizarre as most patients were so heavily medicated, they could hardly manage a shuffle.

Yet the spectacle was just a blip in the evening routine. He got up at the nurse’s urging. We went over and sat in a corner of the loud rec room. His eyes lit up as I handed him the Bible.
He wanted to sit quietly and read it.

This experience stays with me, even now, over a decade later. Why did the man in the psych ward exhibit such a response upon my arrival?

I think that it had to do more with God and less with me. I think it had to do with the book I held and it’s story of healing. I think it had to do with him and the demons inside.

Or not. It could simply be that his mind was broken by a brain disease and that nothing he did made any sense.

I’ve heard preachers say that people in the psych ward are demon possessed. The preachers explain that the struggle is between good and evil, the soul and Satan, heaven and hell. The cure is to cast out the demon through prayer, through exorcism, through a heavenly intervention.

I don’t know about all that. Such religious extremism discounts scientifically based evidence of both the biological causes and successful medical treatments of mental health diseases. I’m pretty sure it’s not all the devil’s doing. The devil is not in the diagnosis.

Yet, there is something about prayer and the quiet consolation of scripture that brings inner healing of a tortured mind and spirit.

And that man in the psych ward knew that the Bible I brought him would help him sleep better that night, put to rest the demons inside.

He wasn’t prostrating before me like a lowly servant before a queen, but he was humbling himself before God’s book and the healing found between its pages.

And though it may be crazy, I think he was justified in his expression of thanks. At times, I wish I had his courage and abandon. What keeps me from kneeling, from bowing down, from prostrating myself before God’s love?

I once heard a devote Muslim say that his prayer posture, bowing down with his forehead touching the ground several times a day, is a sign of humility. It expresses the belief that God is everything and we are nothing. This way of praying with the body reminds him of his dependence on God.

That summer night in the psych ward I went with a Bible to minister to a crazy man. And it was the crazy man who showed a young seminarian what it looks like to have faith in God.

Just Try Harder Lecture

What you don’t expect a child psychiatrist to say to your son:

“What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you work as hard as your sister? Why are you so lazy? You just need to try harder.”

“Trying harder” is harder than you think when you suffer from a mental health disease. There is stuff going on in your brain during a severe depressive episode that seriously hinders personal motivation. It’s not even a question about will power.

Telling a clinically depressed teenager to try harder is like telling a person on a bike with a flat tire to peddle faster uphill.

We tell kids with undiagnosed mental health diseases that whatever is the problem, they need to fix it. Then, we punish them when they can’t fix it on their own. Still bringing home the D’s and F’s, sleeping instead of doing homework, then we better fix it with discipline or better parenting.

So when my worried mom took my depressed brother in for a psych evaluation, trying to be a responsible parent, the last thing she expected was the “try harder” lecture.

In the doctor’s office that day, my brother’s head sunk lower and lower and my mom’s heart beat faster and faster. It was all she could do to stay seated and not walk out. Now many decades later, her voice trembles to talk of that day.

I think about the difference that the doctor could have made that day in our family’s life if he had said something else. The doctor missed an opportunity to provide healing to young person. He missed an opportunity to educate a distressed parent on how to best support her sick son.

When future doctors pledge to “do no harm,” I hope they will think about my brother and people like him who suffer from mental health diseases. Giving the “try harder” lecture is a violation of this oath.

Let the Light In

Today millions of Christians around the world will lower their heads in prayer, be marked with a sooty cross, and begin a 40 day season of purposeful spiritual reflection.

On this day we collectively acknowledge our mortality. When I think of the fleeting nature of my time on earth, it makes me want to live what time I do have left with greater courage and passion.

But, for people who struggle with mental health, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent can be especially challenging. Not enough religious leaders pay attention to how our liturgy and rituals negatively impact people with disabilities.

I have family members and friends who already think about dying and how to die…all the time.

Thinking about death and dying is a daily thing for people with obsessive and invasive thoughts of suicide. I was disheartened to hear my brother say that he’s lived a quarter of a century wanting to die.

To ritualize this dying through the cross can be a trigger if you fight to live each day.

If this happens to be your particular struggle, I invite you to consider the sign of the cross as the place where the light comes in. Imagine that in the horizontal and vertical shape of the cross, a healing space is being created in your mind.

This Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, let the light in…let it into those places in our minds longing for healing light.