Monthly Archives: February 2015

Killing Kelly on Moral Monday

What will killing Kelly Gissendaner on Moral Monday mean for America?

It will mean that a southern state, this time Georgia, plans to execute by lethal injection a woman who didn’t even kill anybody.

For conspiring to kill her husband, Kelly got the death sentence while the actual killer (a man by the name of Gregory Owens) got a life sentence simply because he had better lawyers.

Is it a Moral Monday when the citizens of Georgia kill Kelly?

Is it a Moral Monday when we value the lives of women less then men (unequal representation in court)?

Is it a Moral Monday when we see the increasing numbers of women executed in this country as a sign of equality?

Is it a Moral Monday when we put the needle for lethal injection into the arm of a woman who gave her life to following Jesus while on death row, serving as a spiritual role model and mentor to other women?

Is it a Moral Monday when a snow storm will stop an execution, but not cries of injustice? (Kelly’s original date for execution was rescheduled for Monday pending better weather).

What can we learn from this? Don’t try to execute people in the winter?

What I learned from watching the execution of my own family member in the spring of 2002 is this: Execution is murder and, like Kelly, we are all conspirators to this crime.

The criminal justice system is designed as a systematic way to kill our own citizens: mothers, sisters and daughters. Fathers, brothers, sons and cousins are all executed because that’s the best our system has to offer.

If killing Kelly on Moral Monday is the best we can do, then that says volumes about the state of affairs of the moral foundation of the criminal justice system.

On Moral Monday the sounds of the lethal injection on Georgia’s death row may be silent (compared to a firing range or guillotine, electric chair or gas chamber), but there will be weeping and wailing by those Kelly leaves behind, family and friends left to grieve the horrible killing of Kelly, the day it did not snow in Georgia.

Crazy Terrorists?

Recently I heard a well respected Muslim scholar of Islamic studies speak on the topic of the growing threat of the terrorist group ISIS. Her perspective as an academic who is also an observant religious person helped the audience better understand what it’s like for her to defend her faith daily. She said that when people in America see her headscarf, too often the automatic assumption is that she is a terrorist, and if not her, then her uncle or brother.

Then to emphasize her point she said, “ISIS is crazy. They are not us.”

It won’t surprise many of you to hear that what she just said captured my full attention. In my thinking and writing about mental illness I’ve used the provocative word “crazy.” Using this word empowers me to claim my own experiences and story surrounding mental illness. It is liberating.

However, when I heard this Muslim scholar use the word “crazy” in this context, I felt like she was talking about me. It felt like she was calling me a terrorist. She used the word “crazy” to mean “other” and to distance faithful Muslims like herself from being lumped into the same category as extremists. Yet, what does she mean by crazy? I wished I had asked her.

When we label terrorists as crazy I think we make a serious mistake. Perhaps there is an element of mental illness involved: research shows that 25% of adults have mental illness. And I’d guess that people with unstable mental health are easy targets for being recruited into these extremist movements. My own father who was bipolar joined a non-violent, but extreme political party that fit into his delusional and paranoid thinking.

What troubles me most about her statement was that while she didn’t like being thought of as a terrorist because of her headscarf, I don’t want people with mental illness to be thought of as terrorists either.

Being Muslim does not a terrorist make. And having a mental illness does not a terrorist make. I’m not defending ISIS. But I am defending crazy people who have a real, organic brain disease or mental disturbance.

Call ISIS whatever you want, but don’t call them crazy.

Crazy Real Love

When the person you love is diagnosed with a severe mental illness it feels like betrayal. In the aftermath of the first episode, once the shock wears off, we want to scream: I did not sign up for this *crazy* life!

If traditional marriage vows were exchanged in the relationship promising fidelity “in sickness and health,” somehow mental illness wasn’t what we think about in that vow. The flu, heart disease, even cancer are things we’ve come to accept as part of being mortal. But severe mental illness?

For many, perhaps on a subconscious level, life-destabilizing and debilitating mental illness remains in the realm of the unimaginable. You don’t consider the possibility that your sweetheart could become unrecognizable under the influence of severe mental illness.

You never thought that one morning you’d wake up in bed alone because your beloved is across town in a psychiatric hospital bed recovering from a severe psychotic episode or suicide attempt.

For many years, the stigma and shame in faith communities surrounding divorce kept people socially isolated. The church judged divorcees, denied them communion, sending clear messages of unwelcome.

I argue that couples today who are experiencing the impact of severe mental illness find themselves in that unenviable class of the divorcees of previous decades. If your partner is recovering from psychosis, you most likely will find yourself marginalized among the widows, widowers and divorcees. Whether that’s because he or she is recovering in the psychiatric hospital or at home, nobody wants to visit, send flowers or drop off a lasagna.

My brother Scott was married for several years, until one day his wife said she could no longer be married to a person with chronic and severe mental illness. Marriage is hard enough without adding mental illness into the mix. How many marriages can survive the stress and emotional strain of severe mental illness? As we watch divorce rates climb, how much does untreated or under-treated mental illness contribute to the end of marriages?

How can faith communities better support couples who desire to stay together through times of mental illness or a lifetime of mental illness?

In the nervous excitement of the first kiss, the first Valentines Day date, crazy love hooks us. But in the ebb and flow of romantic love, what remains in the long marriage is the promise to be there in sickness and in health, including mental illness. Yet, the burden of mental illness with its significant shame and stigma, keeps many couples suffering through this sickness in silence.

More and more, I believe we can’t stay married alone. In the ninth year of my own marriage I’ve come to intimately know what it’s like to wake up feeling alone because of my husband’s chronic depression and anxiety. Sometimes I wish mental illness would magically disappear from our marriage, but life has taught us that it has more to do with hard work and hope, than magic. For us honoring our marriage vows also means taking care of our mental health.

Those days when we find ourselves married alone, we need the wide circle of support from mental health professionals, family, friends, and the church that married us.